The faces of Christmas

Americans mailed over 1.5 billion (billion!) Christmas cards in 2010, about 45 percent of all greeting cards sent in the U.S. throughout the entire year. For me personally, there are few Christmas traditions I enjoy more than sending and receiving Christmas cards. But why? What is it about Christmas cards that makes them such an enduring part of celebrating Christmas?

I think the first Christmas when cards really stood out to me was Christmas of 2004. I was in graduate school in Austin, and my wife and I were 1,300 long miles away from home. It was the second Christmas since our wedding in 2003, but our first Christmas with a baby. And our first Christmas alone. Just the three of us. Our eight-month old daughter was too young to take on a trip back home to see family, so my wife and I put up a small, artificial Christmas tree (discounted at Walmart) in the only small space we could find in our two-bedroom apartment and tried to make our apartment look and feel something like our memories of the Christmases we had enjoyed with family and friends in the past. I wondered if Christmas could possibly be the same on our own.

To be honest, I was pretty sure it couldn't. Our daughter was still too young to realize there was anything to celebrate, our lives were busy with work and school, and there was something a little unexciting about the thought of the three of us opening presents by ourselves on Christmas morning. We couldn't really afford to buy much for each other anyway. And to top it all off, I was pretty sure it would be the first Christmas in my 27 years of life that there would be no snow anywhere to be seen. Dreaming of a white Christmas, indeed.

Into that setting of our first Christmas on our own, a Christmas card or two arrived in the mail in early December. Then it seemed like a steady flow of one or two additional cards would arrive most days.  Some from friends in Texas, some from family and friends spread out around the country, but most of all they were cards from home. Almost without our noticing it, something about the cards brought a little more of Christmas into our apartment that year. We began taping the cards to the back of our apartment front door, and before we knew it, our apartment felt a little more like home.

The cards didn't fill every void we felt that Christmas, far away from home. It was still the quietest, smallest Christmas celebration of our married life. But at one point, it dawned on us that the first Christmas was celebrated by a pretty small family too. I like that part of our memory. And the cards on our door helped us to feel the love of family and friends out of sight--but definitely not out of mind.

Every Christmas since that year (most of which we've spent in Texas, separated from our extended family), the essence of the Christmas spirit is the joy and laughter and love we see in the faces of the people in the beautiful cards that arrive and brighten our celebration of Christ's birth. The faces of Christmas. Our eight-month old baby is almost ten years old now. She and her siblings enjoy seeing the cards as much as we do. Whether we are close to home or far away, Christmas cards will always be one of our favorite parts of celebrating the Christmas season. Looking at a few of our cards from this year, I think you'll see why.

Nate Sharp is an associate professor in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University and currently serves as bishop of the College Station 3rd ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He grew up in Holladay, Utah, served a full-time mission for the Church in the Korea Seoul West mission from 1996-1998, and later graduated from Brigham Young University and the University of Texas at Austin. He married Holly Carroll in 2003, and they are the proud parents of five beautiful children.

My ESPN/BYU football Christmas miracle

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Most of us receive the blessings of heaven silently, in small moments of our lives, to lift us up when we are down or to help us in great times of need. The Lord entered this world in a small and silent way. He came on a quiet night to a little stable in Bethlehem. But that quiet, little stable held the Savior of the world, who would give us the greatest gift of all.

Christmas is a wonderful time to remember our Savior. It is a wonderful time to reflect on the many, many blessings of Heaven He has given us. This week, my mind has gone back to a Christmas miracle I experienced just seven years ago.

Morning came way too early for me on Dec. 21, 2006. My alarm clock blared at 3:30 a.m. I hit the snooze button several times over until the last possible minute. I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, grabbed a few things, and set off to pick up some of my friends.

We were headed down to Las Vegas to work for ESPN at the BYU vs. Oregon bowl game. As a future sports broadcaster, I was excited to get ESPN on my resume. I had offered to use my car for the drive down. It was a Ford Focus that was only a few years old and my first real car. I loved that little silver thing. My parents helped me buy it during my junior year of college so I could travel back and forth to the BYU Broadcasting building, which was several miles south of campus.

