Of Thanksgiving and Light

This Thanksgiving I am reminded of thoughts of just a few years ago.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It is a warm, pleasant, kind, family day. Not surprisingly, it is a day of reflection for me, despite of—or because of—all the family and busy activities involved with the day. As busy as the day may be, it is for my mind and spirit a day of rest, a very family day, a day when all is right because the family is right. It is a day during which I reflect with gratitude upon how, through the blessings of God, I have been able to provide for my family and that we have been able to enjoy so many good things. We gather rich in the mutual affection we have for one another, comfortable in how pleasant it is to be in each other’s presence. It is very appropriate that we celebrate with a bounteous meal shared by as much of the family as we can gather and often with fond friends, representing the bounties that God has bestowed upon us in the previous months.

Thus in our home, Thanksgiving Day is a time of reflecting on the abundant blessings of the past. It also serves as a gateway to our Christmas celebration, in which we celebrate all of the good things of life made possible through Jesus Christ. On Thanksgiving night, as soon as darkness has descended, we turn on the outdoor Christmas lights for the first time of the season. There is the apple tree, shining in brilliant white lights in memory of the Tree of Life, which Tree is a representation of “the Love of God, . . . the most desirable above all things . . . and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:22, 23).

Beside that tree, red lights flame the upward and outward branches of a maple tree, symbolic of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in opposition to the tree of life. This illumined tree represents how by the exercise of our power of choice we also unleash our energy to become good or evil—and that we do not always exercise that power for good (see 2 Nephi 2:15, 16).

In the middle of the yard, our flagpole is transformed into a tall, narrow multilight cone topped by a bright white star of light, again representing a tree, our Christmas tree. This and the tree we decorate inside the house are bright reminders that through Christ we can obtain “every good thing” (Moroni 7:25), whether spiritual or material.

The doorway to our house is outlined with a garland of evergreen also illumined with light to proclaim to family or friends that they will find welcome inside. Similarly, our lamppost is trimmed with red and green lights as if to say, “Here we are, don’t lose your way. Come and celebrate with us.”

In many ways it is very appropriate that we initiate this holiday season with a celebration of gratitude. The spirit of gratitude is the foundation of humility, and humility is the first step to opening our hearts to receive the Christ. So bring on Thanksgiving, welcome the family and friends, and open our hearts and homes to Christ, who brings us every good thing.

(First published November 21, 2010)

Of Holidays and Recreation

The holidays are fast upon us. The store displays are relentless clues (even if they rush things a bit). While growing up I looked forward to Hallowe’en, in part for the costume and candy celebration itself, but in no small part as the gateway to a series of rich and usually joyful holidays. October ended with Hallowe’en, and then Thanksgiving was observed a few weeks later. Right after Thanksgiving we were into the Christmas holidays. Quickly after Christmas came New Year, followed in February by Valentine’s Day, and at varying intervals Easter arrived amidst the celebration of Spring and new life.

I have a generous treasury of enchanting memories from those holidays. I recall one magical Hallowe’en as a young boy in a neighborhood full of children. The early evening’s streets and sidewalks were filled with costumed colleagues, all busily canvassing the ready houses, milling about, comparing each other’s sweetened haul, each house ready to greet you with a smile or perhaps an expression of wonder while adding to the bulging bag of treats.

Thanksgiving, perhaps the warmest and kindest of holidays, is rich in tradition, from the family and friends who gather, foods that are prepared, the china and silverware that are used, to the preview of coming cold weather. For me and mine, Thanksgiving has been a busily gentle holiday, crowded with activity and effort, but calm and purposeful. Rambunctious noise seems foreign to the day, even with a morning pick-up football game among Church members included. Thanksgiving speaks a time of Christ-like peace in my memory. If there were exceptions, they are forgotten. A prayer, a toast, and a feast that symbolizes the riches bestowed on us by God. In later years, with my own family (my wife and our children), the evening has witnessed the first lighting of the outdoor Christmas lights. Thanksgiving has brought on the Christmas season at our home.

Christmas for us has always been a season, with many holidays. The Advent holidays lead us inexorably to Christmas Eve. In those weeks there are many celebrations, ours and others, traditional and new. We began a new tradition last year that we anticipate repeating this season. Christmas Day itself has been a time when all ordinary activity seems to stop, a Sabbath of Sabbaths. We take an emotional breather, we contact family members not spending the day with us. We enjoy time together and some time occupied alone. For us, we then let the Christmas festivities wind down of themselves to their conclusion at Epiphany, the day we quietly finish the celebration until we near the end of the new year just begun.

