Monday, December 27, 2010

Gifts of the Heart

My mother has always been a great example of what being a "giver," is all about. She has taught me lessons based on that subject for many years. I will always remember the night she "encouraged" me to help her take dinner into the home of one of my seminary teachers. That family had been in a nasty car accident about two days prior, and their youngest child, an infant, had been killed. I didn't know what to say or do, but my mother taught me that what matters most is simply being there.

There were other lessons, like the time I tripped over a garden hose lying in the front yard and dropped a plate of cream puffs. It was to be part of the dinner she had planned for a family whose mother was home, recovering from major surgery. She didn't lecture on my lack of grace, she merely sighed, helped me pick up the mess, and then instructed me to retrieve the second plate of cream puffs from our house, a treat intended for our family. Not only was I entrusted with carrying the second plate, but I was allowed later on to create a different dessert for our own family.

Years later, after my father's untimely death, my mother was working as a CNA at a nursing home. At the time, she worked with the most difficult wing; her patients had all been diagnosed with a form of Alzheimers. One lady was blind and had been assigned into that unit simply because it was more difficult to care for her. That Christmas Eve, my mother asked all of us to accompany her back to the nursing home. We brought plates of homemade sugar cookies we had decorated earlier that day, and my guitar. We went from room to room, singing Christmas Carols, and sharing treats with those who were alone. I've never forgotten how I felt that night, nor the tears that raced down the face of the blind woman who had felt forgotten and discarded.

This past year, my mother has faced a series of major changes in her life. She had been living with my youngest sister. But when this same sister announced her engagement and upcoming wedding, Mom decided it was time to move on. She wanted to return to Bear Lake, where she had lived for a time after my graduation from high school. We found her a cute apartment in a nearby retirement complex, and now I see her on a daily basis. It has been a fun experience, and she is still teaching me lessons on giving. She gets by on a frugal income these days, but her heart is still very much intent on helping those around her.

This past Thanksgiving, we took in 3 plates of food to ladies who live in Mom's retirement complex. These were some of my mother's new friends, and none of them had plans to do anything special for that holiday. So before we consumed our own feast, we helped our mother take plates of food into these sweet ladies. We later heard how thrilled they had been by the tasty treats we had brought to them that day. In a sad twist, one of these women passed away about a week later. Here is the rest of the story:

We didn't know it at the time, but this dear lady had avoided celebrating Thanksgiving for years. It was on Thanksgiving Day that her only daughter died of a drug overdose. For understandable reasons, Thanksgiving was a time of mourning. Before this year's Thanksgiving season, this same woman had told my mother that she wasn't going to do anything for Christmas either. But after the plate of food was brought into her apartment, this woman caught a bit of my mother's holiday spirit. The next day, she went out and bought gifts for her family, and Christmas cards. She began decorating her apartment for Christmas. People who knew her, said she was happier than she had been in a long time. Then she collapsed upstairs while doing her laundry. She was rushed to a hospital, but her heart, which had undergone a loving transformation, gave out.

I accompanied my mother to her friend's funeral. It was a bittersweet day. Earlier, my mother had been given a Christmas card made out to her by this same friend. We talked for quite some time about how my mother shouldn't feel regret, since she had brought such joy into her new friend's life during her final days in mortal mode.

To me, that's what the holiday season is all about: bringing joy into the lives of others. This is a time of year when we lovingly share with family, friends, and those who need it most. And as I have learned, compliments of my mother, it isn't so much what we give, but how we give. When those gifts are from the heart, they possess the power to change lives and boost spirits. And those are the best gifts of all.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The White Stocking

Several years ago the bishop of our ward gave every family in our small town a small white Christmas stocking. He challenged us to gather as a family and privately decide on an individual basis what our gift to the Savior would be for the coming year. Our gift would be written on scraps of paper, and then folded and placed inside of the white stocking for safe keeping. During the holiday season, this stocking would be kept on the Christmas tree as a reminder of what we had pledged to do in the coming months. After that it was to be placed in an area where it could be seen often to help us remember what we've pledged.

Our family took this challenge to heart and each year on Christmas Eve, we gather as a family to retrieve our personal pledge from the white stocking. Silently we reflect on how well we came through on whatever our gift to the Savior was that year. Then after some thought, we decide what next year's gift will be.

As you may have guessed, these gifts are not of a material nature. They are gifts of the heart and mind, promises of self-improvement. Most in our clan select Christ-like attributes---the choice is up to each individual.

Wouldn't it be a remarkable thing if each year at Christmas-time, the entire world population would take a few moments to reflect on a gift to the Savior? Instead of focusing on the materialistic trends we see this time of year, simple gifts of the heart would be rendered.

This time of year I think of the shepherds who were the first to see the Christ-child after his humble birth. The gifts they brought were simple in comparison with those that were later given by the wise men, and yet I'm certain they were treasured most by our Elder Brother. They were gifts of humility, kindness, and love. Faith, hope, and charity were at the heart of these oblations. These are the character traits our Savior longs for each one of us to embrace and share.

So this Christmas season, as we bustle about preparing for this sacred time of year, let us reflect on how best we can celebrate the birth of our Lord. I think most of us will find that the most joy will come from sharing the simple gifts that were given long ago in a humble stable where the Prince of Peace was born.