Monday, December 14, 2015

My Sacrament Meeting Talk on the Meaning of Christmas

I spoke yesterday on the meaning of Christmas. 

I started by sharing my daughter's quote after attending the temple for the first time: 

We spend so much time building the kingdom of God that we forget to establish Zion.

I then said that the meaning of Christmas depends greatly on how we view the Kingdom of God. I asked everyone to close their eyes and picture a kingdom. Then I asked them how they would describe what they saw in their mind's eye. I asked them if there were large castles, clean and bright streets, smiling and happy and well-fed people, etc. Nearly all of them smiled and nodded in agreement. Then I said: 

So, when we think of the Kingdom of God, we usually picture a Disney movie - but that is radically different than what we see in the New Testament about Jesus, of Nazareth, his own life and the followers he gathered around him during his ministry.

I told them I believe we miss the real meaning of Christmas if we don't focus on and understand Jesus' early life, his ministry and whom he focused on teaching. The following is a simple outline of how I addressed that misunderstanding: 

1) "The whole need not a physician, but the sick." 

2) Mary was unmarried when she became pregnant. Without Joseph's acceptance and support, her baby probably would have been raised in abject poverty - and it is likely he either would have been discarded as trash, literally, to die or sold into slavery, as was the custom in that time and culture for babies born without available support. 

3) When he was a young child (probably 1-2 years old), his parents took him and fled a terrorist attack in his homeland, seeking refuge in the strongest opposition to the Roman Empire - Egypt. We have no idea in the Bible how many others in that area learned what Herod had decreed and was doing and fled with Joseph and Mary - but it is reasonable to believe there were many. 

4) When he started his ministry, he taught in the synagogues, but his followers were mostly the poor, the sick, the sinners, the publicans, the outcast, the rejected - "the least of these". In a very real way, he served those like himself in his earliest years. 

I told them that I see the meaning of Christmas as the message that every person on this earth, including those whom others can't love and accept and serve, is of equal worth in the eyes of God, with equal potential - and that we will not honor the true meaning of Christmas if our congregations and dreams resemble a Disney movie more than the people whom Jesus served in his ministry. I asked them to think of persons and people whom they naturally tend to judge and avoid - and to reach out, somehow, in their busy lives, to those specific people. After all, he said: 

Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.

The following are two posts that were the foundation of my talk: 

"Thoughts on the Meaning of the Birth of Jesus" (Brad - By Common Consent) 

"It Is Finished: Death on Easter Sunday" 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Tribute to My Mother (and Father) on Her Passing

My mom passed away on Monday. It was completely unexpected, and nobody knows exactly why it happened. She had said recently that she wanted to be with Dad again, and we choose to believe her sincere wish was granted. 

On this day of thanksgiving, I am most grateful at this moment for parents who loved me - truly loved the unique person I was - and allowed me to be different - and treasured me for that difference.

I am grateful for six children who allowed me to try to emulate my parents' loving acceptance - even when their unique differences occasionally challenged my determination to do so.

I am grateful to have been raised with the idea that families are forever, literally. I don't know why I was and am blessed to be a part of such a wonderfully unique family, but I thank God for it. My parents were ordinary heroes, and I will treasure my association with them forever.

I am thankful, deeply, that my mother has been allowed to receive her fondest desire - to be with my father again. God bless you, Mom and Dad. Save a place for all of us. 

I wrote her obituary yesterday and share it here for my children to be able to remember their heritage: 

Nora Jane Westover DeGraw, of Ada, OK, passed from this mortal life to the next on November 23, 2015 of natural causes incident to age.  She was 75 years old.  

Nora was born on October 28, 1940 in Joseph City, Arizona to Lloyd Westover and Laura Hudson.  She was the fifth of six children.  She attended school in Santaquin and Payson, Utah, graduating from Payson High School.  She married her sweetheart, Curtis Lamar DeGraw, on March 29, 1961 in the Salt Lake City LDS temple.  Together, they raised eight children (losing one daughter to a stillbirth) in a home full of love and the gospel of Jesus Christ, later serving as a missionary couple in South Carolina. 

Prior to their marriage, Nora worked as a secretary on the staff of David O. McKay, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After their marriage, she dedicated her life to raising their children, returning to part-time work as a secretary at the Santaquin Elementary School after their youngest child started school. Her typing and shorthand skills were legendary. She lived most of her life in Santaquin, Utah – with a few years near the beginning of her marriage in Salt Lake City and the last five years in Ada, OK, living near a son and daughter and their families. 

