Saturday, May 7, 2022

Happy Mother's Day and a love letter to mothering...

"I know I must have been loved like that, even if I can't remember it. I know my mother must have loved to comb my shiny hair and rub that Johnson's baby lotion up and down my arms and wrap me up and hold and hold me all night I'd have enough love in me to know what love was when I saw it or felt it again."   --Cynthia Rylant in Missing May

      The day our son, Elias, was born... Little did we know, he would change our lives for the better when he would be diagnosed with autism three years later...

Happy Mother's Day to all! On this Mother's Day, I am spending it in London with my first grandchild--a  new season of wonder and awe in the journey of life. Observing my own child become a parent, I am filled with memories of who I was when I became a mother long ago. Of course, there was anticipation, fears, apprehensions. But perhaps more than anything, there was a willingness to plunge deeply into unknown territory--to give this unchartered work everything I had. Deeply, I knew it was a new sphere of understanding how to love outside of myself--in a way I had never known. 

Suddenly, with unexpected abruptness, I was content to be enclosed in a new world with my little daughter. Outside of our cloistered circle, the world outside continued to rustle and beckon. But I remember being content to stay wrapped in this newly formed cocoon with her and my husband. There was nothing I would not do for this new little babe. As I looked out of my New York City 24th story view and heard the noise and rustling of the city, I wanted to crowd out the world for a while. Of course, I knew this exquisitely beautiful cocoon of time would not last long. There was so much newly-mint joy in that space of time. I suppose that is why we had six more children. 😀

Every child is a journey. They come with their own passport of where they will eventually go. Each of them has an unmistakable and individual divine nature that comes to imprint on your soul. Sooner or later you learn they were never yours to tightly hold on to and sequester. In fact, they cannot be endlessly protected; we are not our children's shield of safety. They were meant to fly away from the sheltered haven we tried to lovingly build for them. Yet, I have learned they will migrate back for you to hold and love again-- teaching us new things of their own journeys.

A few years ago, I met the mayor of a small village in Normandy, France. He was an older gentleman who was painting on a hillside overlooking his village. As we spoke to him, he told us a story I have always remembered: During WWII, his parents who were part of the French Resistance Movement, were caught and imprisoned in a camp. His mother, who was pregnant with him, was later delivered there by a very kind, compassionate doctor. On that night, she begged the doctor to save her baby's life and bring him clandestinely outside the camp to freedom. The doctor, knowing full well the parents could never see the child again, agreed. He knew of their impending death sentences. That night, in the dark, under a long trench coat, he swaddled the child under his cloak. He risked his life for a baby whose parents would never know their child.

A few minutes later, our French friend took us to see a picture of the mayor's parents. As I looked into their faces--so young, hopeful, and beautiful, I was and continue to be moved by their story. A young mother, knowing her fate and wanting to keep this child safe from the world gave him up to an unknown stranger--a doctor who happened to be on call that day in a prison camp. Perhaps I am further moved by the story because my own husband has delivered about 25,000 children and I know he would have gladly done the same deed on that night long ago in the early 1940s in France. But as I said, mothering takes you to places, both literal and figurative, you never thought you would or could go.

Here are a few thoughts on mothering I have had over the years:

--Give yourself a break. Mothering, especially in the first years, can be almost all-encompassing. When you daily try to fill the needs of little ones, carve moments to reset. And that means giving yourself permission to take a nap. That was always my own mother's healing balm of advice. Recalibrate. Rest. Relax. Every. Day.

--Reach out. Recently I heard of a young mother I know who has been having a difficult time because of the pandemic. Lift, encourage, and say a kind word. People so desperately need affirmations. We don't know the wounds or the current state of mental health of others, but we can connect and help out. Today when I was walking into Herrod's Department store in London, not one, but two security men opened the door for me as I pushed my grandson's stroller through the door. They smiled, nodded, and just made me feel better. We might think it is a small and inconsequential act, but kind acts have a long shelf life. 

