Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gift Discrimination

Santa has a problem. A discrimination problem. To the children in rich families, he gives big, extravagant, expensive gifts, and to the children of poorer families, he gives smaller, humbler, cheaper gifts. This is unfair, and not really in keeping with the image who's supposed to be loving and generous to everyone. But if it's a problem when Santa does this, then isn't it a problem when God does it too?

God loves everyone equally, but He doesn't bless us all equally. In the parable of the talents, he gives one person twice as much as he gave another person, and he gave the second person five times as much as he gave the third person. Did He love the first person ten times as much as He loved he third person? No.

In life, there is an incredible amount of imbalance. Some people are given struggles that they don't deserve, and other people are given blessings that they don't deserve. And that's okay. The unfairness and discrimination is only temporary. Through the law of compensation, those who received more struggles than they deserved will receive blessings more than equal to their undeserved pain. And through the justice of God, those who received more blessing than they deserved will lose those blessings at about the same time as they get what they actually do deserve.

In the meantime, the imbalance in God's gift-giving is meant to teach us several lessons. These lessons include humility and gratitude when receiving gifts, generosity in sharing our gifts with others, and patience and faith when waiting for gifts yet to be given. Right now, some people's stockings are stuffed a bit more snugly than other people's, but eventually we'll all be given as much candy or coal as we deserve to be given.

Friday, December 19, 2014

You Can't Wrap Service

On Wednesday evening, I talked with my Valiant Knights (11-year-old scouts) about service, encouraging them to do some special act of service for someone else this Christmastime. Christmas is a really good time to give service. Thoughtful service is an expression of love, and Christmas is all about giving each other gifts of love.

My trouble is that it doesn't make a very good gift. You can't wrap service. You can't write someone's name on it and stick it under a tree. Unless the service involves making something or fixing something, it's hard to make a gift out of it, because it's not a thing, it's an action, and Christmas presents are almost always things. Even if you used a thing (like a coupon) to represent future service, the gift would seem really cheap and lame.

Yet, service would sometimes make a better gift than an object. Service is usually more thoughtful than a physical gift, and unless the physical gift is homemade, service almost always involves a greater sacrifice of time and effort to obtain than a store-bought gift does. It's a more personal gift than anything you could just buy at a store. It's not even so much of a gift, really. It's a more direct expression of love.

Then again, there are good things to be said about physical gifts as well. Homemade gifts require greater sacrifices of time and effort than service does, and they're often incredibly personal and wonderful gifts. And since purchased gifts cost money and money takes time and work to obtain, store-bought gifts still represent a sacrifice in time and effort, and some of them are just do darn cool and/or useful that they bring a substantial amount of joy and happiness into the lives of the people who receive them. There are many kinds of gifts, and what would make a good gift mostly depends on who the recipient is.

I'm not good at giving good gifts. I don't have much talent at making things, and even now that I have a job and some money, I have no idea what to buy for others. Out of making things, buying things, and giving service, I'm best at giving service. It's just too bad that service isn't really something you can actually give.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Buddy the Elf

Today is "International Answer the Telephone Like Buddy the Elf Day." In case you're not familiar with him, Buddy the Elf is this guy:

I hope this video works for you. It seems that I've had some trouble with these in the past.

Now, I wouldn't recommend answering the phone like Buddy does. In fact, there are quite a few things that Buddy does that I wouldn't recommend. However, he gives us a few examples, even in this short video, of things that we would do well to emulate.

The first thing I noticed in this video, beside how unlike himself Buddy acts in the first few seconds of the video, is how friendly Buddy naturally is. He greets nearly everyone he passes with a warm smile and often a compliment. We can copy that. When we meet others today, we can express genuine happiness to see them. If we can think of something positive to say right on the spot, we can say it. It might just make someone's day.

The world need more happiness and human kindness. The world needs people who greet others pleasantly, and sometimes, people really need someone to lift their spirits so they can get through the day. It doesn't take much, just a smile and a kind word, but it can really make a big impact on others. Buddy always tried to spread cheer and happiness, and so can we.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas in the Book of Mormon

Everyone knows and loves the Christmas story found in Luke Chapter 2, but one Christmas, while I was on my mission, an investigator asked me if there were any references to Christmas in the Book of Mormon. I first thought of Nephi's vision of Mary.
And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white. 
And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.  
And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? 
And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things. 
And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh. 
And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! 
And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. 
And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? 
And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. 
And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. 
 1 Nephi 11: 13-23
 Of course, I could have also shared the experience of Christmas among the Nephites, but it's so far removed from the typical Christmas story that I thought it was better to stick with the reference to the virgin mother. Little did I know then that there was another reference to Mary later in the Book of Mormon, when King Benjamin told his people what an angel told him about Christ.