A few weeks prior, my fellow broadcasting students and I found out we were hired to work the game. My friend James* had offered to drive down in his little car, but I shrugged off his offer---my car was newer, bigger and would be a lot more comfortable. Plus, this was the first time that I could drive out of state with my own car. It was a pretty selfish and prideful reason.

The moment I made the decision to take my car, I felt uneasy. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I knew something wasn’t right. I called my dad and asked his opinion. He said I should take another car and leave mine in Utah. But no, no, my dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I thought. I brushed off his warning and made plans to take my car.

Dec. 21 was a cold day in Provo. My friend James offered to drive first. We were all so excited to be on the sidelines for the game, as we were all avid BYU fans. We chatted back and forth until we got to Beaver, Utah. That’s when the trouble started.

The little Ford Focus revved its engine but was stuck in second gear. My friend James tried to get the car to shift up, but it wouldn’t. My heart plummeted to my stomach. We were going to be stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I realized what happened while I was on the phone with my dad--- the Holy Ghost was warning me not to take my car.

At that time in my life, I was busy with school, work, friends, my first college boyfriend. The Lord came too far down on my list. Yes, I believed, but I was too busy to read my scriptures every day. I gave  half-hearted prayers before bed at night. I was 20 and my world revolved around me. I wasn't thinking of Christmas or the birth of our Savior. Even though it was days before Christmas, I was thinking of myself.

But as soon as something went wrong, I turned to God. My faith might not have been strong enough at the time, but I believe the faith of the others in the car with me was strong. With the help of prayer and determination, we slowly made our way to a mechanic in Vegas, down the street from the stadium.

We waited for about 45 minutes until the mechanic came out and gave us the diagnosis---it was bad. He needed four days and $1,000. I. Freaked. Out. All four of us riding in the car had to be back in Provo the next day to make our flights home for Christmas. I called my dad crying. My dad, ever calm, gave me the worst case scenario: I would have to leave my car and rent one to get back to Utah, then somehow get back to Vegas to pick up my car and drive it home. Praying silently, I asked Heavenly Father to please let us get back home okay. I said the prayer, over and over and over. Please let us make it home in time for our flights.

Unsure what to do, we all decided to head over to the stadium. To my surprise, the car made it there okay. From there, however, we got even more bad news: the worst storm of the season was headed right in our direction. We would be crossing a dangerous mountain pass between St. George and Cedar City, right in the middle of what was supposed to be a blizzard. I knew my car couldn't make it up those steep hills with snow and ice on the ground when it was working normally. But now that the transmission was not working right, I knew in my heart it would be a life-threatening situation.

I couldn't enjoy the rest of the day, even while working for my dream-job company, ESPN. My stomach was in knots as I prayed harder than I ever had before in my life. Please, Heavenly Father, help us to make it home. I know I haven’t been as faithful I should be lately, but hear the plea of my heart. Help us to make it home before the storm.

I repeated this prayer in my head for the rest of the day. BYU won 38-8. We helped put away the equipment and ESPN let us off after 11 p.m.

My heart was heavy as James, Taryn* and I made our way to my car. James held the Melchizedek priesthood. I put my faith in his faith and the power of the priesthood and asked him to say a prayer before we started our journey. He did, asking the Lord to bless us with safety, bless the car that it would work, bless us to beat the storm home. I immediately felt the Spirit strongly in that little car. I knew that everything was going to be okay. I had a feeling of peace in my heart.

James took the first shift driving. We turned the corner. Entered the street. And the car shifted fine. We made our way to the freeway. And the car drove perfectly. We got onto the freeway, and the car shifted up to fourth without a problem. The check engine light was gone.

At that moment, I knew I was witnessing a miracle. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my faith, the faith of my friends, or the faith of our families praying for us, but we were truly blessed that night driving home.