--Build on your interests, both former ones before children, but also be brave and bold to learn new things. Everything you know and love can be shared with your children. Hold onto those passions you have always cherished so you can inspire your loved ones. Those are some of the tender gifts they will always remember and connect to. Books, nature, swimming, tennis, music, art, and cooking are some of my interests. For example, I love art museums. When we lived in Baltimore, we would sometimes trek down to the National Gallery. By the time one of my daughters was seven, she could give family and friends an amazing tour. Blog on My Cello Love Story

--Gather. Become a part of a community of mothers who help one another. Many parents do not live by their families. It does not matter if women are much older or younger than one another. In my younger years, I had sage counsel from women who I looked to for advice. Now I am older, I try to do the same for others. We can always learn from one another--even if we initially think people are not in the same "stage of life" we are in. Learn from unlikely sources who can teach you how to think in different ways and give you new perspectives. I will always remember what my Muslim neighbor told me when I first moved to Qatar, "Don't make boundaries with me, Maryan." She said it lovingly, and I knew she meant it. I learned so much from a mother who wore a burka. My life would be so different if I had not been her friend. Learn from others who are different than you. Blog on Spilling Love and Celebrating International Women's Day

--Have fun! Be creative. Give lots of hugs. Have a fun game, art, and/or music nights. Laugh a lot and go out and see the stars or a sunset or a firefly.  Carve holy moments of time. I remember celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a friend. We all went on a picnic with our kids and dyed our hair that day. As we tromped through a park in Los Angeles, we sang and told stories with our green hair. We came home exhilarated, breathless with happiness to be outside laughing and frolicking with our children.

--You can do harder things than you realize because you have learned to love with no bounds. Being a mother of a child with autism has stretched and blessed me. Blog on My Autism Mountain Having a young baby die taught me to be outside of my skin. Blog on Traveling Through Time in a Day

Some of my South African friends in China. The little girl told me, "You have taught me how to be brave and kind" on the last night before I left China. I teared up and told her I would try to live up to her estimation of me. Children's words, so pure and unfiltered, spark me to be better.

                                                                  A mother in India who I met

             A Cambodian mother who I often visited in the refugee camps when I worked there in Thailand and the Philippines in the 1980s. She was so grateful to be in a refugee camp and to have boxes for furniture and a hammock for several of her children to sleep in. At least now she knew they were safe from Pol Pot's genocide.

                                      A very special single mom with her triplets who my husband delivered 18 years ago. They have been like family to us. 

One of my best friends, Yoyo, in Tianjin, China with her son. She told me, "I think my children choose me to be their mom before they came down to be on earth with me."

                                       A grandmother with her grandson at Ikea in Tianjin, China

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Rare intersection of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter 2022 fall simultaneously together....

Another of Michaelangelo's Pieta in Milan

Easter is the day that changed everything. --Dieter F. Uchdorf

The exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being in every era, every year, and in every day. --Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

The fact that the Muslim holy days coincide over time with various holy days of Christians and Jews should remind us that we are all siblings in humanity and must work together for good. --Abdassamad El Yazidi

I wrote this blog during the weekend when Easter, Passover, and Ramadan intersected--reminding us that we are siblings in humanity. Of course, like much of the world, I was deeply saddened to hear of the violence in Jerusalem that weekend. I never finished it. But now tomorrow is the end of Ramadan.  

On April 2, here in China, I looked up at the barely-bowed moon, missing my Muslim friends. The small crescent moon that was barely visible, I knew, was the beginning of Ramadan all over the world. I thought of my friends' fasting and memories of iftar feasts with friends from Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, and other Middle East countries when I lived in Qatar. A few days later, I reflected on the upcoming Easter Holy Week--the Passion Week, which is commemorated as Jesus Christ's last week of his life. Also, long ago, I lived near Jerusalem, where I witnessed the Palm Sunday procession and going to the tomb of Jesus. During that time, I was invited by a Jewish family to be with them during their Passover--a time when Jews remember the deliverance of God to end their slavery in Egypt. Often, Passover and Easter are at the same time. However, this week, in a beautiful intersection of religious calendars, believers of these three world religions are going on spiritual journeys to be restored, heal, and feel peace. This convergence of holidays emerges every 33 years.


