Ministering: The Pine and The Birch Tree

I had the opportunity to speak in church today. Unfortunately it was one of those times when the previous speakers take all of the time and leave little to none for the last speaker. I did my best to give a Reader’s Digest version, but I felt like I needed to get my unshared thoughts out there in some way. So, enjoy….

It’s a blessing to be here with you today. My wife and I were members of this ward for two years when we first moved out to Cleveland. It was here that I had the opportunity to have the second best calling in the church: Ward Mission Leader. Do you know what the First Best Calling in the church is? Full-Time Missionary. What a wonderful opportunity to have the blessing to take two “Gap Years” and spend it fully devoted to serving others. To ministering and to doing what Christ would do if He were in your shoes. Can I tell you a quick story about when I received my mission call? I was attending BYU at the time. My mission call had come to my apartment in Provo, but the plan was to open it with my family after we’d all attended the BYU football game that night. After the game, I ran back to my apartment at Deseret Towers to grab my mission call. The plan was to meet on 900 East at an LDS church kitty-corner from Deseret Towers. I waited for a while on the corner of 900 East as post-BYU game traffic backed up and moved slowly. I was pumped and excited to open my call. I remembered that my parents had just traded in their blue suburban for a new gold minivan. I remember mentally patting myself on the back for remembering that as I tried to spot their car. Then I saw it. They were heading south down 900 East. Traffic was slow and they were right in front of me just on the other side of the center line. So I ran toward the center lane, grabbed the drivers side sliding door of the van, slid it open, jumped in before traffic started to move, and….I didn’t recognize a soul in the car. I’d had a big ol’ smile on my face…. The father yelled super angrily, “Get out!” The mom had an expression of shock, which my expression immediately began morphing in to — you know the emoji with the frown and the blue forehead– I think I apologized and from there I don’t remember closing the door or walking back across the street. I was traumatized. It was the worst. Definitely my most embarrassing moment.

When I first told my wife this experience (probably 3 years later) she thought it was hilarious. I still felt awful remembering it. Now 16 years later, time has healed that wound enough that I can laugh at my over-confident impulsive self. But right after that experience happened, I just needed someone whom I trusted, someone with whom I felt safe and to whom I could vent all that pent-up shame and emotion.

And that is what I want to talk about today. Ministering. Being there for each other. Reaching out, going the extra mile, making an effort to lift and love like the Savior would.

forest, nature, trees

I’ve got another story. Suzanne Simard grew up in the forests of British Columbia. She went in to forestry and made an incredible discovery. Scientists had discovered that in the lab, one pine seedling root could transmit carbon to another pine seedling root. Suzanne thought, “This was in the lab, could this happen in real forests?” She thought so. She grew a bunch of replicates of birch, fir, and cedar.  Then she bought some plastic bags and duct tape and shade cloth, a timer, a paper suit a respirator and then she borrowed some high-tech stuff from her university: a Geiger counter, a scintillation counter, a mass spectrometer, microscopes. And then she got some really dangerous stuff: syringes full of radioactive carbon-14 carbon dioxide gas and some high pressure bottles of the stable isotope carbon-13 carbon dioxide gas. But she forgot the bear spray. So she gets out to the forest and the first day she’s chased off by a grizzly and her cub. Apparently that’s normal in forest research in Canada. She comes back the next day, and mama grizzly and her cub were gone. She put on her white paper suit, put on her respirator, and then she put the plastic bags over the trees. She injected one radioactive carbon dioxide gas into the bag of birch and a different stable carbon dioxide gas into the bag of pine. She wanted to see if there was two-way communication going on between these species. After a visit by the grizzly which chased her back to the truck for an hour or so, she returned to the first bag with the birch. She pulled the bag off and ran the Geiger counter over its leaves. Kkhh! Perfect. The birch had taken up the radioactive gas. Then the moment of truth. She walked over to the fir tree. She pulled off its bag. She ran the Geiger counter up its needles, and she heard the most beautiful sound.Kkhh! It was the sound of birch talking to fir, and birch was saying, “Hey, can I help you?” And fir was saying, “Yeah, can you send me some of your carbon? Because somebody threw a shade cloth over me.”  The evidence was clear. The C-13 and C-14 was showing that paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out at that time of the year, in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. And then in later experiments, she found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang. Suzanne discovered that fungal networks connect trees within the forest in a cooperative network almost like an underground internet.  Suzanne performed an experiment where they learned that large Mother trees colonize their kin (their seedlings) with bigger fungal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings. Suzanne showed that trees talk.[1]  Forests need the community, the larger hub/mother trees. The birch and pine give and take, when the birch are leafless, the pine gives carbon to the birch, and when the birch is flush with leaves the birch gives carbon to the shaded pine. No man is an island, and apparently no tree is either.