Thousands of stars sparkled in the winter night. There was not a cloud in the sky the entire way home. There was no dangerous storm in our path. We were passing cars on the freeway who did not know of the miracle that was happening in our car. We passed cities that were unaware that the Lord was giving us heavenly blessings. Why? Why would the Lord so mercifully bless someone who had neglected Him for months?

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav'n.

My faith was strengthened and renewed during that quiet ride home to Provo. I will never forget that tender mercy of Heaven. It was just a little thing, so inconsequential-- to make it home in enough time to make our flights home for Christmas. But the Lord heard our prayers and my heart was turned toward Christ.

It is still easy for me to get distracted. I have two little girls, a job, a home to take care of, friends to see, parks to go to, gym classes to attend, dates to go on with my husband, who is in turn equally busy with grad school… it is still so easy to forget who should be at the center of my life. I want to always remember Him. And it is my job, my responsibility and my deepest desire to teach my daughters to always turn to Him, too.

That’s why Christmas time is so special and powerful and wonderful. If we let it, we can take a step back from our busy lives and reflect on the Savior, the greatest miracle of all. We can right our course and let Him become the center of our lives again.

The quiet miracles of Christ are still ever-present in my life. I am grateful for the chance every December to remember the blessings of Heaven in my life.

I invite you to reflect and write down your small, quiet miracles and blessings of Heaven you have experienced and let Christ enter in to your heart this Christmas season.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav'n.
No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

In the Spirit of Thanksgiving

Psalms 100 : 3-4
Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hearing the music

Our local College Station congregation had a chance to hear from our stake president, the leader of a group of congregations, a few weeks ago, and he related an analogy that really struck me. 

He and his wife recently became "empty nesters" and realized that no one in their home can play the piano now. For years, he would sit in the living room and listen to each of his children practice and perform hymns, concertos, and other arrangements. But now, the music is gone and there is only silence. The piano that once brought joy and happiness into the home still remains, but the music and feelings of love that came with it are gone until the ivories are played again. 

Similarly, can we hear the music in our lives? What instruments bring you true happiness when played? Every day we are surrounded by these instruments (scriptures, prayer, etc.), but often they are left on the shelf to collect dust.

For me, I hear the music when I spend time with my family. When I put my wife, my daughters and their needs first. Or when I study the scriptures, or learn something new that I can directly apply to better my life.

We can all play an instrument. There are many different ones to be played, and each one gives a different tune. The important thing is that the music we play makes us better people and brings us closer to our Father in Heaven, so that we can be His instruments to do good.

Romans 6:12-13

"Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God."

Are we hearing the music in our lives?

Leave a comment with what you do to keep the music playing in your life.

Thoughts from a loyal father, friend and veteran.

Randy Todd in front of a MC-12
Veterans Day is always a special time of reflection for me. My son, Randy is a Captain in the United States Air Force. He is currently deployed on his second tour to Afghanistan where he flies the MC-12 aircraft. My youngest son, Charlie is a member of the Mississippi National Guard and served a tour in Iraq. I served in the U.S. Army for 22 years. 

Along with the thrill of being a helicopter pilot, and later being involved in developing plans, I met many patriots and saw the faith of LDS servicemen and women. The first fellow LDS serviceman that was lost while I served was Doug Echler. He was an instructor pilot at Fort Rucker and a member of our ward while I was in flight school. He was transferred to Germany from Fort Rucker. While he was piloting a Chinook helicopter at an airshow in Germany the aircraft experienced a catastrophic failure. The aircraft crashed in front of the crowd. All on board were killed. The crowd included Doug’s wife and children. That was my first realization of how important it was to hold to the rod and live the gospel as a soldier. The reality was that life was precious and could end suddenly. Living the gospel everyday became more important than I had ever realized before.

