Friday, December 31, 2010

Wright Words: Five New Year’s resolutions you can actually keep

'Tis the season for inspirational columns, blogs and soundtrack-backed television segments about the power of New Year's resolutions. Over the coming days, everyone from Jon Stewart to Dr. Phil and from Barney Gumble to Matt Lauer will weigh in with advice for 2011.

Make no mistake, they have valuable opinions to share, and I'll do as much reading and listening as anyone. But if you're anything like me, and let's hope for your sake and for your community-at-large that you're not, by Jan. 15 you'll be seeing signs of slippage on whatever resolutions you make. By Feb. 1 you'll be hanging by a thread so thin you'd need a DNA microscope to find it. By March 1 you'll be selling that abdominal contraption on eBay. You know the one. It's that device that looks like a cross between a Big Wheel and something that you strap yourself into for a long ride to the International Space Station.

Who hasn't been there? I remember years ago a college buddy told me that once and for all he was going to give up Dr. Pepper on New Year's Day. He told me how proud he felt to walk into his closet, uncover his secret stash and pour it down the drain in his master bathroom. "I'll never drink another caffeinated soda," he told his wife. "This is the year."

Then on Jan. 4 he called me from his cell phone. He wanted me to know he hadn't just fallen off the wagon, it had backed up and run him over. I tried not to laugh as he described pulling open the heavy glass door of his favorite 7-Eleven, yanking up his hoodie, filling a Big Gulp with the "forbidden juice" and tossing the exact amount on the counter in stride as he rolled out before anyone could spot him. He drank it in his car, parked in the far corner of the employee lot at his office building and hid the collapsed evidence under his seat for disposal on the way home from work.

I found it funny then — and now — because I relate so well. Hard and fast resolutions are wonderful when we keep them. But when we don't, which happens much more often than not, we only remind ourselves we're not as perfect as we'd like to be.

In 2011, why don't we set five resolutions we can actually keep?

1. Ignore the mirror: Let's be honest, most of us aren't super models. But the truth is you're much better looking than you think are. In fact, you're actually quite beautiful. You're not as plump as you imagine, and your nose and teeth are just fine. You're divine, and those who love you agree.

2. Walk more: Don't commit to walking 40 miles a week or even an hour a day. Just commit to walking more than you did last year. Park at the back of the lot every time you're at IKEA, Wal-Mart or your local mall. Before you know it, you will have walked a marathon.

3. Eat better: Can you still eat fast food? Sure you can. Just make a conscious effort to skip it now and then. Next time you have a hankering for a hamburger, grab a salad instead. Next time you're jonesing for a soda, grab an ice-cold bottle of water from the convenience store.

4. Pray more: I had a friend tell me his key to success was kneeling in quiet prayer no fewer than six times a day. Six times? I'm delighted when I get two on my knees, one at my desk, one in my car and one on a golf course. If you feel distance between you and your Father in Heaven, step closer through prayer, but don't keep a pie chart. Just pray more than you did last year; the results will astound you.

5. Be more charitable: Are you slow to say thank you? To open doors? To forgive? Make charity a verb by seeking out small moments every single day to lift someone. Will you still get grumpy? Still have bad days? Still find yourself occasionally annoyed at people around you? Sure, but not as much as you did last year, guaranteed.

Perhaps more than anything in the year ahead, let's remember that New Year's resolutions aren't about being perfect; they are about being better.

They are not meant to transform us into someone else; they should simply mold us into a better version of ourselves.

That's the key to happiness 2011.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wright Words: How death made my 17th Christmas feel like my very first

After school on Friday, Dec. 18, 1987, a friend and I drove to the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville. I was 16 years old. The next morning we were set to travel to a high school speech and forensics competition across the state.

I was there to visit my father, Willard Wright, admitted for tests and likely surgery. He was in round two of a battle that began as kidney cancer and had recently changed playing fields to his lower back.

That evening, as the winter sun set in his drab third-floor room, Dad took my hand to wish me well for the weekend. Then through light, quickened breaths he said two words that will never fade: "Be good."

At the time — given how well he knew my rambunctious personality — I assumed he meant to be good on the bus the next morning. Hours later I learned I was wrong.

While rehearsing a dramatic reading in my living room, the most dramatic moment of my life unfolded with a simple phone call. My eldest brother called to say Dad had stopped breathing and the rest of us needed to race to the hospital immediately.

I remember the nausea. I remember kneeling quickly in prayer with my other brother and my sister. I remember white-knuckle gripping the door handle as my brother flew us down our country road toward the hospital in his tiny blue Chevette.

