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.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

More on the Myth of the Job You Love

"I'll show you the video tomorrow," said a soft spoken coworker as he walked out of the office yesterday. He was talking about going skydiving that afternoon. I felt no particular envy when I watched the short video clip this morning, although, my colleague appeared to quite enjoy his fall. I currently harbor no particular yearning to go skydiving.

Confirming that the enjoyment apparent in the video clip was genuine, my coworker affirmed that, despite his skydiving and an earlier white water rafting trip, he was no thrill seeker. He talked about his skydiving coach and whitewater rafting guide. "What I liked most about each of these experiences was rubbing shoulders with people that have careers doing something they really love."

This last statement was tinged with a degree of melancholy and more than a little malcontent. Some fellow staff members chimed in and started talking about what they would rather be doing. All of these people have decent jobs and are good at what they do. Yet each in his own way seemed to lament about an inadequate level of passion for their chosen career. None of them hated their jobs. They just wished for something ... more.

As noted in this post, I long ago came to grips with the fact that very few people get to spend their careers doing jobs they absolutely love. There is no shortage of people that hate their jobs, but I'd wager that most of those that we think adore their jobs will admit to grappling with a fair amount of daily drudgery as part of their profession. I assume they are like me. Some days I love my job. Some days, not so much.

I'd also wager that most people working in jobs such as skydiving coach (such as the one to whom my colleague was strapped yesterday as he soared through the air) or whitewater rafting guide end up eventually migrating to some other kind of work as a matter of physical necessity.

A simple fact of life is that few people can manage to find others willing to pay them for following their passions. As I stated in my last post on this issue:
In real life, you don't get paid to do what you love to do. You get paid for doing something that somebody else needs to have done. Doing what you love to do is called recreation, and you generally pay to do it rather than getting paid for doing it. Jobs are called work because they involve a healthy dose of drudgery.
If we ever do get a job we love, we might soon discover that enjoyment + employment = annoyment. Once the prize for which we have longed is in our grasp we may discover negative facets we had previously ignored.

In other words, I think that my coworkers are needlessly longing for a fantasy that either doesn't exist or that is so scarce as to qualify as a myth. It is human nature to be somewhat dissatisfied with the state of our temporal lives. After all, something within each of us longs for something better, even something divine. Discontent is the precursor to nearly all improvement. But torturing oneself with envy for something that can't reasonably be had seems hardly like a path to happiness.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Why Fireworks are Like Christmas

I love fireworks. With a qualifier. I love fireworks in a similar fashion to the way I love Christmas.

You see, for Christmas to be special it needs to be confined to a season concise enough to make it special. I suppose the length of such a season differs from person to person. But for me it lasts about three, maybe three-and-a-half weeks. Much longer than that and its exceptional qualities wear off. It becomes ordinary.

I know a family that loves to set up a grand Christmas tree each year around the first week of October. They tend to keep the tree up until sometime in February. Others like to begin listening to Christmas music the moment the leaves start to change colors in the autumn. Some of these people tell me that their penchant for keeping these holiday elements around for such an extended period is proof of how much they love Christmas. I suppose the guy that takes his exterior Christmas lights down in July could say the same thing.

Far be it from me to tell other people how to observe their holidays. But for crying out loud, the folks that prominently display their large Christmas tree in the full length corner window of their house, which sits on a corner of one of the city's busiest streets are kind of rubbing their neighbors' nose in it, don't you think?

I am not opposed to fireworks. I kind of like a certain amount of fireworks. Every year we blow a little bit of cash on some of our own. But they're pretty modest. Snaps, sparklers, tanks, flowers, snakes (Whose stupid idea were those things?), and a couple of cheap fountains.

But I'm Mr. Responsibility. I have a bucket of water and a hose with a spray nozzle ready to go. We douse every firework as soon as it is spent. We push the debris into the gutter and then I clean it all up in the morning.

For years our local city has done a fireworks show to commemorate Independence Day. It might be my imagination, but I believe that these shows have tended to become more elaborate over time. When I was a child the show originated in one of the city parks. It lasted for about five minutes. Years ago they moved the show to the local high school, which is actually in a neighboring city. This allowed for better parking and viewing.

A couple of years ago the school district increased the cost of using the high school's facilities. While looking for ways to cut costs, the city council decided to move the show to a local park where costs were already sunk. The addition of two parks since the olden days made the show readily visible from two other parks. A nearby church increases the available parking. It's a win-win situation.

Given that the park where the show originates is about a block and a half from my home, we have a grand view of the show from the bay window in our dining area. We don't hear the music that accompanies the show unless we open the windows or sit outside. But we also don't have to battle crowds, traffic, and mosquitoes. It's a pretty nice arrangement for us. Not so much for our dog. He hates fireworks. But he tolerates them if he can lay on the floor at my feet.

As the city's fireworks show has become more elaborate, so have the private fireworks events sponsored by various neighbors. A family in the adjacent cul-de-sac must drop $1-2K on noise, flashes of light, and smoke every firework occasion (which around here is the week of July 4, the week of Utah's birthday on July 24, and New Year). While other families also have increasingly grand displays, most of those pale in comparison.

Until this year. Then a family in the neighboring cul-de-sac (our home is situated between these two rather close road pockets) put on an event they labeled The Cul-de-Sac of Fire! These two families graciously avoided putting on their shows at the same time that the city's show was being staged. But one of them did shows two nights in a row, with last Saturday evening featuring dueling cul-de-sacs for about an hour. It was all very spectacular.

But this is where fireworks are like Christmas for me. Except that what makes for 3-3½ weeks of Christmas enjoyment boils down to about 15 minutes for fireworks.

Fireworks are all very thrilling when you're in the oooh and aahhh stage. But that interval passes relatively quickly. Expressions of wonder soon devolve to analysis of what makes this one different than the last one or the one five before that. Eventually the murmur of even feigned curiosity fades away to people staring rather blankly at burst after burst of colored light. After a while I start to feel like, "Yup, there goes another one. When is this going to be over? I'm ready to go to bed."

Only you can't go to bed when your whole neighborhood is raucously shaking and brightly flashing for an hour straight. OK, you could go to bed but there would be no sleep involved. No earplugs on the planet would adequately reduce the noise. Even if you could sleep, your kids can't. And when you've got kids that can't sleep, neither can you. They won't permit it.

