“We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments—these moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known—we count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we’ve lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”
In Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film Interstellar, a blight afflicting all the world’s crops heralds the end of the world. The primary characters of the film decide to launch off into space to find another planet for humanity’s next home. They know very little about what they will find out there, and many on Earth are convinced it is a waste of time and money, but a special few are daring enough to venture into the unknown.
I want to talk briefly about one of the prominent, recurring images in the film: dust. The same dust we wipe off our surfaces, the same dust we get caked in when working outside. In the world of the film, the entire planet has been blanketed in clouds of dust and dry storms straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. Dirt clouds periodically roll over the countryside, forcing everyone indoors. Dust invades their houses, their fields, and even their bodies, so pervasively that multitudes have died and there isn’t much hope for the rest. Dust has essentially taken over the world—and the denizens of earth have accepted it, and seek to survive as long as they possibly can in it, rather than look for a way of rising above it.
Our main character, Cooper, is shown a possible way for humanity to survive, through space travel. But in this world, children are taught that the moon landing of 1969 was an elaborate fraud, conducted as an opiate for the masses to make them think space travel was possible back in the 20th century when really, it wasn’t. After hearing that his children are being taught this institutional complacency, Cooper laments (now, listen with your spiritual ears), “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are…. We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Could there be a greater encapsulation of the latter days? While all mankind are fighting over things both temporal and temporary, while so many of us are squabbling over our fragile fortunes and our empires of dirt, while the televisions we willingly turn on scream into our homes about the horribleness of your political enemies, the true answer to life’s mysteries lies outside all that blinding dust, literally in the heavens themselves.
What is that answer? What is the true war at work today? What is the purpose of this mortal life?
It is this: progress. Self-improvement. The pioneering of our individual souls, leaving behind the dust of the earth. And that’s what I want to talk about on this Pioneer Day sacrament meeting.
I confess to be a man driven largely by nostalgia. I will often reach back into the years, hoping to grasp the joy and memories hidden there and feel today as I felt then. I remember how times were, the company of friends, family at Christmas, the pleasures of childhood. Especially summer days, biking to a pizza place or mini golf with friends or playing basketball in the backyard. I miss the effect video games and movies had on me, how I could be enraptured for so much time, when I didn’t have duties and responsibilities weighing on me, pestering me, tapping me on the shoulder to remind me of the hard work that needs to be done, and will need to be done for the rest of my life. I want life to be what it once was. I want life to stay the same.
As blinded by nostalgia as I am, I only recently began to accept that there will be no year in my life that was anything like the year before that. The number one reason for that is Dagny, who is two and a half. Every single year will be different from the last. She will be talking more, doing more, learning more. I will have to keep up with her growth for the rest of her life, including the change in my own habits and behaviors to match the change in her needs and desires. Add in the self-evident truth that we are knee-deep in the last days, and I must face the facts: life will never be the same again, not even for two years in a row.
But I’ve come to realize that this is not a defect of this world. Rather, it is a feature, precisely how the Lord designed mortality to be. The reason for this has everything to do with what we are celebrating this weekend: Pioneer Day.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks in a talk from 1997 said, “We have studied the lives and accomplishments of our pioneers, early and modern. … Now after all [this], it is appropriate to ask ourselves, “Therefore, what?” Are these pioneer celebrations academic, merely increasing our fund of experiences and knowledge? Or will they have a profound impact on how we live our lives?
“It is not enough to study or reenact the accomplishments of our pioneers. We need to identify the great, eternal principles they applied to achieve all they achieved for our benefit and then apply those principles to the challenges of our day.”
The pioneers and indeed all the early saints of the restored Church lived extremely difficult lives. You’d think joining the church is hard enough, committing your mind to new doctrine, submitting your physical body to new rules of behavior, shifting your priorities to higher, spiritual matters that can seem so abstract. But so many of these fresh converts—and new members of the church can probably relate—were also hated for their choice to accept the gospel. Abandoned by friends, disowned by family, forced to flee homelands, and persecuted to the point of physical violence, being driven out of the homes they built with their own two hands, often just whenever they started feeling comfortable where they were. It’s important to note that the Lord never let them feel safe for very long, even in the cities they built brick by brick, even around the temples they sacrificed so much blood, sweat, and tears to construct. The spurs of hell were perpetually allowed to stab them in the sides.
But…what happens when horses are spurred? They move forward. They move faster than they did before. They press on, swifter and more driven.
God doesn’t always motivate us with sharpness. But, brothers and sisters, the Lord will never let us get too comfortable where we are, because the entire point of this mortality is that we move forward. That we move faster than we did before. That we press on, more driven towards a higher place. And if we’re not already doing that on our own, He might dig a spur into our side to get us moving. And thus we become pioneers.
