The Best This Machine Can Do Is Good Enough
I made the twelve-hour trek to Utah for General Conference this month. It was a last-minute decision after one of my sons expressed a longing to attend in person, and we were grateful to get ahold of a single ticket each for the two Sunday sessions. I dropped him off a half hour before Music and the Spoken Word began, and then walked about, taking in the atmosphere. Someone was playing hymns on the bagpipes. Others were singing in Spanish. Dozens of people were gathered near the main walkways, holding 1-4 fingers in the air in an eager appeal for extra tickets. At the end of the block, a handful of protesters waved inflammatory placards. It was a familiar scene that I have visited before with a deep sense of connection and belonging. But this time that feeling was missing, replaced by a quiet ache.
The problem is not that General Conference has changed, at least, not for the worse. I have changed, and hopefully not for the worse. My sense of belonging to a greater “us” has been dimmed by my growing awareness of precious brothers and sisters who are uncertain of their belonging or who no longer gather with us because they feel unwelcome or unsafe. If my “us” excludes them, it doesn’t feel celebratory anymore.
It was with that pain in my heart that I listened to Elder Vern P. Stanfill’s parable of the combine and found comfort. Elder Stanfill spoke of harvesting grain in his youth with his father, who made repeated adjustments to his machinery to ensure “that as much grain as possible landed in the holding tank and was not thrown out with the chaff.” This involved his father running the combine over small swaths of the field, combing through what was left behind to see how well it was working, making adjustments and trying again, repeatedly, until he was satisfied with the results. But then young Vern discovered a problem. He recalls, “ I found some kernels of grain in the chaff on the ground and presented them to him with a critical look. I will not forget what my father said to me: ‘It is good enough and the best that this machine can do.’”The answer did not strike Vern as satisfactory. The waste of good grain rankled awhile until the weather turned cold and thousands of migrating birds descended on the Stanfills’ fields for sustenance. “They ate the leftover grain from our imperfect harvest. God had perfected it. And not a kernel was lost.”
Elder Stanfill used this parable to explore the difference between toxic perfectionism and perfection in Jesus Christ. For me, it also offered a model for reconciling my faith that I belong to the restored and living church of Jesus Christ with my sense that many of those who have left or are leaving are earnest lovers of goodness who feel, to some extent, driven out.
I see the combine in the story as a symbol for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its purpose is to gather Israel. But who, exactly, is Israel, and what does it mean to gather them? I’ve heard it taught that Israel refers to the literal descendants of Jacob. But that definition doesn’t square very well for me anymore when the gospel is to be taken to all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples. I’m coming to believe that Israel represents all those who love and seek after goodness. They are the wheat of the parable. And gathering them means bringing them into covenant relationship with Jesus Christ, where He can save and sanctify them.
Jesus Christ is like the father in the parable, who calibrates the Church by way of instructions to His prophet, His leaders, and individual members. Unlike a combine, the Church is a living thing, capable of growth. So the Lord gives instructions, the Church moves forward and grows a little, and then the Lord makes adjustments in order to increase our effectiveness in bringing souls into saving relationship with Him.
I recognize myself in the inexperienced farmer’s son who, with a critical spirit, points out the precious grain that the machine is spitting out with the chaff. I’m struck by the legitimacy of the answer, “it is… the best that this machine can do.” No matter what instructions the Lord gives, they are carried out by fallen, imperfect people, the most refined of whom still have to stretch to begin to understand His purposes. And we’re so diverse in our needs and experiences that the same teachings can edify some of us while creating a stumbling block for others. So the Church, as it currently exists, is bound to pass over some it ought to gather, and to prove inhospitable to others who love God and goodness.
But how can that be “good enough?” How can the spitting-out of even one priceless soul who should belong in the kingdom be okay?
In the parable of the combine, it was good enough because the Lord continued the harvest even after the combine had left the fields. He had a vital purpose for the discarded grain, so that “not a kernel was lost.”
Could it be that those honest and earnest seekers of goodness who are not gathered in, or who may even have left the Church, also have a vital purpose and will not be lost, no, not one soul?
The Book of Mormon was written for our day. I think that means that Nephi’s words have application to us, not just the people of his time, when he quotes Isaiah as follows:
“Hearken, O ye house of Israel, all ye that are broken off and are driven out because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people… Thus saith the Lord: In an acceptable time have I heard thee, O isles of the sea, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee; and I will preserve thee…That thou mayest say to the prisoners: Go forth; to them that sit in darkness: Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places” (1 Nephi 21:1,8-9; emphasis added).
Yes, the Church can be true and actively led by Jesus Christ and still be impaired by the human failings of its people in a way that causes some of Israel to be broken off and driven out. I don’t think the Lord condemns us for our stumbling, sometimes damaging, but honest efforts to serve Him. I don’t think He condemned Abraham and Sarah for being steeped in traditions that caused them to see Hagar and Ishmael as property they could dispose of, instead of as their equals who were just as precious to Him.
