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)

Of Christmas and Celebrating Hope

The story of Pandora and her box (or jar) has been retold for thousands of years, with minor variations. The key elements of the tale from Greek mythology are consistent. Pandora was endowed with many wonderful gifts and talents, among them beauty, music, persuasion, and others. She was also given a box, which she was told never to open. Try that out on anybody: “Here is an interesting box. It is yours. DO NOT EVER OPEN IT!” I expect that the result would ever be the same, the box will eventually be opened. As the story goes, it was, introducing into the world evil in all of its forms. Last of all, however, from the bottom of the box, came hope.

I believe hope to be an underappreciated and little understood gift from God. Hope is essential to happiness, salvation, and life. I know of no happiness without it, I cannot imagine any achievement not preceded by hope. In all salvation, temporal or eternal, hope draws us forward. It is foundational to life and living. Hope is ever at war with despair (for example, the Spanish word for “despair” is desesperanza, or the absence of esperanza, “hope”): despair is life-draining, while hope feeds life.

In this understanding of hope, I do not refer to the weak sentiment most common in everyday parlance, the wistful wishing for something better, a wish that seldom acts as a motivator for effective action. I have in mind the hope spoken of by God and His prophets, against which the forlorn reach from despair—as valuable and comforting as that may be—pales in comparison.

Consider how the power of hope is described in this account of the preaching of the ancient American prophet, Ether:

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. (Ether 12:4)

Notice the power of this hope, an anchor to the soul, making those who possess it sure and steadfast, the person who has gained it always abounding in good works. Nothing weak or wistful here. Such hope is a mighty, heavenly gift, with mighty results. Also notice the connection between hope and faith, the former being a powerful fruit of faith.

I have thought that a fair definition of “hope” is the personal recognition that something desirable is attainable. By faith we learn of the desirable object as well as gain the recognition that it is within our reach. When that happens, hope is born in our hearts, and we are stirred to action to attain it. That is life itself. Dead things, inanimate objects, reach for nothing, always acted upon, never doing the acting.

There are many things that each of us values and would very much desire to attain, to gain, to build: love, knowledge, wealth, improvement, new abilities, bridges (real and figurative), but we do not act to realize our desires until we first gain the idea that we can be successful. Without hope of success we may go through the motions in a lame sort of way, guided by routine that can become drudgery. We are energized—even beyond what we thought were our limitations—as soon as we gain a vision, as soon as we believe the prized fruit to be within our reach, when we have hope. Then there is little stopping us. Obstacles are overcome, means are found, tools are made, skills developed.

In my reflections I have named my three daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity, as each one seems especially to personify one of these three great gifts of God. My oldest daughter would be named Hope. Throughout her life, once she has gotten it into her head that something worthwhile is within her reach she has done whatever it takes to realize it. Because of that, through great and consistent effort, overcoming many obstacles, she has become rich in all of the eternal things, in everything that matters. Her mother and I admire her for it. Her achievement need not be unique. It is within reach of all of us. Each may have such hope and become so rich.

There are many reasons for the perennial popularity of Christmas. Surely one of these is that it is a celebration of hope offered to everyone. Salvation did not come to earth with Christmas. The sacrifice and atonement that Jesus Christ would work out to bring about all salvation would await another three decades after His miraculous birth. With Christmas, the birth of the Savior, there arrived in Person the assured hope that salvation would come. The angel who appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem the night of the nativity was filled with that hope, with that assurance, that caused him to rejoice and share with the shepherds his message “of great joy” so that they, too, might have this great and assured hope: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10, 11)

The hope of Christ, in all of its power to action and motivation for every good thought and deed, is worthy of general celebration, every year. The salvation of Christ has been placed within reach of everyone. Having that hope can become a personal anchor as we realize its promise, becoming sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, that each of us personally, here on earth, can be filled with “peace, good will toward men.” At least in part, that is what Christmas is all about.

Of Marriage and Happiness

Last week I completed teaching another “Strengthening Marriages” course at church. The principles I taught were my own. By that I do not mean that I thought them up. They are mine because I embrace them. The course was designed under the direction of living Apostles and prophets. The concepts are divinely inspired. Their purpose is not to “fix” troubled marriages but rather to help husband and wife in any marriage increase the joy of this most important of all human relationships.

Here is a summary of some of the key principles taught.

The first and foundational principle is that the family is not only the most important institution in the Church but is in fact the most important institution in all time and all eternity. The marriage relationship is our most important relationship and can be the source of our greatest joy, beginning now and lasting forever. The key to that joy is building our marriages and our homes on the rock of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. So built, we can withstand all that this life of trial throws at us, allowing us to begin living in heaven already while here in mortality.

Another central principle of happiness is unity in marriage. Husband and wife are intended to be one. Man and woman were created to be united and become a greater one. No man or woman is complete or whole without wife or husband. To enjoy the most of that unity husband and wife should allow their differences in gifts to complement one another. God intended man and woman to be much alike but also significantly different in physical, mental, and even spiritual gifts. Embrace that, do not fight it. Unity in marriage also requires complete loyalty to each other, placing commitment to each other above any relationship with anyone else on earth. This unlocks an unending wealth of happiness in marriage.

