Nearly 200 years after Joseph Smith's First Vision occurred in the Sacred Grove in upstate New York, individuals can still look to the patterns and structure of that holy place as a teacher of important life lessons, Elder Marlin K. Jensen said during a Church Educational System Devotional on May 6. The broadcast — held in a stake center near the Sacramento California Temple — was transmitted all around the world via the internet in more than 40 different languages.
"This general area [the Sacred Grove] is known as the 'cradle of the Restoration,' as this is where the Church was born," said Elder Jensen of the Seventy and Church Historian. "It is picturesque country characterized by rolling, wooded hills, clear lakes and streams, and warm, colorful people. It is also a place made sacred by what happened there."
After serving as mission president of the New York Rochester Mission — whose boundaries include the Sacred Grove — from 1993-95, Elder Jensen spoke of the holiness he felt as he visited the area.
"My family and I came to love that grove of trees and to feel of its sacredness," he said. "We went there often. Each month as new missionaries arrived and as those finishing their missions departed, we took them there. ... These visits to the Sacred Grove were and remain treasured experiences for all who were blessed to have them."
Since only a small number of Church members will ever be able to physically visit the Sacred Grove in person, Elder Jensen decided to take listeners on a "virtual" tour of the Sacred Grove.
"A careful observer of nature ... can learn some significant lessons from the ecosystem that exists there," he said. "I wish to briefly share four of those lessons with you tonight."
Lesson No.1: Trees always grow toward the light.
One interesting phenomenon observed in the Sacred Grove is the trees growing on the edge of the original forest and those lining the interior pathways, he said.
"They have grown outward — to escape the overshadowing foliage above them — and then upward to absorb the greatest possible sunlight," he said. "Their crooked trunks and branches stand in stark contrast to neighboring trees that grow almost perfectly straight."
Trees, like almost all living organisms, need light to survive and to thrive.
"Light is an even more important catalyst in the spiritual realm than it is in nature," he said. "This is so, because light is essential to our spiritual growth and the realization of our full potential as God's sons and daughters."
Darkness is the opposite of light and represents the forces in the world that seek to separate individuals from God, frustrating His divine plan for every individual's life.
"Please, shun darkness, and like trees, always seek to grow toward the light."
Lesson No. 2: Trees require opposition to fulfill the measure of their creation.
Elder Jensen spoke of an experiment conducted a few years ago in a designated area of the Sacred Grove. To provide the healthiest young trees a prime place to grow, gardeners cleaned out the area and took away opposition that could prevent the trees from growing. Their hope was that the trees would flourish and develop, as they grew without competition for water, sunlight and soil nutrients.
"As a result, none of the trees in the test plot compared in size or vitality to the trees left to grow more naturally and that had to compete and overcome opposition in order to survive and to thrive," he said.
One of the key doctrines of the Book of Mormon is that there must be an opposition in all things, Elder Jensen taught. "A world with opposites provides choices between good and evil, so that agency can operate. Equally important, however, is the principle that opposition must exist for spiritual growth to occur — or as father Lehi puts it — for 'holiness' to be brought to pass.
"I want to stress that understanding this principle — that spiritual growth requires opposition and adversity — and even embracing this principle at your age is a key to accepting and being generally happy with life. It is also critical to experiencing needed personal growth and development."
Sooner or later, all will encounter opposition and adversity, he said. "The list of opposing forces is nearly endless — and so are the blessings of personal growth and development if we have the faith to take the long view and endure it all well," he said.
Lesson No. 3: Trees are best grown in forests, not in isolation.
"If you think about it, in nature it's very unusual to see a tree standing alone," he said. "They almost always congregate in groves, and over time, groves may become forests."
The Sacred Grove, Elder Jensen taught, is much more than just a group of trees. It is a complicated ecosystem that includes numerous species of flora and fauna that rely on one another for food and shelter in the cycle of life.
"God's plan for our lives contemplates a similar inter connectedness and sociality for us," he said. "We are to work out our salvation together, not in isolation. The Church builds meetinghouses, not hermitages. We are asked to attend a specific ward or branch — not to pick and choose our congregation as in some faiths. This wise policy requires us to learn to get along with each other and to be accountable to our bishop or branch president; not to run and hide when the going gets tough. ...
"Healthy trees need an ecosystem; healthy people need each other. ... If we hope to enjoy the sociality of heaven and its associated glory in the world to come, we need continually to mature socially as well as spiritually while here on earth. People, like trees, are best grown in communities, not in isolation."
Lesson No. 4: Trees draw strength from the nutrients created by previous generations of trees.
Just as a grove of trees flourishes when benefitting from the nutrients of fallen trees, leaves and limbs, so can the lives of Church members benefit from the rich legacy left by those who have gone before them.
"Why do record keeping and the collection, preservation and sharing of history enjoy such importance in the Church of Jesus Christ?" he asked. "Why is it critical for you as part of today's 'rising generations' to be mindful of and draw strength from past generations?"
In response, the Church Historian said that it is impossible to live fully in the present — much less to plan for ones future destiny — without the foundation of the past.
"The knowledge we have of our past because of the records that have been kept, and of our future because of the scriptures and the prophetic teachings of living prophets, provide us the context that allows wise use of our agency during our present existence," he said. "In effect, this knowledge gives us a more Godly perspective because it brings us closer to His ability to have 'all things ... present before [His] eyes (Doctrine and Covenants 38:2). ...
"History in its most basic form is a record of people and their lives and from those lives come stories and lessons that can reinforce what we believe, what we stand for, and what we should do in the face of adversity," he said. "Not all of the stories that make up our history are of the epic nature of Joseph Smith's First Vision or of Wilford Woodruff's mission to England. In fact, some truly remarkable stories come from the lives of very ordinary Latter-day Saints. They are especially dear and helpful to us when the stories involve our own ancestors."
Elder Jensen encouraged listeners to collect, preserve and share stories from their lives so that their families can learn from their experiences.
"Good stories — if true — make good history," Elder Jensen said. "Remember, people, like trees, draw strength from the nutrients created by previous generations."
It is as individual's "stand in the Sacred Grove" that they are able to stay strong against opposition and find encouragement from the generations of faithful Latter-day Saints who have steadfastly stood before them.
"These glorious truths, of which I have testified, have their beginning in the Sacred Grove," he said. "As you have figuratively stood with me in the Sacred Grove tonight, so stand always in your minds and in your hearts in that sacred place and live true to the truths that God began to reveal there."