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.



#ShareTheGift

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.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Last One Standing

I repeatedly expressed gratitude that it was early autumn and not winter as we drove across the desolate, windy Wyoming plains. I know from experience that winter driving in that region can be treacherous. I looked across at my mother, knowing that the trip would be challenging for her. But there was no way she could miss the funeral of her last remaining sibling.

Mom's parents married in Illinois. Like many others of their era, they migrated piecemeal westward as their family grew to include a dozen kids. They lived for a few years in Nebraska and then hopped back and forth between northern Wyoming and southern Montana, finally settling in Wyoming. They always farmed and Grandpa found various jobs, finishing out his career working in the oil fields.

Most of the kids and their descendants migrated away from Wyoming over time. But Mom's sister stayed and raised her family there, even after being widowed relatively young and then having most of her kids move away. (Most of them also eventually moved back.)

I think that the thing I will always remember best about my aunt is her perpetually cheery disposition, despite the many adversities life threw at her. She happily lived quite frugally her entire adult life and never bothered to spend much on luxuries or self pampering. I might also remember her collection of unusual salt and pepper shakers. My aunt's cognitive abilities diminished during her final years until she couldn't live on her own. My cousin has handled most of her care over the past year.

The blessings of a large family became evident as we gathered for the funeral. The number of family members in attendance was impressive, although, it represented only a fraction of my grandparents' descendants. Acquaintances were renewed and fond memories were shared. The service was comforting.

Afterward we followed the hearse to a bleak, windswept cemetery, where my aunt's remains were to be interred beside those of her husband. Following a brief graveside service, numerous family members came forward to greet my mother. As the line of well wishers surged, I realized that most of them expected this to be their last chance to say goodbye to Mom in this life.

Mom harbors strength that is not readily apparent, but she definitely appears far more frail than the strong woman she once was. Still, I can hardly blame family members for thinking that they may never have a chance to see her again. We get involved in the pressing matters of daily life and don't get around to spending time with those that don't fall immediately into our path. As Frost wrote, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

That evening I sat at the dining table in my cousin's house with Mom, a few cousins, and a family friend, while many of my cousins' children and grandchildren conversed in the living room. We looked at books of old photos that my cousin has carefully assembled and chatted about old times. Will I ever see a scene like that again?

Although Mom wasn't certain she could make the trip, she has repeatedly thanked me for taking her up there and taking care of her on the trip. I'm not sure that she will ever consent to make another trip like that. I will ever be thankful that I took time to take Mom to her sister's funeral.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Closing the Dopamine Highway of Addiction

"It starts out as a little trail in the weeds, but every time we walk down the trail it becomes more clearly defined." My doctor friend said this as we discussed a topic that many would probably rather avoid discussing in a church meeting: addiction.

According to the doctor, the destination to which the trail leads is dopamine, "a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers." In reality, dopamine's role in our brains is much more complex than this (see 7/2013 Slate article).

But the doctor's point is well taken. Walk down the trail often enough and it eventually turns into a broad and well worn highway, with dopamine acting like flashing multimedia billboards signalling the way to the desired pleasure response. When this pathway becomes enslavement to self destructive or harmful behaviors, we call it addiction, regardless of which negative behaviors are involved.

In this instance we were discussing an April 2014 general conference address by Linda S. Reeves about pornography, a topic that some find uncomfortable in any setting, especially at church. My doctor friend is grateful that the church is addressing this topic, but he felt that the talk was inadequate. It smacked too much of traditional tactics that have amounted to saying, "Go home and don't do that anymore, brother;" an approach that fails to appreciate the essence of addiction.

My doctor friend said that we are experiencing a pornography addiction epidemic. "When you have people continuously falling off a cliff, doing first aid on those at the bottom of the cliff isn't enough; you put up a fence at the top," he said.

In fairness to Sister Reeves, she had 12 minutes to address the topic of pornography for a very broad audience of millions of people of all ages and spiritual levels. She was mostly addressing prevention in her talk, so maybe she can be excused for inadequately discussing recovery. After discussing the importance of filters on devices she said:
"Filters are useful tools, but the greatest filter in the world, the only one that will ultimately work, is the personal internal filter that comes from a deep and abiding testimony of our Heavenly Father’s love and our Savior’s atoning sacrifice for each one of us."
Statistics tell us that virtually all young people will be exposed to pornography by age 12 regardless of our best efforts to shield them. So it is important for them to learn what to do when these encounters happen. It is important for them to develop their own resilience in dealing with porn.