I had the privilege of being involved with two major humanitarian relief operations. The first was in 1980 when many Cuban refugees came to the United States. The second was in 1999 when President Clinton accepted refugees from the conflict in Kosovo. I was an operations officer for the Kosovo refugee operation at Fort Dix, New Jersey. To this day I remember what a lump it brought to my throat to see a battle hardened paratrooper carrying a child who had lost everything. Perched upon the soldier’s shoulders the child beamed with a security and peace that he had been without for many days. The soldier’s beaming smile reminded me of the force for good that American troops are in the world.
Charley Todd, center, at his son Randy's commissioning
So, on this Veterans Day I am grateful for my sons’ service. I am grateful for those that went before and protected our liberty. My uncle recently passed away. He served in the Pacific during World War II as a United States Marine. He was to have been part of the diversionary attack at Iwo Jima, but the main attack was successful. He was spared that engagement. Later he was to be part of the invasion force for Japan. When Japan surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki he became part of the occupational force. When he returned home he was called to serve as one of the first missionaries in Japan  In his later years he and my Aunt Pat returned to Japan to serve a mission at the Tokyo Temple. I thank my father, father-in-law, uncles, and friends for their service and I remember the flag draped coffins honoring their service.

But, the veterans that I wish to pay tribute to on this Veterans Day are men that I have known in the wards of College Station who showed me how to apply being a good soldier to being a person of love and faith.

Robert Wilson was a retired Colonel when I retired from the Army and moved to College Station in May of 2000. Everyone called him Colonel. He had the ultimate badge of credibility for a veteran – the Purple Heart which is given to those wounded or killed in combat. He was a fellow helicopter pilot so I felt an immediate affinity to him. He had purchased the Arby’s franchise when he retired and moved to College Station and had provided employment to many, especially to youth.

Colonel Wilson was the Deacon’s Quorum adviser. He combined a Colonel’s bearing with an unbelievable love for the boys. The Deacon’s Quorum President always was prepared for meetings. It was hard to believe that a 12 or 13 year old could take charge so well. The boys were the ones who spoke. Colonel Wilson just made sure they were prepared.

Eventually the injuries suffered in Vietnam and in a training accident robbed Colonel Wilson of his health. However even until the end he would always respond with “blessed by the Lord” when asked how he was doing. The Deacons made a poster/card for him on one occasion that simply said, “Get well, we will hold the fort down here.” They did, because of what he had taught them.
Charley Todd's youngest son, Charlie

My home teaching companion is a Vietnam Veteran. He was a United States Marine. He holds that singular badge of honor and credibility, the Purple Heart, just as Robert Wilson did. I am grateful that Michael Beggs goes home teaching and fulfills his Priesthood responsibilities, in spite of the pain.

As a veteran I take great solace and pride that it was a Centurion who was able to recognize that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I love the stories of Moroni and Helaman and of the Mormon Battalion. I thank all those who are serving and who have served. Please pray for our service men and women (and their families) for they are surrounded by physical and spiritual hazards and are always grateful for those who are appreciative for the things they do for us.

— Charley Todd, LTC (Retired)

It's a short flight.

This post was originally published here by Jessica Garlick Dyer, a graduate of A&M Consolidated High School in 2008. We post this with her permission. 

It was a cold, bitter day back in early March of 2013. My contacts had been in for way too long. My hair was up in a high tangled bun and we were still in our clothes from 24 hours before.

We'd been sleeping {more like waiting} in the Denver airport all night. At 6 a.m. on the dot I got in line at the customer service desk of United Airlines to attempt to get added onto the next flight home. Our flight the night before had been cancelled a few hours after our connection landed in Denver. It would be a miracle if we got seats on that flight, and it was a miracle that we were capable of functioning physically, emotionally, and mentally at that moment.

That day Travis had a midterm he needed to be back in time to take, and the fact that he hadn't been able to study all night in the below freezing airport didn't even phase us. All we were worried about was getting him in his classroom to take the test. Not to mention that the purpose of all the crazy back-to-back traveling across the country was for intense interviews for PhD programs. Our future was completely uncertain. And just 5 weeks earlier, I had given birth to our little girl, after being pregnant for just over 34 weeks. Travis held my hand while I endured labor, delivery, and then the worst drive of our lives---the one when we drove home from the hospital with an empty carseat installed behind us. And then for a couple weeks after that, Travis held my hand again as I felt the terrible pain---both the physical and emotional pain---that comes with tons of breast milk coming in, but not being able to let it out at all, but especially not having a little baby to feed the milk to.

