Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I Hope For Better Ward Councils

It was the first Sunday that the bishop was away, leaving me in charge of the day's various meetings. I had been called to serve as a counselor to the bishop when our ward's new bishopric had been formed several months earlier.

As our ward council discussed various matters that morning, we hit on a topic that struck a chord with me. After some discussion, I glanced at the clock and then deigned to offer my enlightened counsel. Not only was I the guy in charge, I had a fair amount of experience with the issue.

In my mind's eye I could see myself dispensing incredible profoundness to breathlessly eager listeners. But it didn't quite roll out that way. Almost everything I said seemed to produce loose ends, which I would then try to tie off, only to produce additional loose ends in the process.

These attempts to achieve a coherent thought resulted in me rambling on and on. My message felt like a strong rolling river that eventually peters out into a broad sandy delta covered with a thousand stagnate marshy streams.

I finally glanced at the clock and realized that 8½ minutes had passed since I had last looked at it. Nobody else had said anything. I'm sure that the rest of the people in the room were relieved when I quickly abandoned my attempt to reach a cogent conclusion and weakly wrapped up my desultory monologue. "This" I thought to myself as the meeting ended, "is not how ward councils are supposed to work."

Ward councils are supposed to be collaborative bodies where members work together within their various stewardships to accomplish the entire mission of the Church. Although the bishop ultimately is responsible for the actions of the council, nobody — not even the bishop — is supposed to dominate the council.

Nor are members of the ward council simply errand boys/girls for the bishop/bishopric. Each is called of God to vigorously fulfill a specific stewardship and is entitled to inspiration and revelation in relation to that calling. While the Church has a hierarchical structure with vertical stewardships, no individual is any other individual's underling. Each is accountable to God for their calling.

When any leader sucks all of the air out of the room, members of the ward council tend to clam up and become observers rather than active participants. They feel that their ideas and inspirations are not important to leaders, so they just wait to be told what to do.

An example of this occurred on one ward council of which I was a member. The bishop essentially insisted on making all of the decisions, even on matters that could have been handled by others. It wasn't that he shut down the discussion. But everyone in the room would constantly look at him to see if he was prepared to pontificate his verdict. It was like a game of musical chairs where everyone keeps walking in the same circle until the person in charge stops the music.

I would like to offer some positive examples of how ward councils should work. But quite frankly, I've seen very little of that in any of the various church councils I have attended throughout my life. Many of these meetings have devolved to little more than leaders dumping demands as other council members quietly sit and make notes of what they are supposed to do. I believe that a monumental cultural shift will be required for this to change.

Neylan McBaine's essay on ward councils focuses heavily on enhancing the experience of female members of the council. This is vitally important. But I think that many of her points could be extended to all members of the council. Each needs to be valued in her/his role. Each needs to feel accountable not just for carrying out orders, but for making useful contributions to consequential decisions made by the council. I'd love to see this happen on a broad scale in my lifetime.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Responding to Bullying

I discussed bullying and fighting in this recent post, where I promised to discuss the more insidious side of bullying in a later post. This is that later post.

I'm sure that parents, teachers, and leaders were concerned about bullying when I was a kid. But not like they are today. Bullying simply existed. It was something you had to learn to deal with. There were always kids that made you fear them. I mean in a bullying way, not like fearing the girl on whom you had a crush but that had no idea you had a crush on her.

You tried to stay out of situations where you were likely to be bullied. But sometimes those situations just couldn't be avoided. Or they caught you off guard. Like coming around the hallway corner and seeing a bully headed directly toward you right when there were no adults around.

Today anti-bullying resources are everywhere. Some of them are pretty good, such as this video:

Many efforts to prevent bullying are laudable. But sometimes they have a boomerang effect. Instead of stopping bullying, they can drive it further underground where it takes on even more treacherous forms, often in the form of (frequently anonymous) cyber-bullying.

Unlike the schoolyard bullies I dealt with back in my day, cyber-tormentors don't require physical prowess or social status. The bully and the victim don't have to be of the same sex. Girls can bully boys just as well as boys can bully girls.

Of course there are baddies that revel in playing the role of the bully. But many bullies don't realize that they are bullies. Bullying awareness programs are good at emphasizing the victim's point of view where the jerks in those videos obviously look like bullies. One guy in the video above only realizes his bully role after someone close to him is a victim, but many bullies never reach that level of self awareness. The view from the inside looking out is different enough that they don't see their actions in that light.

While we should do what we can to prevent and stop bullying, it is also important to realize that our efforts will fall short. Bullying will happen. This means that efforts are needed to teach kids what to do when they are bullied. Yes, we tell them to report the offense to adults. But we have to realize that sometimes kids will not see reporting as a viable potential solution. In some situations they are bound to think that it will make matters worse.

One of our children was repeatedly bullied in elementary school by this one kid and his homies. The school tried various counseling approaches, including involving the boy's parents. But nothing was effective. The boy's parents were beside themselves and tried various approaches at home, but nothing helped. The bullying continued until that class advanced to the junior high, where our child's path rarely crossed with his former tormentor's. So telling adults about the problem doesn't always help much.

Teaching children about coping with bullies has to go beyond just tattling. Delete Cyberbullying offers some tactics that can be helpful when dealing with online abuse. Stomp Out Bullying has a pretty good discussion about how a victim can respond to bullying, noting that each situation requires a unique approach. I like how Stomp Out Bullying offers a number of possible approaches that could safely be tried before involving an adult. This can help the victim become stronger and more independent, which is something we should encourage.

The key is empowerment. Bullies thrive on making their victims feel powerless. Lashing out increases the bully's power and decreases the victim's power. Responding in kind turns the victim into the same kind of despicable character that he/she loathes. Tattling can also increase the victim's sense of individual powerlessness. We need to do a better job of teaching kids how to restore power in their respective situations.

So, by all means, let's work aggressively on preventing and stopping bullying. But let's also be realistic in realizing that since bullying won't be eradicated, it is important to empower kids to adequately respond when they are bullied.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

There Was No Poor Among Them

In a recent post I discussed the topic of Zion, focusing on the first part of Moses 7:18 that discusses unity and righteousness. The third characteristic of Zion mentioned in that verse states, "...and there was no poor among them." I felt that this topic warranted separate treatment; hence, this post.

Many have romanticized about eliminating poverty. Some harbor very puerile ideas about how this is to be achieved, when almost all of their simplistic ideas have been repeatedly tried without substantial success, or else would require conditions that defy incontrovertible laws.

It turns out that poverty is a very complex matter. While common themes can be found, the causes of poverty are varied and exist in endless degrees. Poverty is so deeply entrenched that Jesus said, "For ye have the poor always with you..." (Matt 26:11).

How did Enoch's society and the Nephite society described in 4 Nephi 1:3 manage to get rid of poverty? The scriptural record offers only a few words that can be interpreted in many ways. Some extrapolations promote collectivist certainty that flies in the face of verifiable economic laws that are as inviolable as gravity or other natural laws.

World-renowned expert in the economics of social capital Lindon J. Robison offers a fairly cohesive view in this 2005 article. Robison weaves scriptural principle together with a lifetime of economic scholarship to postulate how poverty can be righteously eliminated without violating economic laws. I find this approach refreshing because it does not require the suspension of evident laws; only a change of heart.

The scriptures seem to suggest that poverty can be eliminated only when people stop focusing on the material/status side of the equation. Except for the requirement to meet everyone's basic needs, the mental distinction of economic class would simply become irrelevant.

One way this can happen is when everyone is poor and there are no prosperous folks with which to compare the relative level of poverty. (How often have you heard someone say they never realized as a child that they were poor. Or that they were happy because they were poor.) However, it seems obvious from the scriptures that it pleases the Lord to help his children prosper economically as well as spiritually. Thus, it appears that a more divine way of eliminating poverty would be through a general increase in prosperity.