We read in Genesis 2:18 “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” We are social beings. We need each other. It’s no mystery that the temple and Celestial Kingdom is about exalting and binding families together. One of the only scriptures found in all four of the standard works, “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

“We need our hearts to turn towards each other, we need social connection. We need to feel understood. “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood”–Ralph G. Nichols

Shawn Achor is a Harvard researcher who studies happiness and is the author of the book The Happiness Advantage, which I read last year. One of the things that I enjoyed about this book is that it corroborates through an intellectual mainstream way what I already knew — that living the principles of the Gospel brings happiness. One of these principles that Dr. Achor stressed is the importance of social connections. Too often when things get tough in our lives and we feel sorrow or overwhelmed we become reclusive, we retract and become solitary. We stray from our friends and loved ones. Perhaps because of the pain we feel we draw in, grabbing our shoulders and huddle to make ourselves small. This is the opposite of what we should do. When we feel this way, we need to look to our social connections for support and ministering. Dr. Achor found “in a study of 1,648 students at Harvard, he found that social support was the greatest predictor of happiness during periods of high stress. In fact, the correlation between happiness and the academic measure they used to assess students’ positive engagement with their social networks was a whopping .71—for comparison, the correlation between smoking and cancer is .37.” This study focused on how much social support the students received. In a follow-on study, he found that even more important to sustained happiness and engagement was the amount of social support the students provided.[2]

That study that showed that sustained happiness and engagement was greater among students that provided social support reminds me of this quote from President Monson: “God bless all who endeavor to be their brother’s keeper, who give to ameliorate suffering, who strive with all that is good within them to make a better world. Have you noticed that such individuals have a brighter smile? Their footsteps are more certain. They have an aura about them of contentment and satisfaction … for one cannot participate in helping others without experiencing a rich blessing himself.[3]

With regard to social support networks, how inspired that we’re asked to set apart a day every week and gather together.  Mosiah 18:25 reads, “And there was one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together.” And in Moroni 6:5, “And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.” We are blessed by our association together- in that we can both be ministered to and that we can minister to others.
The Savior taught, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine, and go into the wilderness after that which is lost, until he find it?” (JST, Luke 15:4; italics added.)” Is it a wonder that in this parable, that going astray is synonymous with going it alone? The Savior is the ultimate example of ministering to the one, ministering to the lost sheep that has become separated from its social and spiritual support network. Jesus’ life was all about reaching out to the socially outcast. Instead of journeying around Samaria, as most Jews would to avoid contact with these “intermixed or unclean jews”, Jesus traveled through Samaria. He sought out the pools of Bethsaida where the sick and afflicted would gather, waiting for the waters to be troubled as tradition had it that the first into the water following the “angel” troubling the waters would be healed. Part of me thinks that there were certainly people who avoided this pool because of the type of people it attracted–did people really want to be surrounded by sick people? He sat and ate with sinners and publicans (the hated tax collectors who “worked for the enemy”). Yes, Jesus preached in the synagogues, but he’s remembered for what he did outside of the synagogues. He ministered out amongst the people, on the streets, on hillsides, and in their homes. And we are asked to be like Him. We are asked to reach out to and minister to our brother, to our neighbor.

To minister as the Savior ministered we must seek to emulate the Savior and be a true disciple. The Lord asks us in the Doctrine and Covenants to “Lift up the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees.” (D&C 81:5)  Pres. Monson has encouraged us, “There are lives to brighten. There are hearts to touch. There are souls to save. Ours is the sacred privilege to brighten, to touch, and to save those precious souls entrusted to our care. We should do so faithfully and with hearts filled with gladness.”

Ministering is also being willing to do or knowing what needs to be done without having to be asked to do it. It’s offering or just doing the service instead of offering to help but requiring the person to ask for it. When a person needs ministering to, they are often lost. They are often withdrawn, huddled in an effort to protect themselves from what they are going through. We need to realize that it can be too much to ask to require that the person to whom we would minister be required to tell us how to help them or to ask us for help.

Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “Thus another special lesson learned: If you come upon a person who is drowning, would you ask if they need help—or would it be better to just jump in and save them from the deepening waters? The offer, while well meaning and often given, “Let me know if I can help” is really no help at all.[4]

When ministering, remember that LDS also can stand for Let’s Do Something. Do something good for those to whom you would minister. If you know them well enough, you may be able to guess what they need most. Sometimes we may just need to “mourn with those who mourn.” We may need to just “hold space” for someone to whom we would minister. Heather Plett describes how we can do this:

“It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control. To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.[5]

This is mourning with those that mourn and this seems more like a function of using our ears and our heart. David Augsburger said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

My senior year of high school I went through an exceptionally trying time. I had a bout of anxiety that led to a loss of confidence, that led to depression, that led to obsessive compulsive behavior, that led to more anxiety and more depression. It was a terrible downward spiral. I felt like my only escape was when I slept and when I’d wake up I felt like my own mind was against me. I could almost feel the dark gloom cloud over me in the morning. I did my best to put on a mask during the day while at school, but inside I was dying inside. As soon as I’d get home I’d go down and lock myself up in my room. I tried all sorts of church answer solutions — praying, reading scriptures more. But I just shed tears after tears. As I was going through this I remember listening to this song by Michael McLean and the lyrics spoke exactly how I felt. It’s called Safe Harbors:

There are refugees among us
That are not from foreign shores;
And the battles they are waging
Are from very private wars.
And there are no correspondents
Documenting all their grief,
But these refugees among us all
Are yearning for relief.