Sitting in the airport that early morning I really wondered if life could get any worse. It just seemed like one thing after another. Not to mention the week before we ended up in the ER for Travis' leg and I could go on and on about little things that in the moment scared me out of my mind. Because after our traumatic experience with our baby girl, I then felt vulnerable. And to top it off, all I could think about was how in order to get a baby here to raise it would take at least 9 more months of agonizing fear, doubts, and worries {the list goes on and on}, where each day feels like a year, in order to bring a baby home with us. And then the realization came that it will always be hard for us to have a baby---pregnancy is now one of the greatest ways that our faith is tested from now on. And that is overwhelming at times.

This scripture from Isaiah has come to my mind often: “For, behold, I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10). 

Yet, while the refiner’s fire is the path by which we must go to obtain joy, it is just that—a fire—hot, uncomfortable, and dangerous. We do, though, have the ability to come out refined from the experience---not damaged.

Thankfully the woman at the customer service desk was in a semi-good mood. We ended up getting on the plane. We lined up to board, trying not to fall asleep standing up.

And that’s when I saw an older couple with a teenage girl who had disabilities try to get tickets on the same flight, it appeared that they had slept in the airport that night too; my heart hurt for them. I said a silent prayer they would get on the flight.

Once on the plane, I noticed the couple and daughter got seats, just in the row across from us. Right as they sat down, the cycle began: crying, silence, questioning—repeat. This was the process that the tall teenage girl, with blonde hair and glasses, with some sort of mental handicap repeated to her father. She talked very loud and used childlike phrases. Some people stared and acted annoyed.

She was scared. She had no choice but to be on that plane to make the connection in Salt Lake to eventually get to her destination. When we first boarded, the plane was neat to her. She stared out the window watching the crew de-ice the plane. But then, as soon as the plane left the solid concrete ground for the air, she panicked.

She sat in the window seat and talked the entire flight, repeating over and over, practically yelling, “It’s a short flight, right dad?” She repeated this all the way from Denver, Colorado, to Salt Lake City, Utah. She stammered these words through tears and then the next second through confidence, then back through tears. Sometimes she would start to cry hysterically and then her dad would calm her down and she would go on to repeat all these emotions in the same cycle.

I sat in awe the whole flight---watching, listening. This girl's father, ever so patient and calm, reassured his daughter every few minutes by answering her question with, “yes, it’s a short flight,” over and over again. Though, there was no doubt in my mind that it had to be what felt like the longest flight ever to him. He let his wife sleep the whole flight, while he took care of his daughter, constantly calming and reassuring her. How tiring it must have been.

My mind was racing. This man and his wife are taking care of their daughter for what I assume would be 24/7 for the rest of her life. He never gets a break. But oh how patient he was. He was noticeably exhausted, yet he never once raised his voice, got upset, or ignored his daughter. I felt humbled and ashamed to have ever felt tired or sorry for myself, or having ever talked impatiently. This man was handling his own furnace of affliction in that moment so well, ultimately as Christ would have responded. 

I was reminded that morning what it must be like for our Heavenly Father to watch us panic in a time of trial, only to console us with perfect patience and compassion. And I was also reminded how everyone has trials as I watched in awe a father so patiently and lovingly be in control of a very stressful, trying situation. I watched him care for her realizing that he and his wife would have this responsibility for the entirety of their time on earth. How hard it must be. 

"It’s a short flight, right dad? Yes, it’s a short flight.” Over and over again, crying.

When I felt the plane skid on the runway in SLC I was relieved. Not for me, but for this girl and her dad. The flight was over. And then, as soon as we landed, in a voice I can still hear in my mind, the girl exclaimed to her dad with so much excitement: “It was a great flight! It was short flight, huh dad?”

And her father agreed, “yes, it was a great, short flight.”