Robison notes that economists generally agree that the three essential ingredients for economic prosperity are "specialization, trade, and freedom of choice." He goes on to discuss how in a righteous society these three elements are used to achieve "at-one-ment" among people and with God. He discusses two types of at-one-ment that lead to economic equality:
  • Complete at-one-ment occurs when hearts are knit together in righteous unity (the subject of my previous post). Members of such a society lose the desire to do evil and want only to do good (see Mosiah 5:2). They love their fellowmen as themselves are are vitally interested in the welfare of their fellow beings (see Luke 10:27).
  • Equality before the law occurs when people are willing to be governed by just laws, where life and property are protected, and where laws are equitably administered without regard for status.
One might counter that if everyone is knit together in righteous unity there would be no need for laws. But I think this goes too far. Unity in overall matters does not imply complete agreement on every point. People with finite understanding are bound to see some matters differently. But in a righteous society they agree upon necessary just laws and graciously accept their equitable administration. They accept accountability for their own choices.

Robison provides a fascinating discussion of how inhibition of one of more of the three economic principles listed above (specialization, trade, and accountable freedom of choice) fosters various levels of separation and inequality.

Coercive approaches to achieving economic equality are ineffective and take a much too materialistic view. Indeed, "nonmarket methods to force people to live as economic equals have destroyed incentives to work hard and smart and [have been] unsuccessful in producing economic equality or economic prosperity."

Furthermore, "The only successful effort to reduce economic inequality while maintaining economic prosperity appears to be a result of voluntary redistributions that depend on at-one-ment, the same characteristic required for economic prosperity."

In other words, the way to maximize economic prosperity happens to also be the way to eliminate poverty. For both of these things to happen, individual and general righteousness is required.

Given that we live in a society that has different interpretations of what righteousness means and where many use their freedom of choice in unrighteous ways, we aren't going to eliminate poverty anytime soon. (Although some would say that if we weren't constantly revising the meaning of the term poverty upward, we would realize that there are a lower percentage of truly poor on the earth today than at anytime in history.)

This means that for the time being we will have to be satisfied with growing prosperity and reducing poverty on a smaller scale, within our capabilities. Some things we can do include:
  • Improving our personal righteousness.
  • Teaching and helping others within the scope of our influence to better pursue righteousness.
  • Doing what we can individually to help the poor while maximizing their dignity and industry. Consider Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's October 2014 general conference talk titled Are We Not All Beggars? in which he promotes solutions to poverty as diverse as the problem itself.
  • Properly observing the fast, including donations for the benefit of the poor.
  • Helping with and properly applying the Church welfare and humanitarian programs. Bishop Dean M. Davies recently counseled that such programs are "intended to support life, not lifestyle."
  • Doing what we can to protect the rights of specialization, open trade, and freedom of choice coupled with accountability.
This means that we have an individual responsibility. Elder Holland put it this way: "I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves. But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again."

On our own we are unlikely to bring about sweeping societal change. But we can be humbly content with our station in life (see Alma 29:3). And as Elder Holland counseled, each of us should "do what we can to deliver any we can from the poverty that holds them captive and destroys so many of their dreams."

We may not see a City of Enoch-like society and an economy free of poverty and class distinctions in our day. But by following righteous principles we can know that our offering to relieve suffering is acceptable to God. Perhaps that should be enough for now.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Evils That Merit Badge Worksheets Have Wrought

Is it OK to say that I am relieved that my sons are pretty much done with earning Boy Scout merit badges? I started teaching merit badge classes as a teen working at Scout camp and I have been a merit badge counselor for decades. But I'm glad that I no longer have to be a parent helping a son navigate Boy Scout advancement. (Our younger sons are now in the Varsity and Venturing programs.)

I have a love/hate relationship with the Boy Scout advancement program, especially as it is generally applied in LDS Scouting units. In this February 2013 post I discussed some criticisms of LDS Scouting that I heard from Dave Rich, a lifelong passionate Scouter who was President of the BSA's Western Region Area 2 at the time of his death. In my post I wrote:
Dave had specific criticisms for the way the scouting program works in Utah. He noted that we have become very good at getting youth to advance. Youth progress through scouting requirements, ranks, and merit badges at a much faster clip in Utah than anywhere else in the world. Many are very proud of this fact.
The problem, Dave noted, is that scouting is not primarily about ranks and awards; it is about getting youth to learn and internalize the scouting method. Scouting is about helping youth become scouts—infusing the moral and character aims taught by scouting into the essence of their very being. Scouts can achieve ranks and awards without ever internalizing these ideals if the adult volunteers fail to firmly keep these ideals the main focus of the program.
Merit badges and rank advancements have become check boxes to be checked off on the road to getting great Mormon stats. (i.e. The quotable figures people use culturally to show how good of a Mormon they are.) The badge has become the goal when it should simply be a symbol of achieving the goal. One of the symptoms of this defect is the now ubiquitous merit badge worksheet, available from a variety non-official sources.

I remember welcoming these worksheets when they first made their appearance. As a scoutmaster I thought they were a fantastic way for my boys to keep track of requirements and take notes. But over time the worksheets have become the primary way boys in my area pass off merit badges. This has always struck me as wrong.

One of my sons grapples with Aspergers, major depressive disorder, and some related mental/behavioral issues. Although he's quite intelligent and has good handwriting for his age, writing assignments have been difficult for him. I was very frustrated when he was working on one of the Citizenship merit badges with a very experienced man who is a friend of mine. My son was completely capable of discussing a matter with the counselor, as per the requirement. But the counselor insisted that my son write an essay on the merit badge worksheet instead. We ultimately found a different counselor.

I have watched boy after boy for years now complete and pass off merit badges by simply regurgitating in writing on a worksheet words spewed in lecture by merit badge instructors. Many merit badge counselors literally think that the only way to pass off a merit badge is for the boy to fill in everything on a merit badge worksheet. This even happens at Scout camps. The upshot is that many boys are receiving merit badges without learning what the requirements were designed to teach.

The BSA has recently clarified that it discourages (doesn't prohibit) the use of merit badge worksheets. This Scouting Magazine Blog post echoes many of the concerns I have just noted. The post quotes from official BSA policies to explain that merit badge worksheets are only to be used as aids. They "are permitted only for fulfilling requirements where something is to be done in writing."

Merit badge counselors that think that the worksheets are necessary need to read the statements from the BSA that say:
  • "Merit badge counselors may refuse to accept worksheets but they are not allowed to require their use."
  • "Scouts must never be required to use worksheets. The decision to use them belongs to the Scout."
  • "Worksheets must not be accepted in fulfillment of requirements that call for “showing,” “demonstrating,” “discussing,” or whatever else the written word does not fully accomplish."
  • "Worksheets are a shortcut. They present on paper what should be arrived at through thought and interaction — through asking questions and trial and error. They often tend to create or support an atmosphere of “get the merit badge finished as efficiently and quickly as possible,” when the objective should be a significant learning experience that builds character, citizenship, and physical or mental fitness."
Moreover, the BSA Guide to Advancement clearly states (p. 2) that "No council, committee, district, unit, or individual has the authority to add to, or subtract from, advancement requirements." Thus, no merit badge counselor may diminish, enhance, or alter any requirement. This includes requiring boys to use worksheets.

So go ahead and let the boys use merit badge worksheets to aid them with the requirements, if they wish. But as a counselor you should never need to look at a boy's worksheet unless it contains something that is required to be written. Your merit badge candidates don't need to complete a worksheet; they need to have a constructive adventure.

Scout leaders and parents need to be careful not to streamline the merit badge process too much. It is quite apparent that people in my area think we are doing these boys a great service by providing stake merit badge classes. Maybe not.

A high school in my town offers low-cost merit badge seminars in the summer. Boys can easily gain four merit badges by sitting in a classroom for a few hours before lunchtime each day for a week. I have seen moms giddy about their little boy completing a dozen merit badges over a three-week period. Great, but how much leadership and character did the boy build during that time?