The trek of today’s pioneers is not a physical journey, but a spiritual one. The purpose of mortality, after all, is to change—for us to become like God, with immortality and eternal life. That is His work, and so it is also ours. We, brothers and sisters, are pioneers of the soul.
Elder Oaks said, “As for life-threatening obstacles, the wolves that prowled around pioneer settlements were no more dangerous to their children than the drug dealers or pornographers who threaten our children. Similarly, the early pioneers’ physical hunger posed no greater threat to their well-being than the spiritual hunger experienced by many in our day. The children of earlier pioneers were required to do incredibly hard physical work to survive their environment. That was no greater challenge than many of our young people now face from the absence of hard work, which results in spiritually corrosive challenges to discipline, responsibility, and self-worth. Jesus taught: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).”
The war of the latter days is not physical, nor political. There is no temporal or political victory, none, that can make up for the loss of a soul. Christ said this explicitly: it profits a man nothing to give his soul, even for the whole world. But Satan distracts us from the real fight, the real struggle, with all these temporal squabblings over empires of dust. “We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Brothers and sisters, if we truly forget who we really are, and the pioneers we are meant to be, then the devil wins.
And so we must keep our eyes open for the real enemy, the one that can destroy our soul. And while we keep watch for our spiritual enemy, we must also fix our gaze squarely on our celestial path, and keep our hands busy with the work and glory of God: the improvement of our soul, the journey of our eternal progression.
I myself can’t tell you where that is or where it starts. I can’t tell you what to change, which direction you need to go. That’s between you and your Savior. He is our beacon. When setting out for the Rocky Mountains, the pioneers of the early church had only the scarcest of reports to go on. Yet they packed up their belongings and risked their lives in a journey of two thousand miles by foot to get to their Zion. Anything could be and was waiting for them out there. Disease, starvation, animal attacks, life-threatening weather. They faced opposition and trials every single day of their journey, with no idea when it would be done or really what to expect when they got there. The only thing they knew was that their church was led by the Savior himself, and they trusted Him. He was their beacon, and so He is ours today, like a runway lit up at night.
Elder Oaks said, “The foremost quality of our pioneers was faith. With faith in God, they did what every pioneer does—they stepped forward into the unknown: a new religion, a new land, a new way of doing things. With faith in their leaders and in one another, they stood fast against formidable opposition. When their leader said, “This is the right place,” they trusted, and they stayed. When other leaders said, “Do it this way,” they followed in faith.”
They had their leaders and so do we today. Already President Nelson is blazing new paths in the church, and we’ve all seen that over the last few months. It’s incredible to watch, isn’t it? It’s safe to say we’ve all seen the mantle pass from President Monson, and we can all see that it’s Christ leading our prophet to these new programs, policies, and preachings.
We also have the temple. David O. McKay said that the ordinances of the temple represent “the step-by-step ascent into the eternal presence.” The plan of salvation is the pattern of godly growth, from intelligences to spirits to souls to gods to eternal lives. The pathway of our pioneering.
There is a statue outside the brand new Provo City Center Temple that crystallizes this idea. The image is simple, but so profound. A mother is crouched behind a child, who is taking her first steps in the direction of her father. He has his arms stretched out, as if to assure her he can catch her if she falls, but also to beckon her toward him. What an encapsulation of the temple experience! The temple is the place where, in a spiritual sense, we take our first steps toward eternal life, towards the beckoning, comforting arms of our Savior and our Heavenly Father.
It is not a new path to them. But it is for us. It is for our souls.
And that’s why, when we decide to let go of old habits, past comforts, emotional crutches, it can be terrifying, like taking a step into a darkened hallway. Indeed, the pioneer’s life is not always a comfortable one, nor will it always feel like a safe one. That is because the stakes are enormous. We are meant to one day live as gods—and that is, to say the least, brand new territory for us! And it is a far greater journey than even the trek from Nauvoo to the mountains of Deseret. And because of the greatness of that journey, there are going to be horrible obstacles and pitfalls, trials and tests that afflict every soul who dares to press on. Some of those include physical or emotional suffering. It can also include spiritual failings, and the dark cloud Satan has successfully cast around the world, the blindfold he has wrapped around so many pairs of eyes. This includes lethargy, complacency, apathy. We can too often be afflicted by the desire for an easier path, even if it means floundering in spiritual mediocrity.
