Monday, November 29, 2010

Gifts for the Savior

For years, Oprah has had her Angel Network, which she uses to benefit literally thousands of disadvantaged people around the world. Brad Pitt and wife give more money toward charity than almost any other Hollywood stars. And Bono, arguably the coolest rocker alive, has done more for dying Africans than almost anyone.

Then, well, then there are the rest of us. We live in our houses, scraping butter on our kids’ toast for breakfast, packing school lunches, hoping we didn’t forget anyone’s homework, and goodness, kids, would you please stop fighting?

When the dust clears each school morning, we sit on the couch, our hair a mess, and watch news reports of the rich and famous making real differences in the world.

Realistically, what kind of difference can I make? Can you make? Most of us aren’t swimming in loaded bank accounts. We don’t own three homes, have chauffeurs, or have a few million dollars to throw around to build an orphanage, a well for clean water, a new school for African children. What difference can my measly offering make?

As Christmas draws near, our hearts naturally turn to the Great Shepherd, to the One who gave us the Resurrection as the ultimate free gift, the One who gave us the opportunity to repent through the Atonement and thus gave us the possibility of returning to Him with the gift of Eternal Life. We celebrate those gifts as we celebrate His humble birth, often by giving gifts to one another.

Usually those gifts are of the worldly variety. They’re wrapped in shiny paper and topped with pretty bows, ready for the recipient to tear open and enjoy.

We all know that Christmas is more than that, and most of us strive to find a way to give in other ways. The problem is, too often it's easy to give up before we start, because we don't think we can do anything that matters. We aren’t as rich as Brad Pitt or Oprah. And we certainly aren’t as cool as Bono.

But that’s not the real problem. At times, I've forgotten that Christ wasn’t rich or cool or famous, either. He was a humble, poor servant.

Christ spent time with small children.
I can do that—I have four of my own who yearn for any additional time Mom will give them, especially when I’m running around like a crazed chicken without a head each December. Maybe one of my gifts this year will be to slow down and spend time with them. To hold them. Read to them more. Have a quiet evening playing card games. Talk with them more. Laugh with them.

Christ fed those who had no food.
I have food storage in my basement. It’s not fancy, and if I'm being honest, it's not up to the year supply (yet!), but we do have cans of tuna, soup, vegetables, beans, and many other items. We can spare some, especially for the less-fortunate during this tough economic climate. I can load up a box of food and take it to the food bank. Maybe even with my children.

For that matter, with what little money I do have, I can make a difference in places around the world by donating any amount, no matter how small, on my tithing slip to the Humanitarian Aid fund, the Perpetual Education Fund, or the Temple Patron Fund. Any money I donate will be used to benefit someone, somewhere, who needs it. I will make a difference.

Christ knew when it was time to stop worrying about the minutiae.
Housework, food and all the fancy fixings—all the party stuff we get caught up in during the holiday—are so easy to get pulled into, just like Mary did when Christ visited her and her sister. This December, maybe I’ll skip the vacuuming or sweeping or let the dishes lie in the sink a little longer than normal, and instead sit down with my Book of Mormon for a few extra minutes. That will be a gift to myself— partaking of “that good part,” as Martha did.

Christ knew that any time we serve another, it is the same as serving Him.
“Ye have done it unto me.” So when I’m shopping and everyone around me is tense, a kind smile, a polite word that diffuses tension . . . any of that is really a gift to my Savior. I can give genuine compliments to lift someone’s day. Instead of just thinking that my neighbor’s sweater is beautiful, I can say so to her. I can mail a card to a friend I’m thinking about, drop off a treat to the bishop’s home in acknowledgment of all he does and the sacrifices his family makes for the benefit of the ward. Make a phone call to someone who's been on my mind.

Even doing my visiting teaching—truly doing it by listening and being in tune with the Spirit to know if my sisters need something from me—is a gift to my Savior.

None of these gifts are wrapped in shiny paper or have big, impressive bows. None cost gobs of money. All the same, they impact lives. They can make a difference. They are gifts.

Somehow I think that iPods, DVDs, and fancy clothes aren’t the kinds of things our Savior would have in mind for the best way to celebrate his birth.