Frankly, many of the merit badge programs at our Boy Scout camps aren't much better. We turn marvelous natural outdoor laboratories into surrogates for four walls of a school room, oblivious to the powerful development experiences that could take place in that space.

A few years ago I was upset when some boys returned to our campsite bragging to their fellows that they had just completed a merit badge in 45 minutes. What do you think they learned from that experience? Too many Scout leaders and parents judge the value of a week at Scout camp by the number of merit badges earned rather than the quality of the character built during that week.

Efficiency can be a good thing. But we have taken it way too far when it comes to Boy Scout advancement. Many boys today can't tell you squat about what they did to earn — or what they learned from — half of the merit badges on their sash. Our check box approach to merit badges is robbing boys of the opportunities inherent in the Scouting program to internalize the characteristics they repeat in the words of Scout Oath and Law.

What would happen if boys had to struggle more to complete merit badges?
  • Boys would likely earn fewer merit badges. But is that a bad thing? They would learn something significant from each badge they did earn. And they would become greater in the process. Isn't that what we want? It's not the cloth badge that is important; it's what the boy becomes while earning that badge that matters.
  • Fewer boys would earn the Eagle Scout rank. This is probably true. But we would be far more certain that the boys that did earn that rank would deserve it. The rank would mean more to everyone.
Perhaps we should revise how we define success in Boy Scouts. It's not the number of badges sewn on uniforms and sashes that matter. It's the character development. A badge can symbolize the related inward character development when earning it is challenging. But badges that are too easy to earn don't mean much.

We need to help boys become Eagle Scouts in their souls, not just get the badge. And even when boys don't earn that rank — because the vast majority won't — we need to recognize the greatness and goodness that they have developed through the program.

No, that's not something that's easy to quote on the Mormon stats. But it's infinitely more valuable.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Of Bullies and Fighting

I stammered as I faced the sneering bully. The fear welling up inside of me threatened to completely incapacitate me, given that the bully's two henchmen had cut off my escape routes. Certain annihilation awaited as the bully approached me while calling out demeaning insults designed to destroy any residual self confidence that might have survived his preparations for this moment.

Frankly, my sixth grade mind couldn't understand the whole fighting for pecking order thing. How could beating me up help the bully move up the status ladder, given that I was already far below him?

There's a legend about the second fasted gunslinger in the West who was always looking to move to first place by challenging the fastest guy. Bullies aren't really like that. They're more often like Irving, the 142nd fastest gun in the West, who was always trying to gun down number 143 instead of number 141. (See video below.) That is, they're interested in picking on those that are easy targets.

As far as I knew, I had never done anything to offend this guy other than to simply exist, so it wasn't a matter of schoolyard honor. He had taken to hassling and insulting me for several weeks before unilaterally demanding that I appear after school one day to fight him. Never having agreed to the arrangement, I found reasons to hang around the classroom until I figured that the bully had probably lost interest and had moved onto other pursuits worthy of his nature, like defacing public property or torturing puppies.

But that delay tactic had worked against me. The schoolyard was otherwise deserted when the three thugs leaped out from behind a barrier near the tennis court. On the plus side there would be no one around to witness my cowardly defeat. But neither would anyone be available to come to my rescue.

Fortunately for me, the bully made several mistakes. One was that he held to the unwritten honor code that required fights like this to be one-on-one. His sidekicks wouldn't step in unless I tried to run. I guess I should be thankful that they didn't all just gang up and beat me to a pulp. Another error was that his setup activated my caged animal instincts. Normally docile animals can become quite vicious when cornered and threatened.

My tormentor kept goading me to throw a punch at him. I couldn't see any sense in that. I had never wanted to fight the guy in the first place and I was still hoping to find some safe way out of this mess. Why would I throw the first punch? Finally the bully ran at me and grabbed me around the middle, intending to tackle me. That was yet another mistake.

I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys that liked to play a game crudely titled Smear the Queer, where everyone tried to tackle whoever had the ball. Although I generally detested athletics, I became quite adept at continuing to stand and even move forward while would-be tacklers tried to take me down. Thus, the bully was surprised that I didn't go down.

Although my books and papers had gone flying, one hand still protectively grasped my brother's ukulele, which I regularly toted to and from school for music class. With fear-charged adrenalin coursing through my veins, my arm reacted without conscious thought on my part, bringing the side of the body of the instrument swiftly down on my attacker's head with a resounding crack.

The recipient of my instrumental whack immediately disengaged. He stood up and taunted, "Is that the best you can do? Ha! I barely felt that." Rapping his head with his knuckles, he said, "I've got a hard head." His friends laughed contemptibly, but I noticed tears in my antagonizer's eyes. He hurled more insults but seemed too wary to attack again. I was quite surprised when it dawned on me that I had actually hurt him.

Finally the bully and his toadies stalked off. As I gathered up the stuff I had dropped, I noticed that part of the ukulele back was missing and I figured that I would be in big trouble when I got home. After finding the broken piece nearby, I hurried away from the schoolyard worried about future torment from the bully and his gang as well as the punishment I would get at home for ruining the instrument.

Strangely, I felt badly about having hurt another human being, even if the jerk deserved it. This jumble of emotions was difficult for my 11-year-old mind to handle. Despite the altercation turning out much better than I could have imagined, I felt scared and traumatized as I walked home.

I was frankly surprised that neither of my greatest fears regarding the fight were realized. Dad even voiced support for my actions. Actually, the ukulele worked fine for many years afterward. It took me several weeks of continually looking over my shoulder at school, waiting for the repercussions of the fight to catch up with me before I finally realized that the bully and his cronies were going to leave me alone. They never bothered me again.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the last time I was engaged in a fight at school. But in every single instance the confrontation was instigated by some other persecutor. Each fight was as brief as the one described above. In fact, some of them ended without any scuffling at all, although, I always felt traumatized afterward. In most cases the bully tended to subsequently leave me alone.

I never did understand why anyone would challenge me to a fight. Sure, I could be annoying and stupid, but no more so than the average kid my age. As far as I could tell, I never gave any of my tormentors reason to want to whack me, such as delivering an insult or competing for the affections of a young lady. Rather, I had just exhibited weakness, which made me look like an easy target. Most of the bullies that pursued the matter ultimately discovered me to be somewhat more challenging than they — or I had imagined.

But public physical fighting is probably one of the mildest ways one could be a victim of bullying. Private physical and emotional bullying can be far more damaging. The physical injuries from a fight resolve soon enough, while emotional and psychological scars can cause a lifetime of recurring pain.

I will discuss bullying further in a later post.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Of One Heart and One Mind

The concept of Zion can be difficult to grasp because it's not just one thing. The LDS Bible Dictionary provides a handful of scriptural definitions of Zion that include:
Whole tomes have been written about the meaning of Zion. True to the Faith also says that church members are to build up Zion wherever they live. Thus, Zion could (and should) be anywhere. This Encyclopedia of Mormonism article offers an expanded discussion of Zion.

I have long been fascinated by the wording in Moses 7:18 that lists being "of one heart and one mind" among the characteristics of the people of Zion. Given what I have read throughout the scriptures, I doubt this means that these people had no independent thought. Rather, I believe it means that they were completely united in their overall goals by choice.

While unity appears to be a necessary facet of Zion, it is clearly insufficient of itself. Indeed, unity can be antithetical to righteousness, which is the second feature listed in Moses 7:18. One of the dark sides of unity is called groupthink, a condition where "the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome." Very nasty things can happen when mob mentality takes hold among otherwise rational people.

Even when unity results in relatively positive outcomes, it does not necessarily turn a group of people into Zion. Tremendous unity has been documented in academia, athletic teams, military operations, work groups, volunteer organizations, etc, all without producing much in the way of divine purity. Something greater than group unity is required. The essential Zion feature of righteousness implies unity with deity.

