An Open Letter to Claus Inc. North Pole

dear santaDear Mr. and Mrs. Claus,

A recent video mashup  of male LDS leaders providing instructions to LDS women on how to be LDS women, left me longing for gender parity in General Conference speakers. The ratio of two female speakers to 36 male speakers documented here  is devastating to those like me that hunger for messages from Heavenly Parents spoken in a female voice of leadership.

An English speaking woman of modest means or a non-English speaker is restricted to the meager rations of LDS female leader voices doled out in increments of two every six months (with a once a year bonus of three additional talks by women in the Women’s Session of General Conference). That’s an annual total of seven talks by women translated in a variety of languages and available for free. Half the membership of my church is represented by seven voices in a year!

Those privileged as English language speakers with money and means may hear from the female auxiliary leaders and some other LDS female role models at BYU’s Women’s Conference sponsored by BYU and the Relief Society. Last year over 11,000 women attended. Early registration for 2015 will cost $52 for two days of predominantly female voices with additional costs for transportation and lodging ($92 for a stay in Helaman/Heritage Halls). That’s half a million US dollars in registration fees for 11,000 attendees! I wasn’t part of the elect 11,000 this year, but I caught most of the talks for free online.

Thank goodness I speak English! My Spanish speaking grandmother struggles to understand spoken English, but has no trouble with a written English language copy of a talk. Sadly, no free transcripts of the 2014 BYU Women’s Conference are available for printing at home. You might want to pay the $24.99 to buy a copy of the 2014 talks from Deseret Book. I think she’d really like this gift, but this is not what I want for Christmas.

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Shepherds and Wise Men

By Karen

With_Us_Bethlehem_Still_Shift_Worship-HDFor as long as I can remember, my grandma has hand made a Christmas ornament each year for each one of her grandkids. This is a real labor of love since, at last count, she has 46 grandkids. She has always loved making things with her hands. This little collection of ornaments has become a real treasure to me, especially since my grandma had a stroke about 4 ½ years ago and she is no longer able to make them. The ornaments I have from the earlier years are pretty, but during the last 4-5 years before her stroke, she started making each of the pieces of the nativity. These are the ones I really love.

For the past few years, we have made these nativity ornaments part of the advent activities we do with our 4 year old, Jack. Each day, at the beginning of December, we pull out a different piece of the nativity—shepherd, wise man, star, angel—and we talk about its significance and hang it on the tree. This year, as we told the stories of the shepherds and wise men to Jack, I was particularly struck by the contrasting ways that they experienced the birth of Christ.

First, the wise men. They had studied, prayed and searched. They were watching the skies. They learned, and hoped, and waited. Then they saw the star. And when they did, they recognized it and they followed it. Even though they knew what the star meant when they saw it, they still had a long journey ahead of them before they actually saw Christ.

Contrast this with the story of the shepherds. They were going about their business, “watching their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” I am sure that their shock came not just from seeing an angel, but because it was unexpected. They were just going about their lives, and they were presented with a miraculous vision. They immediately made the short journey to Bethlehem and saw the baby Jesus.

I think this is the way that Christ works in our lives too—sometimes we experience Christ’s grace after we have been waiting, watching, hoping and praying, and sometimes we are given moments of grace as we go about our everyday lives.

There are many examples of other “wise men” (and women) in the scriptures. In the Bible, we read about Simeon and Anna waiting at the temple to see the Savior. In the Book of Mormon, we read about Samuel the Lamanite prophesying of Christ years before his birth. In fact, much of the Book of Mormon is a story about people waiting and watching for Christ. In my life, these “wisemen” moments are things like:

  • Receiving an answer to a long-term prayer
  • Getting a piece of inspiration that helps answer a nagging question
  • Feeling a small measure of peace about a situation that has been hard for a long time and may not ever be fully resolved in this life
  • Feeling God’s help to make progress in overcoming a consistent weakness/sin

There are also examples of “shepherds” in the scriptures. In the Old Testament, we read about Moses and his experience with the burning bush. In the New Testament, we read about Paul on the Road to Damascus and about Mary Magdalene seeing the resurrected Christ. In the Book of Mormon, King Lamoni receives an unexpected but powerful witness. In my life, these “shepherd” moments are things like:

  • Feeling prompted to go to the hospital when something turned out to be wrong in an otherwise normal pregnancy
  • Having visiting teachers show up with dinner on a day when they could not have known that I had just found out I was miscarrying
  • Sitting in a Church meeting, even sometimes when I don’t particularly feel like being there, and receiving a revelation meant specifically for me
  • Feeling more fully the love of God when I see or hear something beautiful

Sometimes, we are like the wise men—we really seek after Christ. We work, ponder, pray, hope and anticipate. And sometimes, we are like the shepherds and Christ’s grace is instantaneous. Either way, His love is a gift. And it can change us.

