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 . . .
The wrong pair of shoes can make those six or seven years of service feel like two eternities instead of one. The right pair ministers to his feet as he stands a lot and walks a lot, so that on Monday morning only his mind is hung over from his 12 to 15 hours of Sabbath labors, not his feet.
A year or two into my tenure, I couldn’t put off shopping for new dress shoes any longer. The old ones had served me well but had to be retired. I walked into a certain store in American Fork and asked if they offered a bishop’s discount. The helpful salesman said they had a missionary discount, and he supposed that a bishop qualified.
He and I counseled together about the range of choices, and he helped me find the right pair. It was a good-looking, very serviceable pair of black Ecco dress shoes. Even with the bishop’s discount, they cost more than I was accustomed to paying for footwear, but my feet fell immediately in love, and that relationship has grown and deepened over the years.
They’re a little worn, as you see, and I haven’t polished them enough, but I’m proud of them – in the good sense of pride, I hope, not the bad one. They saw me through the rest of my six years as bishop, as I served the Lord as much and as well as someone like me could manage. I’m even proud of the dull black that has replaced the glossy shine, because they got that way when I was working so hard that there wasn’t any energy left for polishing them, even when there was a little time.
I could have kept them in a vacuum in an airtight glass case, and they would still be as good as new. I would only have needed to dust off the case occasionally. I could have kept them like new for a long time just by putting them on a shelf, without the airtight case. But that is not what shoes are for.
And they’re not just any shoes. They’re my bishop shoes. They’ve taken me to a thousand happy times and to places where I didn’t want to be, to do things I didn’t want to do. In them I tried to help people with problems and situations about which, generally speaking, I would rather not have known — except that it was my job (and my joy and my burden) to provide or to help them find the help they needed.
I wore them to officiate at weddings (mostly happy); to conduct funerals (some sadder than others); and to visit children, youth, and adults in homes and hospitals. I wore them to my son’s wedding, my father-in-law’s funeral, and to counsel with people whose hope or marriages or family economies were failing. I wore them indoors and outdoors, to meetings and jails and and cemeteries.
I wore them for countless smaller errands — at least they seemed smaller. For example, I wore them one Sunday afternoon to Walmart – I don’t mind Walmart, but I don’t usually go on Sunday – with a transient fellow who wandered into the church just as I was going home from my last interview. I bought him a toothbrush and some toothpaste, and a hamburger at the adjacent McDonald’s, and gave him a ride to the Provo Police Department, which handled homeless issues on nights and weekends. (I often sent others on such errands, but I thought I should do some of them myself.)
I still wear them, but less than I used to. I was released as bishop more than six years ago, and my subsequent assignments have been less intense.
When they get muddy, I clean them. When salt from the winter sidewalks streaks them with white, I remove it. I try to keep them presentable, even if they aren’t polished to a proper military standard, or any other reasonable standard of shoe-shining. Rather like me, they are showing the effects of age.
You know that metaphor you sensed was coming? You were right – though technically the next sentence is a simile.
Our souls are much like our shoes. (No pun intended.) We might wish to be innocent, that is to say, untested, like a new pair of shoes that stays on the shelf in an airless glass case. We and the shoes will both keep our perfect shine that way. But that is not what souls are for. We ought to prefer virtue, which we cannot learn or acquire on the shelf.
Like my shoes, our souls grow in virtue only when engaged in the fray. We get mud on them regularly. We clean them as soon and as thoroughly as possible. We keep wearing them, so to speak – and we don’t judge them harshly if they start to look and feel a little worn.
It’s worth considering that, when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, God’s plan for the salvation of his children was at a standstill, at least in some key respects. They were innocent, yes – but they were “doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Nephi 2:23). The plan advanced only when they left the safety of the garden for a place and a condition where they could do good, while surrounded by the possibility – and the reality – of sin.
I’m not saying we should seek to sin or excuse it in ourselves, or even that we should flirt with temptation. I am saying (as John A. Shedd wrote most of a century ago) that a ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for. I am saying that, to do the good we were sent here to do, we must be anxiously engaged in the institutions of, and among the people of, the world. We must be exposed to the sin of the world, and sometimes – rather often, actually – we get some of that on us.
So the good news is – and it is the good news – that on condition of our repentance, we are already redeemed “from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).
What this means, in a sense, is that I don’t have to worry if my bishop shoes wear over the years, and finally wear out. Along the way, I must simply try to keep them clean.
And it’s no tragedy if I eventually wear out too, as long as it happens because I’m as usefully engaged as those shoes. And because, along the way, there is Someone to help me shed the accumulated dirt — Someone to whom the shine on my bishop shoes matters infinitely less than the work I tried to do in them.