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Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Refiner's Fire

I don't mind admitting that the first time I met the scary looking guy you see in this picture, I was repulsed by him.

"Horrified" might be the more accurate word.  In my defense, he had caught me by surprise, though he hadn't meant to. I was visibly taken aback.


I had been driving around Sacramento doing some errands, and now that I was headed home I was lost in thought, my mind on autopilot.  I knew where I was; I just wasn't paying attention to my surroundings. So as I pulled into the left turn lane at Howe Avenue and waited for the light to change, I hadn't noticed the figure standing on the traffic island on my left as I pulled up to a stop just ahead of where he was standing.

My car window was down, and at some point through the fog of my thoughts I half-heard a gravelly voice coming from somewhere to my left.  The voice sounded like Louis Armstrong, but whatever Louis was saying, I couldn't make out his words. I snapped out of my trance just long enough to look to my left and straight into the face of a monster.

In the second or two it took me to shake the surprise from my face, I saw I was actually looking at a tragic human being; a man who at one time must have been in a terrible accident. I hoped the poor man had not noticed my reaction upon seeing him, while at the same time it struck me he probably saw that look on other people's faces all the time.

The poor creature's eyes seemed to bug out of the sockets of his skull. What there was of his face was all scars and patchwork.  His mouth was misshapen, teeth were missing, and there was nothing but a small hole on the side of his head where an ear should have been.  The stub of one wrist -which I imagined was nothing but bare bone- was covered with a white sock, presumably because a glove would have just slipped off it. The sad deformity that passed for his other hand was tentatively grasping an empty coffee can. I still had trouble understanding the actual words this miserable person was trying to say to me, but it was clear he was asking for money.  I put a few dollars in the can he was holding. He thanked me, and as the light changed, I drove off.

I've had the opportunity to lend a bit of assistance to this man many times since, but because my interactions with him are necessarily brief, I never knew anything about him.  Eventually I learned his name is Reggie, and whenever I see him I slip him a few bucks. Reggie responds with a "God bless you" as he extends what's left of his right hand for a friendly fist bump. Once I saw him walking across the parking lot of a store as I was exiting, so I waved him over to my car where we engaged in a longer conversation than was allowable when I would be stopped at the stoplight.  As always, I gave him something to put in the coffee can.

How Should Mormons React To Panhandlers?
I often hear otherwise faithful Latter-day Saints being dismissive of homeless people on the street, refusing to help out those in need under the theory that "they could get themselves out of that life if they wanted to" or "they just brought this situation on themselves."

Yet our own scriptures forbid us from taking that attitude:
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— 
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.  (Mosiah 4:17-18)
Whoa. So if that's the way we look at the panhandler and don't repent of that view, we'll perish forever and have no interest in the kingdom of God?  They really ought to teach us this in church.

Maybe they have, but I've never heard it, and I attended faithfully my whole life. On the other hand, I have been present many times in Sunday School classes and Priesthood quorums where the question has come up regarding our obligations to those who ask for money on the street.  It's clear from these discussions that members struggle for answers.  There are plenty of opinions to go around, but I've never heard anyone cite Mosiah 5. I never cited it either, because in those days I was an average member of the church, and like every other average member of the church I didn't really read the scriptures all that much.  Only the verses that were assigned in class, and somehow Mosiah 5:16-18 never seemed to get any airplay.

In these classroom discussions, I've heard members offer suggestions such as "the best thing we can do to help the homeless is pay our tithing and fast offerings to the Church, and let the Church take care of them." Or "We should print up business cards containing the locations of local resources and charities, so when a homeless person comes up to you, you just give him one of those cards."

It seems as though every suggestion is offered except the one the Lord commands us to adhere to in Mosiah 4:16: Do not suffer the beggar to put up his petition to you in vain.

Let's not forget that the things King Benjamin told the people that day were messages that had been made known to him by an angel from God (Mosiah 3:2). That means the commandments the angel conveyed through King Benjamin were commandments from God.  We should not take them lightly, nor should we substitute our personal opinions in place of God's word, for there are negative consequences for us if we do. "Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor," we read in Proverbs 21, "he shall also cry himself, and shall not be heard."

It would seem that God holds us individually responsible for every individual who approaches us in need of succor.  You can give as much or as little as you can afford, and if you have nothing, at least say so in your heart (verse 24) and put up a prayer for that person to God. But what you cannot do is wish these people would just disappear.

Neither can you outsource your responsibility either to the government or the Church. Stay home and wear blinders if you don't want any part of that responsibility, because if you go out in public and turn away someone asking you for a handout, it's on you if you refuse. If you've been baptized and taken upon yourself the name of Christ, you'd damn well better start acting like a Christian.

