Sunday, December 24, 2006

I bring you good tidings of great joy

Sunday, December 24, 2006 Observation:

This Christmas Eve is the 68th Christmas Eve it has been my privilege to experience.  I hope to be able to experience a few more but one never has any guarantee.  Christmas Eve for me has always been a wonderful day -- the best day of the year in many ways.  Of course, I can't remember in detail all of those past Christmas Eves, but I do remember the special feeling they have always brought to me.

Never to be forgotten however, is the Christmas Eve of 1959.  I was serving as the branch president of a small struggling branch of 46 members in the town of Ahuachapan, El Salvador -- today in that same town there is the El Salvador, Ahuachapan Stake.  Christmas Eve was a great family tradition and celebration in our little town of Ahuachapan.  Because of that no branch activity was planned for that special evening.

Several days before Christmas Eve my companion and I heard a knock on the door and one of the faithful and humble brothers in our little Branch entered our small apartment room and invited us to eat Christmas Eve dinner at his home with him and his family.  We readily accepted, realizing what an honor it was to be invited into his home on this very special evening.  Wouldn't you know it, just a few minutes later another equally faithful and humble member of the Branch knocked on the door and invited us to his home for dinner on Christmas Eve. We just felt we couldn't disappoint either family (neither family knew the other one had invited us), and thankfully the dinners were several hours apart which would make it possible to honor both invitations the same evening. 

When we entered the first humble two room home on Christmas Eve, we were astonished to see the great feast this family had prepared for the Elders.  They spent money they didn't have to make this dinner as special as possible, and we embarrassingly realized we were eating most of the food, and that they just wouldn't stand for any refusal of the food they were offering us as servants of the Lord.  In their minds nothing was too good for us -- the Elders of Israel!

You would have been proud of the amount of food we ate at that first dinner and then we began to jog through the streets to our next appointment trying to burn up some of the calories we had consumed.  The scene was repeated at the next home, but again, my companion and I were equal to the task and this family never suspected that we had just recently consumed an enormous banquet.

We stumbled out of their home and staggered down the street to our apartment which was adjacent to the Catholic cathedral.  We fell onto our beds in a stupor, with visions of tortillas, frijoles, and tamales dancing in our heads.  All of a sudden we were almost blasted out of our beds by a tremendous roar.  We thought a terrorist had blown up the Catholic cathedral.  We rushed to the window, threw open the sash, and beheld the sky ablaze with exploding rockets and fireworks of all kinds, all emanating from the courtyard of the Catholic cathedral.  The streets were full of beautiful, humble, Latin American people with joyous smiles on their faces, rejoicing and celebrating in their own unique way, the birth of the Savior of us all.
Here in the United States we celebrate Christmas Eve a little differently than in Latin America. Each year at Christmastime, Jo Anne decorates our home as you do yours.  The tree, the lights, and all of the other beautiful decorations make of Christmas a festive and wonderful time of year.  Over the years my favorite decoration has been a small three letter word made out of red and green felt that usually hangs somewhere in the house during the Christmas season.  That word is "JOY"!  It is my favorite decoration because I think that one word "JOY" captures the essence of the spirit of Christmas and the ultimate purpose of Christ's birth and mission better than any other word.

The prophet Lehi, as he instructed his son Jacob, taught the eternal truth that "Adam fell that men might be and men are that they might have joy."  The kind of joy Lehi spoke of can only come through Christ.

The joy the Savior brings to the world results not just from his birth but from the power of His atoning sacrifice for each one of us.  The prophet Isaiah, 2500 years ago, wrote: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows...he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."  [Isaiah 53:4-5].

A significant portion of His earthly ministry was spent in healing the bodies and spirits of those among whom he walked -- bringing them joy and pre-figuring His ultimate act of healing -- His resurrection and ultimately ours. "As Jesus healed, the scriptures say, "All the people were amazed" (Matthew 12:23). They brought their sick, their "blind, and dumb" (Matthew 12:22), those that were "possessed with a devil" (Matthew 12:22; also Mark 1:32), and their dead. They sought Him every day and into the evening. So great was His reputation and His healing power that they sought to "only touch the hem of his garment; and as many as touched were made perfectly whole" (Matthew 14:36). "And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching . . . and preaching the gospel . . . , and healing every sickness and every disease among the people" (Matthew 9:35)."  [Dr. Elaine S. Marshall] Christ was and is the Master healer of mankind. 

