Each November after Thanksgiving we have a tradition of driving into the Uinta Mountains to cut down a Christmas tree. The permit to cut a tree doesn’t cost much. We spend a lot more on gas for the two hour drive each way. But the memories we pay for are worth the cost.
Personally, I value the tradition much more than the tree. The conversation with family on the way, the company of excellent friends, the hike in the snow while looking for the perfect tree, an occasional snowball fight, the satisfaction of finding said tree, and the reward of delicious treats when we return with our trophies are all part of the experience. (I like treats.) It is a fun tradition to share. We are gone most of the day, but the time seems to go too quickly. I have yet to find a clock with good brakes. As you might guess from my description, the tree really isn’t the focus.
Once the tree is placed in our living room, and a bottle of Sprite is drained and mixed with water to give the tree a drink, we begin decorating. We decorate the house and the tree, both. Our family doesn’t decorate for most holidays, but we do for Christmas. It has little to do with worship of the Savior, perhaps, but it does warm up our home. It puts us in a different mood, a little more ready to share.
Giving our kids a Christmas ornament each year is another tradition we have. After more than a decade of raising five children, we have also increased the number of ornaments on our tree. It’s quite the menagerie and assortment, including figurines of ballerinas, Darth Vader, a piano, princesses, race cars, a black bear from Yellowstone, Mickey Mouse, a guitar, Tinker Bell, and a few different Santa Clauses. Each ornament represents the personal interest or an experience shared by one of our kids for the year that the ornament was given. It’s almost like a dangling journal or diary of sorts.
With the tree properly decorated, the gifts to each other begin to arrive beneath the tree. Some years there are more gifts than others. Some gifts are recycled as one of the youngest in the family gives someone else an item they were once fond of. (We see this as generous rather than cheap.) This year will probably see fewer new gifts beneath the boughs than in the past. The recession has been a different kind of gift. But the amount doesn’t seem to matter. Christmas is a holiday of worship and sharing, and we like to do both.
I am not one for a lot of commercialism, but I love to give gifts. Though I tend to avoid sales, and crowds, and fluff, I like to give something that, even in a small way, says, “I love you,” with perfect clarity. It drives my wife nuts when we set a budget for gifts, because we inevitably have to find a way to rob Peter to pay Paul after I am finished. It isn’t much, and I don’t think I am irresponsible, but it usually involves my time, talents, and the things I have been given. Okay, perhaps this is a justification more than anything, but I like to think that “because I have been given much, I too must give.” (Hymns, 219) When Liz reads this, she will likely grin with an expression on her face that says, “I can see right through your reasons.” Even if she is right, I would rather share than not.
Different from when I was a kid, I don’t care much about receiving presents any more. I have been the recipient of so many blessings from Father that I am happy if I am not given anything. It is gift enough to know that my gifts are received and appreciated and that love is felt in return. That works out well since Liz and I are outnumbered two to five. Our kids love us, and we feel it.
Because this time of year is a time of worship and sharing, it does help me to keep the giving season of Christmas in proper perspective when I consider the best gifts and why they are given. After I think about kids waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall or some gathering of friends or co-workers, I also think about the oft repeated instruction by the Savior, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
While living in Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith was instructed by the Lord on what we should ask for. He was told, “But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally; and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do….” He continues, “seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given…. For… they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me….” (D&C 46:7-9) If we lack a gift of the spirit that can help us and help others, we should pray earnestly for that gift.
I learn two important keys about asking as I read this passage of scripture. First, we are commanded to ask for the things we do not have. There is a difference between coveting, stealing, and taking, and the instruction to trust, ask, and rely upon Father. When we rely upon Him in faith, He answers our prayers. Secondly, this instruction is not for the perfect or even just those who keep all of Father’s commandments. He promises blessings for those who “seek so to do.” If we are trying, sincerely, He will see our efforts and will more than match them. It also helps if we are earnestly seeking the best gifts.
In a commercialized culture, “best” often refers to the most for the least. It is more and more of what I want. It may include good deals, bargains, and sales. On the other hand, it may be a long list of material things on our grown-up Christmas lists that typically I can only dream of because my wallet always falls short. But these things are not always best for us. Even if we receive them, they may not be gifts.
Yesterday, my oldest son and I were talking about one of his recent needs that he can’t afford at the moment. I thought his need was valid but perhaps bordered on the threshold of wants. Until he could afford the item he wanted, I suggested that he learn to make do. Then I shared a principle that has been very effective in my life.
Many times I find that I have a need for something that I can’t afford. I follow the instruction to pray about it and I tell Father what I need. I then determine in my heart that I will be content with what I have received, and what I may receive. Then I let it go. It’s not that I forget about my need. I still work towards it, but I try not to set my heart on it. When I can demonstrate to Father that I care more about Him than I do the things of this world, He usually gives me what I want anyway. It may not be immediately, but I often find that it is soon. This has worked repeatedly for me, time and time again, and I know that God hears and answers prayers. I have had too many prayers that have been answered to ever doubt again.
So what are the best gifts? If we are to seek them earnestly, then we should first consider what they are and why they are given. Here are a few thoughts.