It's true you cannot single-handedly eradicate poverty in your city. But you can buy somebody a hamburger or a taco now and then.  By all means, pay a generous fast offering so those in your ward do not go wanting  But your monthly donation to the ward does not relieve you of the obligation you have to help alleviate one person's immediate suffering when you are personally asked. Most importantly of all, you are not permitted to judge or second-guess whether or not the person asking for help has a legitimate need.

I've taken the opportunity to get to know a number of the familiar street people in my neighborhood, and their stories have always surprised me. I used to have the impression that homeless people were always that way, somehow born shiftless and down and out. But I know better now.  Almost to a person, the people I've gotten to know were at one time living normal middle class lives. "I used to have a house. I used to have a family. I used to have a career," a tired older woman once told me when I bought her lunch at Jack-in-the Box. "I never in my life imagined I'd ever be standing on the corner holding a cardboard sign. But here I am."

She sighed, then added "You never get over the humiliation."

When I'm able, I occasionally help out with feeding the homeless at Pioneer church in downtown Sacramento. I'm ashamed to say it now, but the first time I did this and got to know some of the people there, I was actually surprised to find how "normal" these homeless people were.  I once sat down at the table across from a scraggly older man who looked like he had lived on the street all his life. I struck up a conversation with him.

It turned out he had once been a research scientist for a major corporation, but an accident put him out of commission. Because of the enduring pain from the accident, he became dependent on prescription pain medications. In time his entire life spiraled down. Eventually he lost his job. Then he lost his home. Then he lost his wife. To look at him today you would never know he was capable of the kind of intelligent conversation he had with me.  "But you're clean now," I observed, "Couldn't you go back to work as a research scientist?"

"Once you fall so far you've got nothing left, you can't even get a job interview," he told me.  "What address do I put on my resume?  Hell, where do I type my resume at? I have no phone, so how can they call me back? How do I account for the decades-long gaps in my work experience? Where do I go to shave and shower and clean up? Where do I get a suit for the interview, let alone clothes to wear on the job?"

"Besides," he shrugged, "the industry has passed me by. My knowledge is obsolete now."

Had I encountered this scraggly old loser on the street, I never would have guessed he had once been clean-cut and successful, that he once lived in an upscale neighborhood, a life of ease, respectable friends, and a job that paid more money in a year than I've probably made in a dozen.  Nope. Ten years ago I would have thought this guy -if I bothered to think about him at all- had never been anything but a bum.

His story is not that unusual. It turns out that many of these people are victims of circumstance. Very few people who find themselves hungry and homeless really saw it coming. One thing after another happens, and next thing you know all hope is lost.

Ironically though, my friend Reggie actually had brought upon himself his own misery. For that reason alone it would be very easy for some to dismiss him as beneath their concern.  But they would be missing out on the blessing of being in the presence of a person whose experience brought him closer to God.  I feel a surge in my heart every time I'm near Reggie, as though my soul is in the proximity of someone very special; almost a divine presence.

A fellow Sacramentan by the name of Sasha Leahovcenco tells about his first meeting with Reggie, a meeting that was similar to my own:
One thing I learned from sitting in traffic is that nothing ever happens. Yup, exactly. Hours of 'nothing ever happens.' Thousands of people staring into their phones, waiting for the lights to change. On this particular day, however, God prepared something very special for me. I met Reggie. 
You know that awkward moment at the stoplight when a man or woman in need walks by your window asking for some pocket change and you start anxiously pretending to be looking at your phone? That’s how I met Reggie. 
He approached my car with his tiny jar looking for change. I reached into my wallet to see if I had any, and all I could find was a $20 bill. 'That’s too much for him', I thought. At this time, as he was close enough to me so that I could see his face. I was stunned! I have never seen anything like that before. His face was disfigured from burn marks and his speech was affected. 
I didn’t feel any fear or pity, I just remember having a very clear thought that this man needs the $20 bill in my wallet way more than I did. The man said ‘thank you’, and kept going. 
Have you ever met someone with a story? This man had a story, and I decided I wanted to learn it. 
As he was walking away, I said, 'What’s your name?' 
'Reggie,' he said. 
'What happened to you, Reggie?' Considering his looks, I thought that’s a questions he’s been asked many times before. 
'I was in a fire.' 
'Did your house catch on fire?' 
'No, I set myself on fire…' 
I was stunned. Why would anyone set themselves on fire? I couldn't squeeze a word out for some time. The light was about to change, but I was determined to find out more. I asked Reggie if I could come back to hear his story, and he kindly agreed.
Here is the video Sasha made of that interview. It's only eight minutes long, and well worth your time:


The Easiest Commandment To Keep
I fail at a lot of things.  Back when my allegiance was to the Church instead of to Christ and His gospel, I worried a lot over my inability to keep all of the commandments we were taught were required of us.  There were so many!