And the things which I shall tell you are made known unto me by an angel from God. And he said unto me: Awake; and I awoke, and behold he stood before me. 
And he said unto me: Awake, and hear the words which I shall tell thee; for behold, I am come to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy. 
For the Lord hath heard thy prayers, and hath judged of thy righteousness, and hath sent me to declare unto thee that thou mayest rejoice; and that thou mayest declare unto thy people, that they may also be filled with joy. 
For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. 
And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men. 
And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. 
And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary. 
Mosiah 3: 2-8
 Of course, neither of these references are nearly as detailed as Luke's account. They don't say anything about shepherds or wise men, or even the star. However, they, too, make mention of the birth of our Savior, and that's the really important part. I think it's nice that we have a second witness of the birth of the Savior, as our way of saying "Yes, we believe that happened, and they believed it, too." With Christ's birth being one of the most important events in all of history, it makes sense that the Nephites would have known and written about it, and we're fortunate enough to have a copy of a translation of their record. The Book of Mormon really is Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and I'm glad that that testament includes at least three references to the birth of Christ.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Who Are The Wise Men?

Popular culture holds that there were three wise men and that they came from Asia, hence the song "We Three Kings From Orient Are." Some even claim to know their names. While I'm not sure how much of that is supported in the text of the Bible, I'm pretty sure that some of it isn't. I don't think we know how many wise men there were or exactly where they came from or whether or not they were actually kings. One theory popular among Mormons is that the wise men included Samuel the Lamanite and Alma (the Younger, I think), but we don't have any proof for that, either. The exact number and nationalities of the wise men is a secret that was lost to time, but a favorite Christmas quote of mine implies that there are far more "wise men" than we've considered so far.

"Wise men still seek Him"

And I might add:

"This season, and always."

The wise men who sought Jesus weren't just the ones that were carrying Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They were also the ones who followed Him through Galilee, who walked on water to meet Him, and who touched the hem of His clothes. They include everyone who profess His name and follow His teachings. If we are wise enough to follow Him, the group of "wise men" also includes us.

It is no longer possible for us to literally follow the Star of Bethlehem, bearing gifts to the newborn king, but we can still follow the light of the Master, bearing gifts of broken hearts, contrite spirits, and all our good works, and offer them to our Heavenly King. By being born a few thousand years after His birth, we've missed our chance to see Him in-person, but sooner or later, we're all going to come face-to-face with our Savior, whether we want to or not. The question is not whether we'll ever go to see Jesus, but what "gifts" we'll bring with us when we do. My hope is that we will seek Jesus during our lifetimes, so we may have good gifts to present to Him when we meet Him, just as the first few wise men did.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Lament of the Lame-Gift-Giver

For the past few days, I've been trying to find the articulation required to meaningfully blog about the giving and receiving of gifts. I have several potential blog post ideas on that topic, but I haven't yet found the right words to blog about them. Part of the reason for this is that I don't want to be a hypocrite. I don't want to blog about how to give good gifts, knowing that I'll fail at that, by my own standards. I also don't want to blog about a topic about which I know so little, compared to my audience. Maybe I'll just leave the subject of gift-giving alone. Except that I do want to make one point on the subject: We shouldn't stress out about it as much as some of us do.

Christmas was never really instituted by Christ or His church - we just kind of adopted it - but all the same, it was never meant to make people miserable or upset. Christmas is all about joy. But some people, including myself, have got it in their heads that they owe others gifts that are sufficiently valuable/thoughtful/creative/personal, and such people often find themselves falling short by our own standards. We stress out about how our gifts aren't as good as other people's gifts, and we feel like we've let our loved ones down.

I'm sure that our loved ones don't want us to feel that way, and that they wouldn't want us to stress out about how lame our gifts are. They'd tell us that they don't really care about the gifts, and that what's really important is that we get to spend time together and share our love for each other. That's what Christmas is really about - love. Gifts are just expressions of that love. But some of us aren't very good at expressing our love that way. I'm sure that my loved ones deserve better gifts than what I'm giving them, and maybe they're Christlike enough to say they don't really care about the gifts, but I still feel bad, thinking that I should have done better for them.

But as I've acknowledged above, this is not a problem that I should be worrying about. Christmas isn't really about the presents, so I shouldn't worry about it as if it were. Okay, so some of the presents are lame - that's not really the point! If the happiness of your Christmas hinges on whether I give you a wonderful Christmas present (first of all, brace yourself for disappointment, but secondly), you might want to adjust your priorities. And if the happiness of my Christmas hinges on whether or not I manage to give wonderful Christmas presents, I probably need to adjust mine. Christmas isn't really about the presents, so even if some of the presents are terrible, it's not the end of the world. I don't really care if I get lame presents. I just hope that the people I'm getting presents for feel the same way.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Spirituality Cycle

This morning, I had the opportunity to sing "If The Savior Stood Beside Me" for my Mom in Primary as part of her sharing time lesson. Her lesson was on how thinking about Jesus can help us chose the right, and during her lesson, she shared something that I found rather insightful. If we imagine Jesus being near us, that can help us to be righteous, and being righteous can help us have Christ's spirit with us, which can continue to help us be righteous. All that it takes to get the cycle started is to make an attempt to be righteous, or to feel the spirit in such a way that inspires you to be righteous.

Christmastime is a great time to start or restart this cycle because the spirit id very strong this time of year, and there is lots of encouragement and many opportunities to do good. Let's try to catch the spirit of Christmas and see how long we can keep the cycle going. And if you ever break the cycle, you can restart it with a renewed commitment to do good. But once you've got the cycle started, it shouldn't be too hard to keep up. It's easier to do good when you have the spirit with you, and it's easy to have the spirit with you when you're doing good.