Speaking of which, New Years’ Eves in my life have varied widely in observance. Maybe most memorable are an evening spent with my best friend shooting a basketball at the new hoop above my garage door, and another evening as a missionary in the Canary Islands, reflecting on the arrival of 1980, musing on what the end of the twentieth century would mean two decades later. That evening, those decades appeared to be rushing at me.

Then there are Valentine’s Day and Easter arising in steady succession. Each has its own traditions, each creating its own imprint in life’s recollections.

These have stocked my treasury of marvelous memories. I am rich with them. Yet I have more observances to come. To these I look forward.

Here is what I believe about these riches. I can take them out of the treasury each year and seek to recreate them, to work to experience them all over again. If I do, I have but relived and re-experienced what I already have. I add little new to the treasury. Many people celebrate this way. It seems to me a squandered opportunity and probably dangerous. I doubt that the previous charm can be revived, that the wondrous experience of the past can be recaptured. I fear that the joyful and rich memory might even be harmed by the failed effort. Worse, much can be consumed, much exertion expended, and still frustration and misery—for myself and others—may result in the trying.

I believe that a better approach would be to create new magnificent memories. These can build upon the past and work from valuable traditions. The good of the past can be drawn upon to create something greater. The effort is to make a new experience, not vainly recall to life a treasured memory. Not every holiday experience will produce equal joy and beauty, but if allowed to live for its own sake each will add to the fullness of life and the value of our storehouse of life’s treasures. Each will have the chance to be the most marvelous experience yet.

I am not prepared to concede that the best of my life has been lived or that the finest that I can do is recreate only what has happened before. I fancy to live life on the rise. I see no loss in trying.

Bring on the holidays. I plan to observe them each as never before.

Of Men and Women

I hope and have every confidence that at some future day my posterity and yours will look upon the popular efforts of our popular culture, working mightily to smooth out the differences between men and women, and conclude, “Huh?” The differences are real, profound, and obvious.

You have to work very hard to convince young children that men and women, boys and girls, are pretty much the same. The differences are to them an unremarkable truth. And so they remain, despite efforts to pretend they are otherwise. And so, I believe, the differences between man and woman will persist, with unhappiness and poverty the rewards for efforts to obliterate them.

Not that it has not been tried before. It has always come to grief. One story comes from the French Revolution. A leader of the National Assembly proclaimed that the new government had almost completely eliminated all differences between the sexes, when a voice from the back softly retorted, “Vive la différence!”

I, too, embrace the differences and am glad of them. Having been married more than three decades I can testify from long experiment that the many differences between husband and wife, man and woman, have played a central role in our happiness. Even as a youth I often mused upon how my life had been enriched by the influence of women. That was not a new discovery for mankind even if it was for me. Benjamin Disraeli said as much in the 1800s: “There is no mortification however keen, no misery however desperate, which the spirit of woman cannot in some degree lighten or alleviate.” (Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, p.311) I am not aware of any exception to that maxim.

This variety is eternal, built into human nature from the very beginning:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (Genesis 1:27)

This was no accident of nature. Together man and woman, male and female, are the image of God.

My children have always noticed the difference and profited from it. When they phone, they rarely ask for “Dad.” If Dad answers, they will sweetly and briefly chat and then ask, “Is Mom there?” With Mom they will then talk for a long while, hours sometimes.

On the other hand, while growing up, when they wanted permission to do this or that, more often than not, they went to Dad. To guard against this clever maneuver, my wife and I early made a pact that we would not openly disagree regarding the denial or approval of a child’s request and would seek to consult to get a parental consensus if a matter of consequence were involved. That worked well, but the children still knew where to go first to make their pitch.

The paradigm was similar when it came to bugs, vermin, and fixing broken things, unclogging drains, moving the rubbish—all jobs usually given to Dad and faced with trepidation when Dad was not available. As the boys got older, these jobs increasingly found their way to them, too. The flip side was that all illnesses and injuries were brought to the attention of Doctor Mom. They still are, no matter how far away the child may be.

These patterns have been successful for peace and harmony in the home. Life would be harder if my wife and I struggled against the differences that gave us distinct skills, insights, and abilities, related to being a woman and being a man. One of the greatest blessings of marriage has been to enlist an undying union with the owner of a wealthy supply of talents not easily possessed by the other.

