Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Forgotten Gift

This being the Christmas season, we naturally think about Jesus Christ and gifts--particularly gifts that we might give Jesus Christ as a token of our love for and gratitude to him. We tell the story of the wise men found in Matthew 2 and discuss the potential meanings of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We remember the Savior's mission and the gift that he gave us, the atoning sacrifice without which no other gift would be meaningful. But one gift, a gift that Jesus Christ commanded us to remember is almost always left out of the Christmas story, one you will find in Matthew, chapter 26, verses 6-12:

6 ¶ Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,
7 There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.
8 But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?
9 For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.
10 When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.
11 For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
12 For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.

This is a story we all know, but pay attention to the directive that Christ gives and Matthew records in the next verse, verse 13:

"Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."

The same injunction to remember the gift of this woman (presumably Mary, sister of Martha, based on John's version) can be found in Mark 14:9, and the other two gospels include the story without the commandment (it doesn't seem like a very forcible command in English, but English doesn't translate the subjunctive in the Greek as well as it could--the "shall" should be SHALL).

Christ directs our attention to specific stories and examples in scripture elsewhere; in 3 Nephi 23:1, he says to the Nephite multitudes, "Yea, a commandment I give unto you, that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah." We take this directive very seriously, studying Isaiah more frequently than other books of the New Testament, but I rarely hear the story of Christ's anointing singled out for significant study, despite his special emphasis and our interest each Christmas in stories of gifts given to Jesus Christ.

What is it that Christ wanted us to learn from this story, and why did he single it out? I would propose that this story is significant in part because it illuminates the relationship between the first and second commandments of the law. Recall the Savior's response to the lawyer's question, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" Christ's response in Matthew 22:37-40?

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The first commandment is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor. In most instances, those two commandments don't conflict with one another. But think about tithing, the money that the church collects from members and spends in administering the church. A significant portion of tithing funds is used to build temples--structures that are probably more beautiful and costly than they need to be to accomplish their intended purpose. After all, early saints performed baptisms for the dead in rivers; the beautiful and expensive building is nice but not strictly necessary. Instead of giving the money spent decorating the temple to the poor and needy, we use it to worship God through architecture. Why? Because loving God with all our heart, soul and mind is the first commandment, and temples are symbols of our love for God.

This is the lesson that the story of Mary's ointment teaches: God deserves our best every time. If we have to choose between God and our neighbor, we should choose God. Most of the time the first and second commandments don't conflict, but occasionally they do, and in those cases, it's important to remember which is the first.

So: if God deserves our best, what will we give him this Christmas season, this New Year? The spikenard was such a precious gift that it provoked indignation and wonder from Christ's apostles (not just Judas), yet Mary never hesitated to make the sacrifice, and Christ praised her decision. What will we give? What comparable sacrifice could we make? That is a question for each of us to answer individually, but the important thing is to remember that loving God with ALL our heart, soul and mind probably involves giving more of ourselves than we might think when deciding what gift to make the Savior this New Year's Day.

And whenever you tell the story of Jesus Christ, remember to include Mary's gift; her example is too important to be forgotten.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WWAD

Every December we celebrate Christmas, and that celebration generally entails thinking up new ways to remember and emulate the Savior whose birth we celebrate: Jesus Christ. One popular way to remember Christ's example is to surround yourself with the questioning acronym WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? You can buy bracelets, jewelry, tracksuits, giant beanbags, magnets, stuffed animals and other products emblazoned with these four letters. If remembering the acronym WWJD really made people more Christlike, one would suspect that the sheer volume of merchandise currently available for purchase online would have already kickstarted the Millennium and triggered the Second Coming.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I suspect that the WWJD acronym really isn't that effective, perhaps because of its ubiquity. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints frequently tout the virtue of wearing a CTR (Choose the Right) ring, which they hope will inspire them to make good choices. But the constant presence of the letters CTR or WWJD renders the message they represent less meaningful. If the letters were invisible until you were about to sin and then flashed in bright neon, I suspect that the message would be much more potent.

Another reason the WWJD message may not have the intended effect is because we might find it difficult to imagine exactly what Jesus would do in any given situation. If Jesus was late and on his way home to a wife who needed him, would he let that car into traffic or would he press on? What would Jesus do? I have no idea. It's a little bit hard to imagine, in part because he lived in a time and place so different from our own and in part because it's hard to imagine (at least for me) the Son of God doing mundane things, like driving home from work in rush hour traffic.