Prevention resources can be found on the church's Overcoming Pornography website. Primary In Zion offers this list of resources (2011). It is clear that society's trajectory is away from imposing cultural filters that would buffer family members from pornography, so families and private organizations must undertake this effort on their own.

The church has also undertaken a number of recovery measures. It currently offers a professionally designed addiction recovery program that is available to people dealing with addiction, family members of those dealing with addiction, and church leaders that need to know how to help people. In some areas you can anonymously attend meetings where you can get help. There are even call-in meetings.

A program known as Fortify is available for free to teens. Adults pay a one-time fee of $39. Part of this subsidizes teens in the program. Fortify is run by a nonprofit organization called Fight the New Drug that also offers a variety of (free) help methods and ways for volunteers to help others.

Your Brain On Porn is far edgier than church sponsored or related offerings. It lacks the kind of spiritual aspects seen in church resources, but it addresses everyday issues faced by people (especially guys) that habitually view porn.

As we discussed pornography addiction in church, a sentiment was expressed that men might turn to pornography if they find their marital sexual life unfulfilling (or even absent). I raised a strong voice against this idea. Marital health is tremendously important and it requires the active involvement of both partners. But it is completely inappropriate for anyone choosing to engage in destructive behavior to blame their spouse for this choice. If a marriage is having problems, it is important to get help. It is inappropriate to resort to porn for a dopamine fix. This is a way to introduce additional problems; not a way to fix existing issues.

Many people are still in denial about the negative effects of pornography. But it is easy to see the flotsam of wrecked lives and families that gimbal in the churn of its wake. It is not benign, nor is it a victimless form of entertainment.

Many people feel trapped, but there is help, hope, and healing available. The dopamine highway of destructive behavior that a person has developed may never go away in this life. But it can fall into such a state of disuse that it becomes overgrown and broken up. It's not an easy thing to accomplish. But there are many that have done it and that will tell you that others can do it too.

There is hope for preventing and dealing with pornography addiction.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pulling Down My One-Upmanship

"Latter-Day Saints are among the most generous people on earth," said the instructor in a church class I was attending. A brother in the room then called out, "And also among the most judgmental!" I could tell that the jibe was intended in all seriousness.

The comedian in me wanted to lampoon the irony of the man's statement by saying something flippant like, "In my judgment, that comment was rather judgmental" or "I see you have plenty of experience with being judgmental." But I restrained myself, realizing that anything I said in that vein would further detract from the lesson and would invite contention.

Mormons are far from perfect. We can learn much from criticisms of our culture and behavior. Joseph Smith admonished us to consider whether there is any truth in criticisms spoken of us. If so, we are to work to improve.

Moreover, the Lord has admonished us to "revile not against those that revile" (D&C 31:9). Nor are we to contend with those that contend against us (3 Nephi 11:29):
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
I heard a fellow tell of his anger against anti-Mormons that accosted him and his family on the sidewalk as they were heading to the open house of the recently dedicated Ogden Temple one hot summer day. Later as the man and his family were leaving the temple, he was humbled when he noticed smiling open house volunteers graciously bringing cool drinking water to the anti-Mormons in a literal demonstration of loving one's enemies (Matt 5:44).

The criticisms that sting the most are those that include a fair amount of truth. The natural man (Mosiah 3:19) in us wants to respond to such barbs by raising hackles and giving the critic a piece of our mind — naturally.

I have seen and taken part in plenty of unrighteous and self-righteous judgment of my fellow beings. Thus, when my friend unwittingly displayed his own judgmental attitude by projecting it onto his fellow church members, I felt to respond by mocking him, a sentiment that Alma2 warns us is cause for speedy repentance (Alma 5:30-31).

This is not to say that wrongs should not be corrected or that truths should not be boldly proclaimed. But it does mean that these activities should be undertaken in the spirit of humility and love. (Consider Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's balanced discussion of Christ-like love from the April 2014 general conference.)

Mercy is one of the Lord's most commonly mentioned traits, which he exercises according to his omniscience. Lacking his grand perspective, we are commanded to forgive everyone their trespasses whether we think they are deserving or not (D&C 64:9-11), even as we impose necessary consequences for misbehavior (D&C 64:12-14). Forgiveness in a spiritual sense does not necessarily mean removal of temporal consequences.