Another neighbor did fireworks last night just as I was preparing to hit the sack. Fortunately, the fireworks season is over for a couple of weeks. Although I cleaned up our firework leftovers on the morning of July 5, my yard, driveway, and walks are now littered with various bits of cardboard shrapnel and firework remnants. I suppose my neighbors figure that it is my duty to show my gratitude for their unsolicited shows and the fact that they miraculously didn't burn my house down by cleaning up after them. What could be better?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Three Spigots, a Sink, and the Holy Spirit

A friend recently confided in me that he was having difficulty interpreting promptings from the Holy Spirit. Probably just about anyone that seeks to feel the Spirit struggles with knowing whether they are receiving divine revelation as opposed to filling in the blanks with wishful thinking. The "Is it God or is it just me?" pattern is a familiar one.

This is understandable. Like learning to ride a bicycle, learning to feel and comprehend the Spirit's promptings takes practice and will necessarily include mistakes. It is a lifelong process.

But my friend's concerns were different. There was a time in his life when Spiritual promptings had greater clarity for him. But now he found things more fuzzy and more confusing. As he said this I had a flashback to what I call the parable of the spigots and the sink.

Years ago a friend's former mission president came to speak to our young adult ward. He said that he had run into many returned missionaries that complained precisely of the same spiritual vagueness my friend was experiencing. This happens, said the former mission president, because you turn off the spigots that bring the Spirit into your life.

Think of your spiritual life as a sink with a drain in the bottom. The water in the sink represents the Spirit, while the drain represents everything that drains the Spirit away, including sin and just the regular vicissitudes of life.

Now picture three spigots from which water (i.e. the Spirit) flows into the sink. These three spigots represent prayer, scripture study, and service to others. Most missionaries, said the mission president, tend to turn on those spigots full blast while serving their missions. Their sink fills up and stays full despite the drain in the bottom.

Upon returning home from their missions, former missionaries must focus more on regular life. So they necessarily turn down the flow from these three spigots. But all too often, the former mission president opined, they turn them down to a trickle or turn them off altogether. Then they wonder why their spiritual life becomes empty, why they feel more confused, and why they have difficulty sensing spiritual promptings. In reality, they have simply quit doing those things that bring the Spirit.

While few of us can turn on those spigots the way full time missionaries do, most of us can probably turn them on more than they now are. The former mission president promised that we would feel an increase of the Spirit in our lives if we did so. He challenged us to engage in mighty prayer, profound scripture study, and seriously selfless service.

He was not asking us to dabble a little more in the scriptures, kneel to pray for a couple of nights, and promise to show up at the next young adult service project. He was talking about much more than this.

Go to your scriptures and read every place that mighty prayer is mentioned. Then look up everywhere that "prayer of faith" is mentioned. Consider what you read and take it to heart.

Profound scripture study means studying the scriptures according to patterns similar to those discussed in Preach My Gospel. These patterns are not reserved for full time missionaries. They are discussed in the manual because they are tried and true methods that can work for anyone. It takes time and focus to study this way, but the payoff is worth the investment.

Service is the way we implement what we have learned in our scripture studies and to see our prayers answered. It is in serving others that we become greater than we have been.

Service also impacts the other two spigots. The former mission president reminded those that had served missions that the mightiest prayers they uttered on their missions were not for themselves, but for others that were investigating the gospel. It is not uncommon for missionaries to fast for investigators because they care more for the welfare of these people than they care to eat food. Even when investigators don't follow the path the missionaries desire, the missionaries experience tremendous spiritual growth in the process.

If you are sensing a spiritual void in your life, you should consider taking the former mission president's challenge. Over the next month engage in mighty prayer, profound scripture study, and seriously selfless service on a regular basis. Your spiritual reservoir will refill and the emptiness you feel will diminish because it will be filled instead with God.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Commas, Meat, and Revelation

I have been eating a low carb diet off and on for several years. I intersperse this with a diet that allows for more carbs, but only certain varieties. Both diets limit grain intake to little or none. Being a practicing Mormon, how do I square these diets with the Word of Wisdom, which we believe to be God's revealed code of health?

The Word of Wisdom (WoW) calls for:
  • A prohibition on tobacco, alcoholic beverages, and "hot drinks" (which refers to coffee and tea according to church leaders).
  • Limiting meat intake to "times of winter, or of cold, or famine."
  • Wheat to be the "staff of life" for humans.
  • A diet rich in fruits and "wholesome herbs."
The WoW promises physical and spiritual blessings for those who "remember to keep and do these sayings." In 19th Century phrasing, these blessings include:
  • Health in their navel and marrow to their bones.
  • Wisdom and great treasures of knowledge.
  • They shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.
  • The destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.
On the surface, the general makeup of the diets I eat would seem to be rather at odds with the provisions mentioned above. I generally exclude grain, eschew starchy vegetables, and eat very little in the way of fruit. On the one diet I tend to take in quite a bit of meat, while I get more nuts and oils on the other.

Back in 1833 Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints received a revelation about health practices. That revelation is now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants section 89. Verse 2 tells us that the revelation is "To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom...."

In the early days of the church most revelations from the prophet were commonly called commandments by adherents. For example, when Martin Harris told Joseph that he desired a commandment from the Lord, he meant that he wanted Joseph to receive a revelation on his behalf. The earliest compilation of LDS revelations was titled The Book of Commandments. Unlike most revelations, D&C 89 was specifically designated as an invitation rather than a commandment.

But, as explained in this Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, certain WoW provisions became de facto commandments during the prohibition era when "abstinence from the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea had become an official requirement for those seeking temple recommends" and subsequently for holding any position of trust in the church. Modern church leaders have added abstinence from drug abuse and "harmful or addictive substances" to the list.

The Interpreter recently published a scholarly article about a somewhat controversial comma that was mysteriously inserted in D&C 89:13 in 1921. But in reality, the article focuses on the WoW's provision that animal and fowl flesh should be eaten sparingly and only in times of great need.

One theory is that the comma fundamentally changed the meaning of v13 to restrict meat intake to certain limited instances. I believe that the article's author does a fine job of debunking this line of thinking by showing that the comma merely restores the original meaning of the verse, which was needed due to the change in the usage of the word "only" in the English language over time. Besides, it is quite clear that early church leaders repeatedly emphasized eating meat only sparingly; although, Joseph Smith is reported to have said that fish did not fall into that restriction.

After reading through the comment section of the article, it appears to me that Mormons have no shortage of modern day Pharisees (referring to the religious-political sect of Jesus' day that our New Testament criticizes for emphasizing nitpicky religious commands over the weightier matters of loving God and our neighbors).

This can also readily be seen in various internet commentary where some church members are absolutely certain that their purist interpretation of the WoW is the correct interpretation for all other church members.

It has been common practice for some church members (including influential leaders) to extend the WoW to include their own ideas. For example, many members have long considered caffeinated soft drinks to be against the WoW, while others have not. In 2012 the church issued a statement saying that such drinks are not included in the WoW's ban on coffee and tea (see Church Newsroom article).

