On Thanksgiving (1997)

If this had been written on Thanksgiving of 1997, it would have sounded more cynical. I was stilll upset at roommate problems (I've just had a lot of those here in Tucson) and asocial. This piece was actually written a few days later. I had calmed down somewhat by the time I wrote this.


Recently, as I moved to my new place, my mind was filled with thoughts of possession and ownership. That is my car, my stereo, my CD, etc. But what are the most important possessions?

I am sometimes known as a stingy person. To be honest, it is more a matter of thrift than of stinginess, but the effect is probably the same. At any rate, I have been that way for a while. Then, while in New York, especially in Buffalo, I learned to say no to beggars my first night in the mission field. I recall going out shopping with my first companion, because we were opening the area together and had nothing. We walked to a nearby grocery store and passed a man on the street who looked unable to afford any food. When he asked, I gave him a little money. Not much. Whether he took it to buy an alcoholic drink or to actually buy food is immaterial. My companion told me I should say no, because they will come back asking for more and we really didn't have that much to give. We may have been dressed nicely, but we lived on very small allowances. I had (and have) a great deal of respect for Elder Adam Wray and followed his advice, which was wise, because people on the street asked for money nearly every day. I would have been broke in a week. And besides, our mission was for spreading the gospel. There are many church sponsored projects specifically aimed at helping the poor (plus, we should be "anxiously engaged" in such a good cause, anyway).

What it comes down to is, I got in the habit of not giving, but tried to have the attitude of "I would give if I had, but I have not." In practice, this sometimes turned into "Hey, go away you bum!" but I did try to maintain the right spirit, most of the time.
The time came when I went home. The day before, I lost my wallet in the apartment of some other elders. I didn't find this out until I had driven two hours to the mission home without a drivers license (eep!). Not much I could do then, but I called those elders, one of which promised he would mail it to my home address in Arizona. Well, I could actually trust them, so it wasn't a worry (not all the world is untrustworthy). However, the next day, I found out that airport security had been stepped up since two years previous when I had last boarded a plane. They now required a picture Id to board planes. I didn't know that. Well, the lady we talked to knew my mission president (she saw him every month when he sent people home), so he was able to vouch for me there, but I still had to check in at Philidelphia and Denver. I was going home entirely on faith, because I had only three dollars and change (the rest was in my wallet, remember?) and if I got stuck anywhere, would have nothing.

The flight out of Utica, NY was already emotional; I was leaving a significant portion of my life. The uncertainty that I was even getting home made it even worse. Then, the layover in Philidelphia was a terrible wait. One event occurred that changed my perspective a little.
A deaf man came up to me and gave me a card. On the card, it said that he was deaf and that he couldn't support his family, and asked for whatever amount I was willing to give. My first, instant thought was "Yeah, right! I need the money in case I get stuck here!" An instant later, I thought, I could give him my change. It wasn't much, but I could feel good about not turning him away. Then, another instant went by and I thought I could give no less than a dollar. Then three. I finally knew that was what I needed to do. I gave him my money, and the look of gratitude more than amply repaid my sacrifice. I suddenly thought "I hope Heavenly Father is watching me right now, because I need help from him." At that instant, I just felt (for lack of a strong enough word to explain how I felt) with a surety that he was fully aware of me and extremely pleased. As the deaf man walked away to beg from others, tears misted my vision (I'm not an emotional guy, but that day, it happened more than once). I then knew I would make it home all right.

Finally, the time came to check in. I said prayer after fervent prayer as I approached the counter. The lady was very kind and understanding and I was amazed at how quickly, despite my lack of identification, she checked me in and did the same for Denver, so I wouldn't have to go through the process again. Needless to say, I made it home that day, as expected by my family and friends.
So, did I become filled with charity and a spirit of giving after that? Well, to an extent, but not consistently. Change is a difficult to the human spirit. Few of us really like change, even when change is good. We like the old familiar, the comfortable. I am no different. I didn't change much. I have given on occasion to the homeless and disabled I see on the street corners in Tucson. I remember getting disgusted at an editorial in the U of A school newspaper not long ago, in which the writer said these very homeless are "human trash" and should be exported. Disgusting.

Nearly two years later, as I prepared to go home to Sierra Vista for Thanksgiving, just over an hour drive from Tucson, I had these and similar thoughts on my mind. I had called my family earlier, to let them know I was coming, and realized again (I do this often) how lucky I am to have such a great family (there I go again with MY family). When I was nearly out of the city, I saw a man, one of the many. In reaction to the remembered words of the sorry editorial I just mentioned, the words of the Savior came to mind, that the poor would be with us always, at least in this life. "Why?" I thought. Because we need to learn to love all people and give of our substance. Does He like to see them suffer? No, but he allows these sorrowful things to happen so we can learn from them. I can't say I understand all the Lord's doings, but I know that ultimately, even the bad experiences are for our good. And for those of us not going through the homeless experience, we should be doing our best to alleviate the plight of those that are.

So, as I waited at the red light next to this poor and disabled man on the street, I pulled out my wallet and gave my last dollar to him. I felt that same feeling I felt in Philidelphia, that warm glow and sure knowledge that God is pleased with me, despite my many foolish mistakes. To those who don't know that feeling, I am sorry. It is one of the greater things I have ever felt. I knew he was teaching me to be less dependent on the physical, the material. I just didn't think the lesson would continue in a harsh way.

As I drove home, my little car's clutch gave out and I was stranded, miles from civilization (well, it would have been a long walk). This will be a costly repair, but you know what? I am not that worried. Yes, worrying about what I would do for a car and paying for the repairs and everything was stressful for me this weekend, but I was able to be calm about it all. I am being taught to be more dependent on the Lord (who kindly sent a border patrolman to pick me up and take me the rest of the way home). I will get by, because He is with me. The most important things aren't going to be taken from me. My family. My faith. The truth. These are the most important things. Anything else is nice to have, but less important on the eternal scale of things. Is my having a car that important in the next life? How about my having a good education, living in a nice apartment, having the music and clothes I want, and other worldly things? They aren't bad, but if they distract me from what is most important, then I should learn to do without. This life is too transient, too short to worry about the material. Let us be thankful for what we have and remember what the most important possessions are.

Happy Late Thanksgiving!

Thank you for listening.

© Matthew Rutherford 1997

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