Consider the Savior's great prayer for his followers prior to his crucifixion as recorded in John 17:9-10,20-23. He pleads that his followers will be one with each other and one with him in the same way that he is one with his Heavenly Father. Thus, it is unity with Christ that is the chief hallmark of Zion. Those that have righteous unity with God will naturally have righteous unity with each other.

This sounds like a wonderful state. But real life seldom seems to come close to that ideal. How can we approach divine unity with large numbers of our fellow beings when we give into our human frailties and engage in petty bickering and selfishness with those closest to us even on the best of days?

The lofty goal of Zion seems to remain out of the grasp of all but a very few that have lived on earth. Even when we employ all of our capacities in becoming more heavenly — something we should always do — our best efforts are doomed to fall far short of that goal.

But discouragement is the wrong response to this predicament. Only through the grace offered by Christ's Atonement can any of us become part of Zion (see Mosiah 3:17). And therein lies our hope. Indeed, our only hope. We must be humble enough to allow the Savior to turn us into Zion material.

One more note on Enoch's people. Moses 7:18 says that "the Lord called his people ZION because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness...." (I will cover the rest of this verse in a separate post.)

Enoch and his people didn't decide to call themselves Zion. Rather, Zion was the Lord's definition of these people due to their righteous unity with him and with each other. He called them Zion because their actual identity had become synonymous with Zion.

In the great scheme of things, it is not what we think of ourselves or what our peers think of us that matters. Only God's definition of us truly matters.

The scriptures seem to employ the term Zion only in reference to groups of people and never to a single individual. Regardless of one's relationship with deity, it appears that the only way to achieve Zion is as an active participant in a community of saints all working together to build each other toward a bright eternal goal.

I suppose we start by working to build Zion in our own families and branch out from there. And we must be prepared to be patient. Enoch was ordained at age 25 (D&C 107:48), led his people during wars and turmoil (Moses 7:13-17), and was finally translated at age 365 (Genesis 5:23-24). If it took him and his people nearly three and a half centuries to become Zion, maybe we can be patient when we don't see Zion happening very fast in our own lives.

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Future of Languages: Fewer and Simpler

Language is an interesting thing. Despite various official and unofficial attempts, nobody really designs languages that are used in real life. Language spontaneously results from the way countless people use it in their individual lives. Once popular words fall out of everyday use as new words come into being and as other words take on different meanings. Grammar usage also changes over time.

To get an idea of how the English language has changed over the past three centuries, try reading chapters from the King James Bible. Originally published in the 1600s, the text was last modernized in 1769. With some study and familiarization, the text is understandable to the modern reader. But will that continue to be the case a century or two from now?

It is easy to see that many of the words in the KJB have fallen out of common use. Comedian John Branyan hilariously demonstrates the steady reduction of our daily vocabulary in his retelling of the Three Little Pigs (video below). He notes, for example that while Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, modern Americans operate with only about 3,000 words.

Linguist John H. McWhorter opines in this WSJ article what the future holds for the languages of the earth. He says that 100 years from now we will find:
  • English will still be the main language used on the planet. In fact, its use will be more widespread than ever, because it reached the position of global usage first and because it is far more approachable than potential challengers. (We can apparently thank rough spoken Vikings that settled in the British Isles for simplifying English a great deal.)
  • A sharp reduction in the number of languages in use — from about 6,000 to about 600 — as many non-written (most languages are not written) and/or complex languages die out.
  • Simplification of the languages used. It seems that our working vocabulary will decrease further as technology and common experience continue to render some words less useful. We can also expect increasing simplification of grammar. (Consider Megan Garber's take on the death of word "whom" in this Atlantic article.)
  • Many bilingual homes, where an oral language is spoken in the home and in tight communities, while English is used in public and in writing.
Although Mr. Peabody claims that Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future, it is worth considering McWhorter's discussion of why he believes that assumption to be false. He notes that "the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it."

McWhorter suggests that much of the linguistic "streamlining" that will occur over the next century will come via the children of urban dwelling immigrants. These children often develop simplified hybrids of the official language of the area and the choppy way that language is spoken by their parents. This process "nibbles away at such arbitrary features as irregular verbs and gendered objects." Some of the resulting simplified structures snake their way into common usage over time.

Far from being a cause for worry, McWhorter sees a future that retains "a goodly amount of ... diversity" as well as "ever more mutual comprehension." More people will be able to communicate usefully with each other than ever before, even while many will keep the option of communicating more intimately with others that share their base oral tradition.

Of course, only time will tell whether McWhorter's forecasts prove to be prophetic. There is little personal cost in foretelling a future when you won't be around to be held accountable for what you said. Still, McWhorter provides valuable fodder for thought. Unlike some, I'm not fond of constantly living in fear of societal changes. I like the hopeful vision McWhorter paints.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Forgotten Christmas Decoration

As I explained in this December 2013 post, our family usually decorates for Christmas on the first full weekend in December. We then put our decorations away sometime between Christmas and New Year Day.

My reasoning behind this is simple. Part of the reason Christmas is special to us is the rarity of the festivities. The longer the celebration stretches out, the more common and less special the season becomes. It can be like having too much of a good thing.

Thus, this year we decorated on December 6 (a traditional Christian feast day) and put our decorations away on December 27, exactly three weeks later. This may mark the shortest span our family has maintained its seasonal Christmas decorations. But it was fine for us.

As a side note, I don't particularly begrudge others keeping their decorations up longer. They will do what suits them. I'm just glad I'm not them.

On Saturday I was happy when the un-decorating chore was done. The task usually takes about three hours and it's more work than one might think. Before stowing the final box in the storage room, I checked to see if we had left any stray decorations up. I didn't find anything, but that doesn't mean there isn't a Christmas decoration lurking somewhere in plain sight.

It seems that no matter how thorough we think we've been at putting our decorations away, we almost always later find at least one Christmas decoration that has escaped our attention. Several times it has been the whole nativity set, occupying an honored place behind the glass doors of the family room cabinet. Last year it was a rather large plaque reminding that the wise still seek Christ.

I have noticed that when we eventually notice the Christmas item we have somehow failed to put away, we are often in no hurry to properly store it. Last year the plaque remained in a prominent place on the wall of a high use area well into the summer months.

One year we failed to put the nativity set away until after the following Christmas. A snowman mug that was set on top of the piano one Christmas somehow ended up being used as a pencil holder. It has remained in it's spot on the piano for years.

Why do we leave these decorations up so long after realizing that they weren't put away along with the other Christmas decor? It just might be that, although we are not fond of leaving our Christmas decorations up for long periods, we actually do subconsciously enjoy being reminded of the Christmas season throughout the year. Is that such a bad thing?

Though Christmas is past for this season, may a spark of the season's joy remain in your heart throughout the year.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Turkish Delight and the Great Gift of Christmas

I have long been a C.S. Lewis fan. I read the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia to my kids when they were younger. Those that are familiar with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the foundational book in the series, will recognize the character Edmund, who turns traitor against good causes. Of course, one of the book's main themes is Edmund's return to grace, which comes at a terrible cost.

It seems that the book and the movie had left some of my children with a romantic fancy for Turkish delight, a confection that the devilish White Witch uses to beguile Edmund. By some twist of fate we recently came into possession of a couple of boxes of Turkish delight.

Despite my familiarity with the Narnia books, I had never previously known exactly what Turkish delight was. Frankly, the gel based sugary candy didn't look all that appetizing to me. My suspicions were confirmed after several of my children tried out the supposedly tasty treat. One of my sons remarked, "I can't believe that Edmund sold out his brother and sisters for this stuff."

It's possible that our children were exposed to less than premium samples of the candy. Or perhaps Turkish delight was among the best confections available in the austere times of post-WWII England. But the boxes have remained untouched on the pantry shelf for the past couple of weeks. I could certainly see myself happily passing through the remainder of my days without sampling any more Turkish delight.

In the book Edmund is deceived by the White Witch after she shares an abundant amount of Turkish delight with him. Although his indulgence soon brings intestinal discomfort, he longs so much for more of the sweet treat that he schemes and even endures hardship to betray his siblings to the White Witch. He soon learns, however, that her demeanor changes dramatically once she has him firmly in her clutches.