I believe that when Hagar and Ishmael were sent away into the desert with nothing but a single bottle of water and some bread to sustain them (Genesis 21:14), they were being “broken off and … driven out because of the wickedness of the pastors of [God’s] people.” For me, from my modern perspective, the wickedness in how Abraham and Sarah treated them is easily apparent. Hagar was forced by her mistress to sleep with her master; it wasn’t marriage as she had none of the rights of a wife. She was a slave without even the right of refusal. When she conceived and Sarai (as she was then named) felt looked down upon because of Hagar’s fertility, she was severely punished. And the baby, Ishmael, was considered Sarai’s for 13 years until God changed her name to Sarah and she conceived a baby of her own, at which time Ishmael lost his place and his inheritance. When the youth was caught making fun of the baby brother who’d displaced him, Sarah demanded that he and his mother be cast out. Not sent away to friends but banished into an unforgiving desert without the means to survive. And Abraham complied.
My blood boils as I read about this and my natural-woman inclination is to condemn them both. But then it occurs to me to wonder what things I do now, in good conscience, that future me and my posterity are going to look back on as condemnable. It appears to me from the record that Abraham and Sarah did not know better. Social conventions of their time blinded them to the truth of human equality. They seem to have honestly believed it was their moral duty to teach Hagar her place. And the Lord did not condemn them for their ignorance. From Abraham’s perspective, the Lord even seemed to approve his casting Hagar and Ishmael out.
But however confused their understanding was, our Heavenly Father was not pleased with their abuse of His children, nor did He gloss over those children’s suffering. Quite the contrary. He made His feelings about Hagar’s suffering clear to the children of Lehi when, forbidding polygamy and the taking concubines, He said:
“I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people… in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands” (Jacob 2:31).
How do we know that the Lord included Hagar among those daughters of His people? Because He sent an angel to Hagar herself, when she first fled Sarai’s wrath after conceiving a child. The angel told her, “thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction” (Genesis 16:11). “Ishmael” literally means “God hears,” so the Lord was giving both mother and child an ever present reminder of His watchful care for them.
Moreover, He went on to promise her, “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 16:10). This was fully thirteen years before Abraham received the same promise as part of the Abrahamic covenant.
When, obedient to the Lord’s directions, Hagar returned to Abram’s and Sarai’s dwelling, knowing she would continue to be abused but she could raise her baby in relative safety, she also knew she was not alone. She now had her own name for God whom she knew, not as the God of Abraham, but as Thou God Seest Me (Genesis 16:13).
I wonder. A covenant is a two-way promise with God. When Hagar obediently returned to her oppressors, with the promise of seed without number in her ears, and an unforgettable witness that God heard her in her womb, did she walk in the power of a covenant? Could it be that her covenant walk with God quietly influenced Abram and Sarai, helping to prepare them for their own covenant?
I don’t know. But thirteen years later, when God covenanted with Abraham and indicated that this covenant would continue with Isaac (who was yet unborn), Abraham worried about where that left Ishmael, the only son he had at the time. I find it interesting that the Lord answered, “Behold, I have blessed him…and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20).
After just another year, Hagar and her son were cast out of Abraham’s fold, not for any fault of Hagar’s but because young Ishmael had mocked Sarah’s baby. They were sent away by the prophet without even enough water to survive. But God miraculously provided water and renewed His promise to make Ishmael a great nation. “And God was with the lad;” (Genesis 21:17-20).
What was God’s reason for establishing His everlasting covenant – the one that was destined to give birth to the Saviour and to gather in and bless every family of the Earth – through the line of Sarah instead of Hagar? I don’t know, but the account seems to clarify that it was not because Sarah was more faithful than Hagar. I do know that whatever the reason, it was redemptive. And I am reminded of the phrase, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” (1 Nephi 15:42).
So what does all of this mean to me, today? It means that there may be more going on in the gathering of Israel than meets my eye, and more cause for me to walk humbly than I have hitherto supposed. It means that I do not need to worry that precious souls who feel driven out from among the Saints are lost. God’s plan is bigger than the combine He has assigned to gather Israel. Nor should I worry or criticize because the Church isn’t doing as good a job as it could. At this moment in time, our results are “the best that this machine can do.” To the extent that each of us individually draws closer to God, to that same extent will the machine upgrade and its results improve. So I want to devote my energy, not to criticizing what I do not understand, but to becoming the most polished and responsive cog I can in God’s combine. And I will trust God’s plan for a harvest that will, eventually, bring every one of us to our knees (Mosiah 27:31) in gratitude and awe.