Stuff I love about Christmas (so far)

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I know that Christmas can be a stressful time; for me, the most stressful part is always the finances– struggling to find the balance between what I would like to do or get for people and the realistic constraints of my budget.  I don’t always succeed, and then I cause myself undue stress by making things tighter than they should be.

But despite the money tug, I love Christmas time.  I love the feeling.  The excitement.  The spirit of it all.  I admit that it’s getting harder and harder to find amid all the ridiculous “If you can’t get your wife a new car or a diamond something for Christmas, you’ve somehow failed” marketing mentality.  Because –really– that’s just dumb. I actually enjoy some of the bustle and lines at stores, and I feel like most of the people are sincerely out to find things to show love to people they care about.

I love nativity sets.

I love Christmas music.  The good stuff.  There are plenty of “holiday” songs I could do without, but thank goodness for Pandora online radio, which I am constantly streaming in my house.

I love The Messiah.  I probably normally couldn’t convince my husband and children to go sit through a really long choral performance, but when blog friend DeNae mentioned she was participating, I jumped on the reason.  It totally, absolutely put my Christmas heart in the right place.  It was long, and the hour was a little late, and the children were a little restless, but they were so GOOD.  I think they felt and understood the reverence and majesty of it.  Natalie now sings the Hallelujah chorus while she walks around the house, and I love it.

I love the “excuse” of the holiday to express love and appreciation for friends and neighbors, my children’s teachers and leaders, and people who bless my life all the time and often go unnoticed.

I love, love Christmas cards.  It’s like a little walk down memory lane of friends from years and stages past.  I love all the good people God has put in my life and Christmas cards remind me how abundant that blessing is.

I love looking for and finding service opportunities that our family can participate in.  Sub for Santa participation is always fun and rewarding.  Yesterday, the kids and I paid for the meal of someone behind us at a drive-through window, and they loved peeking their heads above the back seat to see the surprised reaction as we drove away.  I just love stuff like that because it feels so … good.

I love chocolate.  I’m on a diet, but still.

I love that this is the only time of the year that snow can fall, and I don’t feel bitter about it.

I love finding simple ways to celebrate.  I’m all about doing things with as little time and money investment as possible.  Like when we drove around our neighborhood and gave out “Best Christmas Lights” awards.  Or when we made cookies just because we had a little time and then drove around to give them to people we maybe didn’t think of the first time around.

I love trying to make the big day as special as possible by doing most of the hard work before it comes.  This is why I actually had my wedding reception the day before my wedding.  And it’s why I do my Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve.  I just like spending the real day in as much relaxed peace as possible.  And leftovers rock.

I love Mary.  I don’t think we ever give her enough credit for how Jesus Christ turned out.  Yes, he was divine.  Yes, he was foreordained.  But she raised him and guided him and helped him become all he was meant to be.  She must have felt an incredible responsibility, and I have no doubt that her initial submission to the Father, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” set the example for all that Christ did throughout his life.

I think the real reason I love Christmas is because I love Christ.  It’s just that simple.  And all the extra attentions at this time of year feel like a way of honoring Him and showing Him how special He is to me and my family.  Because like The Messiah declares, He spent a lot of time being despised, rejected and spat upon, and I guess it feels like there can never be too much praise to pay Him back for all He suffered for me.

So.  Merry, merry Christmas.  I hope you find many things to love, many ways to love, and many opportunities to feel love for the rest of the holiday season.

   “It is proper during this season when we commemorate His birth that we remember the Lord Jesus Christ in reverence and with love. He has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. He has brought meaning to our mortal existence. He has given us the gift of eternal life.
“When all is said and done, when all the legions of the ages have passed in review, when man’s terrible inhumanity to man has been chronicled, when God’s great love for His children has been measured, then above all stands the lone figure of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world, the Savior of mankind, the living Son of the living God, the Prince of Peace, the Holy One.”  — Gordon B. Hinckley

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Life is hard, so I’m thankful.

Life on earth is what it is.  It’s not easy.  Some days we feel awash with struggles that seem overwhelming.  I sometimes do, and then I feel ridiculous because my trials are so small in comparison to some of the crosses that others carry with grace.  And while the contrast makes me feel petty, the reality remains that we each face things that are difficult for us.  It is part of God’s plan.

Life hurts.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Seems like a strange juxtaposition, but I feel so grateful that God’s plan gives meaning, direction, and support through the bumps of mortality.  I love knowing that whether my challenges are large or small, they are challenges that are part of God’s plan for me, and He will hold me in His hand and help me become who I can be.

