The Most Desirable Thing

Dear Will:

We have in our home over 20 different nativity displays, ranging from an ornate, elaborate set of figures that covers an entire table to one crèche so small it can fit in your hand, so simple that it is nothing more than a tiny, nest-like manger adorned with a little yellow star. It’s gotten to the point that we no longer have space sufficient to display them all at one time, and yet we continue to add to our collection.

Now you might reasonably ask: “Watkins, why this jubilee?” But if you sat in our living room and saw this collection from various nations around the world, I think you’d start to understand. In fact, if you’ve attended the Orange Stake’s Community Christmas Celebration and enjoyed its annual array of stables and wise men and angels of all varieties, you might not even ask the question.

Still, it’s interesting to note that of all the noteworthy events in the life of the Savior of mankind, it is His birth that gets especial focus and attention. We do not typically build displays of the marriage in Cana or of the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t make figurines depicting the healing of the lepers or the transfiguration or the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Even on Easter we do not, as a rule, assemble a living room tableau representing His rising from the tomb on the third day. And yet all around the world, the crèche has come to be an essential focal point of faith and celebration. Why is that?

I think we start to find the answer to that question in a story from the Book of Mormon. Lehi, a man of some renown in the city of Jerusalem, was, by his own admission, a “visionary man.” One night he dreamed a dream, allegorical by nature and profound in its implications. It depicted the journey of his family and countless others as they made their way uncertainly along a path, some finding their way to destruction and others to profound happiness at the foot of a marvelous tree. So moved was he by the vision and what it seemed to suggest about the future of his children in particular, that he shared it with his family with great emotion and concern.

One of his four sons at the time, Nephi by name, was profoundly affected by Lehi’s account and wanted to see the vision for himself. Now the record does not tell us what steps Nephi had to take to obtain that blessing, but we can assume that his quest included a fair amount of fasting and prayer coupled with private devotion and purification. Eventually, Nephi was granted the desires of his heart.

The vision did not unfold to Nephi in the same way it had to his father. I read now from Nephi’s own account in the 11th chapter of 1 Nephi:

8 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.

9 And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.

10 And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

11 And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof. . . .

Now this is key. The question is, how best to explain the meaning of that tree to Nephi. The Spirit could have merely told Nephi the answer to his question, but it’s clear that words alone could not convey what the tree represented. So instead, Nephi received another vision to help him understand what this precious tree was meant to depict, and an angel was sent to help him piece it all together. Nephi continues:

13 . . . I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.

14 And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?

15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins. . . .

18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.

19 And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!

20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.

21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!  . . .

Now remember, this vision of Mary and the baby Jesus is the answer to Nephi’s question about the meaning of the tree. So to be sure he understood, the angel then repeated Nephi’s original question:

21 . . .Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.

The implication is this: If you want someone to understand what the love of God is, perhaps the best way to do that is to show them the Virgin Mother with the Christ child in her arms.

Think for a moment of that scene, which you yourself have seen depicted hundreds of times before—in film, in tabletop display, and in any number of live reenactments from ward Christmas parties to private family programs with the children arrayed in bathrobes and bedsheets. What is it about this scene—this mother and baby in particular—that so effectively and so profoundly evokes the love of God?

Surely it begins with the ineffable bond between mother and child. Although we might struggle to conceive of God in all His glory, and although our mortal limitations may make it hard for us to imagine the depth and breadth of the love He has for His children, we do catch a glimmer of that love when a mother brings a newborn into this world. That direct partnership with God may in fact be the closest any of us can come to seeing the face of God in this life—so surely the emotions stirred by birth help us to feel things we can feel in no other way. Certainly maternity and eternity are very closely linked. The love of God is revealed thereby.

More than that, even, the Nativity represents what the angel referred to as “the condescension of God”—His coming down to us, disregarding His superior station to be with us. In the words of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14)—which, we’re told, can be interpreted as “God with us.”

I’m reminded of an experience from the Christmas of 1996, when Bryn was a busy two-year-old discovering the wonders of the holiday. One of our many nativity displays is a fabric-and-velcro advent calendar, with a separate pocket for each of the 25 days leading up to Christmas. Each day the kids remove an item from a pouch, and as the month progresses the figures start to accumulate: star and stable animals, shepherds and wise men. The baby Jesus, of course, is always found in  number 25, and He makes His appearance on Christmas morning.