There are refugees among us.
They don’t carry flags or signs.
They are standing right beside us
In the market check out lines;
And the war they’ve been fighting
It will not be televised,
But the story of their need for love
Is written in their eyes.

This is a call to arms,
To reach out and to hold
The evacuees from the dark.
This is a call to arms,
To lead anguished souls
To safe harbors of the heart.

Can you see through their disguises?
Can you hear what words won’t tell?
Some are losing faith in Heaven
‘Cause their life’s a living Hell.
Is there anyone to help those
Who have no where else to flee?
For the only arms protecting them
belong to you and me.

This is a call to arms,
To reach out and to hold
The evacuees from the dark.
This is a call to arms,
To lead anguished souls
To safe harbors of the heart.
Can you feel the pleas of the refugees

For safe harbors of the heart?

For me, it was my mom who “held space” for me through my trial and helped me until I found my way to safe harbor. For the months that I waded through this crucible she would come down in to my room to pray with me or to hug me or to give me words of encouragement, or hope or faith. When I had outlasted the patience of my father, my mom was still there with me. Beyond any other experience in my life, this is where I felt ministered to with love. Do you have an experience when someone has ministered to you and your family? How did you feel? What would you do for that person? Imagine now what Christ has done for you by taking on your sins and sicknesses and pains. What would you do for Him? Would you pay it forward by ministering to His children–those refugees foreign or domestic that are around you?

When we minister to the one, our souls grow in substance. D. Todd Cristofferson taught, “Not only do we ‘find’ ourselves in terms of acknowledging divine guidance in our lives, but the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. … We become more substantive as we serve others–indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find![6]

So what do we do to be better ministers and to strengthen our social connections when we do gather ourselves together? Gather oft. Develop a reservoir of spiritual strength from which you can minister from a position of love. Studying the word of God, especially the Book of Mormon – I testify that reading the Book of Mormon will increase our spiritual reservoirs. Connect with people. Realize that it may take time to develop enough trust and a feeling of safety with people in order to be authentic and real. Ultimately connect with “real intent”. Is the answer to “How are you doing?” Really always, “Good or fine.” When we ask “How are you doing?” Are we just being pleasant or do we really care to know? Can we be real enough with each other to be able to be vulnerable so that we can have opportunities to give each other “the carbon” that our roots need? I believe that the Spirit will guide us in our efforts to strengthen our social and spiritual connections in our wards. Then just do something. If you’re unclear on what the Spirit wants you to do, just do something good–the scriptures tell us this is from God (Moroni 7). Do that good thing. Make a phone call. Make a visit. Give service. Give a hug. Give a compliment. Just listen. Whether it is for your own family or for families for whom you have a priesthood responsibility to minister —start with a small, easy to do action. What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Don’t bite off more than you can chew–or in scripture speak, “it is not needful that a man run faster than he is able.” It’s perfectly ok to start with a walk or at a jog. Just take action. We’ve all heard about the importance of ministering before, what I’ve shared today isn’t new information. I like how author Derek Sivers puts it, “If more info were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” We have the knowledge, now let’s just do it!

Brothers and Sisters, in the words of author Brene Brown “Connection is why we are here,” if you are feeling like a lost sheep and things look or feel bleak and you can’t see the forest for the trees, or if you’re feeling like the pine, feeling like God or life has put a shade cloth over you, reach out horizontally to your fellow birch, reach out horizontally to the ninety and nine. Ask for help or at least accept help. And if you are feeling like you are a birch and your leaves are full and the sun is shining in your life, reach out horizontally and find those pines that are under a shade cloth and say, “Hey, can I help you? Here take some of my carbon.”

I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

[1] Suzanne Simard. “How trees talk to each other.” July 2016 TED Talk. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other/transcript?language=en

[2] Shawn Achor. “Positive Intelligence.” Harvard Business Review 2012 Jan-Feb. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://hbr.org/2012/01/positive-intelligence

[3] Thomas S. Monson. “Our Brothers’ Keepers.” Ensign 1998 June. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1998/06/our-brothers-keepers?lang=eng

[4] Ronald A. Rasband. “Special Lessons.” Ensign 2012 May. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/05/special-lessons?lang=eng

[5] Heather Plett, quoted in talk by Tom Tolman. Accessed 11-Feb-2017 on Leading LDS Blog. https://leadinglds.org/being-a-leader-in-a-faith-crisis-guest-post-interview-with-tom-tolman/

[6] D. Todd Cristofferson. “Saving Your Life.” CES Devotional Broadcast for Young Adults. Sep. 14, 2014 at Brigham Young University.

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