2013 has been a great year for our family. A defining year. I finished my master's degree and have gone back to work basically full time. (It didn't begin that way, but it has morphed that way.) Plantboy has gotten a couple of raises at work, as well as some cool professional opportunities. Our Christmas this year was almost ridiculously huge. For the first time in maybe ever, Christmas is paid for before the day is over. We were also able to be generous with others too. I looked at Santa last night when all the presents were laid out and said, "It is too much." Santa smiled and said, "It was a good year for our family, dear. Let's just celebrate."
Indeed, it is a season of enormous joy for us.
But even in a season of joy there can be loss. Another major defining aspect of 2013 was that a dear friend chose to leave the Church early in the spring. It was a rather public leaving, instead of a slow drift away that makes people wonder, "Hey, whatever happened to? . . . " This was more along the lines of leaving a gaping and unfilled hole in quorums and auxiliaries that left Plantboy and I reeling and depressed.
Their exit isn't anything that hasn't happened before. It isn't anything that won't happen again. But when it happens to somebody you love--to somebody you have cried with in the temple, to somebody with whom you felt the Spirit--it causes you to really examine your own faith. For Plantboy and I, it was an incredible time to renew our commitment and to consider our roles in the Lord's kingdom. But it was also a time of realistic reflection. I am not ignorant of the issues that drove my friends out. In truth, they are issues which I have struggled with off and on and in varying degrees for many years. They presented no "arguments" the night they came to speak with us that I haven't heard many times before.
But their exit has also brought powerfully to the foreground those many other friends that have left in recent years. Some left quietly, but others haven't quite been able to leave the church alone. They are anxious to post on every forum and to guide the discussions to their version of The Mormon Story--both as a collective and an individual narrative. Their proselyting efforts for their new views are exhausting, depressing, and sometimes contentious.
With the Church's release of of statements regarding both those of African ancestry and the Priesthood as well as polygamy, along with the recent court ruling regarding the unconstitutionality of Utah's gay marriage ban, the Internet has been especially volatile with this kind of thing in recent weeks. In response, it seems that other friends have gone almost overkill on the Christmas postings. My favorite of these today showed Santa kneeling at the manger. And while I know the photo is meant to be symbolic, it still mostly strikes me as a strange mix of symbols that are more ridiculous than spiritual.
I don't think difficult conversations are not worth having, particularly when these conversations can be had with reasonable people who have no agenda wishing to drive you from your beliefs. However, four rather profound things (profound to me) happened this month that have helped me to see so much of the debate over to-fellowship-or-not-to-fellowship is noise designed to distract us from seeing the everyday miracles that define our lives, and the lives of those who convert to the gospel.
First. A dear friend whom I met three and a half years ago through the missionaries, just announced that she was going to have a baby in June. Perhaps one more baby is not in itself so miraculous, but this is a woman who married the man who introduced her to the Church. They were sealed a year later. He is much older with two children from a previous marriage (one of whom comes home from a mission in June), and I am not sure there was an intention to have children when they got married. He had been there and done that and is pushing 50. But a fervent patriarch and a sealing later, this faithful couple has chosen to bring a child to the world. As we commiserated yesterday on the difficulties of pregnancy, she told me joyfully how her husband sees this as a second chance to be a real, present father. Our God is a god of second chances!
The second thing is that Jedi Knight was set apart as the secretary of his Deacon's Quorum. He takes this role very seriously and has been very sweet about it. While we waited for the bishop to do the setting apart, his teacher spoke about how a new convert might feel at church. The boys tried to get in the head of a convert, only to defer to their teacher, who joined the church around the same time that my above-mentioned friend did. He spoke about coming to play basketball at his wife's (a member) suggestion, and now here he was! Sealed to his wife and children . . . and teaching Jedi Knight's class. He took part in the setting apart--a man as hard as can be until not too many years ago. His joy in the gospel is palpable.
Three years ago was a time of powerful missionary work in our ward. We had a series of hard-working and delightful sisters followed by two of the most dynamic elders I've ever met. The sisters found and the elders taught an amazing family of Native American heritage. Three years ago (2010) this family joined us for one of the happiest Christmas Eves we've ever spent. They were all (everyone over 8) baptized in January of 2011. Plantboy ordained the husband to the Melchezidek Priesthood a year later. They embraced and wept. Eternal friends. Within a few months, the demands of a heavy sports schedule and their strong ties to their native community and fear that their culture was incompatible with the gospel, led them into inactivity. Contact was spotty, at their request, though Plantboy did not give up: frequently taking the husband to lunch and dropping by. They moved in the summer to be closer to the reservation. Two days ago I got a message from the mother. They have returned to full activity and she wanted to thank our family for our friendship and always believing in them. I can tell you . . . my joy is very full. Her news might just be the best Christmas gift I've ever had.
Okay, second best. Padawan is a December baby.
The last miracle of all is something that has been coming on all year, but was forcefully brought out to me this month when book group was at my house and in very full sacrament meetings all month. For a long time it seemed that our ward didn't grow. Just as many families moved out as moved in. Good families, but just some turn over, especially among younger families. There has long been a tired, worn-out feeling among those who serve here because the responsibilities are many, with many members moving from one demanding calling to the next without reprieve. And then, in about April, just after my friend's family cut ties with the Church, families began moving into our ward. A lot of families. Young, enthusiastic families with a talent for living the gospel well and reaching out to others. Two years ago, when I was in the primary presidency, we lamented our shrinking set of juniors and the tricky logistics of a single sunbeam. Next year? We will probably need TWO sunbeam classes to accommodate the hoard of precious little ones moving up in the world. There is a renewed commitment in our ward and the rejuvenation is electric.
I probably will still do my end of year book post, though it is rather weak this year, but this recognition of the many miracles I have seen this year has been the most precious gift to me in this week of Christmas. My faith is renewed and the reality of God's love has cut through so much static as clear as perfectly tuned radio. I must remember the spirit I have felt this week reminding me that these are Mormon Stories too, and the story of Mormonism is not yet fully written either. My goal for 2014 is to recognize the everyday miracles--to see them for what they are and not fall into over-analysis or cynicism as I view them.