My conversation with friends and colleagues have shown this pattern to be too common to be attributable merely to differences of personality. The differences between man and woman are real and enriching. I thank my God for making man and woman in His image, together.

Vive la différence!

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 Free Agency and the Game of Life

This past week my wife and I were drawn to an interesting and insightful headline from the Sports section of the newspaper: “Free agency can be useful tool if used correctly”. Very true. This may be true in the games of sports. It certainly is true in life.

In professional sports, free agency means having some choice as to which team a player may join and on what terms, depending on talent and performance, interest, and the advocacy skill of his representative, among other factors. Used well, the player may go on to a successful and happy career, profitable for him and for his team, opening up even greater opportunities, including perhaps championship achievements and continuing successes beyond. Used unwisely, free agency can lead to a career that is a frustrating struggle inhibiting growth, achievement, and limiting follow on opportunities.

In life, free agency means that you and I can choose our manner of living in mortality and, in the process, the terms of living and opportunities available in the immortal worlds, depending again on talent (as expressed in performance), interest (again demonstrated by performance), and the effectiveness of our representative. If you will agree to His terms, you can have the very best Advocate as your representative, who only emphasizes your triumphs and takes upon Himself the blame for all of your failures.

A popular board game I knew as a child was “The Game of LIFE.” In this game several players compete by moving along the board on a marked path, buffeted by the vicissitudes and aggrandized by the rewards of life as determined by the cast of the die. Its virtue is that it presents to children how life is a steadily moving journey filled with a variety of experiences building to some degree on the ones before. The game was not a favorite of mine, because it asks for little skill from the players, the events of the game subject almost entirely to chance. In that sense, it teaches the false lesson that how you fare in life has almost nothing to do with your skill and the exercise of your free agency and everything to do with fate, beyond your control. Success or failure happens. Perhaps the game does little harm as a diversion, but I have not played it in a long while.

Life is not a game of chance. Neither, is it a sport, least of all a spectator sport. Each of us is the key and central player involved in making and applying decisions. The period of life called mortality is a testing ground, where decisions are free only because results are meaningful. The results derive their meaning from their reach into the worlds of immortality, following our death and resurrection. Because life has meaning then, it has meaning now.

That meaning is a gift from Jesus Christ, purchased by His free gift of voluntarily suffering for our sins, including surrendering His life in an unjust execution, one that He could have prevented should He have exercised His free agency not to bear our burdens. Because of the injustice of that suffering, He came back from the dead and conquered death, to die no more. Death was thus converted into a temporary interlude for all of us, allowing the choices of this life to extend beyond the grave.

If, on the contrary, each one of us were to end in death, if our being were then to cease to exist, then nothing we did would really matter in that end. Whatever we did, whatever we achieved, whatever we learned, so what? It would all be gone, never to be reclaimed.

Nothing we do makes any difference in the end, if in the end we are nothing, literally nothing. As far as we are concerned, it all vanishes with us, and any memory of us ends with the end of any who remembered. With nothing now mattering later, then all loses any present meaning. Any meaning we attach to anything now is a mirage, or even a charade. Like a child’s game, things seem to matter until the game is over, when nothing matters.

If nothing that we do matters, then the choices and decisions that we make do not matter, they have no lasting result, they make no real difference in the end. Whether we put too much salt or pepper in the soup, it makes no difference if no one eats it. With death as the end of it all, of all existence of any kind for each of us, then we really have no freedom, because we cannot and do not change anything for ourselves or for others. In any and all cases, whatever choices we make, it all ends the same way, in complete nothingness, annihilation of being. Choice itself becomes meaningless, a mirage, a charade.

But it is not like that in reality. It does not feel like that, and very few of us, even the atheists among us, believe or act like nothingness is our destiny, as if what we do is lost in the void, as if our choices do not matter. Christ’s redemption of us and of the world has changed everything for everyone. It gives lasting value to our choices, our actions, our decisions, making them all very real, preserving their consequences, their reach into the continuing life beyond our very temporary death. Our decisions can and do affect ourselves and others, in lingering ways. Christ’s redemption from death makes our freedom possible, then and now, because what we do matters, and how it matters is preserved.

With that freedom, Christ has given us a tool, which certainly can be useful, if used correctly. Fortunately, He also has given us guidance and still gives us guidance so that we may get and save the best results from the use of our free agency. And that is a big part of why we celebrate Easter, why Christ’s atonement and resurrection are the central event in Earth’s history.

