Sunday, December 4, 2011

Shepherds in Israel at the Gates of Christmas

Christmas always reminds me of the years I served as a bishop. I was an eyewitness then to the lovingkindness of my ward members for one another. As a steward of the sacred fast offering funds donated to the Church, a bishop is often the one who stands in the breech when all other help flees from those most in need.

To announce His birth as the Shepherd of Israel, the angel appeared first to shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flock by night. Today's modern under-shepherds are the bishops of Israel who succor and nurture the sheep in the wide expanse of this world.

Fast offerings are donated monthly on the first Sunday of each month. We observe the fast for a twenty-four hour period beginning on Saturday. The cost of the two meals skipped is suggested as an offering to assist the poor and the needy who live among us. The bishops of the Church are encouraged to "seek out" the poor and needy, and not to wait until they land on his doorstep. It is a sobering and humbling assignment, as any bishop will attest.

It seems the Christmas season brings more stories as the years unfold. Of course, the best stories never are told. They remain the sacred and secret domain of bishops and their flocks. But this past week another story is added to my personal lexicon. I share it here, preserving the anonymity of those involved.

I had a phone call from a former co-worker with whom I hadn't spoken in months. He said, "I was speaking with someone the other day who suggested I call you. I need some of your wisdom. I've gotten myself into a situation, and I need your help. Could we meet for breakfast tomorrow?"

At breakfast my friend poured out a story I had not anticipated. He and his wife had encountered some health issues since we had last spoken. They had gotten behind on their bills, and he had taken out some payday loans to meet their obligations. He had not told his wife, not wanting to alarm her. The exorbitant interest payments were now consuming all their income, and the rent was due the following day. They had just moved from one distant city to another nearer his work, and had done some painting to enable themselves to get into a new rental home. Now the first month's rent was due and they had no way to pay it.

We discussed possible sources of help. He had consulted a bankruptcy attorney last year, but they hadn't taken any steps in that direction. His sister, a CPA, was the executor of his mother's estate, but he feared she would treat him harshly when she heard the predicament he was in. There seemed to be no options. He had requested a consolidation loan from his bank, but they had declined his request because his credit had been impaired.

I suggested three alternatives to explore. 1) Re-connect with the bankruptcy attorney to see if she could help stop the freight train of the escalating interest payments due to the payday lenders; 2) call his sister to see if there might be any way she could think of to help him, and 3) call your new bishop. I also recommended that he not hide their situation any longer from his wife.

My friend reminded me he was not a member of the Church, but my response was, "Everyone in this world has a bishop, most of them just haven't met each other yet. Your wife was a member of the Church at one time, wasn't she?" He confirmed she had been. But he hastened to add he had been a lay minister in another church before he had moved to Utah and met his wife. He had to give up his ministry to accept a job here, and he wouldn't even know how or who he should contact.

I took a moment to explain how to find his bishop through the Church's website. He wrote down my instructions carefully. I had a chance to explain that like him, bishops in the Church are lay ministers, called for a period of time by their leaders from among their congregations, then released to go back into the ranks from which they had been called. I explained a little about fast offerings, and the purposes for which bishops may use those member donations as they feel inspired to do so. I told him without even knowing who he was, I was certain his bishop would stand ready and able with resources to assist him.

As we parted, I was gripped with a moment of fear. What had I just done? I didn't even know who his bishop was! How could I make such an audacious promise and assume it would play out smoothly the way I hoped it would?

Then the Spirit whispered to me, chiding me a little and speaking peace to my heart, "You were a bishop once, David. You know how I work, don't you? Have a little faith."

Later in the day, I finally had a chance to check my voicemail. There was a message from my friend. He said he had done as I had suggested, found his new ward and his bishop. He had called the bishop, who heard his story with an empathetic ear, and suggested that they meet that morning at his office at the ward building. In part, he said to me in the message, "I went over my scenario with him, and he's going to help me with the rent. I'm so glad I came to you. Thank you for listening to me and for your wisdom and your advice."

Honestly, the Lord makes us all smarter than we are if we listen to His spirit directing us and we act on those impressions. He said at the end of his message, "I should know God is in charge. He's proven it again to me this morning. Thank you." Our part is to humble ourselves. He manifests His love for each of His children without judgment or reservation.

I thought of pennies, nickels and dollars that comprise the monthly fast offerings of the faithful saints, and I felt to give thanks once again for those who give in the same spirit our Father in Heaven gives. It is all about His love for His children.

President Gordon B. Hinckley

I echo with heartfelt gratitude the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley, who offered these insights about bishops in a General Conference address:

"I stand in humble gratitude and respect and admiration for the bishops of this Church. In the most dire of circumstances, I watched them in La Lima, Honduras. I spoke with them, shook their hands, loved them. How thankful I am for these men who, without regard for their own comfort, give of their time, of their wisdom, of their inspiration in presiding over our wards throughout the world. They receive no compensation other than the love of their people. There is no rest for them on the Sabbath, nor very much at other times. They are the ones closest to the people, best acquainted with their needs and circumstances.

The requirements of their office are today as they were in the days of Paul, who wrote to Timothy:

"A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
"Not given to wine, no striker [that is, not a bully or a violent person], … not a brawler, not covetous" (1 Timothy 3:2–3).

In his letter to Titus, Paul adds that "a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; … Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers" (Titus 1:7, 9).

I suspect there will be a "sequel" to this formative introduction. How marvelous that a bishop stands ready to help the constituency of his flock, even those who have not as yet been "branded" as one of his own. . .

For, in fact, we are all His.

Sometimes we are the recipients, other times we are the givers, but He always ministers to our needs through His under-shepherds, the bishops of Israel.

Today, somewhere in Sunnyvale, California, one of our sons-in-law was ordained as a new bishop, the first to serve in our family's next generation. I know he will be blessed as the mantle rests upon his shoulders and he takes up his new role as a shepherd in Israel to the flock where he is assigned.

The gates of Christmas are flung open wide for all who will come to enter therein. . .

No comments:

Post a Comment