A few weeks have passed since the aforementioned judgmental comment was made. Yet despite my knowledge of the principles I have mentioned, part of me would still like to get the last word in on the subject. The natural man in me somehow thinks that acting in a judgmental manner will get my friend to reconsider his own judgmental attitude. In reality, it would likely just make my friend think that I'm a jerk without awakening the kind of self awareness I think he ought to develop.

Maybe I'd better get to work casting the beam out of my own eye before trying to remove the mote from my brother's (Matt 7:4-5).

Monday, September 22, 2014

I Won't Dessert Desserts

I have noticed that food has been mentioned a quite a bit in my blog posts over the years. I'm not obsessed with food. I just want to drive by food's house to see if food is home. (That's a riff on a Jim Gaffigan joke.)

OK, let's be honest. I am obsessed with food. It's the only way I have found to be successful in keeping the 60+ lbs off that I lost a couple of decades ago. (Please note that I'm not saying that this is true for everyone that has successfully lost weight. I just know how it works for me. Professionals would say that I have an eating disorder.)

While I am generally quite strict with my diet, I do take dietary vacations. And when I do, it often involves dessert foods. I think this puts me in pretty good company with my fellow Mormons. If actual practice were any indicator, researchers might easily conclude that dessert foods are central to Mormon life. We rarely hold any kind of activity where treats are not served. We often go so far as to turn treats into an art form.

I mean, we Mormons have a revelation on diet that very few of us bother to follow very closely. Oh, we're all over abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea, and illicit drugs. But we're not too hep on otherwise eating very healthy — except for a few of us that annoy everyone around us by incessantly noting how righteous our diet is. You know, kind of like being proud of how humble we are.

So, like most Mormons I know, I think about and sometimes even celebrate dessert foods. I sometimes even eat such treats. But I have my favorites, as do most people. This is one of those areas where diversity of opinion is perfectly acceptable. You can like what you like and I can like what I like. After all, there are so many options available.

A couple of years ago the Primary pulled me in for a Father's Day event where children guessed answers to questions about their dads. I was stunned when my kids failed to recognize that my ultimate favorite dessert item — first, last, and always — is ice cream. While I like a wide assortment of desserts, I will always opt for ice cream given the choice. (Unless it's got coconut in it. Then I'll pass.)

And, yes, I do have my favorite flavors and types of ice cream. Fine ice creams are delicious and wonderful. But there's nothing I like better than a thick ice cream milkshake; the kind that is so thick that it sticks up higher than the rim of the cup and can't be sucked through a straw.

I also am quite fond of cones dipped in candy coating (usually chocolate) that gets hard. Nobody in the universe (that I know of) makes these dipped cones better than Dairy Queen. If you think I'm wrong on that point, please direct me to anyplace you think is superior and I will do my own personal taste test if possible.

I believe dessert foods to be fine when eaten in moderation. I don't indulge in dessert foods with enough frequency to appreciably harm my health. If I were eating this stuff everyday it would be a different story. When it comes to dietary health, how you eat on a daily basis has far greater impact than how you eat on rare occasions.

Humans have a multifaceted relationship with food that is not well understood. It has always been thus. But today our economic conditions allow vast swaths of people access to wide varieties of food options. I am amazed by the selection in the town where I live of 300+ restaurants that cater to a tremendous variety of tastes and budgets.

My brother was once talking with a coworker that had managed to lose quite a bit of weight. He told my brother that his secret was to sever his emotional relationship with food, seeing it purely as fuel. Most people could only endure such a dreary view of food under conditions of extreme hardship. After all, it pleases God to bless his children with food to please the heart, gladden the eye, strengthen the body, and enliven the soul (see D&C 59:15-20).

A few years ago I read an interview with a nationally renowned dietitian. The interviewer wanted her to specify which foods should never be eaten. The dietitian refused to take the bait, insisting that there are no bad foods, only bad diets. She said that many foods that we perceive as decadent are perfectly fine in the proper amount as part of a balanced diet.

So I figure that it's fine and even psychologically healthy to enjoy dessert foods. As a measured part of a healthy diet, of course.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

If I Like Something, You Have to Like It Too, Right?