As sons and daughters of God, living in this mortal world, we are subject to a variety of experiences. We have our seasons of peace when everything is going well and we also have our seasons of sorrow. Through Christ's birth, life, and atoning sacrifice however, whatever our lot in life at any given moment, we can still experience the joy that Christ desires to give to all who are willing to exercise faith in him and come unto Him with full purpose of heart. 

Seventeen years ago at Christmastime I was lying in a hospital bed in a rehabilitation center. Although my family and friends did all they could do to bring the Christmas spirit to me in that setting, I will always remember what a bleak Christmas it was for me. My accident and subsequent injury was absolutely devastating.  All was not well with my soul that Christmas and for some time after I felt depressed and empty inside.  The help I needed could not come from mortal man but only from Christ.

As time went by however, a great miracle took place in my life. The Savior healed my soul.  I was filled with joy, peace, and a sense of well being that I never thought I would ever experience again.  The joy that came into my life and has continued with me through the subsequent years has come from the Savior and from no other source.

Because of my own experience I have come to understand more fully the words of the Savior to Joseph Smith when he said to him and all of us: "Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.  Therefore care not for the body neither the life of the body; but care for the soul and for the life of the soul." [D&C 101:36-37.]

Our challenge in life and especially at this time of the year is to not be so concerned about the physical and material but to care more for the things of the spirit that bring the joy of Christ into our lives and into the lives of others. 

It is my prayer that this Christmas we may more fully understand the message of the Angel to the humble shepherds that night of nights when he announced to them, "... I bring you good tidings of great joy ...."  [Luke 2:9-10.] So it was then, and so it is now, and so will it ever be!


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Be Still...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Many years ago while serving as a young bishop, a family in the ward had a difficult struggle.  I counseled with them, prayed with them, and prayed for them, but the problems persisted.  I was agonizing over the eternal consequences of their behavior and didn't quite know what to do to help them.  One evening just as I was going to bed and was pondering on how to best help this family the following words came powerfully into my mind: "Be still, and know that I am God."  (Psalm 46:10; Doctrine & Covenants 101:16)     My interpretation of these words at that time was that nothing I was going to say or do was going to resolve the complex problems experienced by this family, but that in due time God would provide the solution and necessary healing.  I still prayed for the family, and kept in contact with them, but no longer tried to influence them with my "wise counsel".  I also quit worrying about the ultimate outcome and felt great peace regarding this situation. It took several years but the problems were eventually resolved and the family came back into full activity with all the promises of someday being an eternal family.  As a bishop, I had learned a valuable lesson regarding trusting in the power and goodness of a loving and kind Heavenly Father while at the same time recognizing my own limitations as a human being.

A number of years later I was badly injured while body surfing at Laguna Beach, California.  The accident happened in the afternoon.  As soon as I was stabilized somewhat, I was transported to the ER room of the nearest trauma center, which was in Mission Viejo.  I was surrounded by loving family and friends, who were a comfort to me; however, I was still in a dazed and shocked condition regarding what had happened. 

At about 12 midnight the neurosurgeons sent everyone home so they could perform an MRI on me to fully diagnose the seriousness of my spinal cord injury.  When all my loved ones left and the doctors began the MRI with me still in my swimming suit, strapped to a board, and unable to move or talk, I have never felt so alone.  My mind was just churning with questions like: "Will I ever be able to move my body again?"  "Will I ever be able to breathe on my own again?"  "Will I ever be able to talk again?"  "If I am seriously injured how will I ever financially be able to take care of my family?"  "How will I ever be able to be a husband and father if I can't move my body?"  "Will I ever be able to teach again or serve in the Church?"  And the questions just kept coming and coming and there was no peace, but only a troubled heart and fear. 

