Saturday, December 11, 2010

What I Got for Christmas 2010

This morning I was on an early morning Christmas errand.  As I traveled along the I-15 corridor, I was listening to FM100.3, the continuous Christmas music channel.  Only once a year at this time do you get to hear Burl Ives, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Johnny Mathis, Gene Autry, Mannheim Steamroller and Karen Carpenter in such concentrated doses.  It's great, isn't it?  Who doesn't love Christmas music?

This is the season of the year when we focus on Christ, His birth, ministry among men on earth and the atonement.  The inspired Handel oratorio, "The Messiah," gets lots of play time on the radio.  Handel borrowed freely from the pen of Isaiah.

Isaiah prophesies of the Savior's birth
It's also a time when I get a lot of suggestions from folks about what to write about.  I get forwards of e-mails like everybody else, most of which I pass along to the delete button.  But what follows came to me last week, and I was inspired and humbled by the content.  It filled me with gratitude for the Savior, His Church among men here on earth, the hope of what is to come, and the good bishops who fill the judgment seats throughout the Church worldwide.  I've changed it slightly to protect the anonymity of the contributor, but with permission I offer it here:

I feel impressed to record some of the past week's events, particularly today’s.  As many know, we have had quite the adventure over the past 18 months. The months of preparation and thousands of dollars in paperwork and supplies to get us moved to our pending foreign destination were taxing on all levels, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and financially. Those months and other events out of our control have eventually led to our current circumstances and financial woes.

I don’t know if it’s inherently built in as the oldest in my family, or if it’s a personality trait, though I have observed it with my father as well over the years.  It has always been tough to ask for help of any kind.  The thoughts resound:  "Plenty of others are in far worse circumstances than mine,” or “I should be able to handle it myself,” or "I am supposed to be self-reliant."

Sometimes one’s circumstances push you into a position that all but forces you turn somewhere for help. Such was our position. With reluctance, I forced myself to ask our bishop a few weeks ago for help with our rent. We have long since exhausted our remaining reserves and we had nowhere left to turn. I was filled with anxiety as the days approached that I knew I would have to sit down with the bishop and discuss our financial state. It’s always nerve-racking sitting down with a new bishop for the first time, but when the subject matter is asking for help with paying your bills, anxiety is the least of your emotional problems. The guilt, anger, shame, and heartache far outweigh the feelings of anxiety. It has been an emotional roller-coaster to say the least.

The meeting a few weeks ago went great. You need to understand the nature of our new bishop. For the ward Halloween party, he was simply dressed in jeans and a white dress shirt with no tie. Pinned all over his jeans were packets of Smarties. Yeah, he was dressed as Mr. Smartie Pants. 

He told me as I sat in his office, that when the stake president offered the calling of bishop to him, he simply asked him if he had to change. He said, "President, I don’t joke about two things, the scriptures and the gospel, and that I can promise you. As for the rest of it, life is hard enough without more seriousness. So, everything else in life I joke about. If I have to change and can’t make jokes about the rest of it, you better find another man.  Otherwise, I accept."  

He seems very serious and unapproachable on the surface, but that melts by the time sentence number two is out of his mouth. At the end of our meeting he asked if we needed help with food or any other bills. I told him I thought we could manage. As I was leaving, he told me to keep him posted if we needed for or had other needs. I walked out relieved and very grateful.

Within a week of meeting with the bishop, I had wrecked my Audi to the tune of $7000 in the first snow storm and [his wife] Ashley’s car would not start.  We had gone up to the mountains for Thanksgiving, and I thought when Ashley’s car did not start at high altitude it was just the -20F weather we had experienced. Turns out a few days later it was the battery.  It was totally dead.  It wouldn't jump or charge. Who knew some of these new electronic charged batteries cost over $200? 

I am known in our family as the one who stresses about our finances, so when Ashley started stressing and mentioning we needed food, I knew we were in serious trouble. 

The anxiety was building again. This time it wasn't because I was worried about the bishop.  It was the emotion a man feels when he’s lost control of everything and can’t provide even the basic necessities for his family. A man’s main purpose in life is to protect and provide for his family. I was in a position I could no longer provide either, or at least from my perspective that’s how it looked. It’s an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness.  I knew I had to face the bishop again and ask for food. 

I sent Bishop Jones a letter, explained briefly our past week’s trouble and the overall issues of work hours or lack thereof. Sunday night the bishop called me and Ashley into his office to chat.

He’s a good man. I’ve never had to ask for food. It’s a humbling moment. As part of filling out the paperwork, he asked me if I would be willing to go spend just an hour or two at the cannery near where we live. Without hesitation, I said, "Absolutely!" That's the one thing I’ve had plenty of lately -- time, time that I’d rather be working. 