Nora was a naturally spiritual person, whose smile lit up the world around her and whose tears were harder on her children than any punishment. She was small in stature, but she had the largest heart possible. She was known by all as one of the kindest, sweetest, most gentle people on this earth; nobody ever heard her raise her voice in anger or frustration, and she was never known to criticize others. Her optimistic, loving, accepting personality was a beacon to her family, their eventual spouses, her extended family and friends, and everyone with whom she associated. She loved her family, her religion, her friends, music (an accomplished pianist), reading (especially next to the heating vent under the kitchen desk during the winter in her Santaquin home), getting to know, appreciate and love others, and, most of all, her husband – her eternal companion.  She loved him truly, deeply and exclusively.  They were married for 52 years and were a testament to the power of complete love and fidelity.  Her greatest wish after his passing two years ago was to be with him once more, but she was willing to wait on the Lord’s timing for that glorious reunion.

At this time of thanksgiving, her family is grateful to have been a central part of her life. We miss her, but we are thankful that God saw fit to answer the prayer of one of His elect daughters and allow her to join Curtis, their daughter, Lorna Sue, and all of her departed relatives and friends. We can see our father greeting her on the other side of the veil, then waiting patiently, with a loving grin, as she greeted and hugged every person she ever knew and loved. Truly, we come from a long line of love, and we honor our parents for the incredible examples of Christ-like love they gave us.

Nora is survived by three siblings, eight children, thirty-six grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren.  She was preceded in death by her parents, two siblings, a daughter and a grandchild. 

As was the case when Curtis passed away, his family asks that each person who knew and loved Nora renew an individual commitment to love and serve others – that all who wish to honor her do so by accepting and internalizing the Savior’s words:

“As I have loved you, love one another.” 
She would prefer to be honored by what we do, how we live, and who we become more than by anything we might say.  In particular, she would want everyone to fill their homes with smiles and good music – the universal languages of love.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My Talk in Church Today: Gratitude

I spoke today about gratitude. My daughter is sick, so I don't have time to do a full outline or summary, so the following is a condensed version:

Colossians 2:6-7 - "abounding therein with thanksgiving"

Two-edged sword - (Ammonihah = gratitude on steroids; public acknowledgment can be boastful, especially when righteousness is implied, and can hurt those who don't share the same blessings [talk on marriage and family last month as example])

Gratitude does not mean constant happiness. Life is difficult and brings trials and grief - moments that make gratitude hard. Also, biological issues like depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, etc. can inhibit one's ability to feel gratitude and joy. None of those things constitute sin. I pray that nothing I say will add in any way to the burdens carried by anyone here today.

Being grateful also does not mean we have to be thankful for our trials themselves. Rather, it means being thankful for what we learn from those trials. Let me give two examples of what I mean:

My mother's schizophrenia (not grateful for it but grateful for what I learned as a result of it)

Friend whose daughter died unexpectedly (He wasn't grateful she died, but he was grateful he was able to draw closer to God as a result. Nobody should ever say he should be grateful for that trial.)

I hope nobody here feels unworthy in some way if you can't thank God for a particular trial, but I also hope you can be thankful, now or in the future, for what you will learn as a result of that trial.

Three degrees of love, gratitude and service: God = telestial; friends / same (including family) = terrestrial; enemies / different (including family) = celestial

Michelle's weekly blessing list that has helped her see and recognize her blessings as they happen, rather than only in hindsight

My blessing list (Due to time constraints, only "For the Strength of the Hills" and a description of John Daniel Malan's sacrifice for his testimony.)

Definition of praise and honor in our theology being centered on doing and becoming - need to show gratitude and not just to verbalize it (although saying it is critical, too)

Plan of Happiness works for some people; Plan of Salvation works better for other people. I pray I can help everyone be grateful as a result of their interactions with me, whether pursuing happiness or receiving salvation is more powerful to them.

Invitation to count our blessings every day and then work to bless others - to show our gratitude in visible, tangible ways

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

True Maturity: A Beautiful Statement from Someone Acquainted with Grief and Pain

“A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (It Seems to Me: Selected Letters)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

My Talk Today on Marriage and Family

I was assigned to talk today about Marriage and Family. The following is the general outline and content of my talk:

First, at the risk of further embarrassing your good Bishop, I appreciate the mistake he made earlier when he announced the wrong opening hymn. I have made far worse mistakes from the pulpit, and those mistakes actually are a good introduction to the topic I have been assigned.