I have a feeling that's how we'll all respond when our individual flights on this earth are over. It’s hard not to know what hard things are around the next turn. But this Travis and I do know, that because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, we are enabled to do what we need to do in this life to become more like Him. That knowledge brings power, no matter how smooth or bumpy our flight gets. 

And in the grand scheme of eternity, it really is just a great, short flight.

"How can you go two years without seeing your son?"

That moment you wait for forever. A moment of forever.  A moment of peace, power, bliss and the essence of what this life is all about: love.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of witnessing such a moment when a local young man returned home honorably from his mission. After two years of service, his family eagerly waited in the terminal of the airport here in College Station. I can count on just one hand the moments where I have literally felt the anticipation of the moment coursing through my soul and I can honestly say this was one of those moments.

The Hinckley family stood around the terminal doors as the passengers started filing past. Everyone we could see walking up the passageway was too short or casually dressed to be an LDS missionary. The anticipation was building… where was he? It had been two years and those final 60 seconds were excruciating for the family.

Finally, they spotted him walking up from behind. Elder Hinckley made his way from the terminal door to the lobby grinning from ear to ear. And without missing a beat, he went straight to his mother and swept her up in the biggest hug possible.

As I stood back watching this sweet moment between mother and son, a family friend, who isn't a member of the church, leaned over and said to me, “How can you go two years without seeing your son? I don’t understand how they can go two whole years.”

He caught me off guard. I wasn't prepared to explain why missionaries leave for two years because I honestly didn't know. I missed the missionary opportunity and mumbled in agreement: I don't know, I know, it would be so hard!

But I've reflected on that question for the last few weeks.

Why? Why would someone go on a mission for two years? Why would someone leave their family, the comforts of home, put off an education, career, and relationships? I think there are many answers on the surface: Because of duty. Because it was expected of them by their family. Because that’s what 19-year-old's in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do.

I listened closely the following Sunday when Elder Hinckley spoke in church and reported on his mission. I suddenly had my answer. There is really only one reason to stay out in the mission field for two years without any real contact with your family, and that reason is love.

Elder Hinckley loves the Lord, more than his family, more than his friends, more than his education, career, home cooked meals, and yes, even A&M football games.

Elder Hinckley may have gone out on his mission because of duty, but he stayed out in California for two years because of love.  He went and taught, often without success, but many times with it. He knows that this Church is true. He knows that Jesus Christ died for his sins. He knows that because of Christ, he can return to live with his Father in Heaven and be with his family forever.

And because of love, Elder Hinckley went door-to-door for two years to preach the gospel to the people in southern California because he wanted them to know of God’s love too. He wants them to be able to be with their families forever, too.

Missions aren't always easy. You don't always know why you're out there. You don't always meet the nicest people. It can be discouraging. But it can also be joyful. You can have the Spirit to guide you. You are not with your parents, but you know they love you and are out there waiting with anticipation until you return home to them again.

I think the same applies to us. Life is hard. We don't always know why we are here on this earth. It can be discouraging. It can be sad. But it can also be joyful. And our Heavenly Father loves us. He is watching and waiting with anticipation of when He can see His children again, and that moment will be more incredible than we can possibly imagine.

Life is too short and death is inevitable. Death comes for many too early and it is devastating. But it is not the end — it is only temporary. There is hope because of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. There is hope because we have the knowledge that because of Jesus Christ, we can be with our families for all eternity. 

On that Tuesday night in October, the Hinckley family felt a small part of the pure joy, of what it will be like to be reunited with our families for all of eternity. That’s what I witnessed a few weeks ago: a small moment of forever.

If you would like to know more about how you can be with your family forever, please visit us this Sunday at 11 a.m. at 2815 Welsh Ave, College Station, TX 77845

*All photos Copyright Tracie Snowder 2013

Tracie Snowder is a professional writer, editor, mother to two sweet girls and wife to an awesome, handsome and hard-working A&M grad student. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in broadcast journalism. She loves to bake treats, run, swim, and has a passion for photography. She is a sometimes-blogger at You can follow her on Twitter here.