I tell everyone I love being a bishop. And I do.
I even worked that into my lesson on the last week – you know, the last week. The one before all the meetinghouses shut down. The last time I had stood before a full congregation, with sacrament passed by boys whose faces I could see. Some of them were a bit scraggly – one in particular had just learned how to shave… sorta. His cheeks and chin and upper lip showed up that morning with razor burn shouting from the bright red of his skin. But below the chin he had the stringy single hairs here and there that marked a kid whose body hasn’t quite figured out how to do a full beard. There were enough, though, to be noticeable. Most of the hairs were two inches long, which made it hard for me not to laugh when I talked to him.
I wasn’t laughing in a mean way. I just remembered being that kid. Realizing one day that my shaving technique required some serious refinement if I wasn’t going to look like a wolfman with mange.
That’s the thing I remember most about that last day. Looking at that boy, seeing myself forty years before. Wondering when he would realize that shaving wasn’t a face-only thing, and wondering if he’d be embarrassed as I had been when I finally realized I had what looked like emaciated caterpillars climbing all over my neck.
The moment talking to that Priest stands out as the moment I felt the reality of the gospel – the moment I saw a boy who was growing up in imperfection, and knew that the Lord loved him just as much as anyone else. The boy who hadn’t figured out how to shave, but could pass the sacrament perfectly, and always spoke the prayer with sincerity and warmth. He wasn’t allowed to drive a car (his parents couldn’t afford the extra insurance that would tack on), but he was worthy to perform a saving ordinance. I saw God’s work in that kid’s face.
It’s a good memory.
The last memory.
I lied. I do remember one other thing about that day. It stands out in sharp relief. If I saw the gospel in that boy’s face, I felt the heart of the ward in the other moment of remembrance.
I was teaching Gospel Doctrine – sorry, Adult Sunday School (will I ever get used to that name change?) – because the normal teacher’s six-year-old daughter had abruptly barfed all over the women’s bathroom during the five minutes between sacrament meeting and the start of Sunday School. He ran home with her (I think I heard him actively praying that she wouldn’t explode in the car), and no one else was willing to take on a Sunday School lesson with only three minutes’ notice.
I couldn’t blame them, either. We had a couple of serious scriptorians in our ward, and teaching them felt imposing to most. Hard to feel like you’re giving out anything worth hearing when there is a fellow in the second row who actually speaks Hebrew, which he learned so he could better study the scriptures; and a woman in the third row who earned a master’s degree in Religion at Harvard and did a thesis about Christic imagery in Mesoamerican cultures.
And yes, yes, I know that it’s not about book-learning, but about bringing the spirit to the class. But the reality is that most of the people in the ward came from farming backgrounds, and had an almost inborn awe of people with that level of study under their belts.
Enter me. To be totally honest, I was about as intimidated as anyone else, but I had the ace in the hole of having the mantle of bishop upon my shoulders. I could stand there and feel confident that even if I wasn’t saying anything good, the Lord would have someone else do it. Usually one of the two aforementioned ward members.
On that day – that last day – neither of them spoke a word. The lesson started out per the lesson plan, but one sister made a comment that drew us off to another subject. That was fine with me, because everyone else seemed to need it. We ended up talking about Moroni.
“For my money, he was the bravest person in the Book of Mormon,” I told them. “Imagine a life where, for decades, you are on the run. Everyone – Every. Single. Person. – you see is someone who wants to kill you.”
“But there were ministering angels,” said Sister Eisenrich.
I nodded. “And those were the saving grace, I think. But even so, ministering angels don’t typically walk with you every moment of every day – at least, not physically. I’m sure Moroni had lots of them working to help him in ways we can’t even imagine beyond the veil, but I’m also sure that Moroni was physically alone most of the time.” I paused. The room seemed thick with anticipation. It was a feeling I knew: this was a moment where no one spoke, where no one breathed. It was a moment where I felt I had to say the right thing, and knew I would fail. We always do, don’t we? That’s what the Atonement is for.
I took in a deep breath. Held it. Listening with that part of me that doesn’t hear with physical ears.