Second, I don't want this talk to be a downer in any way, but I have felt impressed to address my topic in a way that will not be traditional and might seem depressing at first. I hope this approach was inspired and can help someone here today in some way.

There are a lot of tension points in the Church and the Gospel that deal with our desire to teach what we see as the ideal while living lives that are not ideal. We say there is opposition in all things, but I'm not sure we understand how true that is. As an example, we teach that reverence, including quietude, is important for proper worship, but we also bring our little children with us to our worship services each week - and we all know those two things often are incompatible.

Ideal vs. Reality (caterpillar / butterfly)

I love the analogy of a caterpillar to resurrection and the Atonement (a creature that lives, seems to die and then emerges as a whole new, beautiful creature), but I have been struck by another application of caterpillars as metaphors for our lives. We often describe caterpillars as "ugly" and "worthless" prior to their metamorphosis into butterflies, simply because of our perception of what beauty and worth mean - but caterpillars are of great worth ecologically and can be seen as beautiful in a very real way by those who are willing to see them that way. How we talk about them is dependent totally on our view of them, NOT on anything objective about their individual lives.

It is important to accept and value the caterpillars as caterpillars and not just future butterflies - and this applies directly to my topic today: marriage and family.

1) I have been blessed greatly in the area of marriage and family (described that a bit), but I know many faithful, sincere, wonderful, worthy members who have struggled in many ways with their marriages and family situations. Let me tell you about a few of them.

a) Sister Renlund (from "Just Call Me Ruth") - only having one child in a Church culture that can be dismissive and even derisive toward those with no children or only one child.

b) friend whose husband got addicted to prescription medication and ruined his life and their marriage, causing her to become a single mother who heard (along with her children) over and over again in church how broken and non-ideal her life and family was.

c) friend in her 50's who has never married and hears regularly that she is lacking worth as an ideal Mormon woman because she is not a mother.

d) young man who is one of the most talented, good-looking, smart, kind-hearted, Christian people I know who walked out of church one day and never returned because a high counselor said people like him (gay) are enemies and are destroying the world. This young man believes he has no realistic chance to have our ideal marriage and family.

e) a dedicated Relief Society President who finally left the man she had married in the temple who subjected her to years of terrible abuse.

I have no idea why I have been blessed so much in this regard, but I do know it has nothing to do with being more righteous or better in any way than those without the blessings I have experienced. What I have come to believe about marriage and family, given my exposure to so much suffering and fervent faith of others, is the heart of my talk today.

I appreciated the intermediate hymn today, "Where can I turn for peace?" I believe we have two places to which we can turn: the divine (our Heavenly Parents and Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer) and to each other. I want to focus on our responsibilities to each other with regard to marriage and family.

1) Help each other become what we desire to become (Perfect = complete, whole, fully developed) in our own unique situations and as a community, no matter the structure of our individual marriages and families.

2) The ideal of the Proclamation to the World (equal partners, helping each other in all aspects of marriage), applies to our interactions with everyone, not just to spouses.

3) Ward as family (hospital ward and automobile repair shop)

4) Advice to those with "ideal" and "non-ideal" families

a) To those who struggle, listen to those who express gratitude for family and marital blessing with kindness and charity, even when those expressions sometimes hurt. We don't mean to hurt others in those situations, and it is important to express thanks and gratitude. As a friend once said, "Bear my joy a while."

b) To those who don't struggle, express thanks for your blessings but be aware of those who might be hurt by your words. Accept them and their lives as valuable and worthy, and never, ever, ever judge them personally based on their situations. Truly, there but for the grace of God go you, and they have much to teach and contribute to you personally and the Church as a whole.

Seeing all as children of God (why we call each other brothers and sisters) - Atlanta temple experience when the Lord was black

Zion is possible within our ward families, but it is possible only when we see each other as beautiful caterpillars, first and foremost, and we love and serve each other no matter what, without exception. Each of us is loved by God right now, for who we are, not just for whom we may become. As we come to church, often carefully clothed and groomed and made-up in ways that mask our struggles and brokenness, may we see past those facades and love each other in that same way - for our humanity and not despite it. May we model among ourselves as a ward what marriage and family are meant to be ideally.

That is one way we can comfort those who stand in need of comfort rather than heaping more discomfort upon their heads. That is one way we can talk of marriage and family in a way that uplifts and heals rather than oppresses and hurts. That is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus, of Nazareth - true, deep, unconditional love, acceptance and service.