Sunday, December 21, 2008

Life, Death, and Christmas

There has been a lot to think about this Christmas. I hope you'll forgive me for reciting the death toll for a moment before getting to the happier part, but in my more morbid moments it has seemed that Death has been delivering a great many telegrams this semester. If you'd rather skip all that, head on down to the dashed lines separating off Elder Wirthlin's testimony.

As you may remember, my good friend Evan Wade passed away earlier this semester. His death was quite sudden and unexpected. Timed as it was at the cusp of beginning so many wonderful things in life, it has made me feel particularly blessed to have been able to finish my own degree and be sealed to my wife. I commented to Joy the other day that I've been thinking of him regularly. I miss him, far more than I had expected.

Around Thanksgiving, Grammy had multiple strokes and the doctors also found there had been a heart attack at some point. This also was unexpected, and I find myself quite unprepared for the thought of Christmas without Grammy. In the last twenty years, that's been about the only time I've gotten to see her. Thankfully, Dad reports that Grammy is, to all appearances, fully recovered and doing miraculously well. But the realization of the fragility of mortality was hit home again. (This picture from the Ensign is of Grammy, though she doesn't actually need a wheelchair, then or now.)

A few weeks ago, Aunt Elizabeth died. I don't know that I ever met her or my great-uncle who is now left to mourn her loss. Uncle Calvin reported that she was "was released from the prison of her body" in hospice care after weeks of strokes and terrible pain. He is comforted that her death relieves her of the burden of that suffering, bringing her somewhere without the pain.

Last week our stake president succumbed to the battle he's fought with his cancer the last few years now. I didn't know Calvin Gehen well, but he had a powerful spirit with him at each stake meeting. He radiated peace and compassionate service, in part because you would sometimes never know how much he was suffering to be there. Being with him reminded me in many ways of the opportunities I've had to shake the hands of one of our apostles. Joy is hoping to sing in the choir at his funeral on Tuesday.

A couple weeks ago, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin passed away. This was not particularly surprising since he was the oldest of the apostles. Though I've known a number of people who knew him (my friend Darrell married his granddaughter and my first mission companion was Elder Wirthlin's home teacher - which provided some interesting stories), I never had the privilege myself.

So today, since I'm sick and unable to attend church, I thought I would get around to watching Elder Wirthlin's funeral, which the Church has graciously put on their website. It was a beautiful service. (Other friends of Darrell will see him and his wife walking out of the funeral at 1:11:42-1:11:56. She's in a red sweater.) In my favorite talk that he ever gave, he told of the Savior's suffering in Gethsemane on Good Friday, reminding us that no matter how bleak the Fridays are that must inevitably come to all our lives, "Sunday will come." During the funeral service, I realized that he gave that talk just after his sweetheart had passed away, surely going through his own Friday. How important the testimony of resurrection morning is!

Among the words offered during the funeral, Pres. Boyd K. Packer shared with the family Elder Wirthlin's final testimony (it's about 30 minutes into the video), which he had spoken approximately the week before. Let me share a piece of it with you:
From time to time if we are living worthily, the Spirit of God touches our hearts, and minds, and our lives, and improves us forever. The warm feeling penetrates our hearts, a silent, still small voice speaks to us, communicating through the burning of our bosom the knowledge given to us from God. It draws us closer to Him, sanctifying us and strengthening our desire to return to His presence. During such unforgettable moments, revelation comes to us and forever alters our view - sharpening our focus on what matters most. We sense more profoundly our eternal relationship with Him as the literal Father of our spirits. We also feel more acutely our complete dependence on the merciful atonement of His Son Jesus Christ.

I had such a revealing experience. It was Christmas time in Bavaria in the Alps in 1937. I have always loved Christmas. There is a special spirit about it. The chill of the winter air is the perfect counterpoint to the warmth that should fill our hearts as we contemplate the message of salvation found in the birth, resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I experienced that warmth many years ago while serving as a missionary for the church, just prior to the outbreak of WWII. As you might expect, the possibility of armed conflict was very intense, but as Christmas approached, our thoughts were drawn to the Savior. We rejoiced in the privilege of serving Him during that sacred season in the famous city of Salzburg, Austria.

On Christmas Eve, Elder S and I visited the village of Oberdorf, nestled securely in the beautiful Bavarian Alps. It was a clear, crisp winter night. We walked under the canopy of stars across the smooth stillness of newfallen snow to a humble little church where a familiar melody beckoned us with a message of peace and hope. [Pictured is the church to which he refers.]

Inside, a choir was singing in German a carol that brought warmth to our hearts on that cold winter night. Though we were far from our homes and families, we were filled with our Heavenly Father's love and comforted by His Spirit, as we listened to the calming strains of Silent Night, Holy Night.

Perhaps it was like the night that more than a century earlier inspired the assistant pastor in that quaint village to write the words to one of the most beloved hymns in all of Christendom. [He then tells the story of how the words and music came about.] As we listened to the choir's harmony while standing in the very same church where the first rendition of the sacred song was sung, we were spiritually moved. We were filled with the true spirit of Christmas.
He told of how the Holy Ghost touched him and his companion at that time. As they walked the 15 miles back to their home, they spoke of a strengthened resolve to do what is right, to find a wonderful person with whom to spend eternity as husband and wife, and to keep their lives in focus with the principle and teachings of the Savior. He closed by saying, "I pray that our hearts and home may resonate with His marvelous message of love and peace during the holiday season. Forever with the apostle John, I testify that God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son...."

I've been looking forward to this Christmas all year. It's the first time I get to play Joseph. I've been a shepherd many times; I'm far too young to be a wise man; I've even been a dumb ox sometimes; but I've always looked forward to being the dad. No, Joseph wasn't the father of Jesus, but he was the man with whom God entrusted His Son, as He has entrusted me with a precious delight named Hyrum.

After all, besides death, this year has brought life. Wonderful, sweet life that has filled and changed our hearts in marvelous, miraculous ways. We are not the only ones so blessed. My dear friend Marcy and her husband have a dear little Emma after years of praying; our dear friends the Petersons just welcomed their third little one into the world; my former home teaching companion and his wife just received their first blessing; and there are countless more Corbins and Daniels and Timothies and Janes and Millies and more.

Each year, their families and friends will celebrate their lives, putting on cone-shaped party hats and singing old songs off key and eating good food and giving presents to each other because they are so thankful that this precious child is still with us. Every year, we also celebrate with funny little red cone-shaped hats, singing old songs off key, eating good food, and giving presents to each other on society's best guess as to His birthday. For behold, a virgin conceived, and she bore a son, and she called His name Emmanuel: God with us. I am so thankful that we all get together as brother and sisters, friends, neighbors, and family to celebrate the birth and resurrection of our Savior as well, whose sacrifice and sacredness conquered death, inaugurated hope, and promised peace. God be praised for the matchless gift of His Son.