Of Vanity and Christmas Gifts

The prophets, ancient and modern, are clear that this life is a very artificial thing. The earth and this mortality did not just happen. They were carefully planned in the sphere of the eternities, for very specific—and lasting—purposes.

Abraham reported this, from a vision wherein he saw God speaking of us, His spirit children, before He created the earth:

We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; . . . and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:24-26)

Some centuries later Moses had a related vision, in which the Lord told him,

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

Our glory appears to be the Lord’s glory. It is the Lord’s work and glory that we grow and progress forever. The mortal mission and sacrifice of Jesus Christ were all part of His work for our immortality and eternal life. I am not sure that the Lord cares anything at all about anything we do other than what we do that affects His work and His glory. I do not find any evidence in the scriptures that anything else that we do matters to Him. Of course, in an eternal context, nothing else we do really matters to us, either. All of that other stuff is what the author of Ecclesiastes refers to as “vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

That vanity, the key theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is what many people seem to think that this life is all about. Many people live this life as if this life really mattered much, when in truth, all that matters about this life is how it affects the true reality, which resides in the eternal worlds, beyond this world and life. Lasting value and meaning are found in what we take with us when we leave this world.

That is a good filter, if we wish to discern what in this life is imperishable and real and what is temporary and vain. If you take it with you past the grave, it matters. If it does not, fuhgeddaboudit. Or, at least, do not set your heart on it or waste much time with it.

That might be a good guide for Christmas gifts. By that I mean, consider the purpose behind the giving of the gift. Is its purpose to transfer possession of vanity, that has no reach beyond the grave? Or is it instead intended to communicate and strengthen ties of love, friendship, to show kindness, to build relationships, to facilitate personal growth and progress, to memorialize pleasant shared experiences, to express and transmit value? Consider how it may be tied to this list of eternal verities that stay with us:

Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. (Doctrine and Covenants 4:6)

There is a lot of Christmas Spirit in that list. Such solemnized gifts are not likely to break and never grow old. They are very real. To the extent they embrace such virtues, I think we remember them.

Of Commandments and Happiness

Nothing out of date with these observations made more than five years ago.

We sing a hymn, “How Gentle God’s Commands,” the first two lines of which proclaim—

How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!

I suppose that the Ruler and Creator of the world, who offers us all that He has, eternal life (“the greatest of all the gifts of God”—Doctrine and Covenants 14:7), could require from us anything in return. What He asks of us is that we be happy, and He shows us how. Every commandment of God (here I speak of God’s commandments, not the commandments of men) is calculated to promote our happiness and guide us away from unhappiness.

Let us examine a few to illustrate. The Lord commands that intimate sexual relations be reserved for a man and a woman within the bonds of matrimony. This commandment, much disparaged by popular voices, would if followed virtually end all forms of venereal diseases, including the modern scourge of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the heartbreaking and life-ending consequences they bring. Abortion would also nearly end, since the vast majority of abortions are performed on unwed women. The social and economic trauma of children being born into one-parent households would similarly be dramatically reduced. And the deadened emotional wasteland caused by promiscuity would be avoided.

The Lord has commanded that we observe the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. The Sabbath is a day to gather with fellow believers in the worship of God. It is also a day to refrain from usual activities we would call work and focus instead on rest and acts of service to one another. Perhaps less observed today than ever before by the world in general, this commandment is particularly suitable for modern times. Increasingly, people are cut off from one another, associations reduced to momentary casual encounters. The Sabbath brings people together in pleasant association and sharing, with a focus on what uplifts one another. Furthermore, it offers a pause from the daily routine, giving opportunity for mental rest and perspective, a time for pondering, meditation, and preparation for renewed and more thoughtful endeavor.

A third example I would choose is the law of the tithe. The Lord commands the saints to donate one-tenth of their income. At first view, this commandment might seem all loss. Is not a person better off with 100% of his income than he is with 90% of his income? The answer to that is undeniably yes, particularly if that income were forcefully taken away, as in excess taxes. The tithe, however, is purely voluntary. The Lord requires it, but He does not take it. You still have all of your income, for it is by your free choice that you make a donation or not, much as with any other way in which you would choose to dispose of your income. That is important, for by making a freewill donation, you give of yourself and receive all of the moral benefit that comes from such a voluntary gift. That gift is not diminished if you, like I, have noticed that you have always received more back in services and blessings than you have ever given. After all, you could choose to be a free rider and never contribute a dime. Moreover, the law of the tithe is eminently fair. All are asked to donate 10%, rich or poor. Those who earn more contribute more, those who earn less donate less, but all are subject to the same rate. Through the tithe—together with the voluntary labor of the membership of a church without a paid, professional clergy—all have full opportunity and satisfaction of participation in the most important work and activity in the world today: sustaining the work of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

These are but three examples of many. I chose them, because they are among the commandments that some today might consider onerous. These, like all of God’s commands are rich and generous in their benefits. I have merely touched the surface of the benefits from observance of each of these commandments. God loves us, and His commandments are a bounteous example of that love.