Back in the 1970s I heard then apostle Bruce R. McConkie clarify that, contrary to the sentiments of some in the whole grain crowd, the WoW was not to be construed to prohibit refined grains or sugars. Both caffeine and sugar have addictive properties, but they are not considered to be strictly banned by the WoW.

Refining one's understanding of the WoW is a good thing. But we go awry the moment we start passing off our personal interpretations as authoritative. Church leaders are not immune from slipping into this trap. But I have also been in many leadership meetings where general authorities have carefully acknowledged that some of the things they say are personal opinions rather than official doctrine. Their authority to pronounce doctrine is limited.

A proper understanding of scripture requires personal revelation so that the scripture can be received as it was intended. The Holy Ghost becomes the teacher. But reason is also required. I find it helpful to place scripture in its historic context and to try to see its placement in the whole picture of available light.

For example, some people are quite certain that the WoW promotes a Vegan diet and that those that eschew meat altogether are living a higher law. Maybe so. But it seems difficult to square that with D&C 49:19, where we told that it pleases the Lord to give his children "beasts of the field and the fowls of the air ... for food...."

Some are adamant that the provision on eating meat sparingly revolves mainly around the deplorable sin of killing animals unnecessarily. Perhaps. Some cobble together various scriptures to support this theory. But the overall record is anything but clear on this point. Besides, what does "sparingly" mean? What does "unnecessary" mean?

Moreover, what about the fact that the various grains we eat today are radically different from the grains available in the U.S. in 1833? We have evidence that our modern grains are making at least some people very sick. What of the fact that artificial refrigeration was generally unavailable in 1833?

It seems more likely to me that no one's pet interpretation of the 21 brief verses that make up the WoW can be generally applied in any satisfactory manner to modern life.

And that's just the point. Many people repeatedly call for the church to clarify certain religious provisions, including those in the WoW. They want everything clearly delineated in black and white. Gray areas bother them. While church leaders speak out on various matters from time to time, they are mostly just offering their well informed opinions. Official doctrine on many issues remains vague.

Part of the reason for this is that in a church of 15 million people and a world with more than seven billion people, only a small handful of very low level provisions can be universally applied. Individual and cultural circumstances vary so widely that local and/or individual interpretation is required. Thus, the church emphasizes the importance of personal revelation to guide one's own life.

By looking at the big picture surrounding the WoW, it should be quite clear that the Lord wants us to understand that our dietary and health practices affect both our physical and spiritual capacities. The Lord longs to bless us with his choicest blessings and we need to understand that even what we choose to consume helps determine how well he is able to do that for us.

I know that when I am asked in a temple recommend interview whether I keep the Word of Wisdom, I am being asked whether I use any of the prohibited substances: coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, or harmful drugs. I am not being asked whether I eat wholesome herbs or consume meat only sparingly. But if I want the blessings listed above, I need to follow both the non-mandatory as well as the mandatory provisions of the WoW.

Which brings us back to the original question I posed of how I am able to square my current diets with the WoW. I do not deny that those that strictly adhere to some of the less followed suggestions in the WoW are better people than I am. They likely enjoy far greater blessings.

However, over the years I have come to know my health conditions very well. I know that I experience more health problems when I eat a diet that includes more than a tiny amount of grain (despite how much I love breads, rice, pasta, and other grain based foods). I know that I have more energy and that I cognate much better when I follow my current diets. This is what works for my body at the present time.

Perhaps most importantly, I know that I was spiritually led to my current diets through a great deal of secular study, spiritual study, prayer, and pondering. I daresay that I have taken a much more thoughtful approach to diet and health than the vast majority of Mormons; not that I judge others to be inferior on this point (see Romans 12:1-4, 10-14). I feel like I am receiving the blessings promised in the WoW and I feel very comfortable answering yes when I am asked whether I keep the WoW, although, my practices seem at odds with certain provisions of the recorded revelation.

Does this mean that everyone ought to follow the diets that I eat? Not at all. Once again, I emphasize study, application of reason, and pursuit of personal revelation. It is quite possible that the diets I follow would be very wrong for somebody else. I only know that they are right for me at the present time.

It turns out that devotion to discipleship is not an easy thing. The Lord provides a good framework, some great tools, and a variety of materials. But a lot of do-it-yourself work remains. It is the only way God can turn us into C.S. Lewis' proverbial mansion.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Of Humility and Wolves

I work with a great group of people. I recently told my wife how incredibly smart each of these individuals is. Ever my greatest cheerleader, my wife insisted that I fit well with this group as far as intelligence goes. "Everyone I know that knows you thinks you are smart," she insisted.

I didn't grow up that way. I can't remember a time during my childhood when I didn't feel intellectually and physically inferior. Maybe it was just the fact that I had two older brothers and that part of the purpose of an older brother seems to be to make their younger siblings feel inferior to them.

Another theory I have is that Mom and Dad didn't require much of me because they were numb after dealing with my older brothers — one that was ever managerial enough to challenge parental assumptions and one that happily took a devil-give-a-care approach to life. As long as I didn't cause too much trouble, I could slide by with a lot.

In junior high it was fine if I got anything above a D+. Which is good, because middling grades were about all I could produce. As one of the youngest kids in my grade, I struggled to compete physically and academically with my classmates from first grade onward. Ever one of the last picked for teams (for games I never wanted to play anyway), I also frequently had little clue what was going on in school subjects.

None of my teachers or classmates seemed to mistake me for being very bright. In fact, I can remember teachers bluntly suggesting otherwise to my parents. They seemed to have no compunction about doing so in my presence, apparently certain that I was unable to understand what they were talking about.

Then a funny thing happened during my sophomore year in high school. It was like somebody turned a switch in my head and things that had mystified me began to make sense. I started being able to get my work done, often without having to bring schoolwork home. I remember how shocked I was when I was notified that I would receive an award for having been on the honor roll six terms in a row. But I still somehow felt stupid compared to my peers.

Humility is often misunderstood to be equivalent to self deprecation. Humility is an appropriate estimation of one's own importance. Both arrogance and self-bashing are at the opposite end of the spectrum from humility, given that both are wild distortions of the truth.

Nowadays it is not uncommon for me to hear from both direct and indirect sources what a great guy I am. While I appreciate the positive strokes, I am more aware of the reality of my character.

Consider last Sunday, for example. I became angry with my youngest son for behaving in a way that I felt was inappropriate. I lost my temper and cursed at him. At church. In sacrament meeting. Moments after I had made a covenant to take upon myself the name of my Savior, Jesus Christ, and to keep his commandments.