In all my years I’ve never been to the cannery to offer service. It just always conflicted with the hours of my job. I was actually a bit excited to have something to do, but more importantly, to be able to give back in a small way. 

The Relief Society President came over the next day to fill out the food order with Ashley. (Ashley has already had some contact with her [the Relief Society President], and thinks she’s great.)  We woke up this morning and decided to pick up the food order, and then I would stay behind at the cannery and put in an hour or two worth of work to pay back what we were receiving. Little did I realize, those two hours of “giving back” would put me further in debt even more with the Savior.

I must admit, I felt guilty walking into the Bishop’s Storehouse.  Ashley in her Uggs and I was wearing a North Face polar fleece, with the four girls in tow and dressed in their nice clothes. Part of me felt we shouldn’t be there. The one thing that helped in softening those feelings was the bishop telling us not to be surprised if we saw an Escalade in the parking lot. He said no one is immune from needing help, and that’s what it’s for. 

Walking around filling our cart, you could tell which patrons inside truly needed the help, and which ones were using the system, and it had nothing to do with what they were wearing.  It was evident in their demeanor and spirit. It was an amazing experience.

As I walked across the parking lot after loading two shopping carts of food into the back of the Expedition, I couldn’t help but be full of gratitude. I walked inside and was directed where to sign in and where to go. After putting on my smock and hair net, I ended up in the back by the canning and boxing machine. Everything was just shutting down, and everyone was going on lunch break. 

Dale, one of the part-time paid employees of 22 years, told me to go to lunch and come back in 30 minutes. I asked him if I could stay and work somewhere else. He put me to work sweeping the warehouse. My mind drifted back to the first few weeks of my job at XYZ. I think I swept that warehouse every day for two or three weeks at $10/hr. We had the cleanest warehouse in West Valley. 

(l to r) Harold B. Lee, President Heber J. Grant, Marion G. Romney
Here I was almost twenty years later, sweeping a warehouse for free. (Truth be told, I think that warehouse was just as clean as XYZ’s after those first three weeks.)  My mind wandered from XYZ to Harold B. Lee, realizing he is given much credit for creating this whole welfare plan of the Church. I wondered if he ever could have dreamed how big his original idea had now become. I felt a sense of pride being a part of Harold B. Lee's vision about "putting the priesthood of God to work," and was proud to be sweeping the floors again, this time in a Bishop's Storehouse.

At 12:30 p.m., I started running the box machine. For the next hour and a half I made boxes for the cans of beef chunks. In that hour and a half, I was given more than a car load of food. During that time, the Spirit taught me a simple truth.  Here I had just been given hundreds of dollars in food for my little family, and all I had been asked to donate in return was an hour or two of my time to put boxes together?  I was sacrificing two hours as payment?  Talk about feeling guilty.  I made a couple hundred dollars an hour today, putting together boxes. Seems hardly like a sacrifice! 

Random thoughts ran through my head, memories of signs we've all seen: “Will work for food.” It made me wonder if people really are willing to put in a day's honest labor just to put food on the table.  It made it all real. It takes on a new meaning when you know someone else stood here putting cans into boxes, and those same cans are now in my car and will feed my family. 

I gained a real sense of the law of consecration.  How often do we sign up for service because that’s what we’re supposed to do, but never think through to the other side of what we are really doing?  I have now seen all the way through to the other side. 

At one point, I was overcome with pure gratitude for the sacrifice of good saints and the atoning sacrifice of my Savior. I tried to fight back tears as it sunk into my heart that all that I have and am is truly all from Him.  As I stood at that machine, I was filled with such humility, and could see clearly a better sense of the Atonement that I had never before known.

And so it is with the Atonement. We come unto Christ, sometimes a bit hesitant, or in circumstances that have forced us to ask for His help. The Savior in His infinite mercy and generosity gives us all we need and more, more than we can possibly fit into our cars.  He asks us through His inspired servants on our way out if we can possibly spare just a moment of our busy insignificant lives to repay a fraction of what we’ve just received.  Then we realize our insignificant fraction of that payback only blesses us more and in other ways, further adding to our debt of gratitude for Him. 

But here's the miracle:  As we leave, our bill has been paid in full. We are square, even. Christ has made up the difference no matter what those individual differences may look like. 

First, may we all remember not to judge our fellow men. What is under the surface we can see, only God knows in full.  We are required to reach out and to love them no matter what.  

Second, God is good and loves us.

And third, may we all remember the true meaning of CHRISTmas.

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