What I didn't realize then was that most of the "commandments" Church leaders were insisting I obey were often things the Lord never commanded of anyone.  As it turns out, the commandments of God are few, while the commandments of men are many. 

In February of 2007, a couple of years before I started this blog, I received the transforming baptism of fire described in scripture, the mighty change that inspires a person, as we read in Mosiah 5, to desire to do nothing but good continually. That experience motivated me, probably for the first time in my life, to truly want to obey God's will.  Just as the scriptures promised, my baptism of water was finally complete and I was a new creature in Christ.  How do I start fresh then?  If I could start by picking just one commandment and begin to act on it, what commandment would that be?

Well, of course we all know the answer Jesus gave when he was asked what was the greatest commandment.  He said there are two, actually: 1) Love the Lord your God, and 2) Love your fellow man.

Okay, fine, I told the Lord. I'm in.  I love you. And I love my fellow beings. But can you point me to something more specific?

That's when He led me to two particular places in scripture: Luke 6:30: "Give to everyone who asks of thee" and Mosiah 4:16: "ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain."

Yikes, really? I have to give money to beggars?

Yep.

Dang. That was not quite the answer I was expecting. I was hoping for something along the lines of "Make sure you attend all your meetings."

I've often said that what motivated me to start this blog in the first place was a desire to document my own process of repentance since my awakening.  I realized I had spent my entire life in the Church following the unscriptural traditions of men, while remaining blissfully unaware of the things that were important to God.

I find it interesting that the one commandment the Lord felt most important for me was one I had never heard preached in general conference. But obeying that one essential commandment has done more to transform me and bring me personal joy than anything else I've attempted.  Doing my meager part to assist someone in having a bite to eat now and then turns out to be the one thing I can do that actually brings me closer to God.  Here's something I wrote in a post I titled The Opposite of Fear:
Most people think the opposite of love is hate. But it isn't. The opposite of love is indifference.

Think of the last time you saw a ragged homeless person on the corner holding a cardboard sign asking for help. Chances are pretty good you drove right past, not stopping to roll down your window to hand him a couple of bucks. Is it because you hate him? No, of course you don't hate him. You might even feel a little sorry for him. Just not sorry enough to reach out and help.

Even if you were disposed to help, maybe traffic is moving too fast, it isn't convenient to reach into your wallet or purse, traffic behind you wants you to keep moving, or the guy is simply on the wrong side of the street. Anyway, no need to worry about it. Surely someone else will come along and give him a handout. Besides, there's always the possibility that if you did give him money he might just spend it on drugs or booze, and then you would be guilty of some kind of sin or something for enabling him.
And a moment later, you've turned the corner and he's gone from your mind.
That's indifference. And so through indifference we fail the test of love. We might feel bad for that guy's plight, but feeling sorry for him didn't buy him lunch. Feeling sorry for someone is not an act of love. It's a dismissal.
When I first started obeying the commandment to give to everyone who asks of me, I limited my giving to those persons who specifically came up to me and asked.  But I soon realized that a needy person holding a cardboard sign is asking of me, even if he or she isn't even looking directly at me. I tell you this so that if the Lord prompts you also to obey this commandment, you don't wimp out and figure the commandment doesn't apply if the person doesn't see you.  You might have to circle around and make a U-turn, or even park and get out of your car and walk over, because that person is asking you for help. You. That's why God and angels made sure you didn't miss seeing that cardboard sign. Don't assume someone else is going to come along and fulfill your responsibility.  The good Lord placed you in your car on that road on that day and at that time because your help is needed.

There is an upside. In Hebrews 13:2 we are told "be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unaware."

I've had some interesting encounters since agreeing to obey this easiest and most rewarding of God's commandments.  There's been a time or two when I've actually wondered if the person I've encountered actually was an angel from heaven sent to test me.  But no matter.  Almost every time I leave the house I get to meet angels right here on earth.  Years ago my friend Reggie made it through the refiner's fire and came out the other end a true angel, a being of light currently dwelling inside an absolute wreck of a body, who somehow manages to spark something divine inside me every time I see him.

Related Posts:
Of Alms and Offerings

The Opposite Of Fear