Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas I Remember Best

Today after dinner, as the family was all sitting around chatting and generally enjoying a healthy dose of yuletide good humour, Mom got everyone's attention and asked who wanted to share the story of the Christmas we remembered most. I was a bit drowsy and had laid down on the floor. I always love a good story, especially when it deals with Christmas, so I closed my eyes and listened.

I wasn't disappointed as several people shared stories. There was my 8 year old niece Josie who talked about getting a typewriter for Christmas last year. There was Grandma's experience of trying to stay awake to see Santa Claus, sure that she would because the Christmas tree was in her room that year, only to fall asleep and miss seeing him. There was my brother-in-law's dad talking about living with his wife and kids in Argentina and spending Christmas on an Argentine beach. There was Uncle Mark sharing a story of Christmas on his mission. They were wonderful stories and I just sat back and enjoyed them. Mom asked me if I wanted to share a story, but I wasn't coming up with anything on the spot so I declined and the conversation went on. Eventually the dinner party broke up, the evening wore on, and what with one thing and another it has been another lovely Christmas day. 

As I've gone to bed now, Mom's question is been playing in my mind: What is the Christmas that I remember most? As I've been thinking about it, several memorable Christmases have stuck out. 

There was Christmas my third grade year when the family spent the night Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa Anderson's house. I shared a bed with my sister Maurianne, and I kept waking her up to ask her to go see what time it was. I bet she was super annoyed, but she was a good sport. When it finally was time to wake up we went upstairs, and there waiting for me was the BB gun I'd been asking and pining for for months. I ran to the gun, picked it up and starting marching around the room with it on my shoulder like I was the night watch. To this day I'm not sure I've ever been as excited about a Christmas present as I was that year.

There was the Christmas when I was 17 and the whole family was together for Christmas for the first time in years. My brother David and I stayed up late Christmas Eve night playing a computer game until he was called away by his wife to perform his Clausian duties. After everyone had settled down and gone to bed,  I remember laying on the couch in the basement, seeing Mom going around checking to make sure everyone was in bed and reveling in the fact that all of her children and grandchildren were under one roof for Christmas. 

These memories and others are wonderful. but the one Christmas that stands out most to me and is my most memorable is probably Christmas 2006. I was on my mission in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I'd been out nearly a year and a half and I was loving it. I loved the food, the oppressive heat and humidity, I loved the people, I loved the culture and I loved Spanish. I loved everything about Ecuador. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for my companion. Elder Williams was from Montana, and he'd only been in the country a couple of months. As Christmas was approaching, he was getting more and more homesick, which homesickness only made him more and more bitter towards everything. Towards the food, the heat and humidity, the language, and especially the people. We were in a pretty rough sector, and everywhere we went, rather than seeing and hearing traditional signs of the Christmases that we're used to in the United States, we saw a very, very different culture. For example, instead of Christmas carols being played, we heard big, brassy salsa music like this:

and this:

everywhere we went. I was pretty well acculturated at this point, but as I heard him almost nightly bemoan the fact that Ecuadorians didn't know how to celebrate Christmas, I couldn't help but buy into his attitude a little bit. I loved where I was and what I was doing, but he was right, it didn't feel like Christmas. We didn't let that stop us from working hard and doing all we could to share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but as Christmas got closer we were both a little disappointed.

Here's where I need to tell you about a family of new converts in the ward. Their name was Valenzuela, and this is them:

As you can see in the picture, they were very short, just like everyone else in that country, their sons Giuseppe and Cachito were wild and crazy (Cachito had actually peed on my previous companion at one point), and they were happy. They had experienced some incredible struggles and horrific trials (another story for another time), but those struggles had led them to the Church of Jesus Christ. Their faith in Christ and in His Atonement continues to be an example to me to this day. They were incredibly poor, living in a shack that was at most 30 square feet and that was accessed by going up a wooden staircase so steep and exposed that you felt like you were climbing a ladder to a tree house, but they were more content with their lives than most people I've ever known. I don't think there could ever a person meet them that didn't fall in love with them immediately.

My companion and I visited the Valenzuelas often, both because they cooked lunch for us on Saturdays and because they shared the gospel with great fervor and were always bringing friends over to listen to us. They loved the missionaries and told us often how grateful they were for the work we were doing because their lives had been saved by the Gospel. (Again, theirs is a great story. You should ask me about it sometime.) 

Anyway, about a week before Christmas, the Valenzuelas invited us to come over to their house for dinner on Christmas Eve. We readily accepted their invitation, but that didn't really change my companion's homesickness or animosity towards Ecuadorian Christmas.