Years ago I became alarmed when I found myself on a seemingly nonstop weight gain trajectory. I radically altered my diet and began exercising. I opted for a diet focused on complex carbohydrates, a little protein, and very little fat. (This was all the rage at the time.) I also started doing aerobic fitness walking for an hour each day. The excess pounds melted away so that I dropped 60 lbs over the space of a year.

I was so pleased with my results and so certain that my diet regimen was the best thing on the face of the earth (and certain that it was divinely approved — see D&C 89:10-16) that I became convinced that everyone else should eat as I did. I mean, why wouldn't they?

In fact, I made quite a pest of myself to family and friends as I evangelized about the dietary regimen that I was convinced was the right diet for everyone everywhere. My good wife gently and patiently (with great care over the space of many months) helped me understand how obnoxious I had become. I eventually backed off. But it still took a long time for family and friends to relax their guard around me.

We currently have some family members that refuse to understand that others have different tastes than themselves. Or if they do understand this, they think that those with differing tastes are on the wrong path and need to be redeemed. This can frequently be seen in matters such as food or music. For example, one child that dislikes cheese is frequently harangued by several others that think that it is one of the greatest foods ever invented. Why can't they leave him alone?

Why is it that we sometimes badger others over matters of simple preference? Humans seem to have a boundless capacity for failing to appreciate diversity of opinions about what ought to be mundane matters.

Perhaps our unrecognized insecurity makes differing points of view seem like a threat to our own thinking on a given matter. We are so subconsciously horrified by the idea that we might be wrong that we insist that others that don't adopt our views are misguided or even evil. This sentiment can regularly be seen among sports fans that support rival teams.

Rational people ought to be able to recognize that very rarely do any of us operate on anything close to perfect understanding on any matter. Even all of us together often lack a complete understanding most matters. We all have only bits and pieces of any issue well nailed down. Isn't it possible that different opinions often result from the blind men describing an elephant paradigm? In many (most?) cases humility should rule.


Of course, there are limits to the 'to each his own' line of thinking. While it may be perfectly acceptable for different people to prefer different automobile brands, musical styles, fields of study, clothing styles, hobbies, and occupations, it wouldn't do to consider a penchant for murdering other people to be an acceptable method of self expression. Those that inflict real harm on others must be dealt with.

But in many cases we insist on being tyrants over far lesser matters. Our perceived good intentions blind us to our own infringements on others. Christian thinker C.S. Lewis famously wrote:
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals."
It is one thing to invite others to willingly accept our views. It is quite another to insist that our views are so correct that others must alter their own thinking to conform with ours. Especially reprehensible is when we seek to enforce our views through coercive power. While there are certainly times when this is necessary (such as when locking up murderers), appeal to coercive control is far too often undertaken in cases where diversity of opinion and/or action ought to be accepted, even if it annoys us.

Regardless of how right we think we are and how much we think that our ideas would benefit and/or protect others, improper use of coercive action to get others to conform to our ideas constitutes unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39). Our desire to help others turns into an exercise of power. Why are we so blind to the insidiousness of our personal evil in such situations — even to the point of believing ourselves to be doing good as we act wickedly?

This is one of humanity's great deceits. It is the reverse of the Savior's pattern of inviting others to "come and follow me" (Matthew 19:21). And we all suffer from it on occasion. Sometimes we insist that such an approach is morally acceptable if we can get enough people to vote as we wish. We may fool ourselves, but might does not make right.

May each of us become more aware of the times we seek power over others, even (especially?) when we think we are doing it for their own good. And may we then choose better.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Could a Dynamic LDS Hymn Selection Enhance Worship?

As I wrote in this 2010 post, I very much enjoy many Mormon hymns. I also mentioned in that post that there are some songs in the LDS hymnal that I don't much care for. But mine is just one opinion among millions.

Although I don't currently serve in a church calling that directly involves music, I am often the go-to guy to substitute leading the music in meetings. I get to accompany on the piano with some regularity. And when all other options have fallen through, the opportunity to play the organ in sacrament meeting sometimes falls to me as the ward's unofficial fourth string organist.

Sometimes when I lead the music all I can see from the podium is a load of somber faces with about a third of them not even bothering to try to sing. Elder Dallin H. Oaks once described a similar experience. I try to be warm and enthusiastic when I lead the music, but some hymns don't evoke much passion.