In my five and half years living in the Middle East, one of my favorite times of the year is the holy month of Ramadan. A blog I wrote when I was in Qatar about Ramadan It is a time for a regeneration of spirit--to read the Quran, fast (both food and water), pray more duaas (prayers) that plead to Allah to be a better, devout person. Prayers at this time show more intention to ask for forgiveness and to forgive others, express feelings of joy and gratitude, and think about those who are unfortunate. Ramadan's purpose is to both isolate oneself to reflect upon how to improve, but also to build more community-bonding experiences, as well. 

During the daylight hours from when the sun rises until sunset, the streets are quiet, almost empty. Most commercial businesses do not open until after the sunset--signifying the time to end their fast. Many attend the mosque before they end their fast. Perhaps the reason I enjoyed the month of Ramadan so much was that all around me people conveyed a peace that was visibly transformative to an outsider looking in. Conversations were elevated. My Muslim friends spoke more about their feelings for those who are suffering and poor. They not only abstained from food and water during the day but there was a restraint and reining in of anger, arguing, swearing, and gossip. Negative emotions are consciously and purposefully controlled. 

Before Ramadan began and during the month, they evaluate their lives and with those who, perhaps, they needed to forgive. Relationships were intentionally strengthened. They carved necessary time in their abstaining from food and drink to truly ponder their life and to reach out to family, friends, and those who were suffering. As my dear friend and neighbor said, "I need to rebuild myself during Ramadan. A blog I wrote about a Non-Muslim's perspective on Islam

                           I always like to see the shoes outside the mosque before prayer time. 

                                                        Prayer time at the mosque

                                                        One of the main mosques in Doha


Passover is a holiday, for the most part, celebrated at home.  Home during Passover is a place of remembering, gathering, singing, eating, and storytelling. Sedar means setting up the sedar table full of ritual foods and objects, saving chairs for Elijah, and sometimes those who are forgotten in our lives. The longest part of the sedar is "maggid," which means storytelling. Passover comes directly from the Torah and commemorates the story of the ancient Hebrews' exodus from slavery.

Passover reminds me that miracles happen and that God can deliver us in unexpected and astonishing ways. In a way, we are all running from being a captive or slave to something, and we all need deliverance. Exodus prompts us to remember and to tell the stories of our miracles to our families for generations to come. 

                        The Wilderness of Egypt near where the Hebrews escaped                                   


Easter traditionally was the center of an entire season of the Christian calendar. During Lent, Christians prepared themselves spiritually for Holy Week, which focused on Christ's final week of mortality. They considered it a time of penitence--a time to seek forgiveness. Beginning at Lent (usually about 40 days before Easter), the common penance was fasting. Lent was patterned after the 40 days Jesus prayed and fasted in the wilderness. Easter Sunday, always comes between March 21 and April 25, on the first Sunday after the first full moon, following the northern spring equinox. 

As a Christian, I believe that the gospel did not end with Jesus' burial. The Easter message is that the "good news" of Easter is there is no death. We go on living because Christ rose from the grave. On the first day of the week when Jesus was resurrected, the most memorable Sunday in history, Jesus emerged alive from the tomb and appeared to Mary. And it brings hope to all of humanity.  

With the world in a commotion of pain, angst, and struggle, Easter brings hope. As John Updike said in a poem "May we not mock God with metaphor" and Gerard Manley Hopkins said, "May easter in us." Hopkins made Easter be easter--a verb--a change, a transformation. 

                   A favorite painting by Caravaggio of Thomas touching Christ's wounds

"If Jesus defeated death one morning in Jerusalem, then suddenly every revitalization, every new birth, every repaired relationship, every ascent from despair, every joy after grief, every recovery from addiction, every coral reef regeneration, every achievement of justice, every rediscovery of beauty, every miracle, every found hope becomes a sign of what Jesus did in history, and of a promised future where all things will be made new."    --Tish Harrison Warren

So today when Ramadan is ending this year, hopefully in even small, ordinary ways, these three religions can remember they are "siblings of humanity." All three faiths remind us that hope and deliverance are what we are all yearning and searching for. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

China: Lantern Day

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.  --Albert Camus

After Chinese New Year, there is another holiday to celebrate the coming of spring: Lantern Day. On that night, the streets are lit up with lanterns, people watch dragon dances, and eat round sticky balls that are shaped like a full moon.  In each lantern, there is supposedly a riddle that begs to be answered. Fireworks light up the sky. This has been the traditional Valentine's Day for 1,500 years in China. 