The Gift of the Holy Ghost
Wilford Woodruff, the fourth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that the gift of the Holy Ghost is the greatest gift that can be given to man in mortality. He said, “there is no greater gift, there is no greater blessing, there is no greater testimony given to any man on earth.” (Deseret Weekly, April 6, 1889, 451.) Why is this gift so great? Because the Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead, or Trinity if you will. To feel His influence and follow on a daily basis is to walk with God. If you have ever wanted help to do something hard, what better help could you ask for than to hold His hand through a difficult trial, knowing that He will lead you safely through it. This is a gift that is received through confirmation after an individual has been baptized as described in the scriptures. The gift is operable anytime we are in need and seek to keep Father’s commandments. Anyone who seeks this gift can have it. Once we have been given the gift, others around us can feel that gift through us. We can share this gift and inspire others to seek the gift, too. This gift has the sustaining power to see all of Father’s children safely home.
The Gift of Eternal Life
In a revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to David Whitmer, the Lord revealed, “Therefore, if you will ask of me you shall receive; if you will knock it shall be opened unto you. Seek to bring forth and establish my Zion. Keep my commandments in all things. And if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.” (D&C 14:5-7)
The gift of eternal life is the greatest gift possible because it is the gift that allows us to become like our Father. It is the gift that binds us to our Savior. With this gift, we are promised an inheritance of all that the Father hath. This means He will share His knowledge, His power, His wisdom, His glory, His kingdom, and worlds and eternities without end. Suffice it to say that we cannot comprehend what this really includes. But we know that He is willing to give us everything, holding nothing back, when we are willing to follow Him and keep His commandments.
The Gift of Charity
Mormon, a prophet in ancient America taught about another important gift, even the gift of charity. He said, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail— But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” If we seek for charity, which is the pure love of Christ, we cannot fail.
We are further instructed how to receive this gift which is the greatest of all. Mormon continues, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; … that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.” (Moroni 7:46-48)
The Gift of the Fruit of the Tree of Life
In a vision of the Tree of Life, the prophet, Lehi, saw a powerful symbol that can help each of us return to our heavenly home. The tree, which was a representation of ‘the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” is most desirable above all things. (1 Nephi 11:22) After eating some of the fruit, Lehi wanted to share with his family. He knew that the fruit was desirable to make one truly happy. He said, “it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy....” (1 Nephi 8:10-12) There is only one way to the fruit. It is a strait and narrow path that is marked with a rod of iron. As we follow the word of God, He will lead us in that path until we can taste the fruit for ourselves.
Love is the Gift of God Freely Given
A close examination of these last three gifts points out an interesting similarity. They are each the greatest, or the most desirable. Exaltation is the greatest gift. Charity is the greatest of all. The fruit of the tree of life is most desirable. If they are not all exaggerations, then perhaps they all refer to the greatest gift.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Jesus was born into this world so that He could save us. He gave His life so that He might save us. Everything He has done has been for our salvation and exaltation. Salvation comes freely to all, making possible the resurrection. Exaltation can only come when we claim the gift that He so freely offers us.
The tree of life in Lehi’s vision represents the love of God, or the love of Christ. They are the same. Charity is the love of God, or the pure love of Christ. The fruit of which Lehi tasted and found to be more desirable than anything else. When we bear fruits of faith and repentance, we are led to the fruit of the tree of life, of eternal life. Each of these gifts are one and the same. God loves His children and wants them to be happy. He allows them to choose, to act and not be acted upon. The gift has been extended. It is up to us to choose – to reach toward Him to receive the gift or not.
The Gift of Agency Returned
Occasionally you may joke about a gift that you plan to return to the store because it didn’t fit or it wasn’t quite what you wanted. In a different sense, and for entirely opposite reasons, there is a gift that I think is worth returning, and we shouldn’t delay or wait until the day after Christmas to do it.
Like the recycled gifts of my youngest but well intended children, there is so very little that we can give to Father that is not already His. We have but a broken heart and a contrite spirit to offer. The apostle, Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “as you submit your wills to God, you are giving Him the only thing you can actually give Him that is really yours to give. Don’t wait too long to find the altar or to begin to place the gift of your wills upon it! No need to wait for a receipt; the Lord has His own special ways of acknowledging.” (Ensign, May 2004, 44)
The gift of agency from Father to His children is the one thing that can give Him glory – because out of choice, we choose to become like Him. He allows us the freedom to choose for ourselves what we will do. He can’t force us. But when we submit to Him, and yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit by putting Him first, we demonstrate the amount of love we have for Him, be it great or small. Through our actions our gift is expressed. Through our love and agency returned, we give Him eternal glory.
I feel very blessed to have wonderful family and friends. This past year has been a real gift to me and I am changed for the better. I have never felt so much love and charity in all my life. The pure love of Christ is truly perfect love, and it is wonderful.
Christmas is a wonderful season of the year. It is not just a day. Christmas is an attitude and an opportunity. As we focus on the spirit of Christmas – the Spirit of the Lord – Father will grant unto us the gifts of the spirit that will lead us to the greatest gift of all. This is His gift. This is His desire, that we receive His gift by receiving Him into our hearts. As we do, we may feel Him say, “I love you,” with perfect clarity. May we all seek the love of God this Christmas season. May we ask for it, feel it, and then share it again and again.
This is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.