I took the steps to the third floor three at a time. At the top, just outside the waiting room where my mother sat in shock and fresh grief, my brother met me with two more words I still hear today: "He's gone."

The next few days dripped by like gray raindrops on a window, each bleeding into the next. Every morning I opened my eyes and prayed the night's dream had been real. Because in the early days, I dreamed he was still alive.

Christmas morning, one week later, after the viewing and funeral, and after most of the out-of-town guests had returned to far corners of the country, we awoke to open presents Mom and Dad had bought — but that only mom would watch us open. It didn't matter because that was the first Christmas I didn't wonder what was in the packages or gift bags.

The immediate and most pressing question when we lose a loved one is simple: "Will I see them again?" No matter your faith, or how faithful you are in it, the question is universal. For days that question rolled through me like a tired rerun.

Time passed and there were more lonely moments by myself in tearful reflection. But today, through the gift of a lens only time can bestow, I see that it may have just been the first real Christmas of my life. That morning, Dec. 25, 1987, launched a clean and deeper understanding of the holiday.

My parents taught me as best they could to remember that Christmas is about Christ's birth. But when my father died, it became much, much more. I came to realize that it's as much about the Savior's life and death as his humble arrival on earth.

Because of my desire to see my father again and finish learning the lessons I believe he was meant to teach me, I finally began to view Christmas as a stepping-stone to a more important holiday, Easter, the day we rejoice in Christ's resurrection.

Obviously Dec. 25 is an important cultural and religious holiday for many of us. But without his perfect life, wouldn't Christmas be just another birthday?

Without the bloodshed and anguish in Gethsemane, wouldn't Christmas be just another day to fill the stores?

Without the death on the cross, and, even more importantly, his resurrection three days later, Christ's birth would have been just another baby born in Bethlehem.

It is because of his heavenly mission, the atonement only he could fulfill, and his glorious resurrection that we live with hope. Hope we will not just live after death, but if we live well and righteously, we will live with him again.

I am eternally grateful that my Christmas sorrow in 1987 transformed to hope. Now, 23 years later, I rejoice that my hope turned to faith, that faith became knowledge, that knowledge matured to complete confidence, an unshakable certainly that not only does Jesus Christ live but my father lives, too. One day I will see both again.

Oh how I love Christmas! Not only for the birth of our Savior but for the holy beginning. And because of his perfect life, it is a beginning that hath no end.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wright Words: Oprah's second-favorite things

You may have heard that Oprah Winfrey, the undisputed Queen of Talk TV, recently shot her final 'Favorite Things' episode. If you didn't actually see it, maybe you heard it from your front porch? The audience went so wild Oprah fielded noise complaints from Dublin to Dubai.

In a sweeping hour of generosity, Oprah handed her weeping audience everything from purses to games, from electronics to mac-and-cheese, and from cutlery to a car. She didn't just play Santa; she played the elf that Santa fired for being too generous. The total value of freebies per audience member? $36,837.

As I watched the highlights on my local news I couldn't help but think two things: First, why wasn't I invited to be in the studio audience? Second, if these are her favorite gifts for the Christmas season, what are her second-favorite? I don't know about you, but for me that list might be more useful. Seriously, how many of us have a 36 large gift budget?

So, are you also looking for some fantastic gifts for 2010 that won't break the bank? Allow me to propose 10 gifts that might have made Oprah's "Second-Favorite Things" list.

-Giant Gummy Bear on a Stick, a treat from VAT19. This tasty gummy bear weighs in at half-a-pound, or 88 times larger than a standard bear. Just try to wipe the smile off the face of your sugar fanatic when they unwrap this big guy on Christmas morning.

-"The Paper Bag Christmas," a novel by Kevin Milne. This is one of the most moving Christmas books I've ever read. It's short, it's sweet, and the message will linger long after the tree has disappeared from your living room.

-"Toy Story 3," on DVD from Pixar. Perhaps never has a trilogy of films ended so well. This wasn't simply the finest animated movie of 2010, it was one of the best movies of the year, period.

-"Art & Max," a children's book by David Wiesner. The three-time Caldecott medalist returns with the most innovative and stunning picture book of the year. You'll buy it for the kids, but you'll enjoy even it more.

-Mega Moon Mood Hopz, shoes from Toys R Us. These lightweight shoes make you feel like you're bouncing around in zero gravity. The closest thing you'll get to space walking without taking the red eye to the moon. Yes dads, they come in sizes up to 9 mens.