As I have pondered my son's dismissive remark about Turkish delight, I have wondered what 'Turkish delights' I am fancying in my life. Which promises of worldly treats am I trading for matters of greater value? Edmund traded away integrity and dignity for a trifle that seemed so important to him at the moment. Do we not all occasionally engage in similar behavior to one extent or another?

The analogy is apt, given that the carnal treats we desire often turn out to be far less satisfying than imagined. Or, like Edmund, we may find that we never even get the treat once we have sold ourselves to get it.

But, as it was with Edmund, there is a way back from such mistakes, even if the cost exacts a terrible price. Through proper repentance we can be assured that the awful price for our misdeeds has already been paid by one that loves us more than we can imagine.

It is for this reason that we celebrate Christmas — to commemorate the birth of the One that came to take away our sins. Indeed, of all the gifts of Christmas, He Is The Gift.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Seeing the Temple Through My Little Boy Eyes

I recently attended a conference where several senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints spoke. Each talk was good. But the talk given by Bishop Gérald Caussé especially appealed to me.

Growing up in the south of France, Brother Caussé's family made an annual trip to the Bern Switzerland Temple. It was a tedious two-day drive each way, but his family cherished the week they spent at the temple each summer.

After marrying, Brother Caussé and his wife lived in Paris around the time that the Frankfurt Germany Temple was dedicated. They were then able to make trips to the temple in a few hours. The family enjoyed the overnight trips the local congregation often made to the temple.

When Brother Caussé was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 2008, he and his family relocated to Frankfurt. Living only 15 minutes from the temple, his family discovered a whole new set of challenges to attending the temple. Although the temple was convenient — or perhaps because the temple was convenient — obstacles, including the normal busy-ness of life constantly arose to regular temple attendance.

Two years ago when he was called to the Presiding Bishopric, Bishop Caussé and his family moved into a home that is very close to the Draper Utah Temple. The temple is prominently visible from the living room window, a view he very much loves. Bishop Caussé caught my attention when he said, "I never want to lose the ability to see the temple through my little boy eyes."

The Presiding Bishopric has responsibility for church facilities, including temples. I can see how dealing with maintenance on the church's 141 temples could make these structures seem like other buildings that have many similar issues and needs. But Bishop Caussé wants to continue to see these buildings with the same kind of reverence and awe with which he saw the temple in Switzerland as a child. Not as something magical, but as something magnificently sacred.

The Ogden Utah Temple holds a special place in my heart. I was a child when the temple was first dedicated. It was in this temple that I was first baptized for the dead, where I had a job as a groundskeeper for a few months before leaving on my mission, where I was endowed, and where I was married and sealed to my eternal companion. The temple was recently rededicated following a major renovation that lasted 3½ years. During the temple's long closure, we attended the Logan, Brigham City, Bountiful, Salt Lake, Jordan River, and Oquirrh Mountain Temples.

It was interesting to watch the conversion of the old Ogden Temple to a new and arguably more beautiful edifice. But going without our nearby temple for several years engendered in us greater appreciation for the structure so that we greatly anticipated its reopening.

Ogden Temple before renovation

Ogden Temple after renovation

A childhood friend acted as the superintendent on the large renovation job. He recently debunked some of the faith promoting stories that have been repeated surrounding the project. He said that some of these stories are "beautiful" but are also "absolutely not true."

The job was fraught with many difficulties, including quarried and finished pillars being held for ransom in China, the dome in the Celestial Room being originally built too small, the oxen for the baptismal font being built too long, hundreds of specialized light fixtures having to be fixed on site by the manufacturer, the need to tear out finished stonework when a plumber inadvertently left a test ball in a pipe, serious water table issues, and scheduling challenges.

There were a number of minor miracles too. But the greatest miracles my friend saw were positive changes in the lives a few people connected with the project.

We are very happy that the Ogden Temple is open once again. Its beauty is fitting for the ordinances and covenants that are eternally bound within the structure. I was definitely looking at the temple through my little boy eyes the night I captured the photo below with my phone.

Like Bishop Caussé, I hope to never lose my ability to see the temple "through my little boy eyes," seeing the wonder and sacredness that is obvious to those that are willing to come unto Christ as a little child (see 3 Nephi 11;37-38, Matt 18:2-4).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When Inconvenience Defines Love

My phone rang a few minutes after my wife had left for her weekly Cub Scout meeting.

Her: "Hi Honey, I was supposed to ask you this earlier, but I got busy and it slipped my mind. Could you come over and talk to the boys for about 20 minutes about Native American things while we work on a project?"

Me (caught off guard, having just returned from work): "Uh...."

Not too eloquent, but my mouth was in neutral while my brain was racing through a slalom course of thoughts in high gear.

Thought #1: Grrrr. This is terribly inconvenient. I feel like doing my best Grumpy imitation.

Thought #2: On the other hand, while I have much yet to learn, I do have the necessary resources to discuss Native American culture for 20 minutes. I have been learning about it since I joined the Order of the Arrow as a 13-year-old Boy Scout and I am descended from Wampanoag and Narragansett people.

Thought #3: But my wife needs me right now. This means that I don't have time to pull out a bunch of native regalia. I will have to just go and talk.

Thought #4: In my mind's eye I see myself back in time as a Cub Scout. The thought of some man standing there droning on and on for 20 endless minutes nearly puts me in a catatonic state.

Her: "Oh, and could you bring the hole punch."

Me (digging through the junk drawer in the kitchen and still feeling aggravated): "I don't see it. Do we even have one? I can't remember seeing one lately."

Her: "[The other Cub leader] just called her mom. She has one. Drop by there and pick it up on your way over here. We need it to punch holes in the drum heads."

Thought #5: Oh, they are making fake Native American drums. Hmmm.... Maybe I should bring the authentic Native American drum in the basement that belongs to the Order of the Arrow chapter. (I am the chapter adviser.)

I rushed around, got the large drum from the storage room, loaded the drum into the vehicle, and headed down the road, still feeling very put out.

Thought #6: Hey you! Mr. Grumpypants! You should know that how you respond to an inconvenient request from your wife probably says a lot about how well you really love her.

Thought #7 (feeling my stony heart soften a bit): Where did that thought come from? I'm not that noble on my own. Maybe my wife sent it telepathically. Or maybe it came from a higher source that is well acquainted with my wife's excellent soul.

I fetched the hole punch along the way and was soon hauling the heavy blanket covered drum into the building. The boys looked on with interest as I bore this burden into the room. When I unwrapped the blanket to reveal the large rawhide and wood drum, it was like magic. Their faces lit up and every boy wanted to gather around the drum.

Rather than engaging in a broad discussion about culture, I focused on teaching about Native American drumming and singing. Eventually all of the boys were drumming with me and singing the Spongebob Squarepants song by the Black Lodge Singers.

We then had the boys work in teams to build drums from #10 cans, Naugahyde, and boondoggle plastic lace. Not even remotely authentic. But something that might remind them of the time they drummed on a real rawhide drum and sang a real Native American song.

Thought #8 (while hauling the drum back to the car): I actually feel pretty good. I had other things I wanted to do, but this was more valuable.

Thought #9 (while driving home): Despite feeling inconvenienced, I do dearly love my wife. After all, she has graciously put up with a lot of inconvenience caused by me over the years.

Thought #10: In fact, I am grateful that my wife felt comfortable coming to me with this spur of the moment request. What a shame it would have been had I established a pattern that would have made her reticent to do so.

Thought #11: Yeah, how one responds to an untimely request by one's spouse probably does say a lot about how well he/she loves her/him. So I didn't start out very well, but I eventually came around. In my defense, I'm still a work in progress.

I stowed the drum and walked back upstairs feeling calm and content.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Money Can Buy (Some) Happiness — Especially When You Give It Away

The old saying goes that money can't buy happiness. Maybe not. But in our modern era money is inextricably tied to human happiness. Still, the relationship between money and happiness is somewhat complex.