This D-News article says that "The trend toward informal and entertaining and exuberant worship services ... continues to climb" in the US. The number of churches where "people jump, shout or dance during the main service" is steadily increasing. Not so much (if at all) among Mormons. Nor do I expect to see much variation in this pattern during my lifetime.

Latter-Day Saint worship services are firmly rooted in the church's early pioneer cultural heritage. Many early leaders and saints came from New England where puritanical protestantism reigned. Most of the early converts from outside of North America came from conservative northern European protestant cultures where solemnity was seen as properly pious behavior for worship services, while any type of exuberance in a worship setting was seen as a throwback to degenerate hedonistic paganism.

The patterns established by early saints continue to strongly influence Mormon meetings. Consequently, we Mormons don't get too excited about anything during our worship services. Although people claiming to have the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be the happiest people on the face of the earth, Mormon congregations tend not to look very happy during meetings. Or even very alert. Our music lends to this. But is it possible that we could see this pattern change somewhat in the future?

In this LDS Living article, well known entertainer and Mormon convert Gladys Knight (the "Empress of Soul") says, "Our congregations are filled with a growing diversity of people from different races and cultures. I look forward to the day when we embrace their music without feeling uncomfortable." When I read this I felt like uttering a soulful "Amen!" I'd love to see this happen.

There have long been some cultural variations in Mormon worship services around the globe. In Norway where I served as a missionary, congregations could sing The Spirit of God so sedately that one could easily doze off mid verse. While in Central America where my wife served, congregations tend to sing Secret Prayer with gusto.

Wouldn't it be great to see more cultural diversity encouraged in our worship patterns? One way this could happen is through our hymns. But the slow adoption of new hymns presents a significant roadblock to this goal. Our current LDS hymnal was released almost three decades ago. The previous hymnal was released three and a half decades earlier.

Last Sunday I didn't see a hymnbook nearby as we prepared to sing. So I whipped out my phone, pulled up a hymn app, and quickly navigated to the correct hymn. My daughter and I used the phone to sing. Given that the church has gone heavily into online and mobile multimedia, wouldn't it be relatively easy to release new hymns without waiting for a new hymnal to be published three times per century?

I realize that many church members do not have electronic devices that could display hymns. Some that have such gear can't fathom using it that way. And maybe it's too early to stock screen devices in chapels in highly developed regions, let alone in less developed areas. But maybe the church could try a pilot program, as it often does with other things. It seems like technology should allow our hymn repertoire to be much more dynamic than it is.

Besides, tech writer Bret Swanson tells us that within a decade we can expect iPhones to cost $3 apiece. Maybe we aren't that far away from the point where technological advance will make it cheaper to stock LDS chapels with electronic devices containing a vast array of church media than to stock the pews with hardbound hymnbooks.

A whole generation of hymns has been produced since our current LDS hymnal was published. Most new hymns to which I have been exposed still sit comfortably in the staid puritanical culture of early Mormon pioneers. Is it not possible to be appropriately worshipful outside of this narrow culture? I'd love to be exposed to Mormon hymns written from different cultural perspectives. Heck, I'd love to play and sing those hymns. Is there any good reason in this day and age that we should be limited to 341 hymns?

I realize that hymn singing is a joint cultural experience for members of a congregation. It is also likely true that the average Mormon congregant living where Mormon culture is most dense has strong familiarity with fewer than 50 hymns — the same songs we sing week after week. While this familiarity has value, so could the practice of learning and singing new hymns on a regular basis.

But even the possibilities that I have suggested fall short of Gladys Knight's vision. She sees Mormons generally embracing and being comfortable with worshipful music from the cultures of those joining our congregations around the world. Indeed, she sees diverse worshipful singing as a pathway to something closer to our celestial goal. How soon can we go there?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 Becomes a Foreign Country

"Dad, what's 9/11 all about?" my daughter asked me last night. I was a little stunned. Doesn't everyone understand this? Well, no.

My daughter's oldest siblings were old enough to have some grasp of what was going on that fateful day. Her immediately older siblings have picked it up through social osmosis. Having been born after the event, my daughter doesn't quite understand it. I suspect she will never get it in quite the same way as those of my generation.

Sept. 11, 2001 was an incredibly poignant day. I will never forget it. The day started out normal. The report of the first airplane striking one of the World Trade Center towers was announced on the radio during our commute to work as most of us in the car dozed. We turned up the radio and listened as they reported the second aircraft striking another tower.