Anciently, there was a curfew on the streets of China, but on Lantern Day, young men and women could roam the streets with lanterns hanging from posts and homes to honor their romantic love. They did not have a curfew on this night. Hopefully, they could find their love wandering on that night. Here is a poem from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) from poet Xin Qiji called The Lantern Festival Night,

But in the crowd once and again, 

I look for her in vain. 

When all at once I turn my head, 

I find her there where lantern light is dimly shed.

           Lanterns are everywhere and most people are carrying them as they walk around. A shining radiance and the feeling of warmth are everywhere. Everyone is happy because spring has begun. Here are some pictures on the streets at Lantern Day--a day of luminosity and romantic love. 



Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The ongoing restoration in all of us...

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to build that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on, you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably. You see He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of... You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.    --C.S. Lewis

                        Our old house in St. Louis, MO--that took so many years to restore 

On account that my grandmother lived in an old house, I was always drawn to the possibilities of making what was once dysfunctional or dilapidated become useful and extraordinary again. I loved every crevice of her house as a child. It was not only a beautiful, stately old home, but it had layers of family history where I could almost hear the whispers. There always seemed to be a new, intriguing corner to discover. But it was usually in an ongoing restoration process. In her mind, she was constantly thinking about how to blend the old and new together--for the best effect and beauty.

        My grandmother's old home that I tried to duplicate--more the feeling than the structure...

Consequently, when it came time for us to buy a home, I voted for the old house that had "potential." In my mind, an old home could become what my grandmother's house had been to me--endlessly fascinating and beloved. Long ago when no one wanted to buy our future St. Louis home because it lacked AC, I saw the bones of something wonderful. And I was right. 

Shortly before we moved to the Middle East, we remodeled the last bathroom in that dear St. Louis house. The long overhaul process of remodeling for many years was long, arduous, and painful. Did I mention expensive? Walls were pushed out. A new stairway was made, and an old one was removed. We built a bathroom and bedroom in the basement for my father-in-law who came to live with us. I kept thinking, "Is this house ever going to be the way I want it?" But it did. Ironically, we unexpectedly moved a few months later when it was supposedly done. We all laughed at the timing, but the lesson is not lost on me. 

Lately, over here in China, we still work on projects. Our projects in China are smaller but equally ambitious. Every day our creativity is challenged as we work on various art projects. We have gessoed some paintings--meaning put on a special covering to coat the old parts we no longer like or not applicable to our current art journey. My son who has autism and I paint a lot together. You could say we have learned how to "do art" together. But sometimes we don't want the old canvases anymore. They take up room, and we know they can be remade, redone, restored, renewed. 

               Elias is busy completely revamping an old picture into a new one--and we can do that with ourselves too. Blending the old and new is a loving act of ongoing restoration.

Even the world starts anew again every spring. The verdant life that has been invisible to the surface comes again to the surface each year. Depending on your timing and where you are, spring can almost be a Northern Lights experience that does not fade away quickly. With all our senses, spring can explode in our life in all the colors that we forgot existed. The monochromatic, dormant life we knew only weeks before is transformed into a vivid explosion of color.   

The process of becoming, changing, and restoring is hard, painful work. Yet, there are many reasons not to give up on ourselves or others. Soon just like the brilliant, bright tulips are undetectable when they are bulbs in the ground, we will see the restoring in ourselves and/or others. Just like my house. All the right bones are there for the extraordinary to happen. Spring is coming soon...

                       Bright tulips by Diane Antone

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

China: Year of the Tiger 2022

Every child must wear a tiger hat on their first Chinese New Year. Our grandchild wearing his tiger hat.

