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A sacrament meeting talk about trees and Jesus and stuff
This was a short-notice talk and I had to write it the same week I had two concerts, the same week our son turned fourteen, and the same week I went back to work. So it’s not as polished as I would like. Plus my laptop’s in for repairs which means I’m using the backup whose N key doesn’t work well. I hope I’ve placed all the missing ones.
A bit of priestcraft and litcrit and excuses before we start.
The poem I quote I found on Instagram. (Buy the book.) When it came time to type it up, I discovered some typos. And since I was already fixing those I decided to change some other things (like the nonce compounds) to make it easier to read. But the more time I spent with the poem, the more I discovered structural flaws. The poem is often in accidental conflict with itself. And since it wasn’t handling its ambiguity well, I ended up editing it down and making changes for clarity. All these are marked with ellipses or brackets, but I want to draw attention to my edits now as they could be interpreted as me bowdlerizing the “shocking” parts of the poem. But that wouldn’t be accurate. I just needed it to be more coherent for my purposes.
I don’t have the book, but I’m assuming it features a later draft that holds up better to rereading. I hope so because my first read of the poem was thrilling.
I should also mention that my chronology of the Peter story is sketch. Although the feed-my-sheep bit does immediately follow the fish story, John makes it clear that the fish is appearance two and the sheep is appearance three. I borrowed my reading from an excellent book which makes the same point I’m making only more forcefully. I think the point stands, regardless, which is why I’ve adopted it.
Finally, given the circumstances, this is probably a bit sloppy. Some missing ns, no doubt. But here’s the talk:
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When I opened up my notebook to start the first true draft of this talk, I first had to turn about fifty pages to where I'd left off writing whatever I'd last been writing. As I turned them, I saw previous projects—some cartoons, a mouse story, Mormon Socrates—and I also saw a three-word note: "ministering as TREES," "trees" all in caps. Which made me pause. I didn't know what I'd meant, but luckily I'd also drawn a little image accompaniment, three stately trees, their roots and canopies interlocking. Which seemed like something worth adding to this talk. So I will. In a minute.
♫ Jesus said love everyone
treat them kindly too
If your heart is filled with love
others will love you. ♫
I don't think Jesus said that second part, incidentally, but he certainly did say ♫ love everyone ♫ —and in several different ways.
We often act like Jesus saying ♫ love everyone ♫ made him radical. But not really. When that guy asked him what's the greatest law and Jesus said, "love God, love your neighbor," that wasn't some new idea. Jesus was quoting Mosaic law. They'd all heard it before. The shocking part was the story about that dirty Samaritan who actually ♫ love[d] everyone ♫ — even his enemy.
It's telling, in the story, that when Jesus introduces the first character, he doesn't give him an identity. He just lets his audience assume he's quote-normal-unquote. Sort of like how in contemporary American fiction, if you don't say what color your protagonist is, readers are apt to assume he's white. Jesus knows how our minds work. And he uses that to lead us not back to the words "love God, love your neighbor," but to the idea behind the words. The radical thing about Jesus is he means it. When ♫ Jesus [says] love everyone ♫ , that's exactly what he means.
And he means it every day. Every hour. Even when he's tired and just wants to lay down below decks and take a nap.
Here's a poem I bumped into last week. It's called "Primary Jesus" and it's by Heather Harris-Bergevin. I've cut it down a bit.
Maybe the real problem is
we believed it all,
from trying to be like Jesus
to kindness begins with me.
We spent decades teaching
in primaries, singing I'll
walk with you and I like
to look for rainbows, [singing]
that you, too, are a child of God.
We practiced sacrifices...
[and listened] to pious storymonies
[saying] that if we only will try, again,
a little harder...
God will open up his arms and tell
the nice old men who love us so
that God sees our suffering sufficient,
that Christ's Laws can be restored,
that revelation, story, poetry, scripture
can be one and the same.
Then we could see
Samaritans serve dark-skinned foreigners
on the border, refugees, poverty, a
restoration of miracles we helped create
with our own hands.
That when we swear
each week to Mourn, to Comfort, to Bear
we intend our covenants to follow
that good Christ we learned.
When we hold up our hands and swear
we will give everything
to further the kingdom of God, that means...all
the soft songs we teach children
are somehow ours to fulfill...