Then a wonderful thing happened as I began to silently pray.  I heard no voice and really no words came to me, but there came the impression into my heart and mind that somehow, ultimately everything would be okay.  I had no feeling that I would be healed in the sense that I would be able to walk, breathe, and lead a "normal" life.  However, a great feeling of peace came into my heart and I knew that somehow my family and I would be able to get through this.  Although the words didn't come as they did when I was serving as a bishop, the message nonetheless was the same, "Be still and know that I am God!"

Several days later the head neurosurgeon leaned over my bed and said "Jack, you will never move again. You will never breathe on your own again. You will never be able to eat solid food again. You will never be able to speak again. And you will never be able to live outside of some kind of care facility". I just knew that he was wrong and his words did not disturb me.  I had it from a higher source that somehow a loving, kind and all powerful Heavenly Father would strengthen me to get through this.  I didn't know how at the time except that I was to be "still" and know that "He was God!"

On the last night of his mortal experience the Savior counseled his beloved apostles by saying: "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."  [John 14:27] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said that the Savior's command to "not let our hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid" is probably the most frequently broken commandment the Lord has given to us.  To be troubled and afraid of the present or the future is to not believe in the ultimate goodness and power of Heavenly Father.  We are so prone to counsel the Lord as we question at times what life has brought to us.  Jacob said it this way: "Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand. For behold, ye yourselves know that he counseleth in wisdom, and in justice, and in great mercy, over all his works."  [Jacob 4:10]

I am still trying to learn this profound lesson about life.  There simply is no other way to not be "troubled" or "afraid" than to absolutely trust in the ultimate goodness and power of God and to be "still" and not to "counsel" Him.  We don't know why certain things happen to us or to our loved ones, and the worst question we could ever ask is "why"?  A severely handicapped man with aching heart was pleading out loud, "Why me Lord?"  And he then heard the words very loudly in his mind and heart, "Why not you?"  We have to learn to be "still" and trust in God and in his great power and love for each one of us.

The essence of what I am trying to say, and what I have learned through personal experience, is to truly believe in the Lord's counsel to Joseph Smith and to all of us: "Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good..." [Doctrine & Covenants 90:25]



Monday, December 4, 2006

The best is none too good for us.

Monday, December 4, 2006 Observation:

As a 17-year-old boy I left my home in Ruth, Nevada and with my good friend, Mel Walker, drove to Provo, Utah to begin my freshman year at BYU.  We moved into a room in Allen Hall, BYU student housing, near the pizza parlor now known as the Brick Oven.  My dad always wanted to know where in the "hall" I lived and what in the "hall" I was doing.  Well, I was living on the top floor and was associating with young men that in retrospect impacted my life for good in an eternal sense.  Living on the ground floor were three Callister brothers from Glendale, California.  Their grandfather was Elder LeGrand Richards who during the two years we lived in Allen Hall would come and speak to us occasionally on a Sunday evening as a favor to his grandsons.  These were good boys who loved the Lord and whose example was worthy of emulation.  The youngest brother was named Doug and was my same age.  Doug is now Elder Douglas L. Callister of the first quorum of the 70.  After he visited and spoke in our stake a few years ago I approached him and, I'm sure it was because of the wheelchair and his having heard of my accident, recognized me and we shared a few memories of our days living together in Allen Hall.

Because of that little relationship with Elder Callister, I eagerly listened to the talk he delivered at the BYU student devotional on September 19, 2006.  The talk is entitled "Your Refined Celestial Home".  I am probably somewhat prejudiced, but I think this talk should be required listening or reading for every family in the church -- especially those with children still living at home.  You can find it by clicking on and then clicking on "find a talk" and typing in the name, "Douglas L. Callister".

It is not my purpose to give a review of Elder Callister's talk, but I think I can share the essence of what he had to say through an experience Joseph Fielding Smith had with his father Joseph F. Smith many years ago.  Having recently returned from a mission to Great Britain, young Joseph Fielding Smith was looking for some kind of employment to sustain himself and his young family.  One of the positions he was offered was a "... permanent government position as an inspector of pool halls, bawdy houses and other places that sold beer and liquor, and to collect excise taxes, his territory to include Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. The job paid quite a handsome salary and was respectable enough in nature even though it would bring him into contact with some unsavory characters... The good salary would certainly help Joseph to get a house built. Joseph mulled the offer in his mind a few days... he conferred with his father about it before making a firm decision. His father advised him to decline the offer. "Remember this, son," he said, "the best company is none too good for you." So Joseph declined the job, and a few days later he received an offer he liked much better: Anthon H. Lund offered him a staff position in the Church Historian's Office." ( Joseph Fielding Smith, John J. Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 125-126.)