Last night at midnight, fireworks signaled a change in the world for about two billion people. The year of the slow and steady ox faded out, and in jumped the audacious, confident tiger. 2022 is set to be a year of having courage and adventures, so the story says. Not only do the 1.4 people in China celebrate, but all around Asia, Southeast Asia, and Asians who live around the world. Fireworks and firecrackers were popping last night to celebrate the new year's entrance, and to ensure they scare any bad spirits away for the next year. 

The tiger is the third animal in the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese legend goes that the early Jade Emperor stated that the first twelve animals that arrived at the palace would be able to be in the Chinese zodiac. The rat hitched a ride with the ox, who agreed to sing to the plugging, agreeable ox. At the last minute, the rat slid off of his nose and won the race to be the first animal to start the zodiac. The competitive tiger came in third. Next year will be the rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. So what animal are you?

This is my sixth Chinese Year living in Asia. Like everyone else, we cleaned our house. Anciently, they believed clean houses steered away bad spirits. We put up paper cuts on the windows and doors--with greetings and wishes for prosperity and long life. We made dumplings with friends and will have a week of visiting with friends and making more dumplings. I have seen many a dragon dance and heard the pans clanging to keep the bad spirits away. 

I talked with a friend who grew up in a village in Henan province in the 1980s and '90s about what it was like during Chinese New Year for her. She lived in a very small village (about 2,000 people) where many people were related to her or were good family friends. A few days before the Chinese New Year, they would kill a pig for the filling of the dumplings. There were no refrigerators at the time in the village, but it was cold enough to keep it chilled. She watched her mom remove the intestines and other internal parts to prepare for the New Year's meals. The first sound she remembers hearing early in the morning on New Year's Eve day is her mother pounding the meat for the dumplings. 

It would take her mother several hours in the early morning to chop the meat to get it ready for the dumpling filling. At about noon, many of the family would gather to roll the dough and spoon the savory meat and vegetable filling into the round dough. Sometimes her mother would make several different kinds of fillings--depending on the harvest that year. Scallions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, fennel, and even carrots are mixed with meats or eggs. Everyone sits around for hours making the crescent nuggets. They are shaped like golden nuggets that were formally used for currency and are synonymous with hopeful prosperity for the year. Those hours of pinching dough around the specially made dumplings is an awaited time all year. Gossip, jokes, stories, and laughs are shared as everyone makes dumplings together. Oftentimes, a coin would be placed in a few dumplings. Whoever found the dumpling with the coin, would be considered lucky for the next year. My blog is called The Delectable Dumpling if you want to know more about dumplings... 😆

That night before dinner, the young children receive new clothes to wear. Historically, this was the only time the children would receive new clothes. They excitedly await the time when their parents will give them a red envelope with some pocket money for candy or treats. As they get older and if the parents can afford it, they give them more money for their education. But before the meal starts, the children, all dressed in their new clothes, bow before their parents and tell them they are grateful for them and what good parents they are. Kneeling down before their parents, they thank them for bringing them life and the blessings they give them. Traditionally, they would play games, do skits, and puppet shows. But for the last several decades, China puts on a huge entertainment show that goes for four to five hours that is broadcast all over China. The gala show has the largest audience of any entertainment in the world. In 2020, 1.2 billion people tuned in. 

The next day, she remembers waking up early with the parents to ride their bikes to the temple to give the ancestors their share of dumplings. Our friend said she would carry the bowl of dumplings or some bread as she peddled along in the early morning chill darkness of the village. But they were not the only ones riding their bicycles. Almost everyone in the village would be there too to pay their respect to the dead. Afterward, on this first day of Chinese New Year, her father would go to visit his parents and bring his family. He too would bow before his parents, in order of birth, to tell his parents of his gratitude for them. Our friend would wear her new clothes to visit her grandparents, and they would also give her a red envelope with money. 

The next day is for the wife to visit her parents. The wife will go back to her home and bring her family to show her respect for her parents and see her family members. The following days are for visiting extended family and family friends. Everyone always has nuts, candy, and fruit to share with the visitors.

