Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Monson Moment


For more than fifty years I have enjoyed listening to the General Conference stories of Thomas Monson (recently deceased President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Many of his stories told of his life long efforts to reach out and serve, particularly the widow, the sick, the afflicted. This aspect of his life always impressed me. (see My dad, who was born the same year as President Monson, lived a similar life of service. Like Monson he too was called to serve as a bishop in a ward full of widows (when dad was called to be bishop of the Logan 18th ward, there were over 80 widows in the ward) which offered many opportunities to serve.

With my two counselors: Dale Babbitt and Chris Frossard.

In 2005 when I was called to serve as the the bishop of the Spring Creek 18th Ward in Springville, the newly created ward was lean on widows (only one) but nonetheless full of families and individuals with a variety of challenges, including addictions, unemployment, chronic illness, marital problems, unpaid utility bills and not having enough food to eat. Many of the most pressing needs were from members who lived in the low-income trailer park and apartment complex within our ward boundaries. I was a frequent visitor in many of the trailers and apartments.

During the summer of 2008 I traveled to the Holy Land on an orientation trip in anticipation of teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center the next year. While in Bethlehem I was inspired to buy enough olive wood Christmas ornaments to give as a gift to each family in the ward during tithing settlement in December. I knew that it would be my last Christmas as bishop and I wanted to do something different, nicer, more meaningful and longer lasting than the usual offering of candy from my desk top candy jar (usually raided by the priests each Sunday). I wanted to spread Christmas cheer.

Prior to the beginning of tithing settlement I printed out a short explanation about the symbolism of olive wood--Gethsemane means "olive press" and it was in the place of the olive press on the Mount of Olives where Jesus-born-in-Bethlehem would one day suffer under the weight (press) of our sins and trials. I then invited all ward members to join us for a special Christmas service on the Sunday before Christmas and to join us at a new time for church services on the first Sunday of January.

I correctly assumed that it would be the faithful, church going members who attended tithing settlement. There they were given their gift. When tithing settlement was done, I then proceeded to hand deliver (through the cold and snow--which gets deeper and colder with each passing year) the ornament and accompanying card of explanation and invitation to every non-tithing settlement attending household (of which there were many) in our ward. I delivered with the stories of Thomas Monson running through my mind.  I just knew that there would be some sort of "Monson Moment" in which my efforts had an impact for good on someone's life. As I made my visits, I conjured up all kinds of conference worthy stories that I would certainly be able to tell: "I was down and out on my luck and didn't know where to turn and then the bishop dropped by with a meaningful Christmas gift that changed my life." "My faith was dwindling and then the thought of Christ in Gethsemane (prompted by the visit of the bishop) bolstered my faith as I remembered the true meaning of Christmas." "When the bishop arrived with the invitation to the Christmas service I knew that our family needed to attend."

On the Sunday before Christmas I was more watchful than usual to who was entering the chapel. I really hoped to see one of the "less-active" families I had visited happily join us. To my disappointment, the only non-regular attendee that day was a single man who was now living once again in his childhood home. For this self-proclaimed Christmas Sunday Mormon, there was no inspiration from my gift, just a desire to gather at Christmas with families he had grown up with.

On the first Sunday in January, I similarly watched for rejuvenated newcomers. I imagined a testimony or two begin shared that day about how my visit had been the impetus for a change of heart and a desire to attend church. There was no such testimony.

My dashed hopes eventually turned into a comic commentary on my bishoping service. It was evident I was no Thomas Monson. My anticipated Thomas Monson moment had passed with no heartwarming tale to tell. But I guess in the eternal scheme of things that is OK. I gave the gift and made the visits out of love and concern, not for some story to tell.  I'm sure that is what motivated Thomas Monson too.

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