Few rules of thumb hold true across all demographics when it comes to this enigmatic relationship. But as reported in this Wall Street Journal article, one persistent rule is that giving money away tends to increase happiness almost more than anything else that could be done with it. Especially when compared to lavishing it on oneself. This even holds true for the very poor.

This is one reason that people are drawn to give to panhandlers even when they suspect that the funds might be ill used and even when authorities ask people not to give to panhandlers. Givers feel happier for having given. In a way, panhandlers offer increased happiness to the donors, regardless of whether the recipients use the funds for self destructive purposes or not. This may help explain why family members sometimes continue to give to n'er-do-well relations when rational indications are that it will likely harm the recipient in the long run.

Another general rule is that "debt has a detrimental effect on happiness." While "savings and financial security tend to boost [happiness]," "debt is more potently bad than savings are good." In other words, $100 of debt reduces happiness more than $100 of savings increases it. Says one researcher, "From a happiness perspective, it’s more important to get rid of debt than to build savings."

So, it would seem that getting/staying out of debt and giving money away can increase your happiness regardless of how rich or poor you are. Beyond this the relationship between money and happiness becomes more obscure.

Having more income does tend to increase happiness up to a point. But researchers have found that "happiness did not rise after a household reached an annual income of approximately $75,000."
"The bottom line: When you don’t have much money, a little extra can go a long way, because you have more essential needs to fulfill. As you accumulate more wealth, however, it becomes more difficult to keep “buying” more happiness."
Researchers class life satisfaction separately from happiness. In general, satisfaction increases with income. Feeling satisfied can enhance happiness, but satisfaction is not itself happiness.

Another interesting finding reported in the article is that buying experiences produces greater happiness than does buying material goods. But people tend to think that buying stuff will make them better off than buying experiences.

I understand how this works. The prudent side of me says that an experience like a vacation will quickly be over, while some material good will likely last far longer. This is true, but the article explains that we soon get used to our new stuff and we take it for granted. This is called "hedonic adaptation." Experiences, on the other hand, remain special to us for much longer, often due to sharing experiences with others. Regularly revisiting these memories helps define who we are.

Researchers also have found that how we value and use time plays into our happiness. They say that it is generally bad to always equate time with money. This "makes [people] less likely to spend even small amounts of time on things that are not financially compensated." On the other hand, one team estimated that commuting to work impacts happiness so harshly that it would take a 40% raise just to maintain the same level of happiness as is had with a shorter commute. (I'm sure this differs from person to person.)

To summarize, you can increase happiness by:
  • Getting enough money to meet necessities.
  • Avoiding debt.
  • Saving and working toward financial security.
  • Taking care to buy worthwhile experiences (while avoiding debt).
  • Being judicious about acquiring stuff.
  • Being generous with what you have.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Problems and the Beauties of LDS Fast and Testimony Meetings

Once each month LDS congregations around the world hold a fast. Those that are physically able are asked to fast for two consecutive meals and then donate at least the value of those meals for the aid of the poor. As part of this effort, congregations hold a fast and testimony meeting, where "members who feel prompted ... share (or "bear") their testimony with the" congregation.

Fast and testimony meetings can be powerfully uplifting and spiritually fulfilling experiences. However, given that anyone can get up to testify, and given that "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies" (per Pres. Uchtdorf in October 2014 general conference), unscripted testimony meetings can have moments that are comical, awkward, or downright strange.

Indeed, anyone that has attended more than a handful of LDS testimony meetings can probably relate episodes where less than perfect people have provided for less than ideal worship experiences. In our misanthropic moments, some of my acquaintances and I have been known to refer to these kinds of fast and testimony meetings as Open Mic Sunday.

One of our family's fondest memories of such an incident occurred one Sunday that I was unable to attend church due to an emergency. That left my wife to manage three young children. She left the two older boys quietly drawing in the chapel while she retreated to the mother's lounge to nurse the baby. She soon was surprised to hear Son #1 speaking via the audio piped in from the meeting.

Although he is characteristically an introvert, Son #1 went on at great length about many things that had little to do with spiritual matters, offering multiple childish insights that elicited hearty laughter from the congregation. My poor wife cringed as nearly ten seemingly endless minutes passed. Why didn't somebody from the bishopric stop the charade? Even many years later we still occasionally get comments about how charming our son was that day, although, charm is hardly the point of testimony meeting.

I will never forget one fast Sunday as a kid when one middle aged sister in our congregation spoke. She had many admirable qualities, but physical beauty was not at that time among those traits. I can remember the blatant appalled look on my father's face after this sister said, "I just want you all to know that I have never knowingly enticed any man." Dad quickly regained his composure, but then leaned over and whispered to Mom, "Never unknowingly either." Which earned him an elbow jab to the ribs.

After relating tales from one particularly tedious testimony meeting, a friend that currently serves in a stake leadership position wondered aloud why the Brethren (Mormon code phrase for top church leaders) didn't just put the kybosh on Open Mic Sunday. I believe that he overstates the challenges of the testimony meeting format. But church leaders obviously recognize some problems, since they issue directives like this 2013 letter every few years encouraging improved management of these meetings.

It is even possible that the testimony meeting glitches serve a worthwhile purpose. Stephen E. Robinson has reminded us that the church is filled with imperfect people that are prone to acting like "boneheads," and that each of us occasionally plays the part of the bonehead. If the Savior was willing to sacrifice himself for all of these boneheads (including us), perhaps he has a right to ask us to exercise some patience in dealing with the frailties of our fellow church members. Indeed, graciously suffering through others' mistakes may be among the most Christ-like things we could ever do.

Another distinct possibility is that the Brethren have carefully considered the matter and have determined that the pros of holding fast and testimony meetings outweigh the cons. Our meeting this past Sunday might provide evidence of such a positive cost-benefit analysis.

Among the many high quality witnesses that were spoken that day, one sister that was visiting our congregation got up, probably because many of her family members were present. I knew that this sister had been through some rough years but had turned her life around. She began by saying, "I have been a member of this church since I was a child, but I became a convert to the gospel of Jesus Christ two years ago." The following two minutes were powerful in their simplicity.

I'm not sure that it is possible to adequately explain to someone how the Holy Ghost feels. It certainly isn't simple emotionalism, although, many have leveled such accusations. It is probably like trying to explain the taste of salt someone that has never tasted salt. Dr. Daniel Peterson says that while revelation from the Holy Ghost is "nontransferable," the methodology that leads to personal spiritual encounters (see Moroni 10:4-5) "is proportioned to the needs and capacities of all and is not restricted to a specially trained ... elite."

I believe that the testimony meeting format lends itself particularly well to opportunities for experiencing this kind of spiritual communion. When I begin to find a testimony meeting wearisome or when I begin to overly focus on the meeting's flaws, it is likely that I am choosing to erect barriers to the witness that the Holy Ghost is willing to give me. I hope that I will continue to cherish fast and testimony meetings throughout my life, complete with their imperfections.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Halloween that Cured Me of Pranking

I was not a mischievous kid, but I did manage to get in trouble one Halloween when I was about ten years old. I lived in a neighborhood chock full of young families. Thus, there were swarms of kids roving about each Halloween night.

As planned, I linked up with two friends who came by the house to pick me up. I can remember feeling anxious that they had already hit the houses between their homes and mine. I also envied the store bought devil outfit worn by one of my friends. My family never sprang for such costumes. We just had to come up with our own. Thus, I wore a ripped up sweatshirt smeared with fake blood under my jacket. I also wore a pair of bulky torn up pants over my regular jeans.

Masks were all the rage that year and each of us had one. I never did much care for those brittle plastic Halloween masks. The holes for eyes, nose, and mouth never seemed to match the actual anatomy of my face, making for visual and respiratory challenges. Not to mention making it nearly impossible to eat treats along the way.