More than anything Chinese New Year--no matter the zodiac animal--is about family ties and gathering for reunions. That is my favorite part--to watch the families gather, and to know they have been doing this for thousands of years. 


     A grandfather getting his grandchild covered to go on a scooter ride outside. The red banners stay up for several months after New Year. This is a hall in our apartment building.


               The little girl has her new clothes for the Chinese New Year in front of our door...

                                                  Joseph found the coin in his dumpling last night.

                                                           Making dumplings with friends

                                                     Choosing the coins for the dumplings...

                                                               Kneading the dumpling dough

      Some banners of slogans and wishes adorn many shops and houses. 
They are not taken down for many months, and sometimes ...
stay up all year long...

                                                     Ready to go and make some dumplings?

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Honoring Christmas so it will linger all year long...

I will honor Christmas and try to keep it all the year! I will live my life in the past, the present, and the future. I will not shut out the lessons the spirits have taught me! Tell me that I may sponge out the writing on the stone!    --Ebeneezer Scrooge 

Elias and I painted this painting last year. We almost felt like we could hear the shepherds singing...

Someone asked me to put this talk into a blog. I am thinking I really want to be like Scrooge and live and honor Christmas every day.

                                                  Our Advent candles...

    Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, or the last Sunday before Christmas. Advent means to come or prepare for an arrival. In these past four weeks in our Tianjin apartment, we have lit a candle each Sunday, and thought and talked about the story of Christmas. Now there will be four candles burning today. 

We have spoken about coming to Him with each other and with friends, and on our weekly zoom calls with our children. In this advent season or December, we are all trying to come to the Savior, and to become like Him. As we will light the fourth candle today for the last day of Advent, knowing that in a few short days will be the arrival of Christmas--we will remember our Savior who came to Bethlehem as a baby over two thousand years ago. I pray my thoughts will buoy and lift you at this very holy, special time. Indeed, it is a time of coming to Him as we await his second advent.

  To be perfectly honest, I could have never imagined or believed, probably like you, that we would be spending our second Christmas in China away from our five other children. Elias is our youngest. Anyone that knows me, knows I am a gatherer and a person who loves to celebrate--especially at Christmas. The traditions are fewer this year and some of the people are far away who I love--just like for you.

   I have intentionally and consciously maximized every Christmas moment for years since I can remember--filling every day of December with traditions and memories. As I reflect on many Christmas seasons, I feel grateful for these times which have brought me closer to my Savior--when I have come to Him. I am the oldest of nine children and think my mom depended on the older kids to lead many activities since my parents were so busy. And I gladly complied. 

   The years with our own children and family around for Christmas for me were magical--of course, exhausting sometimes, because I tried to fit too much in or someone got sick. But all the service, caroling, making our own music, ice skating, stories around the fire, the nativity reenacting, all of it, still live with me. I love to remember each year with those precious faces--some who are gone now and others, of course, who are grown up.

    I have had many wonderful and personal Christmas seasons that remind me of the Savior's birth. There have been sacred moments of sitting near a fire or lit up Christmas tree, holding a new baby who brought hope to our world. And we would reflect on that holy night when the promised Messiah came as a baby. Since we lived in the Middle East for five and a half years, I remember the magic of spotting or riding camels on a starry night, with a fire on a sandy spot. We would wince our eyes, not only from the smoke but from the occasional sand that would inevitably blow in our faces, and we would think of the wise men's journey. 

While living near some hills near Jerusalem where shepherds raised their flocks, I too have some wondrous memories. One day a few of us were invited into a shepherd family's tent, and I felt the story of that night when all of heaven rejoiced at his birth. I am sure each of you also has precious experiences which draw you back to that first Christmas. 

    Today I want to talk about another part of the Nativity story, for it is a neverendingly fascinating, beautiful story that was planned from the foundation of the world. If we read and include all the characters, there are also parts that ache with sorrow and pain. We usually do not speak about the tragic parts of the Christmas story.  But each witness can exclaim in all the accounts, as can we, "The Lord so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son." 

