Nourish, dig, and prune
Jacob 5, if you are not familiar, is a long allegory about the house of Israel. Zenos, the author, compares the house of Israel to an old, decaying olive tree and describes all the efforts of the master gardener to save the tree and its fruit. It's one of those chapters that tend to get only touched on lightly. There just doesn't seem to be much there. Israel is like a tree. It gets corrupt, so the Lord scatters it across the earth. It does OK for a while but then it produces inedible fruit, so it's grafted back into the original tree one more time. Israel is then gathered for the last time and the end.
That's the way I looked at it for a long time, anyway. But all that changed a few days ago when the awesome Taylor and Tyler invited me (video linked at bottom) to not just think of the house of Israel, but of myself as the tree in the allegory. I owe a lot of my insights to their video. Likening the scriptures to myself in this way gave me new insights relating to my personal spiritual growth, my plan for life, and even this weird situation where we're having Church at home! Here's what I learned about the way the master gardener takes care of me when I consider myself as the tree:
Let's start with the easy one. The Lord of the vineyard nourished his beloved olive trees. Throughout 77 verses, the master is mentioned to have nourished (or "dunged") the tree 25 times. Considering myself as the tree, this is exciting– after all, who doesn't like food? I definitely enjoy food (I've already put on several pounds of my "Covid 19"). As the tree, I see the purpose of nourishment right away, and its benefits strengthen me immediately. I continue to grow in the path I have started, but now I grow faster.
Likening it to my life, I feel nourished when things go my way. When a project at work turns out well. When my children behave. When my youth Sunday School class participates in the lesson. When I feel answers to my prayers. When the Scriptures are opened up to me. In nourishment scenarios, I feel like God is patting me on the head and telling me "Keep up the good work."
Nourishing is nice, but insufficient. The nutritious fertilizer the Lord wants to give us does no good if it dries up, unused, on the hard terrain, out of reach of our roots. We know from the Parable of the Sower that the Lord needs soft soil to work with. So, 7 times in the chapter, the Lord mentions digging about the trees. He breaks up the compacted, rocky dirt, aerates, and mixes in soft, rich, fertilized soil.
With the sharp shovel breaking things up, this isn't quite as fun, anymore. The gardener is going to of necessity cut some of our surface roots to turn the soil. But really, I'm probably still OK with that. It will hurt a bit, but I have deeper roots that are untouched that can take the load for a while. And I can grow back surface roots fairly quickly and they will thrive in the enriched environment. What little pain I experience is immediately and obviously worth it to me. As with his efforts to nourish me, the Master has let me continue to grow in the path I have started, but faster.
Likening this to my life right now, I immediately think of the current situation we find ourselves in with regards to chapels being closed. Brad McBride posted a really cool post about how cypress trees in hurricane-prone swamps have two root systems.
One root system, called the tap root goes straight down, deep into the earth to where the swamp water cannot reach and the rocks and soil are firm and floods can't penetrate. The other root system, called lateral roots, extends outward from the tree just under the surface of the ground and weave themselves around the lateral roots of other cypress trees, creating an interlocking network of trees that share their strength. Both of these types of roots have to be balanced. If either the taproot or the lateral roots are the star of the show at the expense of the other, the tree will not have as much strength to survive the winds and the rain.
Right now, the coronavirus pandemic has cut off a lot of our lateral roots. We can't attend Church. We can't minister in each other's houses. We can't meet together as Saints to share our faith and our strength. I wonder if perhaps we have become as a Church too dependent on our lateral roots of fellowship and not strong enough in our taproots that go personally deep. We know that winds are coming and floods will rise. Pres. Nelson has warned us, "In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost."
I'm not saying that the coronavirus is here specifically to force us to develop our own personal and familial roots more. I'm just saying that it is a great opportunity to strengthen those roots and if we take advantage of this unique situation, it will be very beneficial. Once the soil is loosened and our environment is enriched, when we can return and fellowship with the Saints in person again, I think it both our person tap roots and our fellowship lateral roots will be more rewarding, more healthy, more balanced, and more strong than ever before because of this digging by the Master Gardener.