Christmas Eve came, and things were going terribly. We tried our best to work hard all day, but no one really wanted to listen; they just wanted to get the party started. As with any Ecuadorian holiday, the preferred form of celebration seemed to be getting blackout drunk and raising hell in the streets. As the day wore on, it seemed less and less like Christmas, and both my companion's attitude and my attitude got worse and worse. I remember thinking that if I heard El Negrito de la Salsa one more time I might hit something. Around 2 pm my companion stopped talking altogether. Things were not merry and bright.

Finally, several hours later when we decided we weren't going to get anything done, we headed over to the Valenzuela's for dinner. We climbed the stairs and knocked on the door, and when Hermana Alexandra opened the door, the smile on her face changed our moods immediately. She invited us in, had us sit down, and with a wink told us that dinner would be ready soon. Hermano Valenzuela came out from behind the sheet that separated the bedroom from the living room, sat down with us, and with the biggest smile I'd ever seen said he had a story to tell.

He said that he and his wife had been really worried about this meal. They had been praying that they might be able to somehow get enough money to buy a turkey, so that they could cook for us a good Christmas dinner like we would have had at home. The money never came, and so they had resigned to preparing the standard chicken and rice. Then, just the day before Christmas Eve, he said that he had been given an unexpected bonus at work, and that the bonus was the exact price of a turkey at the mercado. He didn't try to hide the excitement in his voice as he told us that he knew that the bonus had come from God and that he didn't have to think twice about spending it all on a turkey for the "hermanitos." Hermana Alexandra looked over at us from the stove with tears in her eyes and told us again how much they loved us and were grateful that we were serving the Lord and sharing the gospel with people like her family.

I looked over at my companion and saw in his face the kind of gratitude and love that I was feeling. Neither of us really knew what to say. Luckily we were saved from having to say anything as dinner was on. 

We had dinner - turkey with rice and an onion/tomato/lime juice salad - while dodging toys as Giuseppe and Cachito took turns hurling their new Christmas presents at one another across the table. After dinner, Elder Williams and I shared a short Christmas message and we sang a couple of Christmas songs with the family. I felt the (Holy) Christmas Spirit so strong that evening that I never wanted to leave. 

Unfortunately the time came and reluctantly we stood up and said we had to get home. Hermana Alexandra jumped to her feet and said we had to open our presents before we left. She pulled a couple of newspaper-wrapped packages from off of the fridge and handed them to us with a smile. We told her that they didn't need to get us presents, but they just smiled and told us to open them. We tore open the packages and each found a long-sleeve, white t-shirt. Mine read in green lettering on the front "A Team Much Stronger Than Yours" and Elder Williams' read "Bad Boy." We laughed good-naturedly and we put them on over our shirts and ties to model them. They just laughed. 

As we left, we thanked the Valenzuelas over and over again and told them how much we appreciated everything they had done for us. Hermano Valenzuela cut off our thank yous, got a serious look on his face and said, "It'll never be enough." We nodded and said goodnight.

As we got to the bottom of the stairs, Elder Williams looked at me grinning broadly and said that he loved Ecuador and that he loved spending Christmas with these people. I agreed. As we walked home, Elder Williams abandoned all pretense and starting shouting "Merry Christmas" (yes, in English) to everyone along the way. We got a lot of laughs as everyone thought the giant gringo walking down the street yelling "Merry Christmas" was hilarious. I couldn't help but laugh myself. I was happy. And the prospect of talking to my family the next day just made me happier. 

To this day whenever I hear big, brassy salsa music I think of Christmas 2006, and I think of the wonderful familia Valenzuela. That's the Christmas I remember best.

Friday, December 21, 2012

And I Feel Fine

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost

Friday, December 14, 2012

What Do We Do Now?

Thanks to facebook and twitter I've seen a lot of reactions to the horrific acts carried out today in Newtown, CT. Most reactions to this senseless act of violence (are there any sensible acts of violence?) seem to fall into two groups. First, there are the people who mourn with those who mourn, i.e. those who send their thoughts and prayers to those directly affected. Second, there are those who propose answers to the question, "What should we do now in order to prevent this from happening again." Naturally the two groups are not mutually exclusive. I think that both reactions are warranted and helpful in moving the country through this tragedy in a way that is respectful to those affected as well as productive in terms of creating a greater sense of unity and purpose for the population as a whole.

The first response is invaluable. These kinds of acts shake the very core of our humanity as we ask how any member of our race could enact such evil. As we question the goodness of our race in general, it brings me hope to see people coming together to create this solidarity and becoming a community of mourners. Doing this can and will help the American people on the whole make sense of what has happened and get through it in a way that will make our country stronger.

The second class of response is similarly helpful as it addresses the problem of moving forward head on. We recognize that there is some kind of deficiency in the way we the people operate, and so we strive to fill that deficiency with new and improved policies.

