This morning we headed to the home of Jim and Sharon Tree on the west side of Yakima for our 3rd Annual Christmas Gathering with the missionaries from the southern zones. It felt like we were Santa and Mrs Claus in our sleigh!The set up and preparation began yesterday, and the Tree’s home was as festive as any home could possibly be! We had everything except snow, and we are just fine without it!Missionaries started arriving at 10:00 and had an hour or so to mingle and renew friendships. We had our 2017 slideshow playing in 3 different locations today, with almost 2000 pictures from the last year.One of my favorite things at missionary gatherings is to watch former companions reunited, and then listen as they share experiences and stories about beloved friends, investigators and members they’ve been missing.Each zone was asked to come with a special musical number (which included everyone) and a spiritual Christmas thought. There was a bit of practicing and preparing going on as everyone arrived.The kitchen was also busy. Jenna and Aimee Packard and their good husbands, Stake Pres. Bennett Packard and his brother, Owen, pulled off another feast fit for a king! They brought family members and ward members to help and to serve us today. We are So Very Grateful for their delicious kindness and their exceptional cooking skills!They cooked 6 or 7 large hams through the night, then shredded them this morning. If you haven’t had ham prepared this way, you will want to try it.Missionaries kept coming as we prepared inside.The Trees have a real manger across the street, and in the evenings they have a light display that 100s come to see every year.Here is their beautiful home:The Calls and Pendleburys have been working long hours to prepare for this week, as you will see.Getting props ready for their number:Elder Holt, table setter:The Smiths and the Pendleburys. Bro Smith provided all of the apples that were dried and juiced for each of the missionaries.By about 11:15 or so, our Feast was ready.Thank you gifts to the Trees and to the Packards:And then the food was served!What a room full of happy grateful missionaries!!Back in the kitchen:Brother Tree!Our Group Photo:Here is our meeting room from the backyard:After some delicious cheesecake, the tables were taken out and we set up for the program. First of all, our departing missionaries in this group shared their final testimonies. We got to hear from Elder Allsop, Sister Banks, Elder Black, Sister Harty, Sister McCourt, Elder Miles and Hermana Young. These are exceptional missionaries who have loved their time here. It will be hard to see them go.Before the rest of the program began:Introducing the newest missionaries:A special musical number from the Selah 1st Ward young women:I will post dozens and dozens (I mean hundreds) of photos on our FB page from today, including photos of every group and their special numbers. Between each number, we sang carols as they came to the front. We also had a few solo performances by Elder Hodges, Hna Brenchley and a special bagpipe number by Elder Russell.Go take a look at all the photos on the FB page. What fabulous program we enjoyed. Pres Lewis and I shared some thoughts at the end. We are so grateful to be here.
Then we settled everyone into a movie with hot chocolate or hot cider while Santa and his elves went downstairs to set up the gifts and packages.Elves hard at work:Gift bag contents: Believing Christ, the book, homemade fudge, dried apples, hot cocoa mixes, hand warmers, popcorn, choc chip cookies and some candies. Also a Christmas card from the First Presidency.A few words of instruction after the movie:Then everyone went down into the Christmas room!!On their way out, they each picked up an individual-sized bottle of fresh pressed Yakima apple juice!It was fun to send them off into this winter wonderland! Elder Russell went to the manger with his bagpipes and played carols as everyone left. It was hauntingly beautiful on this cold clear night.
In her book Stars, with thoughts about Christmas, Chieko N. Okazaki shares some important lessons from obscure parts of the Christmas story. I like what she writes about the wise men who had followed the star until they arrived at Herod’s court. There they inquired of the king’s scholars where the child was born–the scholars knew their scriptures anc gave the answer of Bethlehem–and the wise men set off for that town. Sister Okazaki points out:
“It is not enough for us to know what the scriptures say. It is not enough for us to have knowledge–even correct and complete knowledge. We will not see the star unless we leave the court. We will not be led unless we are willing to move. We will not find the child unless we are willing to journey to a place that may only be a strange and foreign name on our mental map. And we will never know what it feels like to ‘rejoice with exceeding great joy’ unless we yearn and seek and journey.”
“There are times and situations and circumstances in our lives when a shepherd’s response of a few hours or an interrupted night’s sleep is not enough. To set our lives in order or to gain the kind of living faith in the Savior that we must have, we may need to make the journey of the wise men, leaving our psychological homes and familiar surroundings, testing the flattering words of the Herods who surround us, being willing to travel far with only the glimmer of a star to guide us. We must travel sometimes with only hope as our companion, because we saw no angels and hear no majestic choirs singing. But hope is enough to lead us to the Savior if we will persevere.”
I think about these words when I’m with missionaries at Christmas time. They are like the wisemen, who left their homes to follow a star, not knowing exactly where that star would lead them. For these missionaries, that light as brought them here, to the Washington Yakima Mission. We are all on this journey, we are all following His light, and doing our best to share that light with others. I feel surrounded by His light when I am with these seekers.