No, I know how broken I am, how prone to failure and mistakes I am. C.S. Lewis said that when he got to thinking of himself as a rather fine chap, that was undoubtedly the time when he was in fact at his worst. He wrote, "The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object."

While unselfishness is a worthy goal, I do not believe it is entirely possible (or even a worthy goal) to "forget about yourself altogether." I think rather that a proper regard for oneself is healthy and is essential to serving both humanity and Deity as well as possible.

Nor do I agree that it is appropriate to think of oneself "as a small, dirty object." How can you think of yourself in that manner without also considering others — fellow beings created in the image of God — as equally decrepit. On our own we are certainly nothing (see Moses 1:10), although, we pretend otherwise. Bill Cosby explained it this way:
God made a tree and said it was (pause) Good. God made a rabbit and said it was (pause) Good.
Man made the refrigerator and said it was Amazing. Man made the car and said it was Awesome or Fabulous.
We are fanatical about our creations. Praising what we have made. Fantastic, Excellent, Awesome, Fabulous, Amazing, etc.
God made the world, and said it was (pause) good.
The refrigerator eventually broke down The car eventually blew its engine. But the Tree still stands, and the rabbit still hops.
What is our definition of Good vs. Great? GOD is great. Man was only Good.
But that's just it. In connection with God, humans have the power to become godlike. C.S. Lewis said, "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...."

This seems to stand at odds with Lewis' suggestion that we see ourselves as small, dirty objects. I think he is trying to convey the idea of our duality: the "natural man" that is "an enemy to god" (see Mosiah 3:19) and the heir of godhood (see Moses 1:39) within each of us.

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf disapproved of the practice of criticizing and belittling oneself, saying that this can lead to self hatred (see Oct. 2010 general conference talk). In what manner will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves (see Mark 10:30) if we hate ourselves?

An old Cherokee legend tells of a man telling his grandson that it is as if two wolves are fighting within each of us. One is evil and the other is good. When the grandson asks which wolf will win the fight, the old man replies, "The one that you feed."

We all take opportunities to feed the evil wolf — the natural man — as I did last Sunday. But there are also boundless opportunities for us to feed the good wolf — the spark of divinity within each of us. I make those choices moment by moment and so do you. When the good wolf wins we win. This happens when we choose to "yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit," put off the natural man "through the atonement of Christ the Lord", and become "full of love" (Mosiah 3:19).

With each passing moment I am choosing which wolf to feed. Which one will win? That's up to me.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Job Loss Strikes Home ... But So Does the Miracle of a New Job

"You're home early," my wife said with a smile on her face. "Yeah," I replied glumly. "I was just laid off from my job." The look on her face revealed the impact this event would have on her life as well as mine. Knowing what both of us needed at that moment, she came and gave me a big hug.

I knew that my employer had been having financial troubles. But I rationalized that I probably wouldn't be impacted. After all, we had already lost one member of our small I.T. team due to attrition. Would they really cut one more head from our tiny team?

In truth, I simply wasn't interested in stepping outside of my comfort zone. I had been laid off from my previous job three years earlier and I had discovered at that time that I really disliked the job search process. I wanted to avoid doing that again. In fact, I had told a couple of recruiters just days earlier that I wasn't interested in the job opportunities they had available.

Discomfort aside, the writing on the wall should have been clear to me. The composition of the I.T. team should have given me warning. The only redundant position was the development staff, of which there were two of us. The other guy had designed the company's software framework before I came on board. They needed him more than they needed me. But I rationalized that we had too much work for them to cut me.

We in the I.T. department helped maintain the company financial reports and we knew how tough times were. We kept hoping that new sales efforts would bring more work. But the company simply had too many idle resources for its workload. First a few heads rolled. Then a few weeks later some more went. Then came some very tough layoffs—a number of seasoned people that were key members of the operation. We thought that was probably the end of it.

The following week my boss walked into the office and quietly asked me to step into the conference room. From the look on his face I knew what was coming. Any doubt about that fled the moment I entered the room and saw the HR manager sitting there.

The meeting was brief. I realized this was just business. I have learned not to take these situations personally. It may feel natural to lash out, but you do yourself and your career a favor if you instead handle these kind of difficulties with as much grace and aplomb as possible.

After the HR guy left, my boss pulled me into his office. I think the layoff was harder on him than it was on me and that I ended up comforting him more than he did me. He assured me that my performance had never been a problem and offered his help in finding a new job. There's a good man.

Fortunately I have learned to travel light. I quickly assembled my meager belongings, shook my coworkers hands, and was on my way. No sense lingering. My goal was to get on with the next step as quickly as possible. Before long I was home beginning my job search.

Being without a job and without an income leaves one feeling defective. It hurts. It turns your life upside down and dramatically impacts the whole family.

I had learned a thing or two from the time I had been laid off three years earlier. My first order of business was to carefully craft an email message and to spam everyone I knew. Avoiding negative remarks about my immediately past employer, I explained my situation, my qualifications and what kind of work I do. I humbly asked for any job tips, personal connections, help, or just prayer that anyone could provide. After all, my last job came from such an email. I also updated my status on LinkedIn.

The following morning I made job finding my full-time job. I worked 10, 12, 14 hours per day while I was jobless. Included in my activities was reaching out to recruiters, known in some circles as headhunters. Recruiters are sales people whose job is to find you a job. They earn commissions from companies looking for workers by successfully placing people looking for work in open jobs. Recruiters work to establish trusting relationships with hiring managers. This helps them get businesses to consider your resume where your resume might otherwise be screened out by (sometimes automated) HR systems.

One recruiter soon had an interview lined up for me. It didn't look like the greatest job on the face of the earth, but I resolved to consider anything that wasn't completely outlandish. That interview didn't go so well. But it helped me hone my rusty interviewing techniques.

One note. When you work with recruiters, it is important to let them know about your other job search efforts. It is easy to apply on jobs online nowadays, but very few jobs actually get filled that way. Moreover, you can harm the ability of a recruiter to work with a business if you apply to that business online. Each recruiter you work with is your partner and you need to treat him/her that way. Depending on what they have available, a recruiter may or may not take much interest in you. Keep looking until you find those that do.

I soon found that it was not difficult for me to get interviews. But I also soon learned a thing or two about interviews. Some were just brutal; more like inquisitions than interviews. For example, it is common for some organizations to ask hoards of arcane questions about specific software syntax and concepts rather than trying to discern the candidate's logic and programming skills. But some interviews were wonderful, more like discussions among peers. One of the early interviews I loved was for a company that was just so far away that I couldn't stomach the commute.

Management of one's mental health is very important during a job search. I was certain I would eventually land a new job. With that certainty as a basis, I tried not to become demoralized when an interview went badly or when a different candidate was selected for a position. As I crossed a place or a job off my list I had to convince myself that I had just crossed over one more stepping stone on the way to a new job.

Still, I found that it was difficult to keep depression at bay, especially on days when nothing seemed to be happening on the job front. One day I realized that I was experiencing symptoms of depression. I didn't feel like doing anything. I had to force myself to do what needed to be done, although, I didn't feel like doing so.

One night I accompanied my wife to a sacred place, although, I really didn't want to make the effort to go. I didn't feel like leaving the house. But I went because I knew it was important. In that place I felt my burden lifted. The oppressive gloom I was experiencing was lifted by a higher power. My job situation hadn't changed, but I came out of the place feeling hopeful and happy.

As we walked to the car I turned my phone back on and found a voice message from a firm asking me to come in for an interview. This opportunity sprang from a recipient of my original email sharing my resume with a friend of his. The following day I arranged for the interview to occur a few days later.

Later that afternoon a different company called. They didn't have a full-time opening, but they had a short-term need for the kind of work that I do. They asked me to spend a few weeks doing contract work. It wasn't a full-time position, but it did offer much needed income and dignity that comes from working.

My temporary stint offered me insight into an organization that felt like home. I would like to have worked there permanently. Moreover, I think they would like to have employed me permanently if the situation had allowed for it.

In the meantime I had two wonderful interviews with the other firm. And then ... silence. A week went by with nothing. I had already pestered these people as much as I thought prudent. I figured that they had passed me over. Then one day they contacted me and offered me a job that seemed undeniably better than the one I had lost. A few days later I was working for this company. It was as if I had to loose my job to find a better job. To me the whole thing seems miraculous.

Another thing that helped in my job search was something that I did two decades ago. I shifted careers. I moved from being an accountant to being a software developer. Then I went back to school and earned a bachelor degree and a master degree in the computer field. The job market for software engineers is healthy right now. If you work in a field with less opportunity, you may need to consider a career revision. This process can be painful, time consuming, and difficult. But for me it was well worth it.

A few years ago a friend of mine told me that he had made peace with the fact that job security is an illusion. I think he's right about that. You may not want to market yourself. But the reality is that in today's economy you have to constantly be ready to do so, regardless of your line of work.

Among the things that I believe helped me on the job search trail are:
  • Involving everyone I know in the job search.
  • Working with recruiters.
  • Accepting almost every interview opportunity. You can learn something from each interview, even if it doesn't go well or lead to a new job.
  • Considering imperfect and temporary employment opportunities. It's better to look for a job when you are employed than when you are jobless and frantic, even if the job you take is not ideal.
  • Working full-time at finding a new job.
  • Involving God in the process. A whole lot of prayer and fasting helps, especially when others combine their faith with yours. I can't thank enough those that prayed and fasted for me.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Technical Difficulties Watching General Conference Reruns

For years I have watched LDS general conference reruns during my daily workouts. No serious gym rat would ever be caught watching reruns while working out. Especially if those reruns are talks by church leaders. But I'm no serious gym rat.

I have exercised daily for two and a half decades (quite a feat for a guy that used to be a dedicated couch potato). But I'm a very antisocial exerciser. I work out by myself in our home gym or outside. With the exception of the times I take the dog running, I simply don't care for companionship while working out. I don't need anyone to see me, talk to me, coach me, or cheer me on. No offense to those that feel otherwise. To each his own.

When general conference weekends rolled around during my childhood we used to turn on the old black and white Zenith and watch these ancient men stand at a pulpit and drone on endlessly. Mom and Dad would pay attention — at least during the morning sessions. Drowsiness would sometimes set in during afternoon sessions. Us kids would play quietly (sort of) with puzzles, toy cars, etc.

Every once in a while, Mom and Dad would remark what a wonderful talk they had just heard. I would think, "Huh?" It all sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown to me.

Funny how time changes one's perspective. At some point in my life the things those old men were saying became tremendously interesting to me. So compelling were they that I came to like listening to their talks over and over again. Well, many of them anyway. It is not uncommon for my wife and/or me to remark after watching a general conference talk how wonderful the talk was.

Years ago I started recording general conference using a VHS recorder. In those days the priesthood session was not broadcast, so I could get all of the other four sessions on a single eight-hour VHS tape. Eventually we had lots of those tapes in our library.

Recording general conference has never worked very well for me since the decline of VHS. Yes, we still have a couple of VHS players. But they function poorly. We have never acquired a DVD recorder. I seems that disk media will be relegated to a bygone era before too long anyway.

One day I discovered that you can get a full set of general conference DVDs delivered to your home twice a year for an annual $14 subscription. That's a pretty good deal. So for a long time I have enjoyed getting my conference reruns by this method.

But the lag time between the original broadcast and the delivery of the disks has become grating to me. With today's technology, why should I have to wait five to six weeks? I want to start reviewing conference talks while they are still fresh in my mind.

This past year we acquired a new TV for the workout room. Nice flat screen smart TVs have become cheap enough that we could afford to replace our ancient CRT model. I was excited to install a TV that was designed to stream content from the internet. Many models only stream certain proprietary "channels," so we made sure to get a model that had a full blown web browser.

To my anguish, the streaming turned out to to be incredibly choppy. A wired network connection helped. But unlike a regular PC, our TV has little memory or caching behind its web browser. That means that every time there is a hiccup in the stream the video freezes. The only way I have found to restart the video is to reload the page and then try to navigate to where it froze.

That's frustrating and takes time. Trying to watch conference via this method was extremely unpleasant, especially given that I was being active and didn't want to stop to mess around with the TV for three minutes every time there was a blip in the stream.

One day when I was doing something in the workout room I glanced over at the side of the TV and noticed several electronic ports. I knew those were there, but suddenly it dawned on me that I could easily plug a flash drive into one of the USB ports. I ran to my computer, downloaded a session of general conference to a flash drive, plugged the drive into the TV, and voila! I was watching the most recent general conference in crisp 1080p without having to also manipulate a DVD drive.

A quick calculation revealed that all of the general conference sessions will fit onto a flash drive that costs less than $10. The drive will last years. I can also be watching reruns within minutes after the end of the original broadcast. No more waiting a month and a half for general conference DVDs.

I suspect that as technology continues to improve it will become increasingly easy to watch streaming video content on wall mounted screen devices. But until that blessed day arrives I now have a stopgap measure that works quite elegantly. I won't be renewing my general conference DVD subscription when it comes due.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Incredible Timing of Delivery Services

I arrived home from a business meeting at a time of day when the neighborhood was quiet. Although our neighborhood has plenty of kids, it's not like it was back in the early days when we first moved into our newly built home that was in a development chock-full of young families living in recently built houses. Back then there were no mature trees, but the place veritably swarmed with roving gangs of noisy toddlers and pre-teens on foot, roller blades, skateboards, Big Wheels, scooters, and bicycles.

Our neighborhood is more mature nowadays. There are plenty of well seasoned trees. Homes are occupied by a fairly even distribution of young families, families with older kids, and empty nesters. Fences and hedges prevent the flow of traffic through backyards. In the middle of any school- and workday, the place can be pretty calm.

After closing the garage door and getting inside the house, I realized that I was the only one home. The silence of the neighborhood and the house settled around me as I walked to the master bedroom. Not that it was completely silent. You never realize how much white noise continually permeates your house until you have a power outage. But it was quiet enough.

Being the only one at home and expecting no visitors, I didn't bother closing the bedroom door as I doffed my business suit, released the pressure of the necktie girding my collar, and unbuttoned my shirt.

By the way, why does more formal male attire in our society demand the wearing of a necktie? What logical purpose does this piece of cloth throttling the neck serve? Is it simply decoration? If so, isn't there some way we could hold a vote of men around the world and get this silly bit of apparel banned? Despite the ridiculousness of the necktie, it seems to have incredible endurance in conservative fashion. What's up with that?

Anyway, I was standing in front of my open closet in nothing but my undergarments as I prepared to put my suit on its hanger, having put the coat and slacks on the bed after removing them.

Speaking of closets, I have often wondered how I ended up with the least closet space among my family members. I'm not really complaining, mind you. I have this "if you build it, they will come" theory about closets ("it") and clothes + other junk ("they"). The expansion of "it" invites the proliferation of the "they." I already have plenty of clothes. Too many clothes, in fact. Some I've had since I was 21 years old. (And, yes they fit.) My wife occasionally cajoles me to get rid of old clothes, despite how comfortable they seem.

My wife's closet is no bigger than mine. But she has clothes stored in two other closets in the house too. Two of the kids have walk-in closets that came with the bedrooms we added onto the house a few years ago. But somehow that doesn't stop their clothes from being hung on chairs and bedposts, as well as being piled on any horizontal surface in the room. Go figure.

Oh yeah. There I was standing in my skivvies when the doorbell rang. I moved to where I could see out front and spied a FedEx truck, as well as a female FedEx driver standing at the door with a package that required a signature.

Since my closet was open, I was able to quickly pull on pants and a T-shirt, and then run to the door in time to sign for the package. That was fortunate, at least. I could have arrived a few seconds later to find a note saying that they had tried to deliver the package but had found no one home. Trying to arrange for the delivery of such a package can be nightmarish. The whole exercise was enough to get my heart beating at an anaerobic rate. Hey, workout done for the day!

How is it, I wondered to myself, that you can waste hours sitting around the house waiting for the delivery of an important package or for a service person to arrive, while other deliveries or service people come at the exact moment that you are indisposed. Do delivery and service people have some kind of sixth sense or a secret calculation that lets them know how to achieve maximum inconvenience?

Anybody in the delivery or service business care to venture an answer?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Repentance: It's a Good Hurt

My friend had tears in his eyes. "It's an amazing thing to see in someone you never thought would get to that point," he said. He was describing the change he had recently seen in a lifelong friend who had previously exhibited a pattern of making poor choices.

Leading up to this I had been discussing repentance with my friend, who had been undergoing a challenging repentance process himself. "The hardest part about repentance" he offered, "is getting to the point that you are willing to repent. To get there you have to admit to yourself that you cannot fully fix it yourself." My friend said that this felt like much more than a simple surrender of pride. It was more like giving up an essential piece of one's identity.

(This, of course, presupposes that the individual has first gotten to the point that he recognizes his sin as a problem and then decides that he wants the problem fixed.)

The very first of the commandments listed on the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain demands our recognition of God's preeminence in all things and forbids the worship of idols (see Exodus 20:3-6). Our modern society regularly worships many other gods (see Dallin H. Oaks 10/2013 general conference talk). But perhaps the god we are most guilty of setting before the great God of heaven is ourselves. Isaiah tells us that "we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6).

I have a friend that greatly dislikes the Old Testament tale of the prophet Samuel confronting King Saul about Saul's failure to fully keep the Lord's commandment (see 1 Samuel 15). My friend focuses on the direction to engage in scorched earth warfare and genocide, as well as the execution of the enemy king following the battle. While these are weighty moral issues to consider, I think that my friend's heavy focus on these factors might cause him to overlook an important lesson in the story.

When Saul claims that he disobeyed so as to offer better sacrifices to the Lord, Samuel replies that "to obey is better than sacrifice" (see 1 Samuel 15:22-23). He goes on to say that "stubbornness is as ... idolatry."

We engage in self idol worship whenever we decide that our idea is better than God's or that what we want is more important than what God wants. We rationalize that our cherished sin isn't that bad and that we know plenty of decent people that engage in this type of thing. But we cannot escape the consequences of our enmity with God.

The reason it is so difficult and painful to get to the point that we are willing to repent of the sin of self worship is that destroying our idol literally means destroying something that we have allowed to become part of our identity. The Savior said that this process can be like cutting off a hand or a foot, or plucking out an eye. But he assures us that in the end the reward will be worth the pain (see Matthew 18:8-9).

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf assures us (see 10/2013 general priesthood address) that while "heartfelt regret and true remorse for disobedience are often painful and very important steps in the sacred process of repentance," true "repentance is about transformation, not torture or torment."

Pres. Spencer W. Kimball's book The Miracle of Forgiveness left an indelible imprint on my generation. Sadly, I think that the message that many of my generation took away from the book was one of harshness, torment, and torture. Most people I talk to about this book today only vaguely recall the message of Christ's miraculous and healing atonement, while vividly recalling the message of suffering as part of the repentance process.

My penitent friend said that trying to shed patterns of past wrongs in favor of patterns of righteous living indeed has its painful moments. But he also claimed that these episodes are nothing compared to the pain of becoming willing to repent. In fact, they can even seem like milestones on the way to a better place.

When the prophet Samuel talks to Saul about obedience, he isn't really saying that God wants this or that action. He is saying that God wants us to sacrifice our own will to his, because he knows that in doing so we will find eternal joy. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis famously put it this way:
"Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self---in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart."
This is where my repentant friend is headed. And while this path has its share of pains and trials, it is a joyful path. Perhaps even more joyful than traveling this path ourselves is seeing another soul making progress on that path. This may help explain why God's work and glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (see Moses 1:39): because his joy is great "in the soul that repenteth" (D&C 18:13).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Studying for Employment: A Lesson In Marketing and Statstics

A billboard that I pass quite often in my travels advertises the local applied technology college. In huge bold letters it boasts, "90% of our grads are working. Are you?" The marketing is clearly aimed at the unemployed. But might it actually be aimed at those that are bad at math?

It was recently reported (see D-News article) that Utah's unemployment rate has hit a five-year low of 3.9%. Turning the math around on the college's billboard we can see that the college is proudly stating that the unemployment rate among its graduates is about 10%. That's more than 250% higher than the state average. Can someone explain to me how this is supposed to be a good thing?

It's like the college saying, "You can more than double your chances of being unemployed by spending a lot of time and money to get a certificate from us!" Well, by golly, who wouldn't want to take them up on a deal like that?

To be fair, the numbers are actually far more complex than can be conveyed in sound bite statistics. While it is true — according to government accounting — that Utah's official unemployment rate has dropped to 3.9%, unemployment is not evenly spread across demographic groups. Besides, political accounting machinations don't mean nearly as much to people as do the financial realities they face every day.

To understand what the unemployment rate is actually counting, you must first understand the labor force participation rate. That is the percentage of people in the 16-64 age range that are either a) employed or that are  b) unemployed, are available to work, and have actively looked for work in the past four weeks. The unemployment rate is b (unemployed) divided by a (employed + unemployed).

Most people likely assume that a 3.9% unemployment rate means that only 3.9% of those that could be working are unable to find jobs at the moment. But that's not accurate. The unemployment rate does not count people that are willing to work but that have quit looking for a job. That number is harder to calculate because it is difficult to know whether people that aren't actively seeking work are available to work or not.

We try to get a feel for this by looking at the change in the labor force participation rate. This rate recently hit a 35-year low nationally (see MarketWatch article). While this number can be heavily influenced by fluctuating retirement rates, the recent decline seems to mostly involve those under age 35. Moreover, Utah has seen the nation's largest drop in labor force participation over the past half decade (see Governing article), exceeding the national average decline by more than 230%.

This tells us that a lot of Utahns would work if they could but that the job market is so lean they have simply quit looking for work. The state's rosy unemployment rate paints an overly optimistic picture because it fails to address thousands of real unemployed folks.

In Utah these would-be workers are more highly concentrated in the 16-24 age demographic (see LocalInsights publication). This group's labor participation rate is only 81% of the demographic's national average. Given Utah's high youth population, this age group's poor performance is enough to make Utah's overall labor force participation rate look dismal. (The Governor boasts in the linked D-News article about the recent jump in Utah's labor participation rate, but this was only possible because the rate had fallen off so badly. Even with the recent improvement the state's rate is poor.)

When you add the 44.8% of Utah teens and young adults that aren't looking for work to those that are (11.9% unemployment rate), the total rate of those without jobs in this age category is pretty high. Since the main demographic for applied technology students is the 16-24 age bracket, perhaps the college's billboard is an apt advertisement after all. 10% unemployment sure beats 50%+ unemployment.

Youth jobs in Utah have dried up due to multiple factors. The lean economy means that a lot of jobs simply aren't available any longer due to business contraction and the transition of some jobs to technology. Also, adults in the next higher age group have increasingly accepted jobs that formerly went to younger workers. (This is true all the way up the line of ages.)

Even the labor participation rate is inadequate for capturing job quality. The number of workers that want full-time employment but that are working in part-time jobs has risen dramatically. Well meaning government sponsored efforts to "help" workers but that also add costs to employers can only make the overall employment situation worse.

What this means is that, despite all of the rhetoric about an improving economy, the job market is a much tougher place than it once was. Training that might have been unnecessary in the past may turn out to make the difference between having a job and not having a job. So school can be valuable. But it's no panacea.

If your goal is to get a job, it pays to do a little research before plunging dollars and hours into education. You want to make sure that your investment will pay off. This is historically difficult, especially if you are chasing a field that has a lot of hot jobs today. Those jobs might not be there by the time you graduate. Or you may graduate with so many competitors that your group swamps the market.

College doesn't necessarily beat vocational training either. Record numbers of college graduates are working in jobs that don't require a degree (see CNN Money, LA Times articles). Much of this is because people have spent their time getting degrees that don't have much value in the job market or that they have ended up hating.

The moral is to get real about what you choose to study. Colleges are increasingly facing pressure to prove the market worth of the degrees they offer (see Wall Street Jounral article), but many have no idea how to accomplish this feat.

It is also good to remember that in a tight labor market you can't expect your ideal job to be available. Successful job candidates often settle for conditions they would prefer to avoid.

It is entirely appropriate to pursue an education to improve your job prospects. But do your homework before committing yourself. And be realistic about what your certificate or degree can do for you.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do You Ever Have Old Teachers Emerge From the Mists of Time?

The ringtone emanating from the phone in my pocket alerted me that my junior high schooler was calling. I glanced at the clock and saw that school had just let out.

On a side note: I never used to care about ringtones because I always relied on the vibrate feature. But that was back when I geekily wore my phone in a plastic holster attached to my belt, a setup that allowed the phone to vibrate right against my hip bone. Once I made the transition to pocketing my phone I found that I missed too many calls unless the phone both vibrated and rang. So now I have obnoxious ringtones. Loud ones. Because I otherwise won't hear the darn phone if there's much ambient noise.

On a side side note: Speaking of clocks, does anyone else have kids that are old enough but that still don't know how to read analog clocks despite your best efforts to teach them? Kids that don't know what "a quarter after" or "a quarter to" means? I know that digital clocks continue to proliferate, but there are still plenty of analog clocks around.

Me (hearing a lot of junior high hallway noise in the background): Hi.

Child: Hi, Dad! I had a substitute teacher today. Did you have a math teacher named Mr. X [name redacted] when you were my age?

Me: Uh ... yeah.