“Which of us would be able to live like Moroni?” I asked. “Which of us would be willing to walk alone for all that time, without renouncing our faith or cursing God and giving up?”
I meant it as a rhetorical question, but hands started to go up almost immediately. One after another, until every hand was raised. And someone who didn’t know these people might think that at least some of the hands belonged to people who didn’t want to seem unrighteous or impious with everyone else’s hands going up. But I knew these people. I saw their faces that day.
I believed them.
Silence stretched out. The hands stayed up. Again, I felt that feeling, that sensation that I had to say the right thing.
“I know you would,” I said. “You would walk alone in this world, because you would know that, whether you saw Him or not, the Savior would be taking every step with you.”
I felt in that moment like I had finally said it. The right thing. The only thing that mattered.
And that week, we got the word that church would be halted. It seemed prophetic, in retrospect: that we had ended up talking about a man cut off from his people. A prophet without a country, set adrift in a world that seemed to want to kill him.
But I didn’t think of myself as Moroni. Not at first.
Social media was where the problem started. When isn’t it? Since the Internet exploded, I’d spoken to more people than I cared to count about problems that started with Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. A picture of someone from the past, an old flame that a man or woman reached out to, “Just to say hi,” and finally ended up having an affair with, whether virtual or physical. A teen whose friends posted a couple of immodest pictures, and suddenly he was looking at hardcore pornography. (I say “he,” but more and more young women were coming to me to talk about just this problem as well.)
The Internet was great for sharing gospel messages. It was wonderful for keeping in touch with family. It was fantastic for doing genealogy.
But it was fire. It was a useful tool, but one that took constant vigilance. Left without proper care and keeping, it could burn out of control and leave only ash behind.
The ward runs two Facebook pages. One is the “official” page for the ward, and that’s strictly moderated. The ward leadership posts inspirational messages, reminders of upcoming training meetings, and links to the occasional Official Communication from church headquarters.
The second ward Facebook page is the “unofficial” one. It was started by one of the long-time ward members, and other than rules against posting advertisements for your business or anything beyond G-rated memes, it’s pretty open. Most of the posts are about carpooling or requests for babysitting.
But three days after the Church Communication that closed our chapel doors, one of the older brethren posted about how he would never wear a mask.
“It’s my constitutional right not to wear one. I don’t have to wear anything I don’t want to, and this kind of thing is just how Nazi Germany started.”
I almost groaned aloud when I read it. Not because I disagreed – or agreed – with him, but because I’d been bishop long enough to spot what I called “alchemical comments.” Medieval alchemists had never learned how to turn lead into gold, but modern-day technology allowed us to turn comments into firestorms.
It started almost immediately.
Marvin Eisenrich: It’s my constitutional right not to wear one. I don’t have to wear anything I don’t want to, and this kind of thing is just how Nazi Germany started.
Katie Stolworthy: Marvin, I love you dearly, but maybe you should think this through a bit.
[This last one, by the way, is one of my least-favorite things to see on Facebook: some carefully worded comment that is so passive aggressive it makes you wonder how humans ever banded together long enough to make mud huts, let alone computers.]
Marvin Eisenrich: Maybe YOU should think a bit more before commenting. It’s IN THE CONSTITUTION.
Katie Stolworthy: Really? I must have missed that part. Where, exactly is it?
Marvin Eisenrich: I don’t have to spell it out. It’s not my job to see you have a basic education.
Katie Stolworthy: I certainly don’t remember the part in history class where Hitler banded all the Aryans together and said, “Let’s make them wear masks. And then… KILL ALL THE JEWS!”
Marvin Eisenrich: That’s because you’ve bought into the lies. You don’t know. Science proves that the masks do more harm than good, anyway.
Jacob Welles: Is this the same science that proved Blacks were inferior to Whites, by any chance?
Marvin Eisenrich: No. But it’s just the kind of socialist nonsense that’s kept America down for years!
Katie Stolworthy: How exactly is CARING enough about your NEIGHBORS not to INFECT THEM a SOCIALIST POLICY??? Unless by socialist you mean NOT SPREADING DISEASE IN A PANDEMIC!?!