Don’t be alarmed; I’m not passing through any dark or secret trials. As I’ve tried to focus on gratitude this week in preparation for Thanksgiving, I’ve felt blessed beyond measure.  However, I’ve recently seen some heavy burdens in the lives of people I know and love.  I wish I could fix things for them, but I can’t.  Jesus can.  And if He helps me when I have a silly bad day, He’ll help you when life takes turns that feel more than bad.  That’s exactly what He’s there for.

I watched both of these videos this week, and they have helped shape this particular measure of gratitude I’ve been feeling.  I hope you enjoy them and that they take you a step or two further in thanks.

VIDEO 1: Elder Nelson testifies that there is hope in trials.

VIDEO 2: The prophet Joseph Smith declares that our challenges polish us in glorious ways and bring us to the Savior.

[I couldn’t figure out how to embed it, but go here to see it.  It’s so good.]

I’m thankful that Jesus Christ lives and that His love and His gospel help us navigate our way through the ups and downs of life. Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Botox and Prozac and Diets, Oh My!

When my brother was in the hospital, I got to drive up and down the freeway many times. I soon became familiar with all the billboards. This was one of my favorites (and by favorites, I mean it made me want to beat people up.): A lovely, buxom woman smiled down upon us shapeless freeway drivers through the huge words, “All I want for Christmas is my two front … .” The meaning behind “…” became clear as you read the name and number of the Plastic Surgery Clinic that she was referring you to.

When we were house hunting in Utah, we tried to make an appointment for a second showing of a house we were interested in.  The Realtor informed us that we could not come until after 3 p.m., because the homeowner was hosting an eyelash extension party.  Excuse me, a what? I had never even heard of such a thing in my life.  I have since seen and heard about this phenomenon many, many times.

I read this article this morning, and I found it really interesting.  I recommend it.  It reported:

Though no religion-specific data exists to show rates of eating disorders or body image issues, numerous accounts from diligent parents, priesthood and auxiliary leaders of struggling girls, and women speak for themselves. And one of Forbes magazine’s annual rankings may indicate that our quest for perfection took a wrong turn somewhere along the way: Salt Lake City, home to the worldwide headquarters of the LDS Church (and where an estimated 50 percent of the population is LDS), was ranked the “Vainest City in the Nation” in 2007 and 2008, and was in the Top 5 in 2009. This ranking is due to the city’s record-breaking amount spent on beauty products and treatments like Botox, an amount that is ten-fold the amount spent in cities of comparable size. If you’ve looked at the billboards along any Utah freeway, you won’t be shocked to hear Salt Lake City has the most plastic surgeons per capita, at six per 100,000 residents, trumping New York City and Los Angeles.

Why?  I don’t get it.  Of all the people in the world, we should be the most embracing of our God-given selves.  Though the LDS doctrine does teach us to strive for perfection, with an emphasis on following the example of Jesus Christ, it absolutely does not teach or endorse that we should make our bodies measure up to society’s definition of perfection.  In fact, Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said the following:

I plead with you young women to please be more accepting of yourselves, including your body shape and style, with a little less longing to look like someone else. We are all different. . . . In terms of preoccupation with self and a fixation on the physical, this is more than social insanity; it is spiritually destructive, and it accounts for much of the unhappiness women, including young women, face in the modern world. And if adults are preoccupied with appearance—tucking and nipping and implanting and remodeling everything that can be remodeled—those pressures and anxieties will certainly seep through to children. At some point the problem becomes what the Book of Mormon called “vain imaginations.” And in secular society both vanity and imagination run wild. One would truly need a great and spacious makeup kit to compete with beauty as portrayed in media all around us.

You may have heard before that Utah also leads the country in the use of anti-depressants.  This is, again, a mystery.  There are some who argue that it’s probably a product of the high expectations of the LDS church culture and people feeling like they don’t measure up.  I don’t buy that, because a careful study of any of the counsel that comes from the general leadership of the church never has that kind of tone.  On the contrary, there are consistently messages of love, encouragement, and acknowledgment of our goodness and power and influence.  This is especially true for women.  Not anywhere else do you find more empowering words or praise for womanhood than you do from our own pulpits.  There are also myriad talks about adversity, challenges and tribulation, and how to deal with them, which clearly eliminates the expectation of living enchanted, perfect lives.  So what gives?

