President's Pen 12-21-15 (Christmas Traditions)

As missionaries in the Texas Houston South Mission, we know our purpose is to invite others to come unto Christ, by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end. We do this through our constant efforts to find, teach, invite, retain, and activate God’s children; we love it, we live it, and we do it! We begin with the “End in Mind”, and see God’s children as he does. We are Disciples of Jesus Christ and the best missionaries in the world!

Elder & Sisters,

Christmas week is here!  We are looking forward to being with you at the Christmas Conference this Tuesday.  We have a great program prepared and it will be a blessing to celebrate Christmas with all of us together.  Keep your focus this week on helping all come to know that A Savior Is Born.  Make this a week of finding new investigators to teach and invite to come unto Christ; hearts are opened to our message and we need to take advantage of the light of Christ that burns a bit brighter this time of year.

In my email this past week I asked what your most memorable Christmas has been.  Many of you responded with the joy you feel of being with family and the Christmas traditions you love.  I was also pleased to read that for many of you the most enjoyable Christmas memories have come when times were hard and presents few.  There were also many that shared how serving and giving to others helped them realize the true joy of Christmas, not in the receiving, but in the giving.  

When I was a young eight years old, my dad was serving as a bishop of YSA ward at the university.   As Christmas neared one year, a member of the ward, Benjamin Lomeli, unexpectedly had his mother pass away.  A very humble family, Benjamin the oldest, and his Dad were left at home with seven younger siblings and the thought of Christmas or even being able to afford one was beyond reach.  When the YSA members learned of this sad news they counseled together and determined that they would make the Christmas for the Lomeli family one they would never forget.  For the next couple of weeks the entire ward went into action buying gifts and food while also receiving donations to pay off bills and funeral debt.  The gifts were delivered to our home, and with my young siblings, my parents, and the students, we wrapped more gifts than I had ever seen in my life.  On Christmas Eve the students loaded everything up in their cars and we all headed to surprise the Lomeli family.  We arrived to their humble home, knocked on the door, sang a carol, and then I watched as we literally filled the house with gifts, food, and Christmas cheer.  Benjamin's younger siblings were so excited they couldn't believe what was happening.  What I'll remember most though is watching Benjamin and his dad wipe away tears.  I was young, but I vividly remember feeling the Spirit and the love that God has for his children.  I will never forget it and it has since begun a pattern that our family has kept for the last 36 years.

From that first Secret Santa experience, our family has created a tradition that we all look more forward to than Christmas day.  Leading up to Christmas we find 3-4 families that find themselves in similar circumstances as the Lomeli family.  We find out the family's needs, head out shopping, and wrap presents for the families we'll visit on Christmas Eve.  More times than not we are visiting families from Latin America that are new to the United States and struggling to survive.  I have become the designated Santa Claus, dressed from head to toe in my Santa gear, pillows stuffed all over me, ready to speak Spanish, and surprise kids each year.  With my parents, siblings, and grandkids, we now total 31 carolers, present deliverers, and bearers of Christmas cheer.  If this is all we did for Christmas each year, if we didn't buy each other a single present, I wouldn't be happier.

As a family we have had many amazing experiences with this tradition.  We don't know these families and in almost all cases we never see them again.  There is one family however, the Marquez family, that has become part of ours.  Twenty-two years ago, three days before Christmas,  six days before Sister Hall and I were to be married, we had finished the preparations for our secret Santa families and we happened to have an extra Christmas tree for the families we were helping.  I reached out to the branch president of the local Spanish branch and he directed me to a family that might appreciate it.  Sister Hall went with my mom and what they found was a dad and mom,  with their two young kids, grandma and grandpa, and two aunts who also had two small children with absolutely nothing.  They had come to the U.S. from Peru to escape the political unrest and find a better life.  For six months they had struggled; little work, no furniture, a few blankets and odds and ends were all to be found in their tiny rented home.  He was an attorney, she was a school teacher, they were all faithful Latter Day Saints, struggling to survive and losing hope.  

Our family went into action and found furniture, bedding, and anything we could do to help this little family survive.  On Christmas Eve we made our other Secret Santa visits and arrived at the Marquez home last.  When we arrived they had prepared a full meal for us, they had nothing, and they were giving to us!  We filled their home with all we had collected, but I felt like they were blessing us more than we were blessing them.  This became even more clear as Jose, the patriarch, stood and bore his testimony of what they had been praying for as a family.  He shared with us that all hope was fading and that they were preparing to return to Peru.  He described the family situation similarly to what is written in the Gospel of Mark; the great storm that had arisen on the Sea of Galilee with the apostles in the tiny ship… “And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship.  And there were also with him other little ships.  And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.  And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?"  Jose tearfully described that they had been like the apostles on the small ships, striving to follow and be with the Savior, but like them, they were ready to perish and wondered if God cared to save them.  Then, unexpectedly, a phone call came about an extra Christmas tree and it was as if the Savior awoke and rebuked the storm… “And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm."  In the midst of this family's storm, prayers had been answered, and the wind had ceased.  Following his Christmas message of love and hope, one family member after another bore their testimony about the love of God and of the Savior.  Silent Night, Holy Night is the only way to describe the way I felt that night.  I was again eight years old, and witnessing the love of God for His children.  

It is yet another Christmas I'll never forget.  A few days later they were at our wedding reception, we were able to help them find employment, and they have since thrived as a family.  It has little or nothing to do with us, but a loving Heavenly Father that knows his children and what they need.  He hears us and answers our prayers.  He allows the storms of life to come upon us, but as the Savior said, “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?"  In other words, don't despair, I am here, it will be ok, all will work out, have faith, and I will calm the storm.

We celebrate Christmas because the Savior is the only one that can rebuke the storm, calm hearts, and bring peace.  The joy in Christmas will always come from a recognition of the greatest gift that was ever given, the Father's only begotten Son.  We desire that you feel this, that you put it into your heart, that you focus on the infinite love that the Father and Son have for you.  This Christmas Eve the Hall family will find itself somewhere here in Houston carrying on our Christmas tradition, I'll be dressed as Santa, our kids elves, and we will find a way to bless and love a family that needs to feel of God's love.  Find a way to do the same, even it it is the form of a carol or a short visit.  God so loved the world that he sent His Son.  You are his representatives and you bring His love with you. We love you and wish and your family the most wonderful Christmas!

Mission Update

Elders and Sisters, we have had 12 souls enter the waters of baptism this month.  We hope to have many more receive a remission of their sins next week and into the New Year.  Have the Vision to Baptize, recognize this as your sacred call.  We love you!

Abrazos y saludos, have an amazing week!

President Hall