And this is where I made the mistake of sticking my nose in. Or maybe it wasn’t a mistake – honestly, I still don’t know. I thought, This is a ward website. These people are representing themselves as followers of Christ, even if it’s mostly followers of Christ talking about when the next subdivision yard sale is going to be.
Shouldn’t we act like followers of Christ?
Roger Falzon: Guys, I am not taking a stand on this issue, but I do want to encourage everyone to remember that we are all followers of Christ. We may have different ideas, different opinions. But we have to be “a light unto the world.” We have to show that everyone matters, and that we care about all God’s children – even the ones we disagree with.
Katie Stolworthy: Sorry, Bishop.
Marvin Eisenrich: Ditto. Sorry. I’ll try to do better.
Roger Falzon: I’m glad. You are such wonderful saints, and you constantly remind me how lucky we are to have each other, especially in times where there is so much uncertainty in the world. I love you all!
I should have known what would happen next. I should have at least guessed part of it. But all I saw was love for these members of my flock. Everyone involved in this exchange had raised their hands to show that they would never give up the faith. That they would walk in righteousness no matter what cost.
At least, that was my interpretation of what had happened. But as anyone in the Church can tell you… interpretations can be misleading.
And of course, there was the worst problem of all: I knew I had done well. I had seen conflict among the members of the ward, and I had stretched forth mine (virtual) hand and done good as a witness of Christ in all things and all places.
Let me say it again: I knew I had done well.
Wasn’t that the problem? Wasn’t that the lesson taught to us, over and over, in the Book of Mormon? That pride goeth before the fall, the dissolution, and the eventual destruction of those caught up in its snare?
I believed I was the source of relief from contention. I believed I had Done Good among the ward members. I should not have been surprised when I got the private message a few hours later.
Marvin Eisenrich: Bishop. I just want you to know that I respect you. I will always sustain you, insofar as you are walking uprightly before God. But what you did today was anything but. (Wed. 8:47 pm)
Roger Falzon: Sorry, Marvin, I’m afraid I don’t follow you. (Wed. 9:08 pm)
Marvin Eisenrich: But I’m sure you do. You’ve said questionable things before and I’ve let them slide – Comments about your support for illegals, and how you always let the Clayton Richards bless the sacrament even when he’s not wearing a white shirt, and I’m sure there are others but I’m not remembering them all but the point is that for you to get on your high horse and back the liberal agenda is too much. This is your last chance in my book and next time I’ll go over your head and talk to the stake president or the area president or I’ll even just go directly to Salt Lake City and write a letter to the Quorum of the Twelve! I bet they would be interested in a bishop preaching socialist policies FROM THE PULPIT NO LESS! I raised my arm to the square and sustained you even though I thought you were a bit too young for this calling and I’m sad to see my worries were right. I command you in the name of THE LORD to stop using your sacred and holy office for your own ends. (Wed. 9:21 pm)
I have to admit that I was stunned by all this. Marvin had been in the bishopric before I was called, and before that was the ward high priests group leader. Now he was first counselor in the elders quorum. To have him rebuking me like this was not only surprising, it was like being punched in the gut.
Still, I probably would have handled it better if it hadn’t been for the fact that at the same time I was also handling this set of private messages.
Katie Stolworthy: Bishop Falzon, you know how much I love and admire you and your wife. Your younger kids are a delight to have in Primary, too! I always keep you in my prayers because I know that running the ward has to be tremendously difficult. I remember when Hank was in the Stake Presidency a few years back and how much work that was! I always support and sustain our leaders, they have so much on their shoulders!
That’s why I really wanted to let your comments slide. No doubt you had a long day helping people in the ward (heaven knows there are a lot of them who need help!!!). But I really felt a burning in my bosom that I should talk to you and let you know how disappointed I think the Lord is in your comments on the ward FB page today.
Look, everyone knows Marvin is a little… out there… in his ideas. He has told me numerous times about how Covid didn’t really start in China but was a part of a liberal conspiracy to test out their ability to control the masses, and that it isn’t even that bad of a disease, but the media has blown it out of proportion as a way of keeping us living in fear. I don’t like to speak ill of people, you know that, but he is getting so inappropriate with his online comments I worry about how it will reflect on the ward and on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself!
