What beautiful music and what a wonderful message from Sister Eubank. How wonderful was that dawn of redeeming grace! Well, December is here. The air is cold and we’re having some snow. For most, this means that Christmas is very close. But for me, this is not what Christmas feels like.
For all my years on this earth, it has been long, hot days and balmy nights that herald the approach of Christmas. That’s because December is summer in Australia. And in West Africa, where my wife and I have lived for the last five years, it’s always hot.
So December has typically brought days of beach, surf, and barbecues. At Christmas, our home carries the aroma of mangoes and the sounds of laughter. But the spirit of Christmas is the same everywhere. Whether in Sydney, Salt Lake, or Sierra Leone; whether in Nuku’alofa, Newfoundland, or Nigeria, our Savior’s birth inspires people to do good things.
In most places, people exchange gifts, visit others, and do kind deeds to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Friends of ours in Samoa have a tradition that on the day after Christmas, they place food and other goodies in boxes and give them to the most needy families, not only in their ward, but to others in their community. They also have a two-acre vegetable garden, with most of its produce being given to people who are in need.
A very dear friend of ours from Senegal in West Africa told me that in his home village in Ivory Coast, each Christmas Eve, instead of bringing gifts, the villagers take any unresolved conflicts to their leaders. Those leaders then spend the rest of the day working with families to resolve the conflicts. The villagers require that peace and harmony be in every home in that village at Christmas, because they celebrate the birth of Christ—He who was born for the very purpose of bringing peace into the world.
Earlier this year, we met a young missionary, Sister Jeanne Ingabire from Rwanda, who is serving her mission in Liberia. She related to me the heart-wrenching story of the impact on her of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Her father was from the Hutu tribe, who were full of hate for members of the Tutsi tribe. But her mother was a member of that Tutsi tribe. In order to save his wife’s life and the life of their four daughters, this courageous father hid his family far away and returned to his village alone. His wife and daughters never saw him again and struggled just to survive. They finally returned nine years later to attend a reconciliation meeting organized by the government, where they learned that their husband and father had himself been killed when he returned to his village. Yet, incredibly, Sister Ingabire’s mother and her children forgave those who had ended the life of their husband and father.
During a time in which Joseph Smith could have been consumed with anger, having been innocently incarcerated in Liberty Jail for months over the Christmas of 1838, the Lord revealed section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In this revelation the Lord helps Joseph to overcome the feelings of frustration evident at the start of this section and teaches the Prophet that kindness, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned are Christlike qualities that are essential for discipleship.
Christmas holds precious family memories for me. However, not all those memories are good ones. When I was a very young boy, I remember receiving a prized green matchbox racing car from my father. We were a relatively poor family, and I loved that gift. However, one day in a fit of juvenile anger over something trivial, I threw the toy car into the thick wisteria bush that intertwined over our fence. Immediately I was sorry, not just that I’d thrown the toy away but because I felt it symbolized a rejection of my father’s expression of love. I searched and searched for it, but in vain. When winter arrived and the bush lost its leaves, I searched again, unsuccessfully. I still feel the pain of having offended my father. It still hurts.
You know, that is analogous to our sometimes rejection of our Heavenly Father’s love and His gifts to us, the greatest of which is His having sent His Son to suffer and atone for us. What a tragedy if we reject His atoning sacrifice or the covenants and ordinances of His gospel!
Oh that we could always be more like those who work to show love to others. Recently, many have labored to help the residents of Florida and the Carolinas who have experienced devastating storms and to assist those who suffered in the California fires or to come to the aid of others who have suffered similarly throughout the world.
On December 25, 1974, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory was destroyed. In the early hours of that Christmas Day, Cyclone Tracy hit the city of Darwin. Many died, and most of Darwin’s population were left homeless. The pictures of the recent devastation in Florida reflected that of Darwin. But the spirit of Christmas conquered the despair. Donations poured in from people all over Australia, and many individuals dropped everything and traveled to Darwin to help rebuild.
Many years ago, when our eldest daughter was just two years old, she broke her leg just before Christmas and spent many weeks in hospital with her leg in gallows traction. That was a very tough Christmas. A family in our ward who were not well off financially came to visit her on Christmas Day. Each of their young children brought their own favorite gift, received that very morning, to present to our daughter as her gift from them. My wife, Kay, and I were moved to tears because of the raw and genuine kindness of these children and their parents.
This is the real spirit of Christmas—individuals helping others. After all, an important part of the Savior’s legacy was His ministering to the “one.” This is certainly a principle embraced and applied by the members of His Church in Africa, and it’s what He requires of us here.
President M. Russell Ballard has stated that the Atonement is the ultimate act of the Savior doing just this for each “one” of us. President Ballard’s words were:
“If we truly understood the Atonement and the eternal value of each soul, we would seek out … every … wayward child of God. We would help them to know of the love Christ has for them. We would do all that we can to help prepare them to receive the saving ordinances of the gospel.
“Surely, if the Atonement of Christ was foremost in the minds of ward and branch leaders, no new or reactivated member would ever be neglected. …
“… The irony of the Atonement is that it is infinite and eternal, yet it is applied individually, one person at a time. …
“Brothers and sisters, never, never underestimate how precious is the one.”1
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all followed this counsel and that of our beloved prophet, President Russell M. Nelson—to live the two great commandments in a higher and holier way. And if you are skeptical of your ability to have an impact by doing so, then consider this African proverb: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, then you’ve never spent a night with a mosquito.”
We don’t need to travel to the Holy Land to make a difference or to draw closer to our Savior. Christmas is a time when we can focus on our personal gift to the Savior by continually loving and helping others. Then it’s not very far to Bethlehem for any of us. It’s up to us to make Christ a part of our lives—to accept the gifts He offers us and to give Him the gift of our heart. I love Him and I testify of His undying love for each of us in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.