    As our Savior Jesus Christ, fulfilled his promises when he said, "Here Am I, Send Me", there were Heavenly Parents who also gave their son, Our Older Brother, to the world. He came as a newborn babe, and condescended to come to the earth. Both our Heavenly Parents and our Older Brother, knew His coming to this world would be an Infinite Gift of the Atonement. He would lay down His life for us.

   In Luke 2, right after the account of the shepherds, we read of Simeon, a just and devout man who the scriptures say was waiting for the consolation of Israel--waiting for the Messiah to come and heal broken hearts and give peace to all. When he saw the newborn babe who Mary and Joseph brought to the temple in Jerusalem to lovingly offer their sacrifice, He was just 40 days old. 

   Simeon knew and recognized this baby was the Messiah that all Israel had been yearning for. We are told Simeon had a prompting to go on that particular day to the temple and at that time, and he followed the spirit. He had been waiting all of his life to see the Messiah. He prophesied as he held and blessed the newborn babe, as he also blessed the new parents: 

   In the recent Christmas Devotional, Dale Renlund spoke about his own father who did not stop at verse 20 in Luke on Christmas Eve about the shepherds when his family had the annual reenactment of the nativity. He continued on to tell the prophecy of Simeon to Mary and Joseph, the new parents, that someday her heart or soul would be pierced with sorrow. But through that anguish, many hearts would change and understand the Messiah's coming. 
   Elder Renlund said his father would say,  After reading verse 32, in which Simeon holds the baby Jesus and speaks of Him as “[God’s] salvation,” his father would pause and exclaim: “I may not be able to hold that little baby Jesus in my arms, but I know, just as well as Simeon knew, that baby was the Son of God, my Savior, and Redeemer. He is real, and He lives.” After this powerful declaration, his father would look at each member of the family and say, with an emphatic nod, “And you can know it too.”
   And so this story, so filled with hope and redemption also has plots of sadness. Yet, a loving Heavenly Father compensated with tender mercies to give dreams and angels coming to tell Joseph and the wisemen when and where they could be safe. And so too with our own detours and delays, we can depend on the Lord who will heal all wounds and guide us through all thorny paths.
     I want to bear witness of God's hand in giving us His Son, Our Older Brother, who did not shrink from the atonement. He choose to come as a meek, helpless baby who would hold all power for our redemption. I am grateful for Joseph, a selfless, righteous man who listened to dreams and angels to protect his family, and Mary, who was a young woman who choose to follow the Lord. Their lives knew persecution and affliction as they raised Jesus Christ in Nazerath, where the Savior eventually left and never returned because some tried to kill him there. I am grateful for their willingness and courage to be parents to the promised Messiah. 
     The first Christmas was not only a story of joy and rejoicing, but there was grief and pain too. At the beginning of my talk, I told you about more of the magical, wondrous memories of my Christmas times. But there have also been Christmases that brought some wrenching heartache. Both of my grandmothers passed away near Christmastime. I remember Joseph's sister's last Christmas when she was 34 with four little ones, and died a few months later from cancer. We surrounded her--singing her favorite songs and told her favorite stories--knowing this was our last one with her. 
    I say a few of these memories to be a witness that Jesus Christ brought not only peace, comfort, and star-filled skies with angels. He also brought a second birth and rebirth to all people with His gift of the ultimate sacrifice of His life. His parents, especially his mother, began to understand the sorrow she would know someday when He was a little baby in the temple. But she trusted that her son was the promised Messiah who would deliver all people. And she steadfastly followed Him.
   In our afflictions, we too can have assurity of his infinite power and love. His birth gave everlasting good and wonderful endings to us all. And it all began with a baby to two very courageous young people. Christmas is a time when we are reminded of the matchless gift of His Son who redeemed us. Because of our Savior, all tragedies, pain, and sadness will disappear--all "infuriating unfairness", as Elder Renlund has said. 
 I would like to offer a few invitations in these unusual times of what we can do to have the spirit of Christmas with us this season and all year:
    1) Service I remember a Christmas Eve when all of our children were at home in St. Louis, and it was December 24. We always went caroling a few times, and often we would visit a homeless shelter or two. On this day, we headed to a men's shelter with a few other families in a part of town that many people would not have probably entered. I remember ducking my head and going into a dark basement with some food, gifts, and musical instruments to cheer these men for the upcoming Christmas.
   Instead of giving them cheer that day, I remember being the recipient of their gentle, humble spirits. After we had finished our songs, one of the men in the back said, "Can I sing, Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? He seemed very intent on singing that particular song, and of course, we all agreed. He then sang in a beautiful voice I will always remember, 
    "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay, remember Christ our Savior who was born on Christmas Day--to save us all from Satan's power when we had gone astray, Oh, tidings of comfort and joy." To be in that men's shelter on that day with those particular merry gentlemen on that Christmas Eve was transformative for us all.
     A few minutes later after the song, as I spoke with the soloist, he told me he had been previously in prison and was now looking for a new life. He realized he had gone astray and was grateful for the new beginnings of comfort and joy the new baby, Jesus Christ, brought long ago to him. On that day, I felt of the tragadies of a past life who now knew joy because of the Christ child who was born in Bethlehem. 
    I promise as we serve, as Elias has spoken about, our hearts will be changed--perhaps more than the people we are serving.
2)  Take courage and not fear--It seems the angels' messages are always not to fear and have courage. In these times, we too need to fear not.  
3) Is there someone who you can forgive? Is there anything you need to change? How can your heart be softened to feel the Savior's love more in your life? 
4) Creating--I believe when we create we are learning to not only use our latent talents, but are learning to become like the Savior who was the Creator of the world. When we feel and create things, whether it be a poem, song, painting, or developing a listening, caring atmosphere in our home, we are creating. I can honestly say as I paint with Elias, I have felt Heaven's love for His Son as we painted the shepherd's star-filled skies this year. Last year, when we painted the shepherd's hills, I could almost feel the choirs of angels singing. 