-"Grace," an album by Cherie Call. You simply cannot find an artist with a more distinctive voice. But it's not just her vocals that ring so pleasantly in your ears, it's her beautiful, insightful songwriting. She's a treasure.

-Brazos Bottom Pecan Pie, from Goode Company in Houston, Texas. Available online, this tasty gift arrives in a custom wooden box that's almost as attractive as the dessert inside. Trust me, this pie is so good that your mother will send you hate mail for changing your allegiance.

-Family Tree Wall Stickers, plastic wall decals from HearthSong. Help your children learn and display the branches of your family with a colorful, oversized tree. The removable decals go on any smooth service in the house. Fun for kids. Fulfilling for everyone.

-"Road Less Traveled," an album by David Osmond. The American Idol alum is a rare artist who sounds just as good in person as on a professionally studio mastered CD. Many of his tracks feel so authentic and deeply personal, it's as if he's singing straight from his journal.

-Would You Rather? a game by Zobmondo!!. It is against the laws of the universe to play this award-winning game without having riotous fun. No question lands without debate: "Would you rather have five bottles stuck on the fingers of one hand for a year or have a bucket stuck on your foot for a year?"

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wright Words: Who received the very first Christmas Jar?

Call me odd, but my favorite time of year has nothing to do with lights, gifts, smells or snow, and it doesn't start on Thanksgiving. Actually, it has no firm start date.

My favorite season begins the first time I open my e-mail and find a Christmas Jar anecdote. This year's first sighting hit my inbox on Nov. 17. It came from Rachel in Minnesota:

"(Today) I received a Christmas Jar filled with $164.01. Wish I knew who to thank, as it helps more than they will probably ever know. You can bet your bottom dollar that the extra 1 cent is the beginning of my very own Christmas Jar."

Thus it begins, another season of heart-tugging miracles. While the book that began the movement might have been fiction, the magical stories that flood my website are as real as the people who both give and receive the special jars full of your quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies.

I hear from single mothers who prayed for a miracle, widows who needed a reminder they're not alone, depressed dads who found themselves jobless during the holidays. I hear from families, young singles, pastors and kids.

The details are different but the messages identical. No matter the amount of money, giving or receiving a jar changes the way they view the holiday and brings them a dose of hope.

I've said it a thousand times in churches, schools and at community events. The Christmas Jar movement has far surpassed the novel itself and is infinitely more important. It's not about a book any longer; it's about millions of dollars of spare change given away, mostly in anonymity, to people in need.

I'm often asked who received the very first Christmas Jar after the book was released in 2005. While it's impossible to know with complete certainly, I believe it began in Farmington, Utah. After countless stories shared in person and online, this one remains my favorite:

A young man named Cameron Birch, age 5, was bravely nearing the end of a life sliced short by cancer. On Christmas Eve, just before his long step from this life's mission to the next, an evening knock at the door startled Cameron and his family.

As usual, his two older brothers raced to see who stood on their quiet porch. When they opened the door, they found two enormous and anonymous Christmas Jars, one of which held a note and a copy of the book. The note read that the money was Cameron's, and his grateful parents explained more than once that it was his to spend.

What mother wouldn't offer their fast-fading a son a final chance to have a material wish come true?

What father wouldn't say, "This money is yours, bud. What would you like?"

What child wouldn't wish for a last lap at Toys R Us? A chance to fill a cart at Wal-Mart? Not Cameron.

When given more than $400 in change and a list of enticing options as long as his days would allow, the young man suggested the family replace some of the toys in the Primary Children's Center playroom where he'd spent so many hours since his initial diagnosis. He imagined new puzzles, fresh books and a sturdier play tool bench. He dreamed of smiles on the faces of his fellow cancer patients but wouldn't dream of keeping a nickel.

My daughter and I had the pleasure of meeting Cameron six weeks later. We saw the empty jars on his kitchen counter, already being filled with coins for an unknown family the following Christmas.

We sat on the edge of his bed in the living room and listened. Not to his voice, all but lost in the noise of death's footsteps, but to his spirit. I thought then, and now, that sometimes the spirit speaks louder than a mouth ever could.

He died three days later on a Sunday.

Years have passed, and still his decision brings chills. All of the things he could have done, after all he'd endured for nearly a year as cancer teased and taunted, he chose to pass it on to others he believed had a greater need.