We went through the workday in a daze, not getting much work done. Nobody knew for sure what was going on. People were glued to the internet and to the TVs in the break room. More attacks. The Pentagon was hit by a plane. A plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The first tower fell around lunchtime. The second just before we left work.

Not much was said as we rode home listening to the radio. What was there to say? I remember the somber mood, the sense of helplessness, and the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The next morning American flags were flying on houses and businesses everywhere as we made our way to work, but these displays evoked little joy. We knew more, but we still felt confused, dark, hurt, angry, and powerless.

The following year scout troops in the area erected American flags throughout their neighborhoods on 9/11. I had mixed feelings about it at the time. I understood that it was a demonstration of American resolve, but it could easily be seen as a commemoration of the terrorist attacks. Why on earth would we want to celebrate such evil deeds?

Much has happened since then as our country has tried to come to grips with the reality that was roughly thrust upon us that day 13 years ago. In hindsight I have many problems with the responsive actions that have been undertaken. As each year has passed I have noticed steadily fewer American flags being flown on 9/11.

This is not without fairly recent historical precedence. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 (which became the main proximate inducement for US involvement in WWII), many people observed 12/7 for years. But observance had fallen off to a polite mention by the time I was a school child a quarter century later. I was in junior high before I gained any context on the matter.

This is as it must be. We study history to gain context that we hope will allow us to better govern our future. We study history not only to better understand our predecessors, but to better understand ourselves. We crave to know who we are and why we are who we are. We hope that the past can give us some insight into that.

But it has been observed that the past is a foreign country that none of us can ever visit. We will forever be outsiders looking in. Also, our study of the past is almost always interrupted by real time events imposing themselves upon us. History necessarily takes a back seat to the immediate moment where our lives are lived.

Besides, William E. White of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation tells us in this article that "There is no truth to the adage that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. We can never repeat history. The unique combination of people, place, time, conditions and opportunity will never occur again in the same way." We can, however, learn from history, even if, as White reminds us, the interpretation of history is always up for debate.

I was trying to think of a clever way to say that 9/11 fading into history is a good thing in a way. But that's about the same thing as saying that it has both pros and cons. And that's kind of an inane thing to say. The event will fade into history as the natural order of things. It's not necessarily good or bad; it just is.

And while I will never forget experiencing that fateful day, my memories are now informed by 13 years of additional context that alter my perception of those memories.

Last night I (with help from two of my other children) gave my daughter a 60-second explanation of what 9/11 was all about. There was no time for a deeper history lesson, nor was she asking for such. I hope to give her more context with time. But like others with no first person memory of the event, 9/11 for her will forever be a foreign country that she will never visit.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Doing LDS Scouting the Right Way

Mac McIntire addresses some profound truths in this LDS-BSA Relationships post. I encourage all to read the relatively short post because paraphrasing or repeating part of it is simply inadequate.

Brother McIntire tells how, after two stints as ward Young Men president, he still had little use for the Scouting program, which officially is the activity arm of the YM organization in the LDS Church. Why not just run a program similar to what the Young Women do?

When Br. McIntire shared his thoughts with his bishop, the good bishop responded, "Brother McIntire, maybe the prophet knows something you don’t know about Scouting. Maybe you should pray about it and find out why Scouting is the Lord’s program for the young men."

You will want to read what happened when a humbled Br. McIntire followed his bishop's counsel. Suffice it to say, Br. McIntire now loves Scouting. He offers this challenge: "I encourage you to pray for a testimony of Scouting. Pray to know what the prophets know. Pray to know what I now know."

The anti-Scouting sentiment that Br. McIntire once felt seems to be quite common among LDS Church members in North America. Even — perhaps especially — among men called to serve in the YM organization. Given that Scouting is a prophetic priority, perhaps we would do well to humbly consider what the root source of these unfavorable opinions might be.

In this July 2014 Ensign article, Christopher M. Grimes discusses the challenges he faced after being called to serve as Varsity coach, following his service as bishop. His initial experiences seem to echo what I wrote in this May 2012 post about how poorly Varsity Scouting is currently implemented in many LDS units.