For these reasons, it helps to find Christ-like qualities and examples in the people we associate with on a day-to-day basis. I can't imagine Jesus on the beltline, but I can imagine my mother, who would always let the needy driver in (and who would never be late in the first place). In addition, people, unlike acronyms, are hard to ignore; we might take the Christ-like example or qualities of our spouse for granted, but it requires more spiritual laziness on our part to ignore an act of service than to ignore a few mute letters.

Last Christmas, I was privileged to see such a Christ-like example, and I'm grateful to say that this mortal disciple of Jesus Christ has had a much more positive effect on my own thoughts and actions than the CTR ring I lost five minutes after my baptism seventeen years ago. In December, 2006, during my family's annual White Elephant Gift Exchange, my brother Aaron randomly drew the number one, which entitled him to claim any gift at the night's end as his own. He selected a "magic" lamp given by my father which entitled the holder to one wish. This lamp and Aaron's wish were the subject of significant familial speculation. We all wondered what Aaron would ask for: A new car? A TV? A special outing? While none of us knew what he would request, many of us (myself included) thought about what we would ask for in that situation, and I never dreamed of doing what Aaron did with his wish.

One year later, at last year's White Elephant event in December 2007, Aaron redeemed his wish. Concerned for my father's health and the effect that his prodigious consumption of Diet Coke was having on it, Aaron asked my father to give up colas. His request drew a stifled moan from other cola drinkers in the room and surprised almost everyone. Aaron could ask Dad for anything--and he asked him to stop drinking Coke? Every wish that I had imagined asking my father involved a substantial gain on my part. I would ask him for money, for a gift, or for some other tangible goods that would benefit me and impoverish him (relatively, of course, not absolutely). Aaron asked for a gift that benefitted himself little or none (perhaps he anticipated a benefit in the prospect of additional years with his father) and that benefitted my father's health tremendously (or at least it was intended to). He took a situation that invited him to be selfish and turned it into an opportunity for selfless giving.

Now, I don't know what gift Jesus would bring to a White Elephant Gift Exchange, and if you had asked me before last year's event what he would ask for if in possession of the coveted wish, I would have had no idea. But I know now--Jesus would have done exactly what Aaron did, which is another way of saying that Aaron knew W(hat)W(ould)J(esus)D(o) and he did it. Think about it: If we gave Jesus a wish this Christmas, would he ask for a Wii? For a Tickle-Me-Elmo? For a book? No--if we gave Jesus a wish this Christmas, he would use that wish to bless our lives, because he loves us more than himself. Aaron taught me that, and the return of the White Elephant Gift Exchange has reminded me of his lesson.

Now, my challenge is to remember his selfless example (and the EXEMPLAR he was imitating) throughout the rest of the year. I've thought about putting a picture of Aaron in my wallet, but I just don't look in there very often. If only there was something I could do to help me remember on a regular basis, perhaps a saying that would remind me of Aaron's wish/gift all year round, that I could emblazon on my bracelets, jewelry, tracksuits, giant beanbags, magnets and stuffed animals. Maybe WWAD? What Would Aaron Do?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Be Excited. Be Very Excited.

On December 26th, Hutchins family members celebrating the holidays in New England will gather for a white elephant gift exchange. If that doesn't sound exciting, check out this video of last year's event.

UPDATE: Ok. I know there's no video. Sorry--This is about my fifth attempt to load one. You'll just have to wait for a hard copy to become available (and for those of you who are coming to the White Elephant, you won't have to wait long). Sorry!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More Feedback Please

When I posted my prospective hymn submission two weeks ago, several of you provided helpful feedback that pointed out a few weak spots in the poem (thank you!). I'd be grateful for similarly constructive criticism of this draft:

Be Fruitful

At birth each spirit fin'lly gains
The body it will need
To sit upon our Parents' thrones
And act as God in deed;
But gender is eternal, not
A random circumstance:
Our mortal roles were foreordained,
Not left to genes or chance.

On earth we seek a spouse who lifts
Us up, a true helpmate
Without whom we cannot progress
To God's celestial state.
For men and women cannot be
Exalted while apart;
Our better halves must complement
And help perfect each heart.

That marriage was ordained in heav'n
The scriptures make it plain--
Where Adam, Eve and God all join
To make one flesh of twain.
As equal partners husbands, wives
Must learn to do God's will:
And His command to multiply
Remains effective still.