Maybe we are worried, not because we love
Jesus less...but rather [because] we believed
that [the] Jesus
we were taught, that we taught [for]
decades and decades in Primary,
[ B E A T ]
Peter and his buddies were fishing have having a lousy time of it when a guy on shore told them to try the other side. They'd had good luck doing what weirdos on shore told them in the past so they did it and got way more fish than they needed. And thus they knew the guy on the shore was their friend, the resurrected Messiah. Peter was delighted to see him and asked what Jesus wanted of him. You know what Jesus said. "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep." We usually talk about this as Jesus sending Peter off to teach the gospel etc etc, but let's not forget that Peter is, at that moment, sitting on a hundred and fifty-three fish (less what they'd just eaten). And—
♫ Jesus said love everyone
treat them kindly too ♫
Peter. What do we do with fish, Peter? We feed people.
Peter, the guy who holds the keys in all the paintings. Peter, the ur-Christian. Peter, the one Jesus trusted with this planet filled with God's children, had a hard time remembering that job #1 is to ♫ love everyone ♫ .
Why would it be any less so for us? or for our leaders?
♫ Jesus said love everyone ♫
And he said it over and over again. Because even Peter forgot.
The first line of that poem was "Maybe the real problem is / we believed it all, / from trying to be like Jesus / to kindness begins with me," but no! The problem comes when we forget. And we all forget. All of us. The Saint you respect the absolute most forgets.
This is bad Aramaic, but when Jesus said "suffer the little children" part of what he meant was that little children are insufferable in how clearly they can see. But, us adults? We're great—great!—at making excuses, explaining away our need to love a Samaritan. We're great at building communities around exceptions. Entropy is always eating away at our goal to ♫ love everyone ♫ and it takes energy to keep us anywhere close to Jesus and his Really Meaning It. This is why he said it over and over again. It's why he had to tell Apostle #1 that miracle fish are for feeding people. We all forget. Up and down the chain we all need to be reminded that the important commandments are to love. Ev ry one.
Which brings me back to trees.
We're learning more about trees all the time. We're learning how, under the soil, trees hold each other up in heavy winds. That healthy trees send nutrients to weak trees. Tall trees send photosynthesized sugars to shorter trees below the canopy. There is all this chatter below the soil among the roots.
We were at the Exploratorium a couple weeks ago and I went and sat in a dark room and listened to recordings of nature.
One set of recordings was done not far from here in the Sierras. A logging company had argued that it was possible to take trees from an old-growth forest without changing the ecosystem. Just one big tree every few dozen yards. To the human eye, the forest remains essentially unchanged.
Anyway, one recording of the soundscape was made before the logging. And one recording was made a year later. The first is chockful of birds of so many species and so many sounds it's hard to distinguish them. The second recording is dead silent. Then one solitary bird sings a snatch of song. And then it tries again. And that is all.
Every community is a forest. But our forest is a metaphor so I don't know who the old trees are and who is a bird or a beaver or a butterfly. All I know is we are a forest. And we hold each other. And that Jesus said love everyone. Treat them kindly too.
Jesus said: love everyone.
What does it mean to "love" "everyone"?
How many people in this room know the name—and birthday—of every other person in this room?
But I think that's what I meant by "ministering as TREES" (trees in all caps). Each tree connects to five or a dozen other trees, each of which connects to another—partially overlapping—five or a dozen trees, which connect to another five or a dozen trees of their own.
If your ministering group is functioning: five or a dozen.
If you go to book club or park group—five or a dozen.
If you're in the Young Women's presidency or a Primary class, if you did a March Madness bracket or came to the ice-cream crawl, if you got a Relief Society birthday card in the mail or helped with a move, if you asked for a prayer or sat next to someone new or gave a high five to a Sunbeam coming up the stairs—all these fives and dozens, these ones by ones, bind us as a forest, allow us to send nutrients to someone way over there whose name we're unsure of and whose birthday we don't even know.
When the forest is healthy—and here's where it's being only a metaphorical forest comes in handy—all those logged trees may hear the call of Primary Jesus, the Jesus we aspire to worship, the Jesus who demands—demands!—we give our fish to the hungry and love everyone—♫ treat them kindly too ♫ —and help us build Zion under the forest floor, to keep us all standing.
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