We didn't do much of that anyway because we were too busy running to the next house. Besides, the public service folks had done a good enough job of scaring the bejeebers out of us about tainted candy that we waited until our parents could review our booty before partaking. This served a dual purpose of allowing my brothers and me to compare our full take. My brother Tim always won that contest.

One of the two friends with me that night perpetually got into mischief. He seemed to be drawn to trouble like a moth is drawn to a light. He suggested that when we found a house that was giving away really good candy that we go somewhere to remove our costumes and then return to the house as unadorned youth. Some kids our age were going door to door sans costumes anyway. Nobody would be the wiser.

I didn't feel right about this. But my friend in the devil outfit liked the idea. After all, it was Halloween. Wouldn't a minor prank be just part of the fun? In the end I gave in to peer pressure. Before long we encountered a house that was giving away good candy bars. We soon found a hideaway behind a fence, took off our outer wear, and returned to the home. Kaching! We each scored an extra candy bar.

A few houses later we were given some particularly delectable candy item. There were lots of kids coming and going, so there was noise and confusion. But I thought I heard the lady say hi to my devil friend by name. My two friends wanted to go back sans costumes for seconds on the candy.

"But the lady recognized you," I said to my friend. "Didn't you hear her call you by name?" Apparently he had not heard this. "I have no idea who she is. I don't think I've ever met her before. And anyway, how could she see who I am behind this mask?" he asked. He had a good point. We had already seen three other kids with the same type of costume and they all looked so similar that I had mistaken one of them for my friend in the dark.

We soon returned to the house. The lady gave us candy, but she gave us a very strange look. Giddy with our success, we were ready to perpetuate this gag all night long. Up the street a bit we got big candy bars from one lady. They weren't as big as regular candy bars, but they were much larger than the standard minis that some houses were giving.

Soon we were behind the neighbor's bushes pulling off our costumes. But I didn't feel good about it. Two of us knew Mrs. S. She was always very nice. It didn't seem right to take advantage of her. But these were really good candy bars. So against my better judgment I returned with my friends and got a second candy bar.

We were congratulating ourselves as we donned our costumes in the dark behind the neighbors' bushes when we saw an adult exit the house we had just visited. This grown up form walked directly toward our location. Suddenly we all held still.

The shadowy figure stopped on the other side of the bushes. But by they way the person was looking, we obviously remained unseen. Maybe we had escaped after all. Then I heard the voice of Mrs. S. "I can't see you boys, but I know you're there. I'm very disappointed in you. I expected better of you, or at least of the two of you that I know."

My heart sunk as she explained that a friend from down the street had recognized one of us and had called issuing a warning about us. Dang busybodies! Never underestimate the social networking capacity of women. It's like a super power.

We offered to return the extra candy, but Mrs. S. refused to accept it. She said that she would probably call our parents. (She didn't, but I didn't know that until later.) Weighing the potential fallout, I knew that Mom would be mad because it would reflect badly on her, but I surmised that Dad would probably just laugh.

Still, Mom's probable ire was not why I felt bad. Mrs. S. was a nice lady. What's more is that I knew that us Mormon boys (two of us anyway) had just set a very bad example for a wonderful non-Mormon lady. And even if we weren't all Mormons, we were all Cub Scouts. We all knew better. I felt horrible.

After leaving the shadows and wandering toward the next house, none of us had much stomach for more pranks that evening. Besides, it took long enough to change in and out of costume that it was questionable whether the extra candy was worth the effort. We consoled ourselves by hurrying along so as to get as much candy as possible before having to go home.

Within a couple of years my trick-or-treating career came to an end. There was some unwritten convention in my neighborhood that you didn't go trick-or-treating after turning 12. It was a rite of passage. Although we secretly continued to envy those kids getting all of the candy, we stoically insisted that trick-or-treating was for little kids.

A lot of Halloweens have come and gone since that night long ago. But I still have never developed much of an interest in pulling pranks since then.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Giga Pet Prayer

Christmas was an amazing time when our children were young. The joy and excitement of the season all came to a head on Christmas morning when we would watch the little ones get so excited about a relatively inexpensive gift that they didn't want to take time to open their other gifts. Infants and toddlers were often happy just playing with the packaging material.

They were so easy to please back then. Many of the items for which they pined weren't terribly expensive. And they had two sets of living grandparents that insisted on spoiling them to excess each Christmas.

Although many of the things our children received those Christmases long ago are long gone, I still have one toy secretly tucked away in my dresser drawer. I keep this dead electronic gadget because it reminds me of an event that was very powerful at the time.

That year the thing that our two oldest children wanted more than anything else was a Giga Pet. I didn't like the idea at all. Although those things were all the rage that season, I knew that they required constant attention, including feeding, cleaning up, and interaction routines. Kind of like a real pet, but without the cuddliness. I thought the kids were too young for this kind of thing. If we were going to get something like that, why not just get a dog?

As a side note, I now know after three years of dog ownership the answer to that question. It comes down to dog hair, having to make arrangements for dog care whenever we go anywhere, the cost of real food, having to clean up real poop, and dealing with neighbors annoyed at the dog's barking. But the love factor is much greater.

Against my wishes, the two oldest each received a Buzz Lightyear Giga Pet among their other gifts that Christmas morning. Given their young ages, they had some challenges getting the things up and running. But eventually they started to figure them out.

After the morning rush was finished, I prepared for my daily workout. Back in those days I spent about an hour doing fitness walking each day. It had snowed an inch or so during the night, but it was already warm enough that it was melting off the parts of the road frequented by car tires. There was still snow on the road shoulders, but it would pose little problem.

As offspring #1 and #2 saw me getting ready, they asked if they could go along. We had a two-seat fitness stroller and the kids generally loved to take a ride with Dad. My wife heartily approved because she needed to nurse the baby. As we bundled up the two riders, I forbade them from bringing their new Giga Pet toys, fearing that the toys would get lost. Besides, there was no way they could operate the things with mittens on their hands.

We loaded up the children and headed out onto the nearly deserted roadways. Since we had to stick to the shoulders, I was walking in the snow most of the way. As I was unloading the kids from the stroller upon our return, child #2 suddenly realized that he could not find his Giga Pet — the very toy I had banned from the trip. We searched through his outerwear and stroller seat, but the toy was not to be found.

After the scolding and the I-told-you-sos, I looked at my little child and was overcome with a wave of empathy. No, the toy wasn't very important in the grand scheme of things. It was replaceable, although, that would have to wait for a day or two. But the child pleaded for help in finding the toy.

The toy had to be in the snow somewhere along our route. But the thing was mostly white. The rear side was almost completely white. How could we find such an item in miles of snow? My child suggested that we could pray.

I thought about it. A prayer to find a frivolous toy. A toy that had gotten lost due to disobedience. Weren't there much more important things to pray about, like expressing gratitude for everything we had or seeking blessings for those truly in need?

Finally we knelt and my child uttered a simple but very heartfelt prayer. I prayed too. Then we got in the car and started driving slowly along our exercise route. It was relatively easy to follow the three-wheeled tire tracks and footprints in the snow. But I kept thinking to myself that this was nuts.

About a mile from the house I felt a quiet yet firm prompting to stop the car. I was careful not to drive over our stroller tread marks as I parked. I got out of the car and felt like I should start looking in the snow just ahead. I slowly walked next to the path I had left earlier, carefully looking down at the melting snow.

Ahead of the car about ten feet I saw a small depression next to one of my footprints. It could easily have been anything. I had already seen hundreds of similar depressions as I had driven along our route. But I felt very calm inside. It was like I was being pulled to that precise spot. As I stepped closer, I reached down into the snow and felt my child's Giga Pet.

We had a prayer of gratitude in the car before driving home. My young child had simply accepted that this would be the outcome. But I saw a miracle. I could have driven up and down that route all day long without finding the small toy. Or the toy could have sat there until the snow melted and it was found by someone else. Or a car tire could have unknowingly smashed the toy. Instead, I was led directly to the spot where the toy had dropped into the snow after a few minutes of searching.

