Circle the Wagons? Or Leaven the Loaf?

Circle the Wagons

Wagon trains crossing the plains parked their wagons in a tight circle at night for two reasons. The circle was a somewhat defensible, makeshift fort, in case the company came under attack. And it formed a sort of corral, to keep cattle and other livestock from scattering.

circle the wagons

The age of wagon trains is long passed, and “circling the wagons” has become a metaphor for the way we sometimes treat outsiders, when we feel threatened by their presence, their choices, or their views. Even in a religious context, we try to keep some people in and shut others out – as if sin were a germ we could catch against our will, and only on the outside.

As if we could fence in our children forever, to protect them, rather than preparing them to live and serve in the world.

As if we weren’t already sinners too.

As if you must agree with me about religion, politics, fashion, sports teams, tattoos, and adult beverages in order to fit the commandment I’ve been given to love my neighbor. (See Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; Doctrine and Covenants 59:6.)

As if God didn’t have a higher calling for us.

Tokens of Thanks

One of my first conscious acts on this Thanksgiving morning was to pull a folder from my file cabinet and thumb through it. It’s a file I started years ago. It’s full of thank-you notes people have sent me. (And yes, thanking me is the reverse of this day’s proper theme, but it leads there in its way.)

Many of them are from my years as an LDS (Mormon) bishop in American Fork, Utah, or from my time in a similar role in Ithaca, New York. This is not because bishops are the least bit more wonderful than anyone else, but because a pastor’s relationship with his or her congregation naturally includes being conspicuously involved in the difficulties of their lives, in both public and private ways — and because we get a lot of credit for splendid things done by others.

Some of my favorite expressions are not written at all. One man with whom I worked, as he endured severe, long-term trials, gave me a four-pound specimen from his petrified wood collection, because he wanted to give something but couldn’t think of anything else he had to give. Another gave me a wool hat which an Afghan tribal leader (I say warlord, to impress people) gave him as token of thanks for service to him and his people.

Short Take: “And Lifted Him Up”

Author’s Note

“Now Peter and John went up together into the temple . . . And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple . . . to ask alms of them that entered into the temple; Who seeing Peter and John . . . asked an alms.”

There is already admirable service here; consider the nameless good people who took the crippled man to the temple every day.

Peter and John stopped, and Peter spoke to the beggar. “Look on us,” he said. The man must have been looking elsewhere, even after asking for money – perhaps in shame or because he had he given up on Peter and John and was watching for his next prospect. There is nothing to suggest that he knew Peter and John, but he looked at them expectantly when Peter spoke.

Peter said, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”

An impressive miracle is not the end here. What happened next is a lesson to all who would lead or teach or serve. “[Peter] took him by the right hand, and lifted him up” (Acts 3:1-7).

Peter did not confine his service to healing the man in Jesus’ name and telling him what to do. He reached down and helped him up.

In our ministries it is not enough to assure people that they can do something they’ve never done before, or haven’t done in a long time, or haven’t been doing well. Even powerful words are not enough. We must also act.

Then, if we’re to follow Peter and John’s example, having lifted someone up, we must also welcome his company.

“And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple” (Acts 3:8). After healing this man and helping him to stand, Peter and John allowed him to accompany them into the temple, though he was still, no doubt, dressed like a beggar.

My Bishop Shoes

In 2002 I was called as bishop (lay pastor) of a large, unusually challenging LDS ward (congregation). I had served as a branch president elsewhere, which is essentially the same role but with a smaller congregation, so I was not a rookie. I already knew that one of such a leader’s greatest assets is . . .

You think I’m going to say his superb wife, or his two fine counselors, or an excellent Relief Society president, don’t you? Well, I had them all, but what I’m about to say is . . .

His shoes.

Thankful Reflections on an Interesting Year

Today is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays – and perhaps you’ll forgive me if I parse that word as holy day. If we raise our aim above the purely horizontal, thanksgiving – or gratitude, if you please – is one of the highest acts of worship.

Usually on this holy day, I think of the big stuff, from infinite grace born of God to the spilled blood of patriots and the wrenching sacrifices of their loved ones. All of that is still there, still here, still the object of daily gratitude. But as this holy day has approached, I have reflected on smaller, more personal things. I hope this doesn’t sound too self-serving. In any case it has been an interesting year – and I know it’s not quite over yet.

Short Take: “There Shall Be Showers of Blessing”

Author’s Note

God commanded Ezekiel to “prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.” His people’s leaders were neglecting their duties – and worse. “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves!” he said. “Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? . . .

The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick . . . bound up that which was broken . . . brought again that which was driven away, [or] sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.

And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field.

God will hold the shepherds accountable, he says, but then he makes us a happier promise: Even if others fail us, one Shepherd is devoted and tireless. When no mortal notices or cares, he will find us and save us himself.

I will seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered. . . .

I will feed them in good pasture. . . .

I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick. . . .

I will save my flock. . . .

I will make with them a covenant of peace . . . and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness. . . .

There shall be showers of blessing. (Ezekiel 34:1-31)

Most of It Comes Down to This

Of late I’ve been less present here at my new non-political blog than I want to be. This is mostly because I’ve been so busy at my political blog, FreedomHabit.com. You may have noticed that there’s an election coming.

But that is not my point, and I have never wanted to disappear wholly into politics, or thought it would be wise. So here’s a completely apolitical thought I was thinking last night, prompted indirectly by something I happened to read. (It doesn’t matter what.)

Short Take: “Fear Not, I Am with Thee”

Author’s Note

Much of Isaiah’s writing applies to the modern House of Israel – that is, to us. God knows each of us perfectly. He knows the good and the bad, all our baggage, and all the things we’ve done and will yet do to foul up his work on us and on others. Yet he says:

Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. . . .

. . . I the Lord thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee.

. . . Fear not, . . . I will help thee, saith the Lord, and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:10-14)

Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.

When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.

For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour. . . .

. . . I have loved thee. . . .

Fear not: for I am with thee. (Isaiah 43:1-5)