Were other Christmas Jars given away that first year? Many. Are their unique stories inspiring? Of course. Do I still believe Cameron was the first and that after five years and countless jars he remains our ambassador? Absolutely, and Cameron's legacy lives on.

Still, after all the questions and all the answers about how, when and where it all began, perhaps it doesn't really matter who received the first jar in 2005.

The real question is, who will receive yours in 2010?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Wright Words: Mormons don’t celebrate Christmas and other myths

Just before Thanksgiving I visited an old high school chum's book club. She called it a favor; I called it a treat. There isn't much I'd rather do than chat with people who are passionate about books and who graciously take the time to read one of mine.

The friend and her sweet family spent several weeks organizing and preparing for my visit. After a lengthy and lively discussion about their book-of-the-month, "Christmas Jars," we opened up the discussion to a broader range of topics.

The questions were fairly typical: How many hours do I write each day? Do I outline first? How does my family cope with me being gone so often?

Then came a question so far out in left field it would need to ride the parking lot shuttle just to see the stadium.

A smiling woman, sitting on a couch near me, asked boldly, "You've written a book about Christmas, but I know from your website that you're a Mormon. How did you reconcile your religious beliefs, the fact that you don't celebrate Christmas, with writing a book called 'Christmas Jars'?"

You've heard the term 'pregnant pause'? This one was having quintuplets.

I told her I didn't quite understand the question and asked her to repeat it. She did, nearly verbatim, then added that she'd once dated a member of the church and that he'd told her Mormons don't really celebrate the holiday.

I nibbled a sugar cookie, took a sip of water and finally said, "I'll be honest, I've been a member of the church my entire life, and this is the first time I've ever heard someone suggest that we don't celebrate Christmas. But I'm certainly glad to address it."

Yes, Mormons celebrate Christmas, I explained, and that like other Christians hopefully our celebrations revolve around the birth of Christ. In fact, everything we believe points to him. Do many of us try to downplay the commercial aspect of the holiday in order to focus on its more sacred significance? Of course we do, but that's also true of Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc. I added that we put up Christmas trees, string lights, sing carols and bake brownies by the bushel.

She apologized, which I assured her was completely unnecessary, and she told me how grateful she was for the clarification. By the end of the night the awkward moment had long passed, and I told the ladies how much I'd enjoyed the discussion.

I pondered that exchange on my long drive home. What other myths or odd stereotypes might she believe? Certainly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. But with more than 14 million members around the world, there are plenty of us to clarify the misperceptions. If we don't, who will?

If given a chance to meet her again, I might tackle the most common myth and make absolutely sure she knows Mormons do not practice polygamy. The next time she or anyone else hears the media associating Mormons with the illegal practice, she can rest assured that the practitioners are not members of the church.

What we do believe is that the family is the central unit in society. Schools can play a small role, government too, and certainly our neighbors can be valuable, but nothing is more vital than the family. Most importantly, we believe that families can be together forever.

If the woman and I cross paths again, I might ask what she knows about the Book of Mormon. Perhaps she believes the myth that it is our Mormon Bible. If so, I'd make it clear that no book replaces the importance of the teachings of the Bible and that I have a copy of the King James Version on my nightstand and in my church bag.

What we do believe is that the Book of Mormon is another important testament of Jesus Christ. It is an account of ancient civilizations in the Americas who, like their brothers and sisters in the Middle East, were blessed with prophets and prophecies of the Savior's birth and ministry. Later they were visited by the resurrected Lord. I also would have added, likely with a tear in my eye, that I know it to be the word of God. I know that it testifies, like the Bible, of the divinity of Jesus Christ and that its teachings provide a roadmap to return to live with him.

If I were fortunate enough to see her again, I would ask what she knows about modern-day prophets. I would ensure she knows that while we believe in them, we do not worship them. Maybe she believes the myth that Joseph Smith is the founder of our religion. If so, I would testify that our religion isn't his. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we worship him alone. Also, Joseph Smith didn't found the church; he restored it in 1830 with apostles, prophets and priesthood authority. What a blessing that today it resembles the church as led by the Savior when he walked the earth.

Above all else, if this woman and I were ever in the same room again, I would want her to know how much our Father in Heaven loves every single one of us, no matter our religion. Whether prisoner of myths or not, we are all divine sons and daughters. I hope she knows how much he wants all of us to return home and live with him again.

May all Christians focus their holiday celebrations on the birth of our Savior, the beginning of the greatest life ever lived and the greatest story ever told.

Do Mormons celebrate Christmas? Yes, because we celebrate him.