Saturday, December 5, 2009

What Christmas Means to Me

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2004

Dear Children and Grandchildren:

This Christmas I am giving a “gift of the heart” to you. That’s what people who would give lots of money if they had it, give instead. I always want you to know and to never forget how much I love you, and this seems the perfect occasion to put it all down on paper so you can read and re-read it whenever you want to forever. This is my story about how I gained my testimony.

My parents first introduced this thought to me, inscribing it in a book to me many years ago: “Will we be merely the grandsons of great men, or their grandfathers?” As the years now unfold, and more and more white hair grows atop my head, I am increasingly convinced I have become the grandfather of great people, for I have seen all the evidence I need in the goodness of your lives.

When I was a little boy, about the ages of you grandchildren growing up in my parents’ home, Christmas was a conspiratorial (ask Ashley) conquest to see who could outsmart Santa Claus. The truth can now be told without fear of recriminations. We searched throughout the house weeks before Christmas to find presents hidden all over the place, and on Christmas Eve we crept downstairs in the middle of the night with flashlights to get a preview. We were never deterred in our covert adventures.

Each year the tradition of Grandfather Lee’s Monument Park Ward in Salt Lake City was to ask him to speak in sacrament meeting the Sunday before Christmas. Year after year we went to hear a living Apostle bear his testimony of the Savior’s birth, his life and ministry, and his glorious atonement. In my little boy mind, however, I could never understand why he spoke almost exclusively about Jesus Christ. His message never seemed to resonate with me. He never spoke about the Christmas I knew anything about. It all seemed so foreign to me.

We always went to Grandma and Grandpa Goates’ house for Christmas Eve. The DeYoungs, Uncle Bruce’s family and our family were always there without fail each year for dinner and fun and games. Grandma, white-haired bun perched atop her head and with her “rolly-polly” ample figure, seemed the personification of Mrs. Claus. Grandpa Goates always had a smile on his face. His good-natured and jolly chuckle was always in evidence. I loved his stories and his sense of humor. Each year Grandma Leda Goates treated us with an a cappella solo of “Hi, Ho, For Santa Claus,” long since a song that has disappeared from the Christmas carols lexicon. She always passed out treats to us grandchildren, including a little box of Del Monte raisins. One year I got sick on them, and have never since been able to stomach raw raisins. As I write I am warmed once again with those priceless memories. It was from Grandpa Les Goates, former English teacher in Lehi, then for forty years plus the Sports Editor for the Deseret News, that we all gleaned our easy and familiar affinity for writing.

Another year, I suppose I was probably about twelve years old, Christmas Eve fell on Sunday. We went to hear Grandfather Lee speak in his home ward, then out to Grandma and Grandpa Goates’ home on 33rd South – all in the same day! What a glorious feast, literally and spiritually it was! But this year something was different. I was different. I was longing and searching for something that had been missing. I wanted to understand Christmas in a way I never had before. As I knelt at my bedside that night, the customary anticipation of finding new Christmas presents under the tree and arrayed in the living room was ominously missing. I asked Heavenly Father to help me understand what I had heard Grandfather Lee talking about earlier in the day. “Help me, Heavenly Father, understand the true meaning of Christmas,” I prayed.

I climbed into bed accompanied by a new spirit. I lay awake for what seemed hours thereafter. I was basking in a calm, emotional aura of peace and tranquility the likes of which I had never experienced before. It seemed to engulf me. It was like a transfusion of assurance sweeping over me and through me. It was, I realized, what people must have meant when they talked about what it feels like to have a testimony. I had the distinct impression that I was being given a gift for Christmas that year the likes of which I had never received before. Because I had asked, I was being answered. I think it might have been the first time I really believed that I could pray and receive an answer. I want you grandchildren especially to know that when you need help with anything, you can ask Heavenly Father in prayer and he will hear you and answer you. There was no specific knowledge communicated about the facts, the figures, the dates, the places of Christ’s life and ministry in my experience, only a calm and warm assurance that it was all true and that he was my Savior. I know now that I received a testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ that night. It was truly a gift I had not earned, only one I had asked for.

What is the true meaning of Christmas, you may also be asking yourselves? I suppose the answer is always changing. Meaning attaches to each of us in different ways at different times. Before my twelfth Christmas in 1959, there was unmitigated joy at receiving new presents. After that year, I was looking for more meaning and finding it increasingly in Grandfather Lee’s sermons.

Then I entered the mission field. I discovered new meaning in West Hartlepool with a new missionary I was training who was “a handful.” I accompanied the ward choir in their Christmas sacrament meeting program, and expanded an already deep and abiding love for music that attaches to the Christmas season, building on the foundation I had acquired by participating in the vocal music groups at East High – the a cappella choir, the Madrigals, and our boys’ quartet. How I love Christmas music! I relive those fond music memories each year as I listen to our children singing in Tapestry and doing the same things we did.

My second year in the mission field I was Santa Claus for the mission staff. Yes, there was a suit, a beard, a bag full of goodies, and we shared all that not just among ourselves, but with the local branch children in Harrogate, Yorkshire County. I loved “Rossett Green,” the name of the expansive estate we knew as mission headquarters. It was the epitome of old English architecture, ivy-covered “Tudor style” grace from an era long since gone – the days of Charles Dickens dated its construction. By then I knew without doubt that Jesus Christ was the true reason for the season.

The Christmas after my return from England I was married. It was December 19, 1969, and I was deeply, madly, wildly in love. I wondered as we waited in the hallway to enter the sealing room if I would ever be able to carve a turkey and file a joint tax return – that’s what I worried about. But the ecstasy I knew then was only a down payment on what I feel for Grandma Patsy today.