So, how does the story end? We read that when the wise men saw the star, “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” and they followed it. When they found Mary and Jesus, they “fell down and worshiped him.” We read that the shepherds, when the angels left, “came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger,” and they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.”

Both the shepherds and the wise men recognized the light when it came, followed it, and received Christ into their lives. And I think it is safe to say that their lives were changed from that day forward.

One thing I want to point out is that, while there is definitely something to be said for waiting, learning and hoping these things are not prerequisites to experiencing the love of God (Christ) in our lives. God’s love for us is a constant and the miracle is that it is not tied to the amount of work we do. The waiting, learning and hoping can change us, but it doesn’t make God love us more. Our Heavenly Parents love us, and Christ atoned for us, just as we are—ordinary, human, with all our strengths and weaknesses. And that love changes us. It doesn’t just cover our sins and make us more presentable. It actually changes who we are, bit by bit.

It is hard to describe exactly how this change takes place—I’m not sure I really understand it. What I do know is that when I have these moments of grace, I feel inspired to do and be better. And my capacity to do and be better is expanded. Sometimes I feel like Nephi, who was shown a vision of the birth of Christ by an angel. The angel asks, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (Or, “Do you know how God will be manifest on earth?”) Nephi’s response is a favorite of mine. He says, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” Like Nephi, we may not know the meaning of all things right now, but we can know and experience the love of God right now, individually and personally.

This Christmas season, as we strive to put Christ at the center of our celebration, it is my hope that we can look for, recognize, and appreciate these moments of grace—whether they come after we have been waiting, hoping, and praying or unexpectedly, as we go about our everyday lives. Either way, I know that God meets us where we are—wherever we are—and that Christ’s grace is sufficient. I am grateful for the ways I have experienced it in my life. At this time of year, I am especially grateful for the birth of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, him who is mighty to save.

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Sacred Music Sunday: How Far is it to Bethlehem

DSC_001117Do you have a favorite Christmas carol?  I have too many to name just one.  You probably do, too.  For me, Christmas music is the best thing about this season.  This month the music that’s most on my mind is the English carol “How Far is it to Bethlehem.”  I memorized it because I’ll be directing a dozen kids in singing it for sacrament meeting next week.

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Nativity Scene

dec post 4“You don’t have to make every person in the city of Jerusalem,” my son says to me. He is home from college for the weekend and surveying the scene, incredulous that the stacks of fabric, scattered paper patterns, bags of pellets, stuffing, trim and buttons are ever going to amount to a proper Holy Family. I explain patiently. “It is Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, and there are a lot of characters in this story. I have already edited out the Innkeeper and his wife who are super important.” He says, “They are not what I would call ‘super important’.” I am indignant. “No Innkeeper’s wife, no manger. She orchestrated the whole setting” The row of cutout faces, lined up in various flesh tones alongside their corresponding future bodies, is particularly disconcerting to him. “Why does Jesus look like a thumb?” “Because that is how he is made, he is in swaddling clothes.” My son shivers. “He looks creepy.”

This is part of our holiday tradition. I attempt some seemingly impossible list of homemade gifts and my children and husband watch this ritual of aspirational overachievement with benevolent bemusement. Toys, quilts, scarves, all manner of stuffed and assembled things, most of which could be more easily and cheaply purchased, are in the works from November to the wee hours of Christmas morning. Skins and innards are strung everywhere as Mama Kringle assures everyone that this year she will get everything done on time and without incident. Retail jobs, small children, sickness, travel, nothing deters the hum of the machine or the smoke of the glue gun.

Last year I decided I wanted to make a Nativity out of bean bag dolls. I had bought the pattern years ago but had never done anything with it. I was trying to think of something special for my brother-in-law’s family and I pulled it out. It was the year to do it.