That was why I was so sad to see you take his side. We need more people showing kindness, not less! Every person who defends Marvin and people like him is actively standing for fear! And don’t get me started on how disgusting it is that there are people who DON’T BELIEVE SCIENCE AND WON’T WEAR A MASK!
Again, I think the world of you. But is it really in keeping with the Lord’s wishes that we openly defend ideas like keeping our masks off and disobeying laws? Doesn’t that go against our charge to “obey, honor, and sustain the law”???
Brigham Young said: “Our religion will not clash with nor contradict the facts of science in any particular.” Yet that is just what you did today. Please don’t let your obvious bias overrule what is right!
#maskup (Wed. 9:09 pm)
Roger Falzon: Katie, I think there has been a miscommunication. I didn’t mean to single anyone out, and I certainly wasn’t trying to espouse one agenda over another. I just wanted everyone to love one another. There is a lot of fear and stress in the world, and I would hate for any of us to succumb to it by slandering our fellow servants in the Lord’s vineyard. I really wasn’t trying to single anyone out, and I did my best to avoid commenting on the issue itself. I have my own opinion on the issue, but I specifically wanted to avoid that so as to focus on encouraging all of us – me included – to love one another. (Wed. 9:20 pm)
Katie Stolworthy: Bishop, you know how I love you. I always try to “love one another,” as the Savior said. But I also know he said, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mark 7:6) And I think it’s the height of hypocrisy to pretend that you’re being neutral, when you explicitly called me out (I note you didn’t say anything when Marvin was blathering nonsense, but waited until *I* said something before telling us to be quiet), and besides that I hate that you wouldn’t just stand up and say what is right. WE HAVE TO MASK UP AND WE HAVE TO STOP BEING SO MEAN AND SELFISH TO EACH OTHER.
I know you’re one of those “Utah Mormons,” red-stater all the way. You have guns in your house, and I know you enjoy shooting them (I’ll always remember that Facebook picture with you and your KIDS at the shooting range!!!). But that’s no reason not to support you. I think Marvin should be taken to task for acting so uppity toward you all the time. But I also think that if you don’t change your ways, you’ll have a reckoning to face. I think the Lord will remove you from your office. That’s not a prophecy or anything (I wouldn’t pretend to have that kind of revelation, it’s not in my stewardship!), but I know that the Lord doesn’t let his leaders lead their flocks astray!
I love you and hope that this helps you find your balance. We’re living through crazy times! (Wed. 9:25 pm)
I honestly didn’t know what to do with either of these sets of messages. Both of these neighbors saw me as their enemy, even though all I said was just that we needed to love one another. I didn’t mention my opinions on masks, or on the presidential debate, or any other of the subjects that I know will work people into a lather. But to hear Marvin and Katie, you would have thought that somehow I managed to co-write both Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, then attacked anyone who disagreed with me (which, apparently, was everyone).
I just let it go. I didn’t reply to either of them. I was shaken, and wanted to think hard before responding.
I went on the Facebook page the next day, intending to look at the comment and its replies to see if I had misstated something; if I had genuinely done something to hurt Marvin or Katie or anyone else.
I never really found out. There were too many other comments. Usually the unofficial ward page gets ten or twelve posts a week. In the fifteen hours since I’d last communicated with Marvin and Katie, over three hundred posts had been made. All of them had a few things in common. They started out with a statement letting everyone in the ward know that the commenter loved them, and wanted nothing but good for them. Then the commenter rolled up his/her virtual sleeves and went to work, attacking anyone and everyone who dared to disagree with them.
It wasn’t just about masks, either. Soon it was vaccines (“They cause autism!” “If you refuse to vaccinate your kids you should have them taken away from you!”) and homeschooling (“Any parent homeschooling their kids is stealing their kids’ opportunities to learn how to socialize!” “Heaven forbid they miss out on ‘socialization’ – where else but school could they POSSIBLY learn how to drink, do drugs, or have sex!!”) and just about any hot-button topic you could think of.