Elias painted this painting last Christmas of the shepherds and angels. 

      We have not finished this one yet, but I love all the angels coming in light. No shepherds or sheep yet.


A still snowy night  

5) Being around children--even if they are not your own children. At Christmas time, children remind us of the exhilaration and innocence of life. Christmas started with a baby that would give hope, comfort, peace, and love to all the world. Write a letter to your children if they are with you or far away or to someone who has brought you hope. Tell them how much love and hope they gave you when they were born.
   I invite you that at this Christmas time to look to the witnesses of the first Christmas in a new way. Mary and Joseph, as new, young parents gave everything. Simeon and Anna, waiting in the temple for the promised Messiah daily came to the temple, waiting for his arrival. The shepherds, likely very poor, also told everyone about the child's birth. I am sure they felt ridicule as they were witnesses for the Savior as a new baby. The wisemen, we know traveled a long distance in probably difficult circumstances to give their gift. The angels gave a message to us too--not to fear. Each witness gave their all--in times of uncertainty and joy. And we must too. 
   The witnesses of the first Christmas were real people who choose to follow the Lord--even if it brought them trials or death. They knew and saw tragedy and pain, but they had burning faith in the new baby who would be the promised Messiah. That first Christmas story brought a little baby who would give all hope and light to the world--even in the cruel and barbarous time Roman Empire.The bright stars and sky on that first Christmas Eve witnessed to the world that a most wonderful and awaited gift had come. 
I testify that Jesus Christ knows our sorrow and pain, and He has the power to provide every remedy. At this Christmas time, may we give Him all the gifts of our heart, and especially the will to follow Him in any wilderness on a bumpy camel, through any cold, starry night, or waiting for him for years in the temple. As a little babe, He came to be The Truth and the Light to the world. As we come to Him every day in this Advent time, we can know Him and be His witnesses too. 

                     Our main nativity this year in China... The stable is from Qatar, Joseph, the cows, Jesus, are from Italy, Mary is from Nicaragua (Mary was lost in the move from Doha to Qatar and I found a small Mary from when we were in Nicaragua for Christmas twelve years ago), and the wisemen are from China. I have many nativity sets packed away in a storage unit, but this one seems to fit my life pretty well right now. I am a composite of many pockets of this world--just like this creche.