Except in 1996. That year Baby Jesus kept disappearing from his assigned pocket only to reappear elsewhere in the house, tucked side-by-side in a manger with another Baby Jesus in another of our many crèches. Suspecting we knew who the culprit was, we asked Bryn for an explanation. It was simple. She said: “He wanted to be with his fwiend.”

That is, in essence, what is meant by the condescension of God. He wanted to be with His friends. In that sense, the love of God represented by the Nativity extends far beyond that single night in Bethlehem. As the prophet Alma foretold, the birth of Jesus was precursor to a life with singular purpose, a life dedicated to the mortal experience that would enable Him, throughout the eternities, to understand what each of us, in our own individual way, might go through during our own earthly sojourn. Said Alma:

10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.

11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:10 – 12)

Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of the Living God, came to earth to experience firsthand the full scope of life’s challenges so that He might know how succor us as we confront those challenges: pains, afflictions, temptations, sicknesses, infirmities—of every kind. Yours and mine. What you have suffered prior to this day and what you’re suffering right now. The hurts and offenses, the disappointments and heartaches. He knows them all.

And beyond that: The culmination of His earthly travail was His sacred death—endured and ultimately embraced simply because He loves us. Said He: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) As we consider, therefore, the love of God represented by the mother and child, let’s also remember what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has stated: “It is the life at the other end of the manger scene that gives this moment of nativity its ultimate meaning” (Shepherds Why This Jubilee?, p. 57)

There is one final way in which that night in Bethlehem teaches us of the love of God. The gathering portrayed in a typical nativity display, with shepherds and wise men and angels encircling the bed of straw as mother and father hover near, captures also the love of God flowing in the opposite direction—the love FOR God, in other words. It is as if all have congregated around a warming fire, to absorb and reflect the love that is radiating therefrom.

We likewise gather, don’t we? To feel and express that love, to have our hearts touched and softened and then to give back what has been given to us. That is the true revelation, the true impact of the birth of Christ. The love of God it represents causes us also to love like Him.  Elder John H. Groberg once said: “When filled with God’s love, we can do and see and understand things that we could not otherwise do or see or understand. Filled with His love, we can endure pain, quell fear, forgive freely, avoid contention, renew strength, and bless and help others in ways surprising even to us.” (John H. Groberg, “The Power of God’s Love,” Ensign, Nov. 2004.)

May I close with the words of Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, YW General President, from a talk she gave just a couple of weeks ago during the First Presidency Christmas Devotional:

“As we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ this season, let us also celebrate all that His birth symbolizes, especially the love. When we see shepherds, may we remember to be humble. When we see wise men, may we remember to be generous. When we see the star, may we remember the Light of Christ, which gives life and light to all things. When we see a tiny baby, may we remember to love unconditionally, with tenderness and compassion. May we open the doors of our hearts and reach out to those around us who are lonely, forgotten, or poor in spirit. As we contemplate the example and infinite sacrifice of the Savior, may we also consider how we can be more Christlike in our associations with family and friends, not just during this season but throughout the year.” (“Christmas Is Christlike Love,” First Presidency Christmas Devotional, Dec. 2014)

More than at any other time, during the Christmas season the love of God sheds itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men. It is, indeed, the most desirable above all things. May we be filled with that love and radiate it to all around us.


Humor Minus Time

Dear Will:

I’ve heard that Mark Twain once said: “Humor is tragedy plus time.” So it’s probably too soon for me to be sharing with you my most recent misadventures under the kitchen sink. For the rest of you, just watching it live from a few feet away would create sufficient time to transform the unfolding tragedy into double-you-over, spasmodic-giggle-inducing humor, but for the incompetent handyman who lived through the ordeal, it’s still a little hard to crack a smile.

I cracked just about every other part of my body, however. Any time you have to stick a bald head in a tight space you are pretty much inviting unsightly gashes. Meanwhile, my arms look as if I came out on the losing end of Fruit Ninja Live. The loss of blood isn’t that big of a deal—the stuff regenerates, right?—but the lost dignity may never be recovered.

First of all—just so that we’re all clear on this subject—we’re talking about plumbing here, and plumbing is evil. I’m pretty sure they’ve done studies to show that no plumbing project, no matter how innocuous or straightforward, has ever taken less than the entire day on which it was begun. And they have also shown that if there is an imminent event of some import—dinner guests, say, or perhaps the UCLA vs. USC football game, or maybe a looming Thanksgiving Day feast—or, God forbid, ALL THREE—the chances of everything going smoothly are less than zero. I don’t know how that math works out exactly, but it’s science, so it must be true.