Some may scoff at my estimation of this episode, saying that people like me think that God is a ready replacement for a metal detector. But they weren't there; I was. Would the Great King of Heaven truly take time to answer a prayer about something so small and superficial? If I am fully honest with myself, I must admit that I still know within myself that this is precisely what happened.

Later as I pondered the events of the day, I gained a little greater insight into God's parenthood. I'm sure that much of what we pray for is largely meaningless in the eternal scheme of things, even things that seem crucial to us. Yet just as I was willing to go out of my way to help my child with something that was tremendously important to him at that moment, I believe that God willingly goes out of his way to help his children when they pray in faith about things that are extremely important to them at any given moment, simply because he loves them. And if he is willing to do so for relatively insignificant matters, how much more willing is he to answer prayers about truly meaningful matters?

God always answers prayers out of perfect love for his children. Thus, he thankfully grants us what will be best for us from his eternal perspective, and not always according to what we think we want at the time. Some will note that this seems like a tautology — any outcome following a prayer of faith is God's will.

But God does not leave us without access to a witness. The Holy Ghost can confirm that a given outcome is God's answer to prayer. And this is how I still know deep inside that God guided me to that Giga Pet in the snow years ago. I know that refusing to admit this would offend God; something I can ill afford to do, given the regularity with which I mess up otherwise.

Within a few weeks after the Giga Pet prayer, the kids' Giga Pets melded into the menagerie of toys about the household, only to be played with on occasion. I was frankly quite glad when the batteries died and the things quite chirping. Years later during cleanup of a toy tub, I found the long dead Giga Pet and was reminded of the poignant events of that Christmas day when the toy was lost and then found. I have kept the device in my drawer since finding it to remind me of how willing a loving Heavenly Father is to answer prayers of those that humbly pray in faith.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Surviving My Second Gingival Graft

I wasn't pleased when the periodontist confirmed my suspicions that I would need gum graft surgery to maintain a couple of teeth for the long run. From past experience I knew that it would cost the better part of a thousand bucks. But my memories of recovering from this same type of surgery 14 years earlier played a larger role in my psyche.

A dentist friend of mine says that they have a low follow through rate on patients being referred for this type of surgery. People know it's going to cost money. They usually aren't in pain. Often the danger of serious dental issues is not imminent. So they put it off. But I like having my natural teeth. I'd rather get it over with than deal with anxiety niggling in the back of my head for months on end.

So about seven weeks ago I reclined in a chair at the dental office. I knew that the doctor was highly experienced. He approached the procedure with a calm but confident demeanor. I never once saw the muscles in his face reflect anything but serenity during my hour in the chair. He pleasantly hummed 80s pop tunes as he went about his work, occasionally chatting with his assistant or informing me of what he was doing or was about to do next. It was all very disarming.

After the local anesthetic took effect, the doctor hopped right into the part of the procedure that I liked the least: obtaining the graft tissue from the left side of the roof of my mouth. He took the donor tissue from the same spot that another periodontist had taken some 14 years earlier.

The doctor explained that the tissue in that part of the roof of the mouth is particularly dense and is prime for adhering to the graft site. I surmised that they always take it from the left side because they tend to sit on the right side of the patient, making that spot more readily accessible than the other side. I knew that the healing of the donor site would be the most bothersome part of my recovery.

After a few stitches were applied to the donor site, the doctor went to work opening up the graft site. Then he carefully stitched the donor tissue into place. He pressed some substance over the area and cured it with some type of light, creating a type of shield. Then he applied a temporary plastic retainer (built from an impression that had been taken a couple of weeks earlier) that covered the roof of my mouth and my upper teeth.

I was given a sheet of instructions, a prescription for antibiotics, and prescriptions for serious painkillers. I opted not to fill the opiate based pills. I really dislike the way they make me feel and I figured that I would get by without them. But I was grateful for prescription strength ibuprofen when the anesthetic started to wear off.

Over the next three weeks I was very careful to avoid chewing on the side of my mouth where the graft was trying to adhere. I wore the plastic retainer part of the time and I ate only soft foods, avoiding anything that might be caustic (like salsa). As expected, the rawness in the roof of my mouth was more bothersome than the graft area, which was relatively easy to maintain.

Within a week the stitches in the roof of my mouth started to come out on their own, as the doctor said they would. Later, the stitches in the graft area came apart one by one. The shield that had been applied to the graft area washed out, as predicted. I took care to keep my mouth clean, frequently and carefully swishing with salty water. The doctor removed the last of the stitches at a follow up visit.

One of the things that bothered me the most during the second week of recovery was pain emanating from a molar near the donor site. That eventually abated as the site healed.

Today the graft area feels pretty much like part of the original gum tissue. The doctor is very pleased with the results. The donor area in the roof of my mouth is recovering well. The tissue still needs to thicken a bit. It also feels somewhat dead, so it feels a little weird. But I know from past experience that it will enervate over time.

If were able to go back and change a minor thing from my youth I would go back and train my younger self to brush my teeth gently while also brushing thoroughly. In those days I thought that you had to brush hard to do it right. I was wrong and I am now paying the price for such zeal.

If I were advised by a competent professional today that I needed gum graft surgery in another area, I wouldn't be very pleased with the news. But I would move ahead without delay. I can see that the grafts I have received have been effective and are doing a good job of protecting my teeth. At any rate, I'd prefer to endure gum graft surgery than to deal with the consequences of failing to do so.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Hearts of the Children are Turning — Sometimes Via Official Callings

Last Sunday our youngest son (a young teen) was sustained and set apart as a family history indexer. At the same time, a young woman who is about a year older than our son was called to be a family history consultant, a calling that has traditionally been reserved for seasoned adults with lots of family history experience. Well guess what? This girl is already very experienced with family history work. Although she has been called to serve the youth, she could easily teach many adults a thing or two.

My son, on the other hand, while honored by his new calling, was also intimidated. Unlike many of his peers, he isn't terribly rapid at absorbing new technology. Nor is he very good at reading cursive writing. He has been asked to index a certain number of names each month. I think the number is within his abilities, but the bishopric also understands his Asperger condition. They made it clear that he need only make an earnest effort each month.

In keeping with Elder Bednar's October 2011 general conference address, we are starting to see more young people become directly involved in family history work in our ward. The LDS Church even has a website devoted to how youth can get involved. Like many others in the ward, each of our children has successfully cleared names for temple ordinances.

But this is the first time any of our children has received an official calling to do family history work. In this case, our son is doing family history indexing. Family history indexing is a process that makes records searchable online, as shown in this video:

The general idea is to get data that is stored on paper records — censuses, birth records, obituaries, property tax records, ship registers, etc. — digitized into searchable databases. The process begins as people around the world (mostly volunteers) digitize images of these records. Images are categorized into projects with images of similar type. Databases and input forms are constructed. Then volunteer indexers look at the images and enter the data into the forms. Volunteer arbitrators review and correct entries. This makes the data available for those doing family history research, as shown in this video:

So Sunday afternoon I sat down with our son and got him started. He was intimidated by the first record with which he was presented, but he was actually able to read the cursive. Next I found a project of 20th Century Virginia death records. These were typewritten, making the project easier for him. It was tedious at first, but by the end of the batch he was starting to get the hang of it.

You don't need a calling to do family history indexing. You don't even need to be a member of the LDS Church. Anyone can do it. Once digitized, the data becomes freely available to anyone via the FamilySearch website. You can go to the indexing website right now and get started. Spend as little or as much time indexing as you'd like. Any work you do will help others.

Our son's calling is slated to last for about half a year. He can extend it after that if he wishes. Or he can just index on his own. I hope this is the beginning of a lifetime of family history work for him. Many people find meaning in researching their family tree. People crave to know who they came from. Indexing is among the opportunities available for helping others satisfy that craving. I hope our son finds joy in his service.