Now What Do I Do?

what-now1

Dear Will:

Well, this is weird. It’s Sunday morning and I have nothing to do.

Well, not exactly nothing. But for the past five years I have served as bishop of the Santiago Creek Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My Sundays have been filled for me with a combination of council meetings, planning meetings, worship and instructional services, one-on-one counseling sessions, and in-home visits with various members of the congregation. I was sometimes the first one in the building and often the last one out. And it was not unusual to find myself back in the chapel for an evening fireside.

But last Sunday I became no-longer-the-bishop of the Santiago Creek Ward. That title and its corresponding responsibilities have been passed to Jared Treanor, one of our neighbors who you will find just-about-impossible-not-to-love. No question: Our ward has hit the jackpot with this one.

That’s how it goes in our church. With a lay clergy, we pass around these responsibilities as part of our commitment to collective worship. And so I find myself on a Sunday morning sitting on my couch and wondering: “What do I do now?” Which is why I’m writing to you.

As you might imagine, the list of people who have touched my heart and influenced my life during the past five years of service is certainly too long to fit onto a single page. I have watched as friends overwhelmed by life have turned in desperation and faith to the Only One who could lift them out of their impossible circumstances. I have seen the repentant reclaim blessings promised in covenants long ago abandoned. I have thrilled at the enthusiastic service of so many missionaries who have come to our little congregation from all over the world to lend a hand in the work. And I have been humbled by the countless hours of selfless service rendered by my fellow Christians as they have embraced the teachings of Jesus and tried to implement them in their imperfect ways. Words cannot begin to capture the sense of love and admiration that I have for all of them. Because of them, I am a changed man.

I think what has humbled me most during my service were the many times I found myself in the middle of someone else’s spiritual experience. Because of my calling, I was (through no personal merit) a convenient conduit for the Spirit of God, sometimes a courier but most often simply a witness that Heavenly Father had once again heard the prayers of one of His children and extended His loving hand.

So yes: I have been richly blessed. When I was first asked to serve as bishop, I told the members of our ward that I was hoping for two things: 1) I wanted the Santiago Creek Ward to be a sanctuary—a safe place for sinners, a holy place where we could gather, warts and all, to try to become more like Jesus; and 2) I wanted us in both attitude and action to answer Paul’s invitation to become “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens” in Christ (Ephesians 2:19)—not divided but united by our differences. I have been delighted (but not surprised) by the sincere efforts of our ward family to live up to those lofty ideals.

But you know what? That’s what the Santiago Creek Ward is like, and I don’t expect it to change. With Bishop Treanor at the lead, I anticipate that the love within the Santiago Creek Ward will only continue to grow. The ward will be different but better, still a sanctuary for come-as-you-are Christians to gather and help each other through life.

You should come and see for yourself. We meet at noon each Sunday in the chapel at 9801 South Newport, just around the corner from Peters Canyon Regional Park. In fact, let’s sit together. You can help me figure out what to do next.

PW

Not Out of Place at All

Dear Will:

If you had stopped every pedestrian on Broadway you could not have found a single person who would have sized us up and declared that we fit in. We were out of place, out of our element, clearly from out of town. Although we didn’t get lost as often as we did the last time we visited Bryn in New York, we still stood out in all of the ways you don’t want to.

Then on Sunday, it seemed to get worse. Following up on something we had read, we decided to attend church in Harlem. We took the subway from our hotel on the Upper West Side and walked a short distance to the chapel. We had arrived over an hour early, so you can imagine our dismay when we saw the line of visitors stretching down the block and around the corner. And it was raining.

Feeling ill-at-ease and bracing for a drenching, I asked one of the men in charge of crowd-control if this was indeed the line for the Abyssinian Baptist Church. What happened next was astonishing. “Are you from out of town?” he asked, as if it weren’t embarrassingly obvious to everyone in the tri-state area. When I confessed that we were, he led us past the long line of tourists and, without explanation, ushered us to the main entrance reserved for local members. Within a few more minutes, we were inside, huddled in the vestibule with a handful of the faithful, waiting for the 11 a.m. service to begin.

We were dumbfounded. With dozens waiting outside in the rain for the chance to sit with other visitors in the balcony, why had he escorted us to this preferred location? Before long, we were invited to enter the main sanctuary where we took our places among the regular congregants. We sat there admiring the setting while feeling (I admit) the sort of self-consciousness that comes from being an Orange County Mormon sitting in the wrong pew in a Harlem Baptist church.

