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 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 Mountains and Forever

They say that the mountains of the East are far older than the mountains of the West and at one time were just as lofty. Over ages and ages the Appalachian Mountains have been worn down by wind and rain and the other engines of change, their substance contributing to much of the land on which many of the people of the southeastern United States today live and where generations before them cleared the land, built their homes, and at length departed.

The sugary white beach sands of Florida’s Emerald Coast are said to be uncountable grains of quartz eroded from the mountains far to the north. The cities of Wilmington, Delaware; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; and numerous others are outposts along the “Fall Line” of the eastern seaboard, marking where the ocean once met the land and where eons later waterfalls and rapids set the limit that colonial ships could travel up the rivers. All of the land between these cities and today’s coast was created from the rocks of the timelessly ancient Appalachians.

And yet these mountains are still majestic for all of that wear and tear. The clouds ever cling to the Smoky Mountains, while in Virginia, as the Blue Ridge, the mountains rise as the rocky fence that for the early colonists divided the new land between what they called east and west.

I recently spent a week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the western side of the Smokies. In the morning the view of Mt. LeConte and other towering peaks greeted me, and at night they fed evening reverie.

Each evening of the week the family gathered for a devotional on a wide porch with that marvelous view as our backdrop. Each adult family member, often helped by a younger participant, took a turn leading us in song, prayer, scripture study, and a spiritual message. Spiritual thoughts came easy in that setting. On one evening in full twilight I called upon the setting for my visual aid.

The mountains of the East are distinguished by being blanketed in forest framing the occasional meadow, with very infrequent exposed rock. I drew attention to the forest covering, noting that among the woodland growth there were a fair number of trees shorn of every leaf—long dead. I remarked that all of the living trees that we saw would die in turn, and that the mountains themselves were steadily disappearing, imperceptibly wearing away. We live in a world that of itself is a world of steady decay, with no earthly exceptions.

And then the point of the message (with little ones in attendance you have to reach the point soon enough): each one of us is older than the mountains before us. Our Heavenly Father told us long before time all about this world and His plan for us here while we lived in His presence in His eternal home that preexisted the earth. From that eternal world we were sent to a world where all was change and where decay prevailed. This temporary world is our learning, growing, and testing ground, where we have full freedom to choose who and what we want to become.

Into this world of death and decay Jesus Christ was sent by His Father and our Father to redeem every good thing, including (most of all) those who would choose to rely upon His power and grace to become good and be brought back into the eternal worlds of the Father’s presence. All good, all beauty, all loveliness of this world would be saved by Christ and amplified where moth and rust do not corrupt. That was the power that Christ the Redeemer won by His atoning sacrifice. As beautiful and great as the view before us, Christ came that we might rise above and lay claim forever to it all, losing nothing worth keeping. Most of all, that included especially all of us gathered on that porch and our eternal relationship as family.

And that was the lesson of the mountains and the forests before us, presented in fewer words. But the truth of the message lingers and will not wear away.

(First published June 25, 2013)