by Amber Johnson
When I returned from my mission in late 2015, all eight of my siblings, as well as the strong majority of my friends and co-workers, were active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Over the past seven years, more than forty of my friends and family have left the Church – some very visibly, others more quietly, but nearly all without any intention to return.
During the recent events of Hurricane Ian, I was drawn to a photograph of four tall palm trees, standing upright near a house that had been ravaged by floodwater. This image was oddly comforting. I understood that feeling of loneliness after a relentless storm, but it was mixed with a sense of surprise – confused, as it were, at the grace which so fully He proffers; that Grace which allows a tree to withstand a hurricane.
At first, I assumed their fortitude was mainly due to deep roots, which is the easy metaphor – but it’s wrong. The roots of a palm rarely extend below three feet. Nor could their endurance be ascribed to maturity: a palm takes twenty years to be considered fully grown, and between 2000 – 2017, the state of Florida endured 79 major tropical storms, roughly three per year. The real question isn’t how a mature and healthy tree survives a hurricane; rather, we should be asking how any trees at all manage to reach maturity in an environment that is so obviously hostile.
As I began to do more research, I found a recent study by Mary L. Duryea & Eliana Kampf, which evaluated the aftermath of tropical storms and asked, “What makes a tree more wind resistant?”
I’d like to share a few of their findings here and draw four parallels to maintaining a strong belief system despite adversarial winds.
1 – Protect your central belief system
So, let’s start with something simple: not all trees are equally resistant to wind damage. If a pine tree loses its ancillary branches, it dies; it can’t gather or store energy. But “palms grow differently than other trees because they have one central terminal bud. If that bud is not damaged, palms may lose all their fronds and still survive.”
Dureyea and Kampf reference an image of a palm tree pierced through its trunk with a steel beam. Despite an obviously traumatic experience with the debris of a tropical storm, the tree still stood, because the central bud had remained intact. And I think this is an important point to acknowledge: When our central terminal bud of belief is faith in Jesus Christ, we can withstand personal distress and drop our ancillary beliefs without being destroyed.
2 – Drop the ancillary beliefs that are causing spiritual instability in your life
Which leads to my second principle: Don’t use ancillary beliefs as a replacement for faith in Jesus Christ. A palm tree drops its boughs because it knows it can regrow them, and it knows that the important thing is to protect the terminal bud.
As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf says, “The gospel is so expansive that we could spend a lifetime of studying and scarcely scratch the surface. Imagine a target as tall and wide as the side of a barn that could represent the breadth of the gospel. We all have our favorite gospel hobbies – things that interest us, periods of history, church programs, doctrinal topics, or even single verses of scripture. And we might be tempted to mainly focus on these favorite topics of ours, but as large as the target of gospel teaching is, the bullseye […] is small. […] It is, love God and love others. Other things may be interesting to us; they may even be important. But they are not the center.”
So, if you’re undergoing a stormy season in your spiritual life, consider temporarily dropping some of the ancillary beliefs that are causing instability. If your faith is being challenged by the actions of a leader whom you trusted, or if you can’t reconcile an obscure fragment of Church history with current practice and policies, perhaps set it aside for a time, and focus instead on building faith in Jesus Christ through obedience to His commandments.
3 – Don’t split your hierarchy of truth
My third suggestion: To increase your resistance to the winds and storms of the last days, don’t split your hierarchy of truth. Dureyea and Kampf found that trees with a split trunk, which diverged at the same point to form two equally strong arms, were highly susceptible to hurricanes. A tree with a split trunk might make it through several tropical storms, but when a hurricane came through, they were the first to go. And I think there’s a reason for that.
When God tells us we cannot love God and Mammon, I think He means it literally. He isn’t saying, “You shouldn’t love Mammon;” He’s saying, “You can’t.” It is agonizing to try to hold two opposing belief systems simultaneously, with equal depths of conviction. In many ways, belief in Christ is very congruent with widely held beliefs: religion doesn’t contradict science, or ethics and morals, or basic norms of community behavior. However, there are some aspects of modern thought which are indeed in conflict with the restored doctrine of Jesus Christ. It’s possible to coexist with these alternate value systems as long as we accept that they are fundamentally divergent. Yet when we can’t let go, when we try to balance two opposing ideas on the clear sharp edge of a single point, we’re in a dangerous and fragile position.
If you are aware that you are holding two mutually exclusive ideas in your mind, take the time to do the work and identify which you value more highly, and then, work with God to understand His position on these thorny issues better. He knows and empathizes with our confusion and pain over aspects of the gospel that can seem hard to reconcile. He has promised ‘a time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld,’ and I believe He means it literally. I trust that answers will certainly come in the hereafter, but I also have found that God bestows peace liberally in the here and now.
4 – Regrow after the storm
Finally, in order to remain steadfast and immovable, actively work to regrow your faith after a storm. Duryea and Kampf extensively detail specific actions that communities should take in order to protect their urban forests, before and after a tropical storm. It’s essential that we prioritize regrowth in our own lives as well.
The last days are after all still days – not the endless night before our Lord and Savior redeems us all. There’s still light – and I still have a responsibility to obtain that light, to put out new growth, to reach further and add to the truths that I already cherish. I’m still responsible to nourish my own faith until the day that Christ comes again, and we see him as he is. I have to assume that in three or six or twelve months another hurricane will blow in and cause more damage to my ancillary beliefs. But I do believe, I have to believe, that Jesus Christ will redeem us, will save us, will in fact wipe the tears from off our faces and bring us home to him.
I am convinced that there is hope and healing to be found. There is a way to balance every paradox and comfort every aching heart. There are answers and balance and an infinite number of ways to say yes in the Plan of Happiness. Regardless of your sexuality, political orientation, personal preferences, or past choices, there is a place for you in the Restored Church of Jesus Christ. He accepts you as you are today, and He extends a path for a stronger, braver, better tomorrow. His great gift, of change in this life and lasting change in the world to come, is within the grasp of each person who chooses to exercise faith in Jesus Christ. It is available to you. He is waiting to heal your soul and pour out peace.
1. Gabriel, C. H. (1985). I Stand All Amazed. In Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (p. 193).
2. Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, November 5). List of Florida hurricanes (2000–present). Wikipedia. Retrieved November 5, 2022.
3. Duryea, M. L.; Kampf, E. F. (2017). Wind and Trees: Lessons Learned from Hurricanes . The Urban Forest Hurricane Recovery Program, FOR 118, 1–17.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Teaching in the Savior’s Way with Elder Uchtdorf. Retrieved November 5, 2022.
5. Doctrine and Covenants 121:28.
Amber Edgecomb Johnson graduated in 2017 with a degree in Communications from Utah Valley University. She subsequently worked as a city librarian, teacher, and high school speech and debate coach. Amber currently resides in Utah County with her husband and three children.