I am going to take some license with Joseph F. Smith's counsel to his son.  I think Joseph was not just referring to the "company" of other people, but also to the full spectrum of the human experience.  As sons and daughters of God "the best" in friends, education, vocation, music, the written word, the media we permit to come into our homes and minds, and a host of other things that could be mentioned are "none too good for us!"  Choosing "the best" will bless our lives in mortality and prepare us one day for our eternal destiny to become as our Heavenly Father and to feel comfortable in and enjoy our "Refined Celestial Home."

In concluding his talk, Elder Callister related the following story to summarize his message to the BYU student body:  "In a make believe kingdom a make believe King and his Queen, after many years, finally had a beautiful baby boy born into their family who would be the heir to the throne.  Not wanting to spoil the boy, and hopefully to prepare him to be a good and just King, they secretly took him to the countryside for a peasant couple to raise.  They were to tell him nothing of his birth and who he really was.  When the boy was 18 years old the King and Queen went to the countryside to bring their boy home to become the next King inasmuch as his father was growing older and would soon pass on.  To their dismay they discovered that their 18 year old son had become expert at plowing, planting, harvesting, and taking care of livestock, but he was ill-prepared and had no vision of who he really was, and what it would take to rule a kingdom, command armies, and meet the needs of his subjects.  Their beloved son had been raised as a peasant and had become a peasant in spite of the royal blood that coursed through his veins."

We have temporarily been sent away by our Heavenly Father and King -- not to be raised as peasants -- but as princes and princesses, being refined in every way to one day inherit our own kingdoms.  During this period of training and probation which we call mortality, truthfully, "The best... is none too good for us!" I am afraid that in many of our homes we are raising too many "peasants" with no vision of who they are and of their eternal potential. A "peasant" perspective regarding life seems to dominate our culture.  You can observe it in our language, our dress, our music, the media, and what we choose for recreation.  We have been plummeting downward from the "best" to the "mediocre" at lightning speed.  Eric Anderson spoke a profound truth when he said: "The most insidious influence on the young is not violence, drugs, tobacco, drink or sexual perversion, but our pursuit of the trivial and our tolerance of the third rate."

Maybe it's because I am getting older and out of touch with reality, but I don't enjoy much of the music I hear that has recently been written and recorded.  Does anybody like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin anymore?  Are our kids being raised on musical french fries and hamburgers having their musical pallets paralyzed, resulting in no taste for the gourmet music of the Masters?  What I'm saying about music can be applied to the media, literature, art, architecture, and dress of our times.  Listen to President Hinckley:

"Let there be music in the home. If you have teenagers who have their own recordings, you will be prone to describe the sound as something other than music. Let them occasionally hear something better. Expose them to it. It will speak for itself. More of appreciation will come than you may think. It may not be spoken, but it will be felt, and its influence will become increasingly manifest as the years pass." (Be Thou an Example [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981], p. 56.) "Enjoy music. Not the kind that rocks and rolls, but the music of the masters, the music that has lived through the centuries, the music that has lifted people. If you do not have a taste for it, listen to it thoughtfully. If you do not like it the first time, listen to it again and keep listening. It will be something like going to the temple. The more often you go, the more beautiful will be the experience. (Ellen Pucell Unthank Monument Dedication, Cedar City, Utah, August 3, 1991.)

"I believe in the beauty of good music and art, of pleasing architecture, and of good literature untainted by profanity or verbal filth. ("This I Believe," BYU 1991-92 Devotional and Fireside Speeches, March 1, 1992, p. 78.)

I believe what President Hinckley believes and what Joseph F. Smith taught his son -- "The best... is none too good for you!"