Marine preserves—areas where purple sea anemone, baby crabs, and starfish live undisturbed by human collectors—are scattered along the California coastline. Here people wandering among the rocks may observe, but not touch, the sea life moving in the rising and falling tide.
On other beaches, though, people mingle more freely with the sea life. Here, sea creatures cast ashore by storms are fair game for beachcombers who stuff them into brightly colored pails of seawater and transport them inland and away from their natural element.
Naturalist Loren Eiseley had an experience on one of these beaches that has become a well-known parable on the preservation of life. Very early one morning, Eiseley encountered a solitary man searching the shoreline after a storm.
“Do you collect?” asked Eiseley. “Only like this,” replied the man, casting a struggling starfish far out to sea, “and only for the living.”
“The stars … throw well,” he observed. “One can help them.” (The Star Thrower, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, p. 172.)
This man, whom Eiseley called the “star thrower”, was no ordinary collector. His sole interest was to save the starfish from anxious tourists, to protect their right to swim again in the ocean.
One of the most basic responsibilities of a follower of Christ involves “collecting for the living”—searching out those who are struggling for spiritual survival and helping to restore them. In a very real way, there is human wreckage on our shores. Some have set themselves adrift from the gospel or have otherwise become lost. These are the lost sheep, the lost coins, of the Savior’s parables. They are in our wards and stakes, our neighborhoods, and perhaps among our intimate circles of friends. These are the once-converted who have fallen away.
Shortly after Thomas B. Marsh was baptized, the Prophet Joseph Smith conferred upon him a blessing of comfort and also a powerful admonition: “Behold, I say unto you that you shall be a physician unto the church.” (D&C 31:10.)
What is the responsibility of a physician to the Church? Perhaps Brother Marsh was being directed to serve those within the Church in need of spiritual healing. One of our basic responsibilities as followers of Christ involves “collecting for the living,” in the star thrower’s words; or, in the Lord’s terminology, being a physician to the Church. In our eagerness to find new converts, we must not forget the once-converted who have fallen away. For those who feel timid in doing missionary work, this is a wonderful opportunity to practice the healing medicine of the gospel, to help bring joy and wellness into the lives of others. We do not pull others up by their own boots. We simply help them to reach the boots so that they may pull themselves up.
I think of my friend Stephen who was abandoned by many of his friends and ward members when he was excommunicated. He moved to a new ward where neighbors accepted him, saw his potential, and integrated him into their activities. They really cared about him, and they loved him back into the Church.
The night of his baptism was cold, stormy, and very wet, but more than fifty of his new neighbors and friends came because they cared. At the conclusion of the service, the chorister stood to lead the closing song. She looked at Stephen, saw the longing in his eyes, and handed the hymnal to him. Once again, Stephen could do more than sing with the congregation. He could now take an active part in the Church. I will always remember his look of joy as he led his friends in singing the songs of the gospel.
I think of my friend Elizabeth, whose life-style and habits took her away from the Church. After more than ten years, she had a desire to return and “see.” As she drove by a chapel one Sunday morning she felt impressed to come in. She joined our ward that same day. Her dress and her experiences made her obviously different from the rest of us, and she worried that she would never fit in. But her new friends met her far more than halfway, included her in their activities and found ways to use her artistic talents in building the kingdom. Her visiting teachers were 100 percent faithful; they loved Elizabeth, rather than their assignment. Now in different cities, they still keep in touch to bless her life.
The time came when Elizabeth was accepted back into full fellowship in the Church and called to teach Relief Society. The evening she was sustained in her new calling, I noticed she left the chapel quickly. I called her, worried that perhaps she was uncomfortable with the calling.
“No,” she said. “I had to run home to tell my mother. When I told her the good news, we danced around the kitchen together. My mother kept repeating, over and over, ‘I knew one day you would teach Relief Society.’”
I think of my friend Katherine who wandered spiritually for years, unable to reconcile her philosophical questions with the doctrines of the gospel. She set herself adrift and brought darkness upon herself, but she, too, had friends who never gave up, who sat up late into the night explaining truth and answering questions. Many of those friends were in the temple recently with Katherine when she received her endowment. Unlikely? Yes, given her drifting. Impossible? No, given friends who were there when she needed them.
What becomes of the one who seeks after those who are lost? I do not believe it is possible to give without receiving in return. The giver receives an opportunity to feel stirrings of the Spirit within. Those who allow us to help in the rebuilding of their lives offer us the greatest gifts. In leaning on our testimonies, they bring us strength. In confiding, they teach us to trust. In sharing their experiences, they enlarge our views of the world. And in repenting, they teach us much about the reality of the Atonement. The opportunity to collect among the living, to be a physician to the Church, is one that brings unspeakable joy.