Br. Grimes tells how his "eyes were opened" by becoming properly trained and working to implement the Varsity program instead of reinventing the wheel every week. He found that his love for each young man he served grew immensely. He writes, "Scout training made my calling 10 times easier, and we had 10 times the results."

I suppose that the main reason that some men in YM and bishopric positions fail to properly implement the Scouting programs is that they think it will be too hard — much harder than throwing together their own program. They think the benefit won't be worth the cost. This line of thinking is a diabolical deception from the adversary.

The Lord has put together a program that is designed to produce the best outcomes for our young men. The Lord promises to help and even carry us as we follow his plan. When we follow our own alternative plan we are on our own and have no such promise from the Lord (see D&C 82:10). Br. Grimes discovered this when he found that following the Scouting program was much easier and produced far superior results than following his own program.

I have seen a lot of mediocre LDS Scouting (see October 2007 post, June 2009 post) and a lot of Scouting done the wrong way (see February 2013 post). But I have also seen LDS Scouting done well (see October 2011 post, November 2011 post). Let me tell you that there is a world of difference between the two. No, there is an eternity of difference between the two for many of the young men that are served by the program.

I echo Br. McIntire's invitation. Seek your own testimony of God's prophetic priority for young men. Then work to implement that priority. You will be blessed as you do so.

Friday, September 05, 2014

What Will Your Obituary Photo Look Like?

Do you ever wonder what your obituary photo will look like? (See Pickles comic #1, Pickles comic #2.) Maybe, like my dad, you simply don't care. His philosophy was that posthumous cultural practices are for the benefit of the living, so he refused to give much thought to things like his obituary and funeral.

I have noticed that obituary photos tend to come in several varieties that might be represented by a grid that looks something like this:

Recent
A Few Years Old
Very Old
Mix of New/Old
High Quality





Average Quality




Low Quality





Obituary photos tend to fit into one of the boxes in this grid. When it comes to quality, some are awful (grainy or just a horrible shot) at one end of the scale and some are professional and polished at the other end. When it comes to age, some are recent while others come from a high school graduation that occurred 65 years earlier.

Occasionally I wonder why some survivors publish such lousy pictures of their deceased loved ones. It could be that the loved one was not very loved. Or maybe they were like a friend's uncle who increasingly detested photos of himself as he became older and grouchier; so much so that the most recent photo his family could find after he passed was about two decades old. Even then it was a lousy photo where someone had captured the man unawares. I guess the fellow brought his dreadful obituary photo on himself.

I suppose that more often people just get out of the habit of having professional photos taken as they age. They tend to get family photos while the kids are at home. And they can't escape being in their kids' wedding photos. Many get photos with the clan when the grandkids are young. But later in life they just don't do it anymore. This seems to be especially true during widowhood. This leaves survivors with a smaller selection of photos to pick from.

Another situation that occurs is when family members have been so focused on caring for a loved one in failing health that any thought of an obituary photo comes only after the decease. Sometimes the belongings of the decedent are stored in such a way (often due to end of life moves) that no one can find any of their good photos.

Maybe the problem will be completely reversed when members of today's selfie generation reach their demise. Survivors will have way too many photos to choose from. Of course, despite technological advances, I have seen precious few selfies that would be of the nature and quality that most folks would want to display in an obituary. So the selection might be abundant but dubious. I also wonder how well enthusiasm for taking selfies will be sustained as today's youth advance into their elder years.

It is not uncommon to see photos posted from an era that nobody living can remember. Why do people do that? Many friends and family that look at the picture have no idea who it is.

When Dad passed away, Mom decided that she wanted a picture that reminded her of when they first met along with a more recent photo. That kind of thing is done regularly as well. We had a professional photo that had been taken not long before Dad got sick. The young adult photo, however, was a problem because Mom wanted the one from Dad's passport when he emigrated from Germany to the US. The photo had some flaws (a rivet and a stamp). My brother scanned the photo and sent it to a guy he knew that was a Photoshop guru. It came back a few hours later looking pristine.

None of us wants to think much about our eventual demise. But the fact remains that the Grim Reaper will get each of us eventually. You can make it a lot easier for your survivors by getting decent photos taken of yourself on at least a somewhat regular basis. Share those photos with anyone that you think might be part of deciding what to do about your obituary. You might also want to share anything you want (or don't want) in your obituary to avoid ending up with questionable text.

Or just let it roll. You never know what kind of entertaining material your survivors might come up with.