Sunday, November 8, 2009

I See... A White Shirt

How great is [the Lord's] joy in the soul that repenteth! (D&C 18:13-16)

For some people, a white shirt is nothing more than a savvy wardrobe choice from their closet. At most, it can be interpreted as symbolic of the purity and righteousness of the wearer. For young men and women that I care deeply about, however, it became a priceless opportunity to turn lives around.

Early in my tenure as a bishop, I became convinced that I had to make it as easy as possible for youth to come to me with their problems. I’m not a salesmen by nature, but I do believe it’s appropriate to take desperate measures that bring horses to water, hoping that they will drink: or in other words, gospel gimmicks.

We decided to hold a real fireside for the youth. We went out to one of the farms in our ward, gathered around a roaring bonfire, and imparted wisdom. It was a socially responsible experience, even bordering on fun, but not remarkable. Towards the end of the meeting, when all the young men and women were getting restless and expecting me to thank them for coming, I innocently pulled a fully-cooked hot dog and bottles of ketchup and mustard out of an inconspicuous brown bag. “You know, this fireside has made me really hungry,” I announced. “I love a good hotdog smothered in tons of ketchup and mustard.” The social chatter around the bonfire quickly subsided; I had their attention. As I poured liberal amounts of condiments on my “dog,” I muttered to myself loud enough for all to hear, “I wonder if I should really eat this right now...this is kind of messy, and if I’m not careful I’ll stain my white shirt…”

This proclamation immediately yanked the bored moms in the crowd, especially those who knew my wife, back into reality. They knew my life was in danger if my white shirt became permanently stained. Then my counselors, playing prearranged but unscripted roles (think of the comical angel and devil conscience figures appearing next to the heads of cartoon characters during critical decision-making moments) chimed in: “bishop! Are you sure want to take the risk and eat that messy hot dog without anything to protect your white shirt? If that stuff gets on your shirt, you’ll never get it out!” or, “bishop! Its okay, you’ll be very careful, and its only one hot dog!”

The tension mounted as I made the decision to follow the devil conscience and bathe my dog in ketchup and mustard. Jaws dropped; the youth stared in disbelief as their respectable bishop “accidentally” dropped an entire hot dog loaded with condiments down the front of his perfectly white shirt.

I worked my way through youth circled around the campfire to show off my new, totally ruined multi-stained shirt. Panicked whispers of “oh no! Deon will never get that out!” rumbled among the responsible adults. The teenagers were also stunned; they didn’t know what to think. I started the road to spiritual discovery with a practical question: “What can I do to get this shirt clean again?”

After several feeble suggestions involving special types of detergents, chemicals, and hand washing attempts, they came to the conclusion I hoped they would: the stain was permanent - it would never come out. Next, there was an uncomfortably long pause that gave everyone time to ponder on the hopelessness of my situation. I then offered a unique solution to my dilemma; “the only way for me to be clean again is to get another white shirt.”

This solution opened the door to the night’s object lesson. I explained to them that the white shirt represents our soul, which starts out life clean but soon becomes soiled when we make mistakes. Most mistakes we can correct ourselves by applying the right amount of detergent and washing; we can repent through our own efforts. However, there are more serious mistakes, that despite our best efforts, cannot be resolved without going to the bishop to confess, seeking his counsel, then following it. I wrapped up the analogy with this final rhetorical question and answer: “Where can you get another white shirt? Only the Bishop has them.”

I’ve always been challenged by the requirement to have faith. I worried for weeks about whether or not the message got across to the youth in our ward. Was it a spiritual experience or just a clever way to make a point? During the next few weeks after the fireside however, I had my answer: two youth on separate occasions quietly approached me in nondescript recesses of chapel lobbies and passed me a coded message that they “needed a new white shirt.”

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