Important in the day-to-day life of marriage is nurturing love and friendship with each other. Frequent expressions of love and kindness—in ways large and small— play no small part in that nurturing. The proper expression of intimacy in marriage is a gift that God has extended to His children that, kept in proper channels, unlocks enormous eternal power. Complete faithfulness to each other strengthens that intimacy and enfolds it in an ever increasing love.

Both husband and wife should expect and acknowledge that there will be challenges. The purpose of mortal life is to be immersed in a world of challenges and grow from those challenges, our reactions to them shaping us into who we choose to be for the eternities. In marriage we find help to face those challenges, a help meet that we can find in no other way or relationship. Husbands and wives, with the aid and inspiration of the Lord, can work through any challenge. This is part of the marriage covenant. Marriage, to be what the Lord intended, to manifest all of its power for joy, must be a covenant, not a contract, a covenant through which we give all to each other without consideration of an “exchange.” The concept of “prenuptial” agreements, of counting the contributions of each in marriage, are foreign to the eternal union of souls that marriage can be as intended by God.

An important principle of happiness that needs to be applied whenever a challenge arises within the marriage itself, be the challenge large or small, is that we can choose to react in patience and love rather than in frustration and anger. That may take practice, but it is a rewarding practice. As children of God, we can increase our power and freedom to make that choice each time that we choose well. Strong lines of communication between spouses will enable us to respond to challenges most effectively. When looking at each other, seeing the admirable qualities rather than the temporary weaknesses facilitates that communication and builds the confidence that underlies it.

A successful eternal marriage involves the Lord as a constant Partner, Help, and Guarantor of the covenant. He wants us to succeed. We draw upon His help and strength through faith and prayer. Modern prophets for a hundred years or more have counseled that great power comes to husband and wife and then to their family from such inspired practices as regular, daily family prayer and scripture study and weekly family home evening. From long experience I can tell you that this is true.

We know that we each will come up short from time to time. The atonement of Christ gives us the best tool for dealing with our shortcomings and not letting them harm our marriage: forgiveness. We discussed how we need to seek forgiveness from each other and be ever ready to extend forgiveness. The result is peace, trust, and security.

Do not neglect to follow, jointly, principles of sound family finances. Managing family finances together can be a powerful way of uniting marriage in real life. As we manage the material elements of our life we build eternal spiritual ties with each other. In a material way we see our complete union growing closer. A few of the key principles of successful financial management include paying an honest tithe (as a constant reminder of the spiritual nature of all things material), spending less than we earn, and the freedom that comes from living within a budget.

These are just highlights of the marvelous truths that God has revealed to us through His prophets to make our marriages what He intends them to be, the greatest source of happiness and joy in this life and happiness and fulfillment beyond anything that we can imagine in the eternal worlds.

As you consider them, think on the words of the modern prophet Brigham Young about the marriage relationship:

But the whole subject of the marriage relation is not in my reach, nor in any other man’s reach on this earth. It is without beginning of days or end of years; it is a hard matter to reach. We can tell some things with regard to it; it lays the foundation for worlds, for angels, and for the Gods; for intelligent beings to be crowned with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. In fact, it is the thread which runs from the beginning to the end of the holy Gospel of salvation—of the Gospel of the Son of God; it is from eternity to eternity.
(Brigham Young, October 6, 1854, Journal of Discourses, 2:90)

(First published June 8, 2013)

Of Guaranties and Reliance

All around the world people are seeking guaranties against the various risks of life. Borrowers want guaranties that they can stay in their houses, even if they cannot pay the mortgage; lenders want guaranties that they will not lose money on bad mortgages; investors want guaranties against bad investments; people living at the water’s edge want guaranties against floods; and even people making guaranties are looking for guaranties that they will not lose money on the guaranties that they have made to others. Guaranties of health, guaranties of wealth, guaranties of safety and happiness, all seem to be in ever increasing demand.

Perhaps what is most disturbing is that people are not just seeking guaranties, but they are looking for others to pay for them. Rather than relying upon their own resources and performance to obtain guaranties, too many are substituting pleas and moans and whines to wheedle free guaranties from others, especially from the government.

In practice, many of these guaranties will fail. Even guaranties from government are unreliable. I recall when a Senator for whom I worked was faced by an agitated constituent, complaining that a government agency reneged on a promise. There was not anything that the Senator could do about the situation, other than to remind the constituent of an important truth about government: they lied.

There is a source of reliable, faithfully honored guaranties. The ancient American prophet Mormon taught a congregation of Christians, “the way whereby ye may lay hold on every good thing.” The way is through faith on Jesus Christ, by whom people from the beginning of time obtained all things worth having, “and thus through faith, they did lay hold upon every good thing” (Moroni 7:21,25).

Unlike many of the guaranties of men and governments, these guaranties are sure, and they also require some reliance by the individual upon his own efforts in order to qualify. In modern times the Savior Jesus Christ has said, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10)

The qualifying requirements are not onerous. They relate directly to the promises sought. For guaranties of goodness, the Lord asks us to be kind. For guaranties of financial wellbeing, the Lord asks us to follow practices of financial prudence. For guaranties of happy family life, the Lord asks that we love and serve each other. That is to say, to obtain the Lord’s sure guaranties, we are asked to rely jointly upon ourselves and upon the Lord.