From what I've seen there are two main issues that people seem to be bringing up:

1) gun control 
2) mental health 

Naturally there are many differing opinions about the specifics of what we should do with these issues, which opposition of course carries with it the possibility assurance of contentious argument. The truth is these questions don't have obviously simple answers, though that doesn't stop people on both sides from pretending that they do. I have my opinions, but they are not what I want to talk about here. I agree that these issues need to be talked about, but, frankly, I'm not really in a position to do anything about them myself.

So for me the more important question is what can I do? What should my response to this situation be? I've thought a lot about this, and to answer that question, I'd like to quote some of the words of Ezra Taft Benson. 

"We are commanded by God to take this gospel to all the world. That is the cause that must unite us today. Only the gospel will save the world from the calamity of its own self-destruction. Only the gospel will unite men of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family." (qtd. in L. Tom Perry, "Proclaim My Gospel from Land to Land", April 1989)

I firmly believe that learning about and putting into practice the doctrines of the gospel of Christ can bring peace both to the individual and the collective whole.

For the human race collectively the gospel can bring peace in unity, because living the gospel doesn't just affect the way we act, it affects who we are at our central core. Instead of taming, corralling, and limiting the sphere of influence of the evil impulses within us, it roots out those evil impulses altogether and changes our hearts. Such change of heart, were it to take place on a broad scale, would lead to a much more charitable and loving world. We would stop caring so much about number one and look for ways to serve and uplift those around us. Followers of Christ teach and preach many things, but the end goal of them all is love. Making us into a loving people is the purpose of Christ's teachings. As Paul said of charity:

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

If I have not charity, I am nothing. The gospel teaches love. After what happened in Newtown, I think we all agree that we, as a people, could use a little more love.

For the individual, an understanding of the truths of eternity taught by Christ and his prophets can provide a peace and comfort that is unparalleled. In the words of Christ:

"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." (John 14:27)

The truth of the matter is, bad things happen, and they happen to the very best of people. People like small, innocent schoolchildren. They happen because while on Earth we are given agency, the gift of choice, and some people choose to act poorly. God doesn't force or demand or even cajole. But when choices are made that lead to bad things happening, He's there to comfort us. And it's not comfort as the world giveth, but rather a peace "which passeth understanding, [and that] shall keep [our] hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7)

Now I can't say that I've ever personally experienced a tragedy on par with the events of today in Newtown. But because of the personal trials and tragedies that I have had to face, I can say unequivocally that God is there. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is real and it can bring peace, hope, love and comfort to us even when we're in the darkest nights of our anguish. All wrongs will be made right in and through Jesus Christ. As Joseph B. Wirthlin said:

"Each of us will have our own Fridays--those days when the universe itself seems shattered and the shards of our world lie littered about us in pieces. We all will experience those broken times when it seems we can never be put together again. We will all have our Fridays. But I testify in the name of the One who conquered death--Sunday will come. In the darkness of our sorrow, Sunday will come. No matter our desperation, no matter our grief, Sunday will come. In this life or the next, Sunday will come." ("Sunday Will Come", Oct. 2006)

So for me, the answer to the question "what do we do now?" is proclaim the gospel. Share the joy and hope and peace that I find in learning, understanding and applying the gospel of Jesus Christ in my life. Others more capable than I will figure out the logistics of the appropriate response in terms of public policy.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

End of the Semester Book Buying

With classes having ended last week and school being officially over this week, I have a problem. See, I have this tradition. It started the first semester of my freshman year here at BYU. I was walking the general book section of the bookstore happily counting the cash I'd just gotten from selling back my loathsome calculus and physics books when I happened to glance up and see this:

I had been thinking about buying it for some time because I'd heard my dad talk about it on several occasions. I looked at the cash in my hand, at the book on the shelf, back at my hand and then made a monumental decision: from that time forward, at the end of every semester, I would take the money I got from selling back books I didn't want anymore (textbooks) and spend at least some of it buying a book that I actually wanted to read. So I picked up The Screwtape Letters and bought it without another thought. From that time forward I've done this at the end of every semester of school.

This is one of my favorite things I've done over the course of my college education. I think what I like best about it is that I'm taking charge of my education and not limiting it to what I learn in school from professors. Even semesters when I haven't actually sold any books back, I still go and buy a new book to read either during Christmas break or over the summer. It's usually not books that require a lot of effort to read or that I have to think about too hard, but they're still at least somewhat mentally engaging.

This tradition has led to me buying and reading, among others:

There's not really any specific theme to the books I buy, as you can see. Usually when this time of the semester comes around I will have had my eye on a book or two for a while and so I just go out and buy it. This year is different.

I have a few different books that I've thought I might like, but nothing really stands out above the rest right now. The books I've been considering are Thinking Fast and Slow, Musicophilia and What the Best College Teachers Do. I think I'd be happy reading any of those books, but like I say I'm not super excited about any of them. So what do you all think? Which of those books should I buy and read? Or if not any of those ones, which alternates would you suggest? I'm in a pickle here. I appreciate any and all input.