For a tree, nourishing is nice and pleasant. Digging is a little painful but immediately beneficial. Pruning, on the other hand, stinks. Pruning a tree is maiming a tree– chopping off limbs, Ammon-style. It is violent. It is sudden. It is painful. Pruning changes the whole shape and future of the tree. It can no longer grow in the direction it was growing before. All the leaves of the removed branches can no longer photosynthesize and provide the tree with energy. Its growth is stunted. It has lost a part– perhaps a very large part– of who it was and how everyone views it. Why would a loving gardener intentionally inflict trauma on a beloved tree in this way– let alone get 10 mentions in this chapter?
We're trees, remember? Well, what does a tree "want?" Biologically, a tree wants to grow– to get bigger and bigger and become more of itself. More branches, more leaves, more sunlight, more nourishment, more wood, more tree. You know what doesn't contribute to that goal? Fruit. Producing fruit takes energy. Fruit takes nutrients. Fruit takes time. Why produce fruit only to lose it with no benefit to the parent tree? Producing fruit does not advance the tree's own self-interest. For a tree, the game is "less fruit, more wood."
On the other hand, the gardener is not concerned with how high the tree can grow, how thick the trunk may be, or how much sunlight the leaves can absorb. The gardener is interested not in what the tree is but what it produces. The gardener doesn't want more wood– the gardener wants more fruit.
Interestingly, pruning, hurting the tree is the way to get the gardener and the tree on the same page about that end goal. As Tyler points out in the video, when you prune a tree, the trauma you inflict causes a biological response in the tree that makes it respond as if it were under attack and about to die. And that response is not to crank up wood production but fruit production.
Interesting, isn't it? When the tree feels stress or that the end is near, then it stops focusing so much on advancing its own interests and starts putting more effort into producing something of value for everyone else. It's almost as if, when it experiences this trauma of pruning, the tree is reminded that its wood won't last, it's leaves won't last, and its roots won't last but its fruit will spread its seed throughout the earth for the rest of eternity. So the tree's priorities shift from building up itself to providing for others.
I think there is a bit of that tendency in all of us. Loss, heartache, sorrow, death, or even just a gentle reminder of our own mortality are all great motivators to keep us focused on what we can do to actually have a lasting impact on the world.
The problem is, it's really hard to have that perspective while I'm being "pruned." Nourishing is painless and immediately rewarding. Digging hurts a little, but doesn't change our direction, and is immediately rewarding, too. But pruning is traumatic and painful. It stunts our growth, and we cannot for the life of us see any benefit to us now or in the future. We may feel to complain against God in these "pruning" moments like the currant bush in Elder Hugh B Brown's excellent talk:
How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth… and now you have cut me down. And all in the garden will look upon me with contempt and pity. How could you do it? I thought you were the gardener here.
Then, of course, God responds:
I am the gardener here. I know what I want you to be. If I let you go the way you want to go, you will never amount to anything. And someday, when you are ripened in life, you are going to shout back across the time and say, "Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down, for loving me enough to hurt me."
It's the same response He gave to the Saints in Jackson County, when they were at the very start of the Missouri hardships:
Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation.
And when that tribulation comes, we must adopt the correct attitude. Elder Klebingat taught that at such times:
[Don't think] that you did something wrong, that this is a punishment, a sign that Heavenly Father does not love you… Instead, try to force a smile, gaze heavenward, and say, "I understand, Lord. I know what this is. A time to prove myself, isn’t it?" Then partner with Him to endure well to the end. Spiritual confidence increases when you accept that "often trials and tribulations are allowed to come into [your life] because of what [you] are doing right."
Responding with faith
Hopefully, these past few weeks as you've been at home, you have felt "nourished" by the word of God. Right now I think we as a Church are being "digged" a bit to become even stronger. I know that there are those out there for whom this trial has resulted in the loss of loved ones, loss of health, and loss of work, so their experience is more of a "pruning" experience. To those who are feeling "pruned" right now, please know that we love you, that we are praying and fasting for you, and that we care for you. Respond with faith and soon we will all be together sharing our strength with one another again.
Here's the video from Taylor and Tyler I mentioned earlier. Their Come Follow Me Channel is definitely worth a subscribe: