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:

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.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Temples and Tender Mercies

"It had been a couple of years since I had been to the temple," the sister said. "But I had been working with the Bishop and had finally gotten a new temple recommend."

This sister had raised her hand to volunteer to respond to an invitation by the Bishop in his fifth Sunday lesson for ward members to discuss special feelings they had experienced while attending the temple. I knew that it took courage for this sister to talk about this. She has seen significant trials and challenges in her life. Quite honestly, I have for the most part done nothing to help, having no idea what I could do that would be beneficial.

Being that our local temple has been closed for renovation, this sister ended up going to a nearby temple that she had never previously attended. She arrived early to make sure that she could manage parking and getting ready for the session on time. Things went smoothly, providing her ample time to sit quietly in the chapel listening to the reverent organ music.

"I sat there alone. It's okay, I didn't really feel a need to have anyone with me. I've gotten used to it," she said, alluding to some of the family challenges she continues to face. She had told no one outside of her immediate family about her plan to attend the temple that day. She explained how the Bishop had told her to pray for and to expect to receive a tender mercy from the Lord while in the temple.

"As people were filtering into the chapel," she said, "in walked my visiting teacher, the one person that has been with me and stood by me through all of my trials over the past few years. She came and sat by me, saying that she was surprised to see me at that session. She said that she usually didn't go to that session but had come with some other sisters that wanted to attend that session."

The sister said, "I wondered why the Lord had sent this good sister to sit by my side. I didn't really feel a need to have someone with me. But then I recognized that it was a tender mercy from the Lord. It was his way of showing me that he loves me and cares about me individually, despite all that I have gone through."

So many wonderful lessons can be derived from this sister's brief comments.
  • There is value in making changes necessary to receive a temple recommend.
  • The temple allows for reverent worship apart from the concerns of the world.
  • How much more meaningful can temple service be if we attend with the prayerful expectation to receive a tender mercy from the Lord?
  • Perhaps we can even be part of providing a tender mercy for another if we are in tune with the Holy Spirit.
  • It is always valuable to know within our souls how much the Lord loves us, even when we don't feel like we deserve his love.
It was a tender mercy for me to hear this sister share her experience. I know that I will be more purposeful the next time I go to the temple.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

You Know You're Officially Old When ...

Although I was once chubby and out of shape, two and a half decades of daily exercise and careful nutrition have left me in pretty darn fine shape, if I do say so myself. Especially for a guy my age that has Multiple Sclerosis.

And yet, I cannot escape the fact that I am slowing down. I can't push as much weight as once was the case and I have somewhat less stamina than I did just a couple of years ago. It's not that I haven't been aware of this slowly creeping decline. But last Saturday morning it kind of whacked me over the head.

We were walking across the lawn at a city park when my 14-year-old son challenged me to race him to our vehicle, which was about 100 yards away. He had already started jogging by the time he completed issuing the challenge.

I figured the short foot race would be no problem. After all, this is the kid that seems to studiously avoid any form of exercise. He generally refrains from running due to a lifelong knee problem. But he also seems to avoid walking even one step farther than absolutely necessary.

Being a generous dad, I started running somewhat half heartedly, allowing my son to get a little head start. After all, I wouldn't want him to lose too badly. Then I poured on steam and began sprinting. Noticing me gaining, my son surprisingly added a burst of speed to his stride as well.

At this point I could see that my son would beat me unless I gave it my all, so I surged into a full-out sprint. I was further dismayed when my son found yet more spare speed. He not only kept his lead; he increased it. I think I must have looked like Wile E. Coyote watching the Roadrunner tearing up the road and leaving the confounded canine in his wake.

I was proud of my son. But I must admit that the episode hurt my pride a bit. It reminded me that Old Man Time will take his toll regardless of what steps I take to stave him off. Gollum's final riddle to Bilbo in The Hobbit has repeatedly come to mind since then:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
Yes, time will take its toll. But I'm not ready to start using a walker just yet. I'm still in pretty good shape. Even if my knee has hurt ever since the race.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why I Don't Collect Stuff ... Except for When I Do

Like most people, I have a number of mementos that are somewhat significant to me. But honestly, I have never quite understood the collector mentality. It's not that I never appreciate collections people have accumulated; I just haven't been able to adequately fathom the inner pull they feel to collect.

I'm not talking about unplanned collections. I have plenty of that kind of thing. Some of it is stuff I hold onto with the thought that it might come in handy someday. Of course, when those rare days arrive, even more rare are the times that I can locate the item I supposedly have stashed away for just such an occasion. Other collections accumulate simply because I have yet to muster sufficient industry to donate or throw the stuff out.

It's the purposeful collections that intrigue me. This Wikipedia article says, "Collections allow people to relive their childhood, connect themselves to a period in history or time they feel strongly about, to ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves, and to keep the past present." We can trust this commentary because we all know that everything Wikipedia says is the absolute truth.

As a kid I was impressed by my aunt's curio cabinet that was filled with numerous interesting salt and pepper shakers that she had acquired over the years. I could spend oodles of time just gazing at the quirky cornucopia whenever we visited. Which was probably a good thing, because there wasn't much else to do in the small town on the windswept Wyoming plains where she lived.

Although I was fascinated by the salt and pepper shaker collection, part of me couldn't help but think of it as just so much junk taking up space in her cramped home. The utilitarian part of my brain figured that nobody would ever use the things for their supposed main purpose anyway.

During my teen years I became very active in Scouting. Most know that patch collecting has played a significant role in Scouting since the early years of the movement. At one point I started to recognize that patches had varying values depending on supply and demand. I collected a number of patches during my teen and young adult years. And then the patches sat in a drawer.

I have continued to get more patches over the years of my Scouting involvement, but each patch has had decreasing meaning for me. I have attended and volunteered at so many Scouting events that it all kind of blurs together. A friend of mine tells me that he keeps patches to remind him of events and people. Oddly, very few patches do that for me. So I don't do much in the way of patch collecting anymore. I have given away most of the patches I once owned.

Over the years I have received a number of framed Scouting honors. I suppose I could display this collection on the wall of my office. But instead the awards are stashed in boxes in the crawl space. While it is nice to be honored, I don't participate in Scouting for the honors. I do it with the hope that my service will end up helping young men the way I was helped by the Scouting program during my youth — kind of a pay-it-forward approach.

A friend of mine collects historical Scouting memorabilia. He is stunned by some of the "historical" stuff that I have allowed to escape my grasp. "You don't throw away history," he says. "History helps us know where we came from and who we are." I understand this sentiment, but I just can't bring myself to do the collection thing.

It's not that I have no collections of historical stuff. On the other hand, our 35-year-old hand-me-down freeze dried food storage might fail to qualify as a useful historical collection. Maybe it just takes more time. Give it another 200 years and it might have archaeological value.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

LDS Caffeine Wars

The grandmotherly woman made no attempt to hide the disdain in her voice as she mentioned a recent encounter with her oldest son — a man with his own family — at a local grocery store. "He had a two-liter bottle of Coke (fully caffeinated version implied) in his hand," she complained. "He tried to hide it behind his leg!"

Knowing this man to be a trim fellow, I imagined to myself that his leg provided scant camouflage for the large bottle of dark colored liquid. The woman continued, "When I told him not to bother trying to hide it, he said, 'Well, it's not all for me.' as if that made any difference! He knows better; he was raised differently. But he says that the church says that caffeine is accepted under the Word of Wisdom."

Word of Wisdom Basics
You can skip this section if you're not interested.
The church mentioned is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Church members are often called Mormons, a reference to the Book of Mormon, which accompanies the Bible as one of the religion's sacred texts. The Word of Wisdom refers to a revelation about health practices received by prophet and church founder Joseph Smith in 1833.

The Word of Wisdom offers both positive and negative counsel.
  • Don't use "wine or strong drink" (D&C 89:5), "tobacco" (D&C 89:8), or "hot drinks" (D&C 89:9), which is interpreted by church leaders to mean coffee and tea. Church leaders have subsequently added drug abuse to the list of don'ts.
  • Do use "wholesome herbs" (D&C 89:10-11) and certain grains (D&C 89:14,16-17).
  • Straddling both do and don't categories is the counsel to eat "flesh of beasts and of the fowls of the air ... sparingly," chiefly in times of need (D&C 89:12-13,15). Another revelation, however, pointedly says that anyone that tells people to never eat such flesh "is not ordained of God" (D&C 49:18-19).
Blessings promised to those that follow these principles include greater health, stamina, wisdom, and avoidance of destruction than would otherwise be the case (D&C 89:18-21).

You can skip this section if you're not interested.
For the record, Mormons have had a tortured relationship with the Word of Wisdom from the outset. While the scant 558 words of the revelation are "adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints" (D&C 89:3), the revelation was "sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint" (D&C 89:2).

Given that the revelation was an invitation and not a commandment, adherence to its principles were varied. As explained in this Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, "Compliance with [the Word of Wisdom's] teachings was sporadic from the late 1830s until the early years of the twentieth century. The Church encouraged leaders to be an example to the people in abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee; but no binding Church policy was articulated during this time."

Evidence suggests that many early Mormons thought that the approved "mild drinks" made of barley mentioned in D&C 89:17 included beer, which was generally not seen in the same light as wine or alcoholic spirits. In the years following the revelation Joseph Smith is known to have moderately enjoyed beer with some regularity as well as an occasional glass of wine, while generally eschewing harder liquors.

Interpretations of the Word of Wisdom have changed over time, as has official church treatment of the doctrine. The EoM article cited states:
"The prohibition movement, spearheaded by the Protestant Evangelical churches in America, focused on alcohol consumption as a political rather than a moral issue. The movement intensified the Church's interest in the Word of Wisdom. There is evidence that Church Presidents John Taylor, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant wanted to promote adherence to the Word of Wisdom as a precondition for entering LDS temples or holding office in any Church organization; and indeed, by 1930 abstinence from the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea had become an official requirement for those seeking temple recommends. While abstinence from these substances is now required for temple attendance and for holding priesthood offices or other Church callings, no other ecclesiastical sanctions are imposed on those who do not comply with the Word of Wisdom."
My grandfather's chain smoking habit did not prevent him from being baptized in 1934. Nowadays abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and drug abuse is required prior to baptism, although, church leaders recognize that some new members may struggle with these substances for some time after joining the church. Abstinence must be more stable to receive a temple recommend or to serve in a responsible church position.

While some church leaders have counseled greater attention to the other dietary provisions in the Word of Wisdom, these "aspects of the Word of Wisdom have not received the stress that the abstinence portions have" and "no distinctive dietary practices have emerged that distinguish Mormons from non-Mormons" (EoM).

Adherence to the abstinence provisions mentioned above has succeeded in "setting the Latter-day Saints apart as a people" but has not led to "sanctifying the daily consumption of food by providing divine directions to guide practice" as is the case with Jewish tradition (Getting Into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom by Dr. A. Jane Birch). More on this in a bit.

Caffeine Conundrum
The EoM article about the Word of Wisdom states:
"With the appearance of cola drinks in the early 1900s, the Church was confronted with cold beverages containing caffeine, a harmful substance believed to make coffee and tea unacceptable. While no official Church position has been stated, leaders have counseled members to avoid caffeine and other addictive chemicals."
It easy to see how the connection from coffee and tea to caffeinated soft drinks was made:
  1. Coffee and tea have a lot of caffeine.
  2. Therefore, the reason the Word of Wisdom prohibits coffee and tea is because they contain caffeine.
  3. Therefore, soft drinks that contain caffeine are also prohibited by the Word of Wisdom.
The problem here is that assumption #2 may be faulty. Caffeine content may not have anything to do with the prohibition on coffee and tea. We don't really know for sure without more revelation on the subject.

Even prophets are entitled to their own opinions and they may voice those opinions without invoking prophesy (see Jeff Lindsay's erudite essay). Thus, when Gordon B. Hinckley during his tenure as president of the church said that Mormons should avoid caffeine and that he thought that no one needed to consume caffeinated soft drinks, he stopped well short of saying that this was official church doctrine.

The fact is that throughout my life some church leaders and members have insisted that consumption of caffeinated soft drinks violates the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom, while others (including men sustained as prophets) have felt otherwise.

Church Statement on Caffeine
On August 29, 2012 (some 4½ years after the passing of Pres. Hinckley), the LDS Church's official newsroom blog published a post that said, "the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine" and that the reference to "hot drinks" "does not go beyond [tea and coffee]" (see LDS Living article).

The following day the post was updated to read that "the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee."

Neither of these statements can be interpreted as an endorsement of caffeinated soft drinks. Rather, they seem to clarify that no one is presently authorized to suggest that consumption of such soft drinks is prohibited by church doctrine. This means that how a church member regards the consumption of such drinks is largely a matter of personal interpretation.

What Should Church Members Do About Caffeine Use?
Some will note that church leaders have advised against the use of addictive substances. They will rationalize that since caffeine has known addictive properties (even if these properties are generally mild), it should be strictly avoided. (See Dec 2008 Ensign article for example.) This is a valid rational response. Where it crosses the line is where someone decides that since they have decided to avoid caffeine, those that fail to do likewise are entangled in sin.

(Church leaders may, however, determine that a member's caffeine abuse is problematic. Consider this Dec 2008 New Era article. Any addiction has negative spiritual consequences.)

As with other doctrinally unspecified matters that might have something to do with one's relationship to God and fellow humans, church members should employ sound judgment and personal spiritual guidance to determine their own policy on caffeinated soft drinks. And they should generally butt out of other people's decisions on the matter.

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul's many writings regarding dietary matters. Consider his discussions in Romans 14:2-3, 13, 15 and in 1 Corinthians 8. In essence he says:
  • Those that think their diet follows a higher spiritual law are weaker in the Spirit.
  • Neither those eating a stricter diet nor those eating a more liberal diet should despise or judge the other.
  • If you know that your diet causes another spiritual challenges, charity demands that you make adjustments.
These principles can easily be applied to caffeinated soft drinks. Or refined grains. Or sugar. Or salt. Or fat. Or five vegetables a day. Or meat. Or desserts. Or whatever.
  • Eat and drink what you honestly feel to be right for you within actual church doctrinal specifications and according the best human knowledge.
  • If you think your diet adheres to a higher spiritual law than others that are also following the statement in the previous bullet point, you are likely spiritually weak. Start doing more of those things that bolster spiritual strength.
  • Don't judge another to be inferior due to his/her dietary decisions.
  • Make adjustments if you know your diet is causing spiritual problems in the lives of others.
Dietary Sanctification
This section makes a related point. Skip it if you're not interested.
As mentioned in the history/analysis section, Dr. A. Jane Birch suggests that general neglect of the Word of Wisdom's non-mandatory dietary guidelines means that the LDS Church's health code "presently [does] not work to sanctify the daily food consumption for most Latter-day Saints" (Mormon Interpreter article).

Using quotes from LDS historian Paul Peterson, Birch seems to long for an LDS approach to daily dietary habits along the lines of the approach taken by traditionally orthodox Jews. While the benefits listed sound wonderful, Birch quietly elides any mention of the darker side of the type of dietary strictness she promotes.

The first four gospels in the New Testament are chock full of episodes where the Savior shreds Pharisaical approaches to religious life. Nor are the various apostles in the New Testament shy about slamming such approaches. While Birch imagines a pure and holy approach to diet, human nature dictates that many would fall into the same traps as those criticized by New Testament writers.

There is no shortage of church members today that would love for church leaders to spell out specifically sanctioned behaviors in countless areas of life, including diet. Appropriate use of guard rails is necessary, but too many guard rails overly limit choice. Such an agency limiting system would further the cause that the adversary championed in the pre-earth life.

Perhaps the reason that church leaders have been careful to leave many facets of the Word of Wisdom up to personal judgment is that they don't want to limit agency. Maybe they are prudently avoiding the tumult of words and strife that would ensue in the face of such firm declarations. If you don't think this would happen, perhaps you should simply survey the state of debate among church members on the point of caffeinated soft drinks and multiply that dispute by many thousands.

In reality, whether to drink caffeinated soda pop is a rather minor matter that is far from the scale of things that are eternally important, such as love of God and love of our fellow beings. Yet we bicker about our strong opinions on the matter while eating at church functions desserts laden with substances that some scientists say are much more addictive than caffeine. Who do you think is behind that kind of contention? (See 3 Nephi 11:29 for an answer.)

The gospel does not demand that we avoid caffeinated soft drinks. Your reason and even the Spirit may tell you to abstain from such drinks. But that doesn't give you the right to demand that others likewise constrain themselves. Nor does it give you the right to suggest that someone is sinful when they choose to drink Pepsi or Dr. Pepper. It doesn't even give you the right to feel a little bit superior to them.

The mom that was upset with her adult son for drinking Coke was likely mostly feeling that he was betraying the teachings she had given him during his childhood. She felt hurt that he was going against the family culture as she understood it. From his point of view, he likely felt that he was being shamed like a little child for making an informed decision about something of no significant spiritual consequence.

This leads my thinking back to the Apostle Paul's main point with respect to diet: Charity, which "is the pure love of Christ" (Moroni 7:45-48). Application of charity may not be easy for people on either side of the caffeine debate. But it is infinitely more important than whether one drinks caffeinated soft drinks or not.

When it comes to choosing contention about caffeine (or any other matter) or choosing charity, you will never go wrong by choosing charity.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Inviting the Companionship of the Holy Spirit

Back in my school days I knew a couple of guys in the grade ahead of me that were friends with each other. G was a great guy that hailed from cowboy country. He was outgoing and was friendly even to kids like me that were younger. G was generally pretty good, but it wasn't unheard of for him to be involved in some of the standard teenage mischief that went on.

T was also a great guy. I don't know anyone that didn't like him. Unlike G, he was quiet. But he was no wallflower. From the time I knew him back in elementary school, it was apparent that T was a genuinely good soul. He seemed to be naturally free of guile. Without the slightest hint of self righteousness, he was the kind of guy that was incompatible with mischief. It simply was not in his nature.

In speaking with G recently, I discovered that he and T have remained close friends throughout their adult lives. When I commented about my impression of T as being without guile, G told me something that resonated well with me.

T, said G, was (and still is) like the Holy Ghost. When their group of friends would cook up something that might involve a hint of rascality, T didn't make a big deal out of it or seem prudish; he just didn't show up. When the time came to let down their hair, T was nowhere to be found.

Since T was a quiet guy, G and his group of friends would sometimes not even miss T during these types of activities. Occasionally someone would notice and would wonder why T was not in attendance. In hindsight, G realized that T was not in attendance whenever a planned activity was inconsistent with T's character.

After a while, G decided that he wanted to do everything he could to spend more time with T. G wanted to engage in activities that were consistent with T's nature because he always felt good and right when he did so. G noticed that things just naturally turned out better when he followed this pattern.

The Holy Ghost works similarly. He is quiet and unobtrusive. He may almost go unnoticed, but we tend feel good and right when he is around. When we determine to engage in activities that are inconsistent with divine nature, the Holy Ghost won't make a fuss about it; he simply won't show up. We will engage in those activities without the benefit of his company.

Those that have made covenants with God to be willing to take upon themselves the name of Christ, keep his commandments, and always remember him are promised the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost (see Moroni 4:3, 5:2). This is one of God's greatest gifts to us (see Gospel Principles chapter 21, scroll to One of God's Greatest Gifts).

But we can turn away this gift if we choose thoughts or actions that are inconsistent with the character of the Holy Spirit. As your truest friend, the Holy Ghost will gladly (but quietly) accompany you whenever you let him.

How much do you want the Holy Ghost to spend time with you? The choice is up to you.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

You Can Help Prevent Suicide

Much has been said in the wake of the suicide of Robin Williams. Some very unfortunate things have been said with the intention of extending comfort to those left behind, perhaps without realizing that these sentiments might encourage others contemplating suicide to complete the act. Some very callous things have been said with the aim of condemning the act of self murder.

Probably some of what has been said has been a response to grief. We all likely feel some grief over Williams' tragic death, since he touched so many lives. Common responses to grief include shock, numbness, sadness, irritability, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, yearning, emancipation, and relief. So it is understandable that people have responded in so many different ways.

I believe there are some useful things that can be garnered from this tragedy. Those times when we are tempted to believe that fame and/or wealth constitute the key to happiness, we can reflect on the myriads of famous and/or wealthy people that have lived unhappy lives out of public view (or even in public view). Williams joins a long list of celebrities and wealthy people that have committed suicide. Happiness must be derived from more meaningful sources than fame and fortune.

Depression is poorly understood by the general populace. I have gained much more understanding about depression since my son first exhibited suicidal tendencies a couple of years ago. (Click here to see a somewhat humorous attempt to help people understand mental illness better.) Some say that depression is more of an emptiness than a sadness.

Besides emptiness and hopelessness, symptoms of depression can include "depressed mood (sadness), poor concentration, insomnia, fatigue, appetite disturbances, excessive guilt and thoughts of suicide." Symptoms can come and go; they may last for months or years. Depression affects people across all demographics.

Effective treatments are available for people experiencing depression. Proper treatment doesn't mean that these individuals won't still struggle with the disease. It means that it can become manageable for them.

The trouble is that the disease can be fickle and treatment must flex accordingly. Those suffering from major depression are not always able to rationally or objectively judge when their treatment is adequate, especially when the pain gets to the point that ending one's own life seems like a viable solution.

The vast majority of people that contemplate suicide can be helped. This often requires others to recognize when someone is suicidal or on the road to being so. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, those at highest risk for suicide include people:
  • With mental disorders (including substance abuse issues).
  • That have previously attempted suicide.
  • With a family history of attempted or completed suicide.
  • Dealing with a serious medical condition and/or pain.
  • That have experienced a highly stressful life event.
  • Experiencing long term stress.
  • That have been exposed to the suicide of another.
  • With access to lethal methods at a time of increased risk.

Williams had a long history of grappling with substance abuse. His wife now says that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. That put him squarely in the population of those at higher risk for suicide.

But even those that don't fit readily into any of these categories can experience depression and have suicidal tendencies. That's why it is important for people in general to be aware of symptoms of impending suicide. These include:
  • Talking about wanting to kill themselves, or saying they wish they were dead.
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun.
  • Talking about a specific suicide plan.
  • Feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Feeling trapped, desperate, or needing to escape from an intolerable situation.
  • Having the feeling of being a burden to others.
  • Feeling humiliated.
  • Having intense anxiety and/or panic attacks.
  • Losing interest in things, or losing the ability to experience pleasure.
  • Insomnia.
  • Becoming socially isolated and withdrawn from friends, family, and others.
  • Acting irritable or agitated.
  • Showing rage, or talking about seeking revenge for being victimized or rejected, whether or not the situations the person describes seem real.
  • Settling affairs, giving away important items, or otherwise making end of life preparations.
  • Suddenly seeming to be relieved after a period of being down.

The AFSP says, "If someone you know shows the warning signs above, the time to act is now." Ask questions to find out what they experiencing and what they are planning. "Do not try to argue [or guilt] someone out of suicide. Instead, let them know that you care, that they are not alone and that they can get help." Get professional help. "Take the person to a walk-in clinic at a psychiatric hospital or a hospital emergency room." Call 911 or the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

These steps may seem drastic. But if they can save a life, they are worth it. The moment our son mentioned his suicidal thoughts we calmly (at least we acted outwardly calm) got professional help. Most people that contemplate suicide mention it to someone. If that someone is you, do what is necessary to save a life.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Back Country Carelessness Courtesy of Poorly Trained LDS BSA Leaders

I spent portions of last week grumbling about some of the priesthood leaders in my ward (congregation). Although Latter-Day Saints should refrain from speaking evil about the priesthood leaders they sustain, nowhere in LDS doctrine does it say that these leaders are infallible. It can be entirely appropriate to recognize imperfections in leaders. But depending on how one goes about doing that determines whether one is being helpful or subversive.

In North America, the activity arm of the LDS young men organization (for ages 12-18) is constituted of Boy Scouts of America units sponsored by the church. As is broadly the case throughout LDS Church units in North America, few of the men serving in young men leadership positions in my ward have adequate BSA training for the positions they hold. Although I have many levels of BSA training, I have lived in this culture long enough to be relatively unfazed by this situation.

As discussed in this June 2009 post, the fallout of mandatory BSA membership for LDS young men includes poorly trained leaders.
Few newly called LDS Scouting leaders bother to get much training in the program, even when training is broadly available. Most consider such training yet another drain on their precious time. Their church leaders rarely require it of them, since they are just happy to have adults that will show up at weekly activity nights most of the time. Many LDS Scouting leaders know nothing about BSA safety policies. Many that know about the policies don’t care about them. The rules simply seem too onerous.
LDS Ward bishoprics rarely get adequate BSA training because they already have a lot of other duties on their plates. Besides, many of these bishopric and young men leaders grew up with scouting leaders that had little or no BSA training. They tend to believe that they turned out alright despite this lack of trained leaders and they tend to model the pattern they saw in those untrained leaders.

First I grumbled because Son #3, who is the best hiker in the family, was very nonplussed about going on yet another 50-mile backpacking trip in the High Uintas. For the third summer in a row. Although he is a good hiker, he couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't any other kind of activity available. Or at least some other venue. Hiking in the High Uintas almost always means bountiful rain. Couldn't they try hiking in a desert region? Or maybe a float trip? Or cycling? Or some other kind of adventure?

The first mistake here is a failure to understand the main purposes of BSA (and LDS young men) high adventure activities. The goal isn't simply to complete a super activity. It is for the boys to develop and exercise leadership and to discover that they can accomplish worthwhile goals that require group cooperation and serious individual stretching. While the last of these goals might be achieved by a 50-mile backpacking trip, the first (and perhaps more important) goal of developing leadership is largely forfeited when adults make the plan.

Nor is it good enough for adults to present two or three options and ask the boys which of these they want to do. The boys themselves need to develop the ideas and plans if you want them to become the kind of leaders our country and the church will need in the future. Doing the heavy lifting of deciding, planning, and execution robs the youth of the basis they will need when they are called to be mission district or zone leaders, or members of an elders quorum presidency. Do you really want them to come up empty handed in those future situations?

Involving the boys at the root level of activity leadership requires a lot of hard work and messiness. It can be much harder for the adults than coming up with plans on their own. But the adults are only there to support, guide without taking over, provide perspective, and ensure safety.

And there's my second point of complaint. Our young men adult leaders managed to bring the boys home from last week's hike without major safety incidents by sheer luck and perhaps divine intervention. Several of these men are experienced outdoorsmen, but none of them have adequate BSA back country training, including training in back country first aid and emergency response.

While Son #3 is a great hiker and an intelligent young man, he suffers from a certain level of topographical/spatial orientation dysfunction. We have called him our wandering child since he could walk. Getting lost is one of the things at which he excels. The BSA trains leaders to always implement the buddy system when taking boys anywhere, especially into the back country. But untrained leaders either know nothing of the buddy system or see no reason to implement it.

I learned through a secondary source yesterday that Son #3 became lost in the back country during the trip — not once, but twice! Although no one (including my teenage son) has yet divulged any details, I am told that both occurrences were quite harrowing. You'd think that after the first time, leaders would have strictly implemented the buddy system. I'm grateful that my son returned safely. But I am chagrined that our leaders apparently were unable to implement one of the BSA's most basic rules of back country safety. It seems like our son's safety was more a matter of luck than competence.

(Note: It is fair game to ask why, knowing of my son's deficiency, I didn't go along on the hike to keep him safe. For one thing, I have a new job with very little leave. For another, my son has safely completed a number of backpacking hikes without me being there. Our best guess was that this time would be no different. In fairness to the leaders of this year's expedition, they probably made similar assumptions.)

When I wondered if the adults in their wisdom would make yet another foray into the High Uintas next summer our son cheerfully reported that they had already planned to take the boys to southern Utah next year. While he is happy about this prospect, I see yet another activity hatched by the adults. The boys will once again play a minimal role in planning and executing the event. They will be only participants rather than leaders.

I know that I hope in vain for my boys' young men leaders to become trained in ways that would drastically improve the scouting program for the boys in our ward. I don't really expect that to happen. Each of these guys is a very good man. They are busy juggling life's demands and I am glad that they take time to serve my boys. But I can't help but wonder how much better their service could be if they would get trained.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Musical Miracle

A couple of months ago my oldest son accepted an assignment to prepare a musical number for sacrament meeting at church. He had an idea for a medley of hymns that a quartet would sing. He could hear it in his head, so he figured it wouldn't be too hard to pull it together.

Real life often intrudes on our private plans. Son #1 determined that it was in his best interest to attend summer semester at school so that he could wrap up his associates degree and move directly into the metallurgical engineering program at a different university. As schooling demands sharpened, the musical number slid to the back burner.

I gather that Son #1 was also waiting for his musically talented brother to return from serving a mission so that he could draft him into the assignment. Son #2 returned. But he had his own ideas for what he wanted to do during his first few days back home.

I thought about just letting the musical number flop. After all, we could sing a rest hymn in sacrament meeting instead of having a musical number. Son #1 is not a forceful guy. He often takes a soft touch approach. Sometimes it is so soft that others don't realize that he is trying to get them to do something. Thus, his attempts to get everyone together to practice produced minimal results.

Finally, the day before the musical number was to be performed, I exercised a little leadership and pulled together Son #1 and Son #3. To my chagrin, I found that Son #2 had plans to attend the wedding of a friend. He didn't get home until very late that night.

With the performance being the next day, we dispensed with medleys and lovely arrangements, opting instead for a simple hymn with a couple of variations. When it comes to hymns I can usually play the piano and sing at the same time, as long as I am singing a part with which I am familiar. We didn't want to try to get an accompanist because that would add yet a level of complexity.

But self accompaniment presents its own set of challenges. For one thing, I have found that many active LDS worshipers in my area find it culturally uncomfortable in a worship setting. They feel that it better fits a bar setting or something like that. Trying to gather the other three members of a quartet behind the piano seems odd and kind of clumsy for the way our chapel is laid out. So we opted for vocals only. After all, Sons #2 and #3 both have very good pitch and vocal quality. I figured that they would keep us on track.

We practiced a few times with my wife singing the part that Son #2 was assigned to sing. We thought it felt OK, but knew we needed to practice with the four men. On Sunday morning Son #2 revealed that he had done a lot of singing at the wedding so that his voice wasn't in the greatest shape. Besides, we were short on time. So we practiced only once at home before going to church.

I was nervous when we rose to sing after the first speaker in sacrament meeting. We had prayed for help. I struck initial notes on the piano on the way to the pulpit. We arranged ourselves in front of the microphone. And then we sang. It was a simple hymn. I noticed every flaw. But there were no egregious errors. I did notice that the congregation was unusually quiet as we sang. The quiet persisted as we seated ourselves.

My wife leaned over and voiced her approval. She is musically talented herself and she knows whereof she speaks when it comes to vocal numbers. But I figured that her judgment was tainted by the fact that those performing the number were her spouse and her sons.

Still, after church many people expressed great delight in the number. It seems that our voices were enhanced by heavenly help so that many hearers heard something more beautiful than I thought we had performed.

This was a minor miracle. But it is a small example of the everyday miracles that can occur when we couple our own poor efforts with the Lord's limitless capabilities.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Our Missionary Returns With Honor

We became increasingly anxious for our son's return as the date approached. Still, I tried to be careful about my communications with him. I wanted him to be dedicated to fulfilling his mission right up to the end. He had plenty of plans for life after his mission.

Communication with our son overseas was a dramatically different experience than when I served as a full-time missionary. Back then Mom wrote faithfully every week. I also wrote to the family every week. But the process of asking and answering a specific question took two to four weeks.

For the past two years I have started emailing back and forth with our son around 4 am every Monday. Although email is an asynchronous form of communication, it is immediate enough to address many questions in real time. We have learned much about our son's mission experiences through this process. I wonder what kind of communication method my kids will use with their kids a generation from now.

Our current family dynamics put us in a busy phase of life. I am told that time seems to pass more quickly when you're busy. My wife insists that our son's two-year absence went pretty rapidly for her. Besides being a busy mom, another part of that could be because our son was away at school for a year before he left and had previously spent summers working at scout camp in a remote region of the Tetons. We got used to him being gone. For me the time seemed to pass more piecemeal.

My lovely wife is a fantastic mother, although, she sometimes frets that when it comes to dealing with our Asperger Syndrome child everything she does seems to go wrong. (That's a topic that deserves its own post.) She does amazing work helping prepare for important functions and events in our family and in the life of each child.

So a couple of days before our son's return, my wife obtained a welcome home banner. She also plotted out a homemade welcome home sign to be built by plugging plastic cups into a chain link fence. The day before the blessed event, we spent family home evening committing an act of public vandalism by putting up our plastic cup sign on a freeway overpass under which we would drive on our way home from the airport. (Don't worry, we cleaned it up about 48 hours later.) We then drove up the freeway and took a photo of our work.

Given that our son was traveling from the other side of the world, I was prepared to be flexible about his travel. Flight connections don't always work out as planned. But this time around it went better than planned. Modern tools allow real time tracking of flights. We assumed that we'd hear if a connection was missed. Consequently, we arrived at the airport a little early because the airline's website said that the final leg of our son's flight was ahead of schedule.

We were among several families awaiting the return of a missionary, all of which were arriving on different flights. Our son had been awake for about 22 hours by the time we saw him walking into the luggage claim area. We held up the welcome sign and exchanged hugs and greetings. The reunion was brief and almost anticlimactic.

Before long we were on our way through rush hour traffic as my son and me exchanged comments in foreign tongues. (I speak a language that is close enough to his mission language that we can get along talking to each other.) At our son's request we went to a pizza restaurant for "real American pizza." He had gotten tired of "Muslim flatbread pizza."

On the way home we passed under our plastic cup sign. It was a good thing we had taken a photo of it because someone had tweaked the sign somewhat to also apply to someone else. What can you expect? It was on public property.

Before long some of our son's friends dropped by the house. But they didn't stay until extremely late like they used to back in the day. As our son approached his 26th hour of being awake he started to get pretty groggy. He was fine the following morning.

Yesterday morning our son gave a brief mission report to the high council. He later spoke at greater length in our ward sacrament meeting. Ever proud of his scholarly vocabulary, congregants had to pay close attention to what he was saying to understand what he was talking about. My wife leaned over and said that while she thought our son always had mumbled when speaking, she thought it had gotten worse. I reminded her that he had just come from two years of speaking a language that sounds like a mumbled and slurred version of one of the foreign languages I speak.

Following the meeting, family members gathered in the shade of our large silver maple tree to eat, welcome our son home, and enjoy rubbing shoulders with each other. The last of our son's friends left many hours later in the evening. But it was a good day.

As a father I am pleased to see my son's development. He seems to be well on his way to being a fine man and contributor to society. It is good to have him home. But he won't be around for long. He and his brother will soon be going away to college. Life changes, as it must and should.