Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Gathering Israel or Spreading it?

President Nelson said, “The Gathering of Israel is the most important thing taking place on earth today.”

I like the phrase "gathering of Israel" because it suggests that we are the ones out there searching, not everyone else. If we are out there gathering, then we are the ones with the deficit. We are called to gather the people and truths we are missing. We are seeking wholeness. This should invite greater humility in how we interact with others because they have something to offer us, not just the other way around. Relationships come into sharper focus, instead of PR and marketing campaigns and trying to maintain a certain image.

I sometimes think of it as "spreading Israel" instead of gathering it. Framing it this way, however, missionary work tends to give me intense feelings of anxiety and guilt as I try to spread myself around, but always bump up against my own pride. And while there are aspects of sharing in the gathering process (Christ still asks us to be the light, the salt, the city on the hill, etc.) that doesn't mean we are asked to be door to door salesmen. Though we may have an excellent product, if we are only there to sell and never to buy, we won't come away with any sort of lasting relationship.

Instead, we are seeking our own salvation outside of ourselves, which is precisely what love makes us do. "He that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul." (D&C 4:4)

Thinking of ourselves as spreaders of Israel rather than its gatherers, we might miss the most exciting part of the gathering—the miracle of our own redemption that comes from participating in the gathering process! The part where we get to repent and change, not just everyone else. The primary indicators of success for the spreader are numbers of baptisms or likes on social media, but the indicator of success for the gatherer is simply an increase of love and a change of heart.

Our efforts at gathering Israel may bring healing and conversion to others from time to time (which is always a joyful bonus we can expect) but most importantly the work of gathering heals and converts us, the laborers in the vineyard. As we learn in Jacob 5, grafting branches not only gives new life to others by connecting them to Christ through the ordinances of the priesthood, but it also brings new life to our own very old and VERY high maintenance olive tree, saving us from the inevitable decay and death of our own stagnation and pride.

Gathering Israel should bring a spirit of life, flexibility, and newness to our congregations. It should invite humility and sharing, rather than smugness and salesmanship. It is the pathway to love. I will admit that I say all this to console myself because I am actually a terrible spreader. If God's missionary work really follows a business model that focuses on marketing and statistics (like it sometimes did for me as a full time missionary in the mid 2000s) I know I would flunk the program (and probably not be that unhappy I did.)

But as it turns out, I am actually a pretty good gatherer. Not that I am not still awkward and clunky and full of flaws, but that when I try to gather I am forced to face up to my own deficits, and so I end up picking up more truths than I was initially trying to spread. Gathering gives me the opportunity to learn how to carefully (and with the Spirit) find new ideas from all kinds of people and weave them together with the truths I already cherish. This alone makes it worth it for me. From my Latter-day Saint bubble, I once left on a mission as a 19 year old kid thinking I was going out to save the world, but I ended up finding the missing pieces I needed to save myself. While I did help some people come unto Christ through faith, repentance, and baptism, the main story was that the people I met as a missionary saved me. That was the miracle.

So what are we gathering? Everything and anything good! New ideas, new truths, new kinds of people that fit into the body of Christ. This requires a change in US as much as in THEM (whoever THEM is supposed to be, anyway.)

As we learn to gather Israel and unlearn the work of spreading it (or worse, scattering it!) the process becomes a collaboration instead of a transaction. We form friendships instead of treat people or groups as "projects." Marketing and PR are no longer our biggest concern, and honest dialogue and relationships become foremost in our minds. Our hearts are more open to recognizing our flaws, both as individuals and as a collective, and we repent of them because we know it's a process of change in ourselves to gather those people we need, along with their fresh perspectives, in order to be made whole. (And that includes everyone.)

So for me this year, that's my goal. To gather the truths and relationships that I need in order to be made whole. This time, I am doing it for me and my own salvation. I may still be awkward at it, and my own pride and fear will certainly keep getting in the way, but for me it's worth the effort.

It probably still won't convince me to buy a "gather" sign for my kitchen, though.