I tried to say something. I don’t remember what I typed. I just remember writing something out, then clicking the “comment” button… only to be told I’d been blocked by the administrator.
A moment later, I watched as posts started disappearing. The comments of everyone who was even a hair’s breadth left of center started disappearing from the page. Then the rest of the posts started getting deleted.
It wasn’t hard to guess what was happening. There were two administrators on the site. One was a bit to the left of center, another was a bit to the right. They were obviously trying to knock out the opposing viewpoints.
It was like the Inquisition. Only instead of branding irons and forced confessions, it was exile from one of the ward’s gathering places, and no confessions were needed, because each side saw the “obvious” evil of the other.
I tried reaching out to some of the people who had started all of it. Marvin had already unfriended and blocked me. Katie responded to my long message to her (I won’t reproduce it here) with a few lofty Joseph Smith quotes, one from President Monson, and two from LDS senators… then she followed Marvin’s lead and unfriended and blocked me.
The Internet became a strange place after that. I still posted on the official ward page, but I was the only one who did. No one else commented, no one else liked. I still had my own wall, but I noted that when I posted things, the only interaction I got was from work colleagues or friends who didn’t live in the ward.
I tried phoning several of the ward leadership, but usually my calls went straight to voice mail or, if someone did answer, they usually said, “I’d love to talk, but I have a work/family/school thing I have to get to right away,” and hung up. That stunned me, too. I didn’t know what they had seen, but obviously it had offended them to the point that they were avoiding me or just pretending I had ceased to exist.
A few months later, we were notified that sacrament meetings could start again, on a limited basis. I reached out to people and still got nothing. I finally had to settle for posting on the ward website, and sending out emails to people.
When the “big day” came, I woke up ready to dive in and make things right. The ward had become a wasteland. And one of the key things that forced us to overcome difficulties – namely, having to work with and see one another on a regular basis – was gone. So I knew that sacrament meetings, even on a limited basis, would help return us to normal. I would reach out personally. I couldn’t embrace people, but I could look them in the eye and tell them how much I loved them.
There are some things that work better in person. Overcoming barriers was one of them.
I drove up to an empty parking lot. I’d left messages with numerous of the youth to come and help prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament, but when the time for the meeting rolled around not one of them had shown up. I ended up looking at an empty chapel. My family couldn’t come because all the kids had gotten into poison ivy the day before and were sitting at home more or less naked with calamine lotion all over them.
In the end, only three other people showed up to the meeting – all of them over the age of eighty and none of them, I was pretty sure, computer-savvy enough to even turn on a computer, let alone get onto social media. One of them was Brother Jergen. He helped me bless and pass the sacrament. It took ten minutes, because he insisted on passing, and managing both the tray and his walker meant a slow trip down the aisle to give the sacrament to his wife and to Edie Smith.
I’m going to go to sacrament again this week. My family (assuming no further mishaps) will go with me, effectively doubling last week’s attendance. At least, that’s the plan for now. I got an email from the stake presidency, asking if I would come in mid-week, and I have a sinking feeling that I’m going to be released. One of the presidency is in the ward, and he blocked me on social media two weeks ago.
I remember that boy. That funny beard that represented all our failings and all our potential in the moment I saw it. That reminded me of where I had come from, where I now was, and hopefully where I could someday be.
I remember that meeting, where everyone raised their hands and said they would walk alone; would do what it took for Zion.
I didn’t raise my hand. I was teaching, and it didn’t even occur to me to do so.
Or maybe prophetic. Because I alone failed to raise my hand to the square in an outward observance of my commitment. And yet, I was the one who walked alone.
I used to tell everyone I love being bishop. And I still do, even if that time draws short; even if I am the bishop of only a few people so old that their idea of high-tech is working the TV remote.
I used to admire Moroni.
Now I understood him, if only in a small way. And oh, how I wished I didn’t. But the Lord sometimes doesn’t give us what we want. He gives us what we need. And apparently the world needs to go through some trials. Apparently, I need to go through this particular trial.
I’ll do my best to overcome it. I’ll do my best to keep the faith.
Even if I have to walk alone.