To See and Feel and Witness

Dear Will:

Last week I drove north on Veteran Avenue en route to my son’s apartment near the UCLA campus. As a Bruin myself, I’ve driven that road countless times, but it’s been a while. The drive was thus made new again by the morning view it gave me of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, with its silent rows of gravestones, standing at attention to honor the veterans who lie in rest there along the avenue—90,000+ as I understand it.

The sight will hush you into an urge to turn off the radio. Which you should do.

During the first few years of our married life together, Dana and I lived in a duplex apartment just south of that cemetery. I can remember one Memorial Day pushing a stroller through its hallowed rows and talking to my firstborn about what made those grounds so sacred. He could not have been more than two years old, so his dad’s discourse was surely incomprehensible. But you do not need language to convey the feeling that lingers in a place like that. As a new father, I felt it was important that Luke have that experience—that even as a toddler he have the chance to see and feel and witness.

I still feel that way. Perhaps it is because of the impact of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. I was there in February of my senior year in high school, and there was snow on the ground. When it’s cold like that, they change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every half hour, but what gave me chills was not the weather. It was the image of one member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, assigned to stand guard while I watched in reverent silence. I can still picture the face of that stoic soldier whose every step reverberated through the grounds. He did not vary his 21-step cadence as he marched in the morning chill, the physical effect of which could be plainly seen streaming from his nose, across his chin, and onto the front of his otherwise impeccable uniform. And yet he did not sniff nor flinch nor waver. I was awestruck (still am!) by the respect and honor he showed on our behalf as we gathered in grateful tribute to the nameless soldiers represented there.

How many thousands more like them have given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”? And how many others have similarly sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” an obligation they have taken “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”? It’s a remarkable choice given the possible consequences. I have a nephew, a newly commissioned West Point grad, who just a few weeks ago took that very oath. I watched the scene play out via video. And I wept.

These men and women, both living and dead, represent the very best in us, modeling the very best that we can be. Among those of us who have taken an easier, safer course, they have no equal. In fact, the very best of all has himself declared: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It bears repeating: You cannot love more than that. May no one ever doubt their convictions, question their devotion, or denigrate their service. Such women and men deserve and have earned our greatest respect and (given the nature of their sacrifice) our eternal gratitude.

And so, if I could, on this Veterans Day I would write to all of them these words which cannot possibly convey the depth of what I feel: Thank you for your service.


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.


That They Shall Not Have Died in Vain

Dear Will:

It’s Memorial Day weekend, but it hasn’t felt much like a holiday around here.  We recently installed some cabinets in our garage, which meant that first I had to spend several evenings culling through our “stuff” and piling everything that was worth keeping into a heap in the middle of the garage.  It then took me two full days to assign the various heap units to their new homes.  The garage looks great (it won’t last, I know; but for a few days we’re indulging the fantasy).  Still, I can’t wait to get back to the office so that I can relax.

As I pulled out my flag to commemorate the holiday, I found myself thinking about patriots.  The great patriots of the world have demonstrated a clear sense that the collective is more important than the individual.  They understood that in the fight to establish or preserve freedom for a nation, the focus cannot be on “me” or “mine,” but rather has to be on “us” and “ours.” Consider the words of Moroni, the great Book of Mormon patriot, which he hastily scrawled but carefully chose as he placed them on the Title of Liberty.  “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children,” it read (Alma 46:12).  That banner became a rallying point for a nation, its message a rallying cry for a people.  It reminded the Nephites that they had something worth fighting for.

Moroni’s selfless leadership also reflected an understanding that in order to achieve great things it would be necessary to give up, or at least place at risk, some good things.  That’s why often, when we speak of glorious patriots, we also speak of tragic death.  Because, as Emerson said, they “[dared] to die, and leave their children free.” A couple of years ago, my wife Dana and I enjoyed one of the most moving Sabbaths of our lives.  After attending church in downtown Washington D.C., we set out for an afternoon of quiet reflection at the various memorials in and around the capital, each one paying homage to patriots, both famous and obscure.  We watched visitors take rubbings from that great wall of the Vietnam Memorial.  We were moved by the drama of the Korean War Memorial.  But nothing was so moving as our trek through Arlington National Cemetery, with its rows upon rows of nondescript gravestones, each paying tribute to a life given up for country.  We witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched reverently as the honor guard marched 21 steps up, 21 steps back, 21 steps up, 21 steps back—each step honoring the many unnamed men and women who have died defending our country.

Patriots such as these have knowingly faced the ironic truth that in order to preserve our lives and families, we may have to temporarily or permanently forsake them.  It’s a truth that Jesus himself taught.  “For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it,” He said, “and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”  (Matthew 16:25).  Jesus also said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  It’s what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”  It is the ultimate sacrifice, an act of selflessness that cannot be matched: sacrifice made often in the face of staggering odds; selflessness that defies reason.

What of us then?  Perhaps as we reflect on the great lives and deaths of patriots, we can once again find inspiration in the words of Lincoln, pronounced just months after the bloody battle at Gettysburg: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say. . . , but it can never forget what they did. . . .  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated . . . to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we . . . highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain. . . .”