The result was summed up by the counsel of another ancient American prophet, Helaman, that he gave to his own sons:

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. (Helaman 5:12)

That is a guaranty worth having, and well within the budget of each one of us.

(First published September 21, 2008)

Of Faith and Life

I hesitate to get into this discussion, because I consider it basically silly. It is almost entirely a semantic argument, divorced from reality. I speak of the phony and diabolical debate that poses faith in opposition to works.

I enter into it, because this manmade doctrine too often becomes a shield against repentance and the changing of one’s life to become like Jesus Christ and receiving all that He has to offer us, which is everything. In modern days, Jesus Christ announced that all who receive Him, “receiveth my Father; and he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:37, 38)

That is to say, I take up the issue not to debate the doctrine, for there is no salvation in doing that. Rather I seek to focus on how we live our lives to receive Christ, because happiness and salvation can be found there.

I know that there are some human doctrines that hold that a man or woman is “saved” only by faith, absolutely and completely unrelated to any good or evil that the person may do at any point in life. That is the doctrine. I do not, however, know of anyone who lives in accordance with that doctrine. Since I do not know and could not possibly meet everyone, I do not deny that there might be someone who lives his life by that doctrine—I cannot imagine it—but I have yet to meet him, and I doubt that I ever will.

I say that because I hold that how someone lives is an exact and complete expression of his faith. People think, however briefly, before they act, and their action is an expression of their faith in what will happen as a result of that action.

You might ask, what about the person who acts on reflex? I would ask, how did that person develop his reflex if not by thoughtful action, repeated over and over? His reflex is the expression of his faith exercised in the development of the reflex.

The same would be true for habits that have become very hard to break. You may say that a smoker knows and has faith that smoking is bad for his health. That may be true, but people do a lot of things that they understand to be bad for their health, but they do it anyway because it seems to them like a good idea at the time. Often a desire for immediate gratification of a physical appetite overcomes understanding of some long off harm. After all, all life takes place in the immediate moment, and the promise of future effects often can seem less persuasive and less real to the mind. Faith in the present can trump faith in the future.

What does that have to do with faith and works? Everything. What people do are their works, and what they think before hand is where their faith resides before it manifests itself in their works, in what they do. All we do, except perhaps when we sleepwalk, is a union of our faith and works. Only in unreal, semantic debate is it possible to separate faith and works. I have little time in this brief life for that debate.

The Apostles of Jesus Christ have all been, every one of them, practical men, living everyday life as we do. The very practical James wrote in the New Testament, to those who asserted a separation between faith and works, “I will show thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) So do we all. Then in metaphor James explained, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). As the body without the spirit is dead, there is no life in faith and works when separated.

I would offer another analogy, albeit one less elegant. To say that faith and works can be separated and, moreover, that we can be saved by faith without any regard to our works makes as much sense as saying that a house can be built by plans alone, without brick and mortar. A plan without the bricks and mortar is just so many pieces of paper, providing no shelter, warmth, or comfort for the living. A house without plans will be nothing more than a pile of building materials awaiting application of some intelligent design. There is no house without both design and materials organized and applied according to the design.

Sometimes at this point in the discussion an objection is made that there is no faith, no salvation, without grace, and that no amount of works no matter how good can make up for a lack of grace. All of that is true. And that is what I would explain next as a concluding point.

Never forget, ever, during this life of mortality that all of this existence on earth is temporary and was designed to be so. All of mortality eventually has an end. Men get into great difficulty when they try to make this mortality last. Nothing of mortality lasts. God designed and created this temporary life as a learning time and a place of testing to prepare us for worlds where endlessness is the rule, the existence where God lives and where most of life takes place, without end.

Part of that preparation in this life involves the voluntary reception by us of things from the eternal worlds that God offers to us in this world of mortality. Anything of any real value in this life is what God has extended to us from the eternal worlds, and that is all that survives from our mortal existence. It is all that we need and any good thing that we could want.

All of those extensions of eternal things from eternal worlds come by grace, the free gift of God. We can demand none of them, and there is nothing that we can do to merit them, but we do have to qualify for them. Basically, to qualify for them we have to demonstrate to God that we will receive the things of eternity rather than despise them. And then He gives them to us.

Let me illustrate by returning to the house analogy. The plans for building the house are like faith. Organizing and applying the bricks and mortar according to the plans are our works. By grace God has inspired our plans, and by grace we receive from God the building materials. Indeed, by grace God even works to correct the errors in our building. Without grace there would be no plans, no materials, no house perfectly formed.

God will not, however, build the house by grace. He leaves that for us, in this world of action, and effort, and choice. In what we do, by the exercise of our faith in Him through our actions, we show what we would do with what God gives us, and we qualify to receive all that the Father has. We live our faith in this way so that the Father may say to us when we return into His presence, “thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”(Matthew 25:23)

(First published August 31, 2013)

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