Grandfather Lee was uncustomarily emotional that early December morning as he performed the sealing ceremony. I have often surmised that he saw all of you surrounding that sacred altar in the temple that morning, anticipating your arrival in our home one by one as the twenty-year child-bearing cycle was about to commence then reached its zenith with Adrienne’s birth and death. The true meaning of that 1969 Christmas became knowing I had an eternal companion sealed to me forever, all possible because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. In his resurrection and his love for me there was hope for eternal life if I could only prove faithful to that gift of testimony I had already been given.

Christmas 1970, I had just returned from active duty in the Army, having completed my training at Fort Ord, California. Jeff was born in January, 1971. While at Fort Ord, my testimony of Joseph Smith as a true prophet of the Lord Jesus Christ was cemented into place with a dream. I had taken every book I could find about Joseph Smith to read while I was on active duty. At night before lights were turned out in the barracks I read about him, then I dreamed about him. Night after night I was immersed in the details of his life, determined not to waste my time in the Army. When the lights went out, I would tuck whatever book I had been reading under my pillow and dream sweet dreams about Joseph until morning.

One night I found myself in a dream on Main Street in Nauvoo, walking up from the old river landing near the Nauvoo House toward Joseph and Emma’s first home they could call their own. Joseph and Hyrum, accompanied by several of their brethren were walking down the street toward me. As I approached the Prophet, he extended his arms and grasped me tightly in a bear hug. He was a tall, muscular, barrel-chested man. I was engulfed in his embrace. He seemed to tower over me, though in reality he was only an inch or two taller. I had a feeling (no words were spoken) I had always known him. I was certain he loved me and accepted me unconditionally. I knew him intimately in that dream. I felt the warmth of his body against mine. It was so real that when I awakened I was reluctant to leave Nauvoo and the company of his magnetic presence. I know him. I have stood in the Sacred Grove where he prayed that early spring morning in 1820. I have seen the place of his martyrdom in Carthage. I have visited his grave in Nauvoo. I know he is a true prophet. I have never wavered in that conviction from that day to this. Grandfather Lee always used to say, “If you don’t have a testimony yet, lean on mine until you have your own.” Now as your father and grandfather, I say the same to you.

This is Christmas 2004, thirty-five years since my marriage. Mom and I have been together by many more years than we were single. I cannot imagine life without her. As I witness each of you happily married and enjoying one another’s company so much on those rare occasions when we can all be together, I know my cup is running over with joy. Your children, one by one as they join our family of “Goates Kids” only add to the joy and rejoicing in our posterity.

This morning as I was writing, I remembered a line from my patriarchal blessing, given only weeks before I left for England on my mission – “Your posterity will reflect honor upon you, on the Church, and on our great nation.” Truly, you were known before you were born, since that simple line from my blessing has already been fulfilled in each of you.

So this Christmas of 2004, at the pinnacle of my joy and rejoicing, I declare to all my posterity that all my fondest hopes and aspirations center in my testimony of Jesus Christ. I know him. I have been in Galilee, in the city of Nazareth on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where he grew to manhood. I have stood in the ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where he performed many miracles, then cursed the inhabitants and their dwelling places for their disbelief. I have been in a ship on the Sea of Galilee where he walked upon, then calmed, the troubled waters. I have sat alone with my thoughts in Shepherd’s Field below the tiny town of Bethlehem where he was born. I have been in the grotto birthplace Elder Harold B. Lee declared in 1958 to the students at BYU to be the spot of his birth. I have taught others on the Temple Mount in the shadows of the Dome of the Rock in anticipation of the coming Jewish temple to be rebuilt there someday. I have walked through the Garden of Gethsemane among the gnarled olive trees, some as old as the sacred events and sat alone with Grandma Patsy on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, where the Promised Messiah will one day stand to usher in the Millennial reign. I have stood in the empty garden tomb that no longer holds his body, but bears the inscription, “He is not here, he is risen.”

But even if I had never been there as an eyewitness to the scenes and places, he has revealed himself to me by the power of the Holy Ghost whenever I pick up the scriptures. He comes alive to me whenever I seek him through repentance. There is no greater gift that has ever come to me than the one I received in my thirteenth year on Christmas Eve 1959. Each year since, that gift has been expanded and magnified beyond my wildest anticipation. I will never forget the Christmas season of 1992, when we buried Adrienne.  In the torturous wintry weeks that followed I came to understand the reality of the resurrection morning yet to come.  Hope was instilled within me; faith was reaffirmed; knowledge endowed.

My thoughts about the true meaning of Christmas always include my love, my respect and my gratitude for all you teach me about life, about loving, and about living. I feel as though I am just beginning to understand all my life’s lessons about fatherhood.

So my message to you is to be patient with yourselves as you seek to understand your testimony and your own life’s lessons. I only pray I can be faithful in my testimony to the end of my mortal probation, and have the hope we may all remain true and faithful in the here and now so we may be reunited in the then and there in the eternity ahead. Remember that for each of us, like the Prophet Joseph, our testimony begins with a solitary prayer. It will get bigger and brighter each time you pray throughout your life.

That you may also be given answers to your prayers is my hope with all my love,

Grandpa Goates

1 comment:

  1. I reread this blog post I wrote ten years ago this morning, as I was preparing a Sunday School lesson for the youth in our ward. I reaffirm what I said then, and if it's possible, I can bear an even stronger witness that He is the life, the light and the hope of all mankind. No matter what the affliction might be with which we struggle, He offers forgiveness, comfort, peace and assurance that all will be well in time. Of that fact, I am His witness.