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Memory, Traditions, Christmas

Granny Jammies

I have been thinking a lot about memory lately, and a lot about traditions. The first is because of a very big book I read out loud twice while I was pregnant, called Memory, History, Forgetting. It is by the French phenomenologist, Paul Ricouer. He starts it by saying that the Greeks had two words for memory. One of them described the simple memories that just come to us without trying. We hear, or see, or smell something that reminds us of something else. The other term described memories that don’t necessarily come simply. Instead, they are the memories we actively search for, that we try to recollect. One of the main ways we do this is through telling stories, and essentially asking dear ones, “Remember when?” They might say “Yes,” and the story builds. It could also remind us that the same story can be recounted differently. For Ricouer, there are ways to recount a story so unfaithfully that they do violence or injustice, but there are also times that it is helpful to “recount otherwise,” to tell a different story. Remembering as story-sharing does something else. It helps answer a question some philosophers have had about memory: is it individual or collective? While one could make a case for either, it often seems to be both. We remember as individuals in a community, with narrative serving as the tie that binds. For us as Latter-day Saints, this also plays out each week when we sit in a room with those we call sisters and brothers and effortfully try to remember Christ. One of the ways we might attempt this, is by re-collecting the stories we have heard or read about Christ, including the ever meaningful, ever hopeful story of his birth.

I have been thinking about traditions, because I often think about traditions in December. I love remembering the way that my family celebrates Christmas and asking others the ways that their families do. I can feel close to my family, even when I’m an ocean or whole large landmass away. I feel part of something big and beautiful and sometimes messy, and I feel the warm feelings that I’ve come to associate as the spirit. (Or home. Or love.) Other’s traditions can feel a tiny bit foreign to me, but they can be wonderful to learn about, too. Sometimes I gain new insights, or new eyes to see those insights–to see inside something I have been looking at for a long time.

This happened to me on Sunday, but not quite with family traditions and rememberings of Christ’s birth. It happened with something slightly broader. My husband and I tried to sing along with friends, as we all tried to sing along with Handel’s “Messiah.” It was the first time for me, and because I am not a strong singer, it was hard. It was also beautiful and powerful, and a fitting tribute-tradition to our Savior’s birth, that I was grateful to experience first hand, in a chapel that I was grateful to sit in first hand, that was so different than the room I generally worship in.

A little while after that, my husband and I went with our sleeping babe to another church’s recreation of the journey to Bethlehem. It involved a 45 minute walk through a wooded path on a dark and frigid night, with a series of guided stops. There were two that gave me pause in the best way. One was to the shepherds watching their flock by night. They spoke amongst themselves, normally, casually, then a light appeared from a place that I wasn’t expecting, and I saw three angels. They spoke gentle, familiar words, and sang via a gentle (if still powerful), familiar song: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!” And I started to cry. Not because I love the song, though there might have been a measure of that too. I started to cry because each of those speaking, singing angels was a young woman. Aside from a small number of beautiful paintings, I can’t remember ever seeing angels depicted as female. (All of the named angels in the scriptures are male.) The other soul-stirring moment was at the manger.

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Visiting Teaching Message December 2014: The Divine Mission of Jesus Christ: Prince of Peace

Click for French Translation/Traduction en français

In what ways does the Savior bring peace to your life?

ww2-warbonds-christmas-adThis is the question posed at the end of the formal December 2014 Visiting Teaching message. Most often the end questions don’t seem to apply to me or the women I visit teach, but I appreciate the idea of inquiry, and the admonition to “seek to know what to share” that is included in the precursory section of each Visiting Teaching message. So I read them, and think about them even if I end up not using them. But…. I thought about that query…. and I thought about Christmas…. and I thought about women through the ages.

I also have a thing for history. I love it. Drawn to the Egyptians as a child, I grew curious about the World Wars as a teen as I wondered about George Santayana’s statement “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I grew to believing Santayana, so began a life-long love in seeking the wisdom, hindsight and experiences of those gone before me. Indeed, it surprises no one who knows me that I listen to a collection of dated audio recordings, including my Christmas favourite, Bing Crosby’s 1944 Live Christmas Broadcast.

There is something nostalgically sad, yet hopefully longing and strangely beautiful  to me about Christmas in wartime.

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