Even so, the members of that church could not have been more gracious. We heard beautiful, rousing music from an enthusiastic choir. There was an appropriately reverent interlude in which all were invited to partake of bread and wine in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of sinners everywhere. The pastor gave an outstanding sermon—a passionate reminder of something the choir had sung earlier: that although God does not always come when we ask, He always comes on time. As Abraham learned on the mount, he told us, the Lord will definitely provide. Affirmations of faith and testimony reverberated throughout the sanctuary, and I found myself reflecting on the ways in which God has consistently been there for me when I need Him most.

As expected, the Baptists did things a little differently than we are accustomed to, but we enjoyed the service nonetheless. Near the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting, the members around us turned and warmly shook our hands—a simple but fitting gesture of welcome. It truly felt as if our common bond of faith in Christ had at last made us “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).  We were far from home, in someone else’s church, but in that moment, anyway, we didn’t feel out of place at all.

The following Sunday we were glad to be back in California, sitting at ease in our own Santiago Creek Ward chapel. It felt good to be caught up in the warm embrace of familiarity, surrounded by the finest people we know—people who have made us feel like family since the day we first arrived in Orange over 15 years ago. We were delighted to be home where we truly do belong, worshiping God together with others who share our faith and beliefs. As I sat there enjoying a wonderful service, I was once again reminded of what Jesus Himself had taught: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Which is, of course, why we gather. And why your life would be blessed, as mine has been, should you one day choose to gather with us. I’ll be there to make sure you get a good seat.

PW

Neither Strangers Nor Foreigners

Dear Will:

When my wife Dana and I were first married, we lived in a two-bedroom duplex apartment in Westwood. We attended church in the building just north of the Los Angeles Temple, with an interesting cross-section of Angelenos: from young, poor married couples (mostly UCLA students like us) to wealthy, established families of Bel Air and Beverly Hills; we had Frenchmen and Persians and Iraqis and Nigerians mixed throughout the congregation along with the usual collection of expatriates from Utah and Arizona. And of course, there were lots of Californians. It was an interesting crowd, full of both ideas and faith. We loved them and loved attending church with them.

Eventually work (and children) made it necessary to move to Orange County, and the initial transition was difficult for us. It took us a few years, but eventually we found our way to Orange where we settled—quickly—to establish a permanent base-camp for raising our children.

One of the things that made it so easy to set down roots here was that the people we met at church—members of the Orange 2nd Ward—were so quick to take us in and treat us like family. We’re not necessarily an easy bunch to warm up to (too many idiosyncrasies, I’m afraid), but the locals were undeterred. They welcomed us, befriended us, cared about us and our children, loved us into submission. Even on the first Sunday we attended our church services, I can remember saying to my wife that it felt as though we had come home.

That was over 12 years ago. A lot has changed around these parts since then, as you know. Especially in the last four or five years, economic and demographic shifts have begun to take their toll on the area. Many of the people we love the most have cashed in their real estate and moved away; others have been driven out by the soaring cost of living and the battered job market. The spirit of the place hasn’t changed for us, but many of the faces have.

Such population trends have consequences, of course—which is why it was not altogether surprising to us when last week the Orange Stake Presidency announced a redrawing of the various boundaries to turn seven wards into six. So today we attended the first-ever meeting of the Santiago Creek Ward, which now meets at 1 p.m. in the Stake Center down on Yorba. Our friends who live east of Cannon are now members of the adjacent Peters Canyon Ward, and we in turn welcomed many new friends from the west side of the city. It was a strange day, meeting in a new place, greeting new faces, making a fresh start, as it were, even without having moved to a new place.

That’s one of the things that makes our church unique, I suppose: We don’t attend meetings based on convenience or preference; rather we are assigned to a place and time based on where we live and nothing else. That’s a hard practice when it means that you’ll no longer see good friends on a regular basis. But it’s a comforting practice as well, because it means that when people like us move to a place like this, we already have a family waiting for us—a group of instant friends who we can count on to help us settle in and feel at home.

I guess I look at it this way: Rather than losing old friends, we now have an opportunity to make new ones. Thus we will strive to emulate the teachings of Paul, congregating neither as strangers nor as foreigners, but as “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19)—regardless of where we live or how we speak or what we look like. Our common bond—our faith in Jesus Christ—will provide us with instant unity, enabling us to call each other brother and sister even when meeting for the first time. Just how Christ would have wanted it, don’t you think?

PW