Of Faith and Repentance

I received an electronic message the other day from someone trying to persuade me that, in essence, repentance is not necessary as long as one has faith. Such a concept is nonsense and little worth commenting on, were it not so popular. There are several ways to address this absurdity. I will present a couple.

Perhaps the first is to ask, faith in what or whom? If one means faith in Christ, then I would ask how would one have faith in Christ without repenting of the sinful way of life and embracing the commandments that Christ has given us? Can you be said to have faith in Christ and yet reject the walk of life that He commanded us to follow? Following that way of life is repentance.

Second, advocating that faith is enough, without repentance, is to use the concept of faith to avoid repentance. It is using the concept of faith to avoid doing what Christ commanded us to do, to avoid living the way of life He set out for us. It is to invoke faith in order to doubt what He said. I do not remember the Savior or His prophets ever teaching that. It is a Satanic doctrine that destroys both repentance and faith—and dishonors the Christ who gave us His commandments.

Again, repentance means changing your lifestyle, turning away from following your own faulty and rebellious whims and following the way of abundant life that Christ has outlined in His commandments. The doctrine of faith without repentance ignores the commandments of Christ. Faith means that you believe Him and trust Him. Men’s actions derive directly from their faith in what will bring them what they seek. That is why James declares, “I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) Faith in Christ cannot mean disregard of His commandments. That would be faith in something or someone other than Christ.

I know of only one commandment of Christ repeated more often in the scriptures than the commandment to repent, namely the commandment to seek Christ. Jesus Christ has promised us that if we seek Him, we shall find Him. What do we do once we find Him? We believe Him and follow Him and embrace His way of living. That is faith in Christ. That is repentance, and that is life eternal. As Jesus said in prayer to the Father, the night before the crucifixion, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent.” (John 17:3)

(First published January 17, 2009)

Of Hard Things and the Holy Spirit

Life is rife with hard things. They are what make life worth living. The easier matters are intended for rest and relief and perhaps enjoyment, but they offer little growth. The hard things do, and life is all about growth. When living things stop growing they decay.

God understood from the beginning the hard things that we would face. Many of them He put here for us, “for our sake” (though we arrange plenty of hardships for ourselves). When man and woman were expelled from the Garden of Eden God explained to them, “cursed is the ground for thy sake. . . Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee. . . In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread. . .” (Genesis 3:17-19, emphasis added)

Our Heavenly Father knew that by facing and overcoming the hard things of life we would advance and progress and become worthy to be called His children, His heirs. As a loving Father He has also promised that we need not face the hardships of life alone, that His help would be ready at hand to take our best efforts and amplify them to be equal to the challenges, by which we are “glorified”.

. . . we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:16-18)

It is common to believe that some people, such as the wealthy, have it easier, that perhaps they face fewer of the hard things of life. The Savior took on this assumption directly. He taught His disciples that such views have it backwards:

. . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld their thoughts, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but . . . with God whatsoever things I speak are possible. (Matthew 19:24-26, JST)

No one escapes hard things. Like opportunities for growth, they are for everyone, including the rich. We can, however, overcome life’s troubles, God working with us, making all good things possible.

How is it done? Sometimes, surely more often than we know, God intervenes directly and removes obstacles, provides tools, brings friends and allies, and otherwise lowers barriers or lifts us over them. Perhaps even more frequently He increases our power and ability.

The Holy Spirit in particular can give us the power to do hard things as we qualify for that help. Consider some of the gifts of the Spirit. The ancient American prophet, Moroni, reminded us that these spiritual powers “are many”, given “unto men, to profit them.” As examples he cited wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, interpretation of languages, and others, explaining that these gifts of the Spirit are available to “every man” (see Moroni 10:8-17). The Apostle Paul provided a similar list in his letter to the saints at Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 12:8-11). A modern Apostle, Parley P. Pratt, offered us this description of the power and influence of the Holy Spirit, speaking as the others did from personal experience, not theory or hypothesis:

It quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections. . . It inspires, develops, cultivates and matures all the fine-toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings and affections of our nature. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. . . . It invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. . . . In short, it is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being. (Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, p.101)

With such godly influence we can surmount every challenge that we need to rise above and withstand the sorrows of life we are called upon to endure. That is the secret, at least in part, to the counsel and promise from God,

Therefore, let your hearts be comforted; for all things shall work together for good to them that walk uprightly. . . (Doctrine and Covenants 100:15)