(First published March 1, 2009)

Of Christ and Christmas Spirit

I find Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol character, Ebenezer Scrooge, usually overly maligned. In the end his only significant fault was that he little appreciated, or enjoyed, what he had. He was a miser, a rich man who lived like a pauper.

Was he so different from you and me, we who possess untold riches, eternal riches, and enjoy so little of them? Oh that we could be visited by angels to stir us from our false poverty! How we would enrich ourselves and the lives of those around us!

It was Scrooge’s admirable nephew, Fred, who first tried to explain to his uncle the joy of Christmas. Do you recall Fred’s words?

There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say. Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not some other race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Such were the words of nephew Fred, early in the eve before his uncle was to receive the visits of the Christmas spirits. Many await the visitation of Christmas spirits. It seems that each season we hear someone say, “I just can’t seem to get the Christmas spirit this year.”

I have long thought about the Christmas spirit. I may even say that I have given it some study. I have concluded that there is not one Christmas spirit today. I believe that there are at least five Christmas spirits abroad in the world. Although there is only one Christmas spirit that will bring lasting happiness, lasting joy, fortunately it is one that we can have always, anytime we wish, every Christmas, every day.

The first of these Christmas spirits is the HEDONISTIC spirit, the eat, drink, and be merry spirit, the indulging of physical pleasures, an excuse to cast aside restraint, to indulge the appetites and give them a loose reign. Under the influence of this spirit we invoke Christmas to justify things we might not usually do. But if the food is not right or not enough, the music poor, the entertainment inadequate, the money too short, then we might not feel that we have the Christmas spirit, this Christmas spirit. And there is always a price to pay for entertaining this Christmas spirit, a morning after, a bill that comes due, and a satisfaction that fades.

The second Christmas spirit is NOSTALGIA, some longing for the past. In its best form it is the use of tradition to focus our hearts and minds, to gather and strengthen family, to reinforce our worship. Too often, though, it is a sad, often heart rending, sometimes destructive effort to recapture a pleasant experience from the past, whether the pleasant experience really happened or not. From a benign, pleasant musing by the glowing fireside, this spirit uncontrolled can become a brutal dictator. There is almost no limit to the sacrifices it will demand of you and those around you to try to recreate a phantom memory. But the memory is never quite recreated, things are never quite the way we had remembered, and all too soon the favorite ornament is broken, the Christmas tree not quite right, the choir not as good as it was, the dress faded. The sacrifices made and the efforts to recreate the memory are lost but create darker memories of their own.

From nostalgia we come to the third spirit of Christmas, CELEBRATION. We have holidays in order to celebrate, and Christmas has become chief of them all. What would Christmas be without celebration? The Christmas celebrations can range from merriment and frolicking to enjoying the company of others, and on to momentous pageantry and festivity. Times of celebration can be times of great joy, great fun, and bring exhilaration to the soul. But this Christmas spirit can be hard to capture. Celebrations can be hit or miss. The event might not come off as planned. An important person might be missing, a part forgotten, the weather might not cooperate, or things might get out of hand, people carried away. After the celebration, there is often a let down and the question, now what?

I believe that the fourth Christmas spirit is GIVING. Christmas giving can range from the mere exchange of gifts—an economic transaction more or less forced—all the way to the generous sharing of the soul in our love for others, rewarded by the joy of being in the service of God, expressing and experiencing the pure love of Christ. Gift giving has been a part of Christmas as long as I can remember or discover. The key here is the intent, the why the gift is being given. The gift is only as good as the why. But as good as the Spirit of Giving is, I believe that we still remain as Ebenezer Scrooge, living far below the enjoyment of the riches available to us if our Christmas rises no further. The spirit of gift giving is available to, and thankfully practiced by, people the world over, Christians or not. Genuine disciples of Christ can live a deeper experience.

Which brings me to the fifth spirit of Christmas, the one I believe to be greatest of all, that incorporates any and all the good of the other spirits, a spirit that “neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (3 Nephi 12:20). This Christmas spirit you may always have each and every year—and every day—of your life. It is the spirit of WORSHIP.

By worship I have in mind the full rededication of our souls to the One perfect being who created the earth, who has guided His children throughout its history, who was humbly born into that world, who lived, died, and rose again so that we might have every good thing. Through this worship of Christ we become like Him, we do His works, and we receive His gifts: as the Savior prayed the night before He was crucified, that we “all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21) In that way we have it all, all that matters, and that is very much.

(First published November 28, 2008)