So imagine my unbridled euphoria when we discovered a small, almost imperceptible drip under the sink last week. My expert diagnosis determined that the hose on the faucet was at fault. Well that seems simple enough, I thought. Just unscrew the old one and put in a new one. Even I can do that. [INSERT SPONTANEOUS, OFF-CAMERA LAUGHTER HERE.]

I will spare you the details—not that you wouldn’t enjoy them—but I just can’t bear to relive the whole thing. So I’ll give you my Saturday in a series of 140-characters-or-less tweets instead:

  • [1:34 pm] That Price Pfister hose costs 70 bucks. Smarter to just replace the whole faucet. Heading to Costco. #priceypfister
  • [3:49 pm] How do you loosen a corroded flange you can’t even reach? AND HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO DO PLUMBING WITHOUT SWEAR WORDS? #muffledgrunts
  • [5:04 pm] Game’s starting and I don’t even have the old fixtures out yet. Bringing in Manuel for reinforcements. #nothappy #mannyfromheaven
  • [6:29 pm] Home Depot. #lovemyDVR
  • [7:08 pm] One last trip to Home Depot. #almostfinished #gobruins
  • [7:29 pm] Back at Home Depot. #notamused #watchthegamewithoutme
  • [8:02 pm] Home #$*&@% Depot.
  • [8:43 pm] Fifth trip to Home Depot. Bruins win. Or so I’ve heard. #worstSaturdayever

And in all of this I’m leaving out the part about finishing at 10:30 pm, about smelling smoke when we turned on the dishwasher, about the visit from the electrician and the malfunctioning reverse osmosis system that we discovered after he left. But all of that is in the past. Today is Thanksgiving, and we have a brand new kitchen faucet, and were it not for the fact that last night we discovered something dripping under the kitchen sink, those pangs in my gut might be signs of hunger.

May your days be filled joy—rather than, say, humor—throughout this holiday season.


Must. Find. Water.

Dear Will:

When time and circumstance allow, I like to hike up, over, and around the hills in the area as a way to be alone with my thoughts. I keep a small daypack at the ready so that I can pretty much just grab it and go. I leave the pack stocked with a small variety of just-in-case essentials, including a small first aid kit, a tiny flashlight, a compact windbreaker, and a few fistfuls of trail food—most of which I never use and should not need while traversing familiar, local trails so close to home. The real purpose for the daypack is to carry my Camelbak hydration unit, which is a fancy way to say a 2-liter, over-the-shoulder canteen. That item I use every time.

If I were to hike in actual wilderness, I would surely pack more thoughtfully and carry a bigger pack, but even then the most critical item would be the water. Even if I found myself hopelessly lost, miles from the trailhead, I could blister up, break a bone, run out of food, and bivouac under a saguaro for weeks if I had to; but if I ran out of water I’d be in major trouble within hours regardless of how much moleskin and trail mix I had on hand.

Although I’m not exactly what anyone would consider a rugged outdoorsman, I am smart enough to know that if I were to head out on a distant trek I should carry plenty of water with me and ensure that I have a clear idea of where I can obtain more along the way—especially if I know I will be wandering into unfamiliar lands without clearly marked trails. And I would not, under any circum­stances, forgo water unless compelled to do so. Water is perhaps the only essential. Water is life.

Now hold that thought as you consider the following: It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see mortality as the ultimate through-hike—a long-distance slog up, over, and around all kinds of hills and other obstacles. In that sense, Alma probably had it right when he called us “wanderers in a strange land” (Alma 13:23). Usually the trail is clearly marked, but certainly there are times when we amble off and suddenly find ourselves bushwhacking, unsure of where we’re headed. No matter how well-equipped we may think we are, eventually we may find ourselves tired, discouraged, and increasingly thirsty, muttering to ourselves through cracked and bleeding lips: Must. Find. Water.

And well we might ask: As we go along through the various peaks and valleys of life, when we wander off-trail, or when we stumble and find ourselves disoriented and unable to find our bearings, how long will our reserves hold out? What should we do if our canteens run dry? Where, in this journey from birth to death, do we find water along the way?

The scriptures have the answer. In Jeremiah, Jehovah declares himself to be “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13)—a lesson reiterated and magnified by Jesus when He taught: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). He is saying, in essence, that we cannot live without Him. Literally. When Jesus taught that He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), He further emphasized that point. Jesus = Water. Water = Life. Jesus = Life.

With Him, you will not thirst, you cannot run dry. So take it from one who knows: Should you feel inclined, now or at any time, to wander off the trail, please make sure you take Water along for the journey. You will surely need it.