Have you ever thought about sponges? Natural sponges go way back in history. Mentioned in Old Testament, Jesus on the cross, pilgrims on the Mayflower had them, pioneers carried them across the plains, they’re used in many societies, old and recent. Natural sponges are commercially harvested in only two places on earth; Greece, and Tarpon Springs, Florida.
When Greek immigrants moved to western Florida, they brought sponge diving skills and heritage with them. They sent their sons into the Gulf of Mexico to explore, and were delighted to find sponge beds. A community was established.
Sponge harvesting process is interesting. Divers, young men ages 18-24, wear weighted underwater suits with trailing air hoses, connected to compressors on the sponge boats. They leave all that’s familiar and descend into foreign and often hostile regions. 30 -145 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico. At that depth, there is very little light, and of course, no air. They stay underwater until their harvest bags are full, returning to the boats over and over, 5-8 hours a day. The small boats stay out in the Gulf far from shore, several weeks at a time. The divers drag long net bags, and carry rakes with them. The rakes have 4 tines five inches long, which are used to both measure and harvest mature sponges. As they walk along the sea bottom, they pop off sponges and pack them into the long bags that trail behind them. The sponges leave behind micro particles, which then grow into new sponge colonies.
At this point, the sponges are unappealing, and almost unrecognizable. They are covered in thick black slimy skin, like squishy rocks. Back on the boat, they are dumped out of the nets and piled two deep on the boat’s decks. They are turned and tossed to dry in the blistering Florida sun. After a few days, the sponges are beaten and battered to remove the skin, which is now dry and papery.
Now the sponges are the familiar texture and a dingy yellow, recognizable, but not yet useful. They are soaked in a caustic solution to remove sand, small shrimp, other contaminants. They are strung like beads on a necklace and draped high above the boat's decks. After several weeks, the boat is full and returns to shore. There the sponges are clipped, graded and sold for many uses.
If harvested and put through the process, and cared for, sponges can last many years, even generations. If they are not harvested, they are not good for much. They will eventually die and decay. Even sea creatures will not eat them.
We are much like the natural sponges. We are content to sit in the familiar darkness, stuck firmly to our favorite rocks, where not much is required of us. The Lord created the lowly sponges to be used and useful. He wants us to be alive, vibrant, bright, strong and of use in his kingdom.
To do that, we must be individually gathered and brought into the light, and go through a refining process. The process of becoming all we are meant to be is not easy. The sponges probably don’t like their process, either. We humans often grumble about leaving our favorite spot in the comfortable darkness. The sponges are not fond of being hauled out of their environment. They don’t adjust well to the piercing hot sun which causes them to die on some level. They likely protest shedding their slimy skin, a part of them they probably thought was important, but actually prevented them from becoming clean and capable and useful. Do we balk when called upon to give up our favorite sins, or lazy habits? Do we mutter when asked to serve? The scriptures refer to putting off the natural man --- is that similar to the sponges’ gooey skin, holding them back from all they could become?
We humans don’t enjoy trial, work, stress, illness, problems, sorrow, or temptation. It’s way easier to sit in the darkness, where so little is required. Sponges are meant to reach their potential, and so are we.
Natural sponges can last many years, and the only care they require is to be thoroughly rinsed off and left to dry between uses. Like the sponges, if we serve where needed, and rinse off sins and contaminants as they arise, taking time to dry and regroup between challenges, we can be available to help wherever we are needed in the Lord’s kingdom.
As we go along the path called life, we must guard against the temptation to judge others. We are all at different stages of the process. Like the sponges, some are still anchored in darkness, unaware of the brilliant light available. Others are recently scooped into the gospel net, unsure of that happens next, or what is expected of them. We all know Saints who are crusty, and others who happily soak up all they can. Some may be half dried, others basking in the hot sun, others rather flakey. Some of us need a through rinsing, some are already clean and productive, a few almost worn out in service. Some feel we want to sit on the shelf a while, others feel decidedly wrung out.
Living the gospel requires effort and some sacrifice. Joseph Smith explained the important relationship between sacrifice and faith thusly, “ A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary to life and salvation.” We humans tend to be a lazy bunch, but in our hearts, we know effort is required. Deep down, we know we must DO something, even if we don’t much feel like it.