I’m obviously not an expert on these sociological matters, but I think I can see where some of this struggle originates.  LDS women are like other women throughout the world; we have struggles and sadness and insecurities.  There are also rampant mental health issues throughout our society, to which we are not immuned.  As I have become more and more of an adult, I have begun to see how many people, including many friends and family, struggle with depression, anxiety and consistently high stress.  Life is a pressure cooker that seems to take a great toll on our mental health.  We often need help.  It is safe to say that we all self-medicate.  When pressures are high and our ability to deal with them feels low, we turn to something to help us feel better.  Within the LDS faith, because of our doctrinal principles, we do not turn to the same things that many, many other people turn to in times of stress– drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, pornography or self-serving sexual behaviors, for example.  Perhaps our anti-depressant numbers are seemingly skewed because of this.  Other people with the same struggles self-medicate differently.  (I want to make clear that I do not have an anti-medication stance.  At all.)  Perhaps this also explains, in part, the obsession with beauty issues.  When women feel overwhelmed and empty, they look for ways to make themselves feel better, and for LDS women, fake eyelashes is not “against our religion.”  Whatever the reasons, which I really don’t know, I think we all need to do a better job of turning to the right place for help.

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” — Matthew 11:38

I am not advocating throwing out your mascara or your Prozac and just dedicating yourself to scripture study.  That would be naive.  I do think that no matter what level of struggles we face, we can find much more relief the more and more we learn to rely upon the Savior.  We will find more sense of self-worth.  We will find forgiveness for our imperfections.  We will find strength in our trials. We will find love and acceptance and be filled in the places we feel empty.  A careful study of all those Your-Life-Will-Not-Be-Perfect-So-Be-Prepared talks that come from the general leadership of the church will point us in the direction of Jesus Christ.  So this is basically a war cry to LDS women everywhere:  When life hurts, and it will, you are not alone.  Turn to your Savior and let Him share your burdens and remind you how beautiful you are, just as you are.  As a completely average, A-cup, almost 20 pound “overweight,” frazzled mother of young children who’s still wearing my pajamas, I give you my word that it works.  It really does.  Let’s get a few billboards for that.

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Why I’m glad I believe in Jesus more than Santa

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a big fan of Santa.  He was a very magical part of my childhood, and his name is a very effective motivator around here during the holidays.  Today my children got a message from Santa reminding them to be good.  They nodded wide-eyed and recomitted themselves to a life of polite obedience. 

I started thinking about the difference between Santa and Jesus.  Here’s the thing.  On Santa’s plan, if I mess up, I run the risk of not getting what I wish for.  He’s kind of jolly about it and all, and come next year, he’ll give me another chance, but when it comes right down to it… it’s a completely saved-by-works-alone kind of plan.

Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t so winking and ho-ho-ho jolly, but he’s just so much more . . . well, real.  He expects the best from us, but understands our human foibles.  And even when we make mistakes, even when we’re downright stupid, he still kind of blesses us.  He extends mercy without judgment and love without condition.  I mean, sure, he’s a “judge,” but not in measuring out love or assistance.  He will help us any time we let him, even when we’ve been naughty.  When we don’t qualify for a single gift, he still offers us the greatest gifts that can ever be given:  grace, mercy, forgiveness.  Santa’s a toy maker; Jesus is a joy maker.

So Santa Claus is cool and all, but I love Jesus best.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

A woman’s work is never done. (Subtitle: My house is always dirty.)

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I’m going to make a declaration about housekeeping that’s probably going to sound stupid.  I don’t claim this philosophy to be any doctrinal absolute, and I admit up front that it may be entirely motivated by rationalization; nevertheless, I’ve thought about this for several months and I’m ready to declare it true in the Book of Stephanie.  Ahem . . .

I don’t think we’re supposed to have a clean house. I think we’re supposed to WANT a clean house and work toward it.  This phrase from April’s General Conference about Mary and Martha’s house fit in perfectly with my philosophy on this:

“It was a welcome place for the Master, where He could rest and enjoy the surroundings of a righteous home.” ~ Elder Gregory A. Schwitzer

I think the Savior would rather hang out in a home where people are working together harmoniously (even in a very unfinished project) than where a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown is screaming at her children to get their last sock off the floor, and they better not have left the hand towel on the floor when they just used the bathroom.  In fact, if he showed up at my house right now, I bet he’d sit on the floor next to me and help me fold laundry while we talked about important things.  But I’d miss out on that if I ran around like a freak trying to clear the counters and make the beds really quick before I paid him any attention. I think I’d even miss out on that if I sat down with him, but my mind was constantly focused on everything that was undone.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and all that “house of order” stuff, but I believe what matters most is that we are consistently striving to make our home a place where the Spirit of God is welcome.  And if that’s our goal, be it in the early stages of chaos or the last load of laundry, for all intents and purposes, I think the Savior knows He’s invited.  And that’s all that matters.