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 Come 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. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Who are the unknown, unseen, sometimes invisible people who have helped you in the pandemic?

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw them now, you would be strongly tempted to worship... All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.     --C.S. Lewis

When you are an ex-pat, far away from familiarities, you frequently depend on others' kindness and cheer. You don't expect or demand it because you know it is not always there to give when you need or want it. Sometimes you get lost or disoriented. Other times, you need someone who is willing to talk to you--even when they have never talked to a foreigner before. You know they need to be willing to leave their own comfort zone so you don't expect their cooperation or assistance. But when it comes, and often, so often, it does, there is a lump in my throat or a tear is brushed away. All these people, in some way or another, have rescued me in these pandemic times. Each of them, and there are plenty more, have welcomed a foreigner, a stranger in. And I am grateful. They make me want to connect, engage, speak up, and help a little more. They have lit my world with their candle, and they inspire me to carry a candle for another sojourner on my way. 

Who are the people who have lifted and buoyed you up this year during these pandemic times?  Who has rescued you with a smile, laugh, or even forgiven you? Who has reached out or listened to you? Who are those sometimes unknown, unseen, invisible people who are not vying for any credit or notice?  

This is Vicki who owns a scooter shop in Yangshou, China. In the summer of 2020, we came to Yangshou, one of my favorite places in China. At the time I came, I was sad since I could not go home to see my family that summer. But Vicki, in her natural and characteristic way, had me hop on her scooter. We spent two or three days together laughing and chattering away--with me on the back. Her cheer and happiness spread to my heart--something at the time I needed badly. I cried when I left her, and vowed we would be back. And then fast forward to...

November 2021... We came back. She still has her trademark smile and jokes. Again, she welcomed me again into her heart and home. How I love her...  Pandemics need friends to come back to...

              This is my friend who comes to my house. She is super funny, sweet, almost childlike--very devoted to her Buddhist religion. Around her neck is a voice pendant that repeatedly chants her Buddhist prayers. She loves to tell me how she goes to her Buddhist temples, but cannot go now because of Covid. She spreads cheer and is always laughing. Pandemics need cheer.

My friend, at Elias's opening ceremony for his art exhibit, is always supporting me by helping my Chinese improve, and Elias's art. I so appreciate her openness to talk with me--on a deep level and practice all the words I have been saving up for her. Pandemics need friends who you can speak about substantive and deep things. 

            Here is my friend who assisted Elias and me through our Shanghai quarantine. You can read the blog I wrote about him: Quarantine angel blog He recently traveled from Beijing to come here for Elias's art exhibit opening ceremony. Honestly, I owe him a lot. I always called him "our angel." Pandemics need angels. 

Often, very often, I marvel at the ability of children to love so freely without reservation. We met this little girl in a restaurant in Yangshou. She came to our table and started conversing with us. Her parents pled with her to join their table again. But she insisted on talking to us--showing off that as a five-year-old, she can speak French, Chinese, English, and a little Arabic. We were only too happy to oblige her because she was so adorable. Later, we talked to her parents and were shocked to discover that we had both lived in Doha, Qatar at the same time period. We did not know one another, but had a marvelous time conversing about our old home together. Yet, it took a little child to make that bridge or link. We adults would have never known without her reaching out to us. It was hard to leave her when the time came. Pandemics require us to still reach out--even to strangers. Who knows what back history you will discover?

            This was our driver on a recent trip to Guangxi province. He grew up in a small village in the middle of these iconic mountains. He knows their beauty, but he said as a child, there was not much food because the village had no arid land. He said, "Beauty does not feed the stomach." Pandemics need honesty. 

        Just last week at another one of Elias's art exhibit openings. The woman in the green is one of my best friends here in China. She owns an art school, and the other one is Elias's current art teacher. Their school is one of my favorite places in China--so much love and creativity in that space. You need some creative friends in a pandemic. These are some of ours. Their reservoir of creativity has made all the difference. 
                                  This little guy in the market just brought me joy with his panda suit on. Pandemics need cuteness. 
We were stumped on the Beijing subway, and this young woman came to our aid. She insisted on riding the train with us--even when she did not have to go to our destination--to make sure we arrived where we needed to go. Pandemics need helpers. 

           My neighbor, pictured here, is a famous photographer. She offers her help to Elias every time he has an art exhibit. She doesn't have to, but she freely offers her expertise each time. Pandemics need people who offer their help. 

          This man offered for us to come into his yard because he could see I was interested in his persimmon tree. He just opened the door, and let us walk into his yard Pandemics need sharers.

           We found a restaurant walking through a village about a month ago. That day happened to be the first day they were opened. They insisted that we eat a fine meal for free. It was kind, generous, and very unexpected. It made me want to do an unexpected kind gesture too. Pandemics need generousity.

                   Elias's first art teacher in China. She could say so much with so few words. Pandemics need efforts to communicate, and the realization that silence can is bonding too.

This man makes the best jyanbings or crepes in China. Our city, Tianjin, is famous for jyanbings. Always grateful when we can buy a jyanbing from him--with one or two eggs spread around on top. Pandemics need good cooks. 

This guy was so excited to teach me how to make dumplings. Little did he know, I have made them many times. But with him, it was my most fun time to fill the dumploings. Pandemics need fun times. 

        I met this older woman in a small village in Guangxi province. The surprising thing was that this group of older women invited us into their community space. We, dressed so differently, unlike them in appearance, but their inviting kindness really touched me. I sat next to this older woman. She told me she was ninety and then grabbed my hand to warm it since it was a cold afternoon. And then she grabbed the other hand to hold it. We sat there for about fifteen minutes, while we held each other's hands by the fire. She spoke a little Mandarin, but mostly a dialect I did not know. She did not want words. She just wanted to know someone was close by, and to warm their hands by her fire. Pandemics need warm hands. 

      These two lovely ladies invited us into their homes on a walk around their village this autumn. To not be afraid of a foreigner and be willing to speak to someone who botches their language is dearly appreciated here in China. When I am on the inside, how do I treat someone who is on the periphery or outside my own box? Pandemics need people to think out of the box. 

This wonderful young man is always full of hugs, smiles, and gifts to us when we come to teach art at his school. There is no guile, hypocrisy--just pure love that he delivers. And the other one with the ginger hair, well, he is just the same. They make a great pair! Pandemics need good friends. 

Have you ever met a person who you crossed paths with for a few hours that changed your life? It is likely I will never see her again. But when I think of cheerfulness and unconsciously reaching out to strangers, I will think of her. On a shuttle bus in Hainan, China, she turned around with a smile when she heard Elias singing. She knew I could speak Chinese, and then asked him if he could sing a Chinese song. He answered, "No." So she lovingly taught him one. Later, she told me she had taught kindergarten for 30 years. She was older than me, but was climbing through rivers and up mountains--always with her trademark smile. She unreservedly loved us. Later, she wanted to show us some dance moves and to sing together. I have to say she was irrestibley adorable--so full of spunk, fun, and energy. I thought to myself all the years of learning Chinese is worth it to meet certain people. We had an immediate love for one another. Her smile and cheer will always be with me. She made me want to go and spread some cheer myself. Pandemics need music, dancing, and spunk. 
I love this girl, this young woman, who I have spent countless hours with. She has taught me how to make videos in my yearning to be more tech-savvy. One of the important things in life for an older person (like me), I am told, is to hang around younger people. Instead of having a fixed mindset, younger people help us to have a "growth" mindset. The pandemic would have been very different for me without her. Pandemics need people to teach you new skills.