Simple gifts of service would be—anything that brings another person’s heart closer to Him. The Savior once asked something: “Feed my sheep.”

That will be my gift.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Forgiveness & Gratitude

Grudges are painfully easy to hold onto and are hard to let go. It’s not until you put down the burden and walk away that you realize just how heavy it was to begin with—and that the person you’ve been so angry with wasn’t being affected by the bitterness you clung to. A cloud descends, blocking out the spirit and making other things—like feeling genuine gratitude during the Thanksgiving season—almost impossible.

I remember all too well a difficult time in high school when a person wounded me deeply. It happened in the spring, and I felt the hurt—and the resulting anger—for the rest of the school year, all of the summer, and into the next school year. For a full six months, every time I thought about the person involved or saw them, even just passing by in the hall, I got a nauseating pit in my stomach. My heart raced, and I had a hard time breathing. I quickly looked away, clenching my books as I escaped down the hall.

Beyond noticing my dirty looks, the other person was likely unaffected by my visceral reaction, but the burden for me was constant. It was like proverbial drinking poison but hoping the other person gets sick. I spent half a year poisoning my spirit. I couldn’t go to school without a sinking pit in my middle. I could think of little else. Eventually, I knew that I couldn’t go on that way; something had to change.

One morning, through intense prayer and sheer willpower, I arrived in the school’s main hall, determined to do something different. When I saw the other person near a staircase, I forced myself to smile pleasantly and say hello.

The shock and confusion on their face was priceless.

But more than that, as I walked away, I felt as if heavy lead scales slipped off my body and clattered to the floor. My shoulders literally felt lighter. Instead of a pit in my stomach, it had butterflies. I took a deep breath. It felt good. My heart raced as it often did after a confrontation, but this time it was the pitter-patter of nerves, not the heavy drum beat of anger and resentment.

In the nearly two decades since that experience, I’ve faced situations far more complex and difficult to handle than a simple high-school peer issue. And if I’m paying attention, whenever I allow anger to take root, I can sense a change, starting on a physical level. My heart rate and breathing are altered. Muscles tensing up. A throbbing headache begins at the base of my neck.

But most importantly, the Spirit withdraws. I lose my compass, my connection with the Lord. I get depressed, anxious, unable to hear answers to prayers.

Learning to forgive has been a gradual lesson, one I’m still learning on a day-by-day basis. I have to continually remind myself not to drink the poison. Not to hurt myself.

Instead, we are taught to turn over the situation to the Lord, for He has borne our burdens already. Forgiving doesn’t excuse the actions of the other person. Instead, forgiveness is a gift that allows the Lord be the one to take care of it, to let us set down the burden, knowing that it’s in good hands.

For me, the most powerful way of letting things go is to find a quiet place, close my eyes, and—as silly as I may feel—verbalize my forgiveness. It’s important for me to hear my own voice saying the words. “I forgive [person] for [action].” The more specific I am, the better—even if I’m forgiving myself for not living up to the level I know I should.

As I forgive and let go of the anger or bitterness, a peace descends over my body almost immediately. The tension in my muscles and my stomach loosens, and I can breathe easier. Forgiveness is healing. I think it is no coincidence that most of the Savior’s physical healings were also accompanied by spiritual one: He stated that the person’s sins were forgiven, and then he healed their infirmity.

To be whole in every way, to feel gratitude and hope and faith—elements that should be our focus in November as well as the rest of the year—we must have the Spirit with us as a constant companion, and harboring anger makes that difficult.

The more I’ve learned about forgiveness, the more I see how critical it is for each of us in working out our salvation. No wonder the Lord commanded us to forgive “seventy times seven.”
I’m still very much a work in progress with this principle, but the more regularly I apply it, the lighter and more vibrant I feel. It’s easier for me to experience joy and peace, to feel the promptings of the Spirit, and to progress as a daughter of God.

We can all tap in to the benefit of this principle by remembering a single concept taught by Nephi with such simplicity: “I did frankly forgive them all that they had done” (1 Nephi 7:21).