Like those parents helping a child take her first steps, today God is trying to make more of us than we already are. If we protest against our trials too much, or reject His shaping Hand, or kick against the pricks, or—like the people in Interstellar—insist on staying where we are and not moving at all, we will inevitably drift in the opposite direction. There is no middle ground in God’s kingdom, no place for the lukewarm. If you don’t let God guide you forward, you are letting Satan pull you backward. While we may not technically be harming anyone, living an inactive but inoffensive life, we are still squandering our great and mighty potential, and that itself is an offense to God, as we see in the parable of the talents.
We also see this lesson in the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death. This period was a moment when God separated the wheat from the tares. The saints were offered a choice in whom to follow next. Some followed one apostate, others followed another. Increasing persecution compelled Brigham Young to lead the faithful saints west. What happened to the saints that stayed in Nauvoo the whole time? They were left behind while the real growth was happening elsewhere. So many who did not have the faith to stick with Brigham after Joseph died, fell away. They became part of the Reorganized Church and “dwindled in unbelief.” Those who rejected the imperative to blaze new paths ended up withering away, becoming one with the dust of the earth, their names remaining unwritten in the history books.
Brothers and sisters, the dust of the earth is given to us as a foundation. It is not meant for us to dwell in permanently, but as solid ground to plant our feet and take our first steps toward a beckoning Father. It is after taking those first steps that we learn how to spiritually break Earth’s gravity and set out on our eternal journey, to explore the endless expanse of the universe’s possibilities. Without a little pain, without some discomfort, and without God’s occasional distance like a father beckoning a child on, we’d never even want to take those first steps away from where we started, never want to reach upwards with aspiration, never want to make the unknown known.
The function of a loving Father is not just to make sure we’re all comfortable where we sit. It’s to draw us on and raise us to be just like Him! God gives us spurs in life because He wants to drive us forward.
What reason would you and I have to grow, to change and develop, if suffering or persecution of some sort did not necessitate it? What reason is there to pioneer new trails if we have no problems where we’re currently squatting?
Think about it: what happens when an object does not move for a long period of time? What happens to a person who is not engaged in life and work?
They gather dust.
Remember Lehi’s pleas to his rebellious sons on his deathbed: “Awake! and arise from the dust. Arise from the dust, my sons, and be men.”
The scriptures tell us that man was formed from the dust of the earth. Very well, science tell us something similar. Makes us sound kinda low, doesn’t it? It humbles us. But there’s something we don’t often think about in connection to that fact, and that is this: every speck of dust that comprises our mortal, physical bodies ultimately came from space, from the stars, from interstellar dust itself.
It’s so easy to forget all of that. It’s so easy to forget who we truly are. Our true identity, like our destiny, has been lost among the clouds of dust, when we should be looking to the clouds above.
Gordon B. Hinckley wrote, “‘Mormonism’ is a religion of refinement. It reasons that every man has within him God-possibilities, that salvation is essentially development. It argues that every man is potentially a great man. And through an inspired system, it offers the most extensive facilities in all the world for every man to discover himself and his possibilities, to so live that he can stand on the summit of his life and look back upon a trail of accomplishment and not a slough of wasted energies. Very few at most, and perhaps none of us will ever carve immortal names in the roll call of the great of the earth. Maybe none of us will achieve outside the narrow pale of our immediate surroundings. But this much is certain: happy will be the man or woman who has tapped some hidden resource and given it voice. To such a character will come the sweet satisfying feeling of strengthening powers, of having done something that has made life a little nobler. God has generously blessed us all with talent…Catch the silent thrill of growth!”
Make no mistake, brothers and sisters: we are still pioneers. Our spiritual forebears fought for their physical survival. In our time we are fighting for our spiritual survival. And eternally speaking, we are all fighting for not just survival, but transcendence–or, in other words, EXALTATION–necessitated by the dust storms of these last days of this earth. God wants more than anything for us to be constantly forging through the cosmic wilderness, discovering untold territories in ourselves, taking our first steps into spaces we’ve never before been, into spheres and kingdoms we thought we never could attain.
Sadly for people like me who don’t care for too much adventure in their lives, there is no room for excessive nostalgia in God’s kingdom. God wants us elsewhere than we were a year ago. God wants us to excel, and to accelerate. God wants a church of pioneers.
You might have noticed that through this entire talk, I haven’t referenced any concrete actions you should take on your path of self-improvement. That’s because I’m not up here to preach. I’m not up to tell you which of your habits and behaviors you need to change. I certainly know what mine are, and I think you know yours just as well. I am up here to light a fire—to inspire that desire to aim higher, to break your old barriers, and to reach for the stars. I am here to remind you that you and all of us are still pioneers, and that we’ve barely begun, and that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny—yours and mine—our eternal destiny lies above us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.