I doubt my child could sense the immense mixture of feelings that washed over me during that ellipsis.
  • Is that man still alive? And still substitute teaching?! How old could he be? Or how young was he when I was in junior high? For all I know he might have been fresh out of college back then. To my 13-year-old self anybody that was old enough to be a teacher was simply ancient. 25 or 95; what's the diff?
  • When I was a kid I thought of teachers kind of like school equipment that was switched off after we left school and that somebody switched back on before we arrived the next day. I couldn't fathom that they actually had regular lives complete with daily concerns like finances and family. Although I can see the regular lives of teachers I know nowadays, it still somehow amazes me that anyone that was one of my teachers actually existed outside of the school context. That irrational kid part of me wonders if Mr. X has just been stuck in the back of some storage room at the school all these years.
  • Should I tell my child how much this man intimidated girls in my class? He was kind of a handsome guy and the girls liked him, but only from a distance. Many wouldn't even approach his desk without taking friends along for protection. Given half a chance, Mr. X would jauntily snap any girl's bra strap, tweak her bottom, and/or make comments about her developing feminine anatomy. While these behaviors could bring very serious consequences nowadays, administrators treated those girls' complaints very lightly back then. Mr. X must have learned to curb that behavior since then. Maybe they installed an update to his programming.
  • Math! Why did it have to be math? (I'm thinking of an Indiana Jones analogy here.) I hated math. (So it's kind of odd that I went into accounting and ended up programming computers and writing algorithms.) The desktops in the math classrooms at our junior high school were emblazoned with a graph grid, a large circle, and various measurement aids. I remember Mr. X working out problems on the overhead projector as I glanced back and forth between the screen and the design on my desk without the slightest comprehension of what he was explaining. Sometimes I would slightly cross my eyes while staring at the grid on my desktop until the grid appeared to take on a three dimensional appearance. All the while Mr. X was talking, but my brain perceived his vocalizations pretty much like what you hear when an adult talks on a Charlie Brown cartoon.
  • On the other hand, I ran into some people a few years ago that talked about how much they admired Mr. X and talked about some great things he had done in the community where he lived. Could it be that my judgment is rather skewed by looking through my 13-year-old eyes?
  • Come on! Was it really necessary to dredge up this memory? Why is it that despite the intervening decades, part of me is still a 13-year-old kid staring dumbly at a sheet of junior high math problems?

Child: He said that you and some of my uncles were students of his.

Me (masking my emotions): That's true.

Child: He said to tell you hi.

Me (monotone): That's cool.

Child: Well, see ya Dad. I gotta go.

Me (glad that the conversation is finished): See ya later.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dying Dreams and the Sacrament

Sometimes I have glimpses of triumph. But it's not like I imagined it would be when I was younger.

In my youth I had grand plans for my life — aspirations of personal greatness and glory. On the rare occasions when those schemes have come to fruition I have invariably discovered less gold and more rubble than I had imagined, but almost always with a few unexpected gems hiding among the detritus.

Like nearly everyone else, however, most of my great ambitious have fallen prey to life's realities. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is (or can be) the process by we gain perspective and become grounded.

I think the first major adjustment to my lofty objectives came when as a young adult I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an incurable and sometimes debilitating chronic illness. Previously unknown dimensions suddenly confronted me, forcing a major reassessment.

Parenthood — one of the goals deliberately pursued — has instilled nearly continuous revisions as children's needs have surpassed my own. Nowadays I am mostly just trying to get by, hoping that my current trajectory will culminate in something much better than I had imagined as a young man.

This isn't as bleak as it might sound. Some of my wrecked goals can now be seen to have been puerile. In retrospect I am glad for their demise. Others simply weren't meant to be. I have become a different person than I had planned, but unlike Robert Frost's traveler in his poem The Road Not Taken, I do not regret taking a different path.

Some glimpses of glory yet to come have occurred in unexpected moments. I am reminded of an occasion several years ago when I was serving as a member of a bishopric. Like many LDS congregations, ours struggled (still struggles) with reverence problems in sacrament meeting, which, according to Elder Dallin H. Oaks, should be "the most sacred and important meeting in the Church."

That Sunday was like most in that our congregation was not particularly reverent during the administration of the sacrament. But something was different.

I don't recall the hymn we sang in preparation for the sacrament, but during the ordinance I kept thinking about President James E. Faust's lyrical poetry, This Is The Christ (see Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition). As I knew my own broken self and my need for the Savior's atonement, I reflected on Pres. Faust's question, "How many drops of blood were spilled for me?"

Then something deeply spiritual occurred within me. The gratitude I felt for the Savior caused tears to spring unbidden to my eyes — enough so that I couldn't hide them from the congregation. But it was not primarily an emotional experience; it was a spiritual event.

As I self consciously glanced sideways at the bishop and the other counselor I quickly noticed that each was having his own spiritual moment and that each had tears in his eyes. At that moment we all noticed each other. In a flash we shared a profound spiritual understanding that cannot adequately be described in earthly terms. We were united in divine worship. We felt God's love for us and for each member of the congregation.

The congregation wasn't any different. Children were still moving around and making noise, bored teenagers still whispered to each other and shifted in their seats, adults still flipped book pages and cleared their throats. But we were different. The sacrament, an ordinance I had experienced thousands of times, had risen to a new level of sacredness for us.

As with some of the rare moments parents experience with their children, this moment of joy reprioritized earthly matters and whispered of a greater and more sublime future.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Utah LDS Church Members Encouraged to Attend Political Caucus Meetings, but I Won't Be There

I found myself experiencing a bit of a dilemma last Sunday when a member of our bishopric read a letter from the First Presidency encouraging LDS Church members in Utah to exercise "their civic responsibility and privileges" by participating in political precinct caucus meetings that will be held this month (see LDS Newsroom article). This official counsel comes from men that I consider to be properly authorized to speak for God. Thus, I should carefully consider their admonition.

While some might read the First Presidency's statement to say, "Go to a political caucus meeting or be damned," I believe that reason and personal inspiration are required to determine how to honor any generalized prophetic counsel.

Some prophetic pronouncements are clear, unambiguous, and specifically as well as generally applicable for all people in all situations. For example, "Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Matthew 19:18). But the vast majority of prophetic directives do not fall into this category.

Consider, for example, the 1833 revelation on health known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89). Recent church leaders have made it clear that church members must abstain from the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea, and illegal drugs, as well as the abuse of any addictive substance to be in good standing with respect to the Word of Wisdom.

But what should we make of verse 17 where it implies that corn, oats, and rye are for various animals but not for humans? Are you breaking the Word of Wisdom if you eat corn on the cob, oatmeal, or rye bread? And what about the counsel in verses 14 and 17 suggesting that wheat is to be the "staff of life" for humans, in light of the fact that the wheat commonly used today is a dramatically different substance than the wheat used in 1833? If gluten causes you problems, are you breaking the Word of Wisdom if you eat no wheat?

What about President Monson's June 2013 statement that "Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord’s vineyard to bring souls unto Him."? Or his October 2012 statement that "we encourage all young men who are worthy and who are physically able and mentally capable to respond to the call to serve [as a full-time missionary]."? How are these statements to be applied?

It seems obvious that most prophetic counsel requires both rational judgment and spiritual insight to be specifically and individually applied, so that "all these things are done in wisdom and order" (Mosiah 4:17). I believe this is also the case when the First Presidency "encourages" church members to attend political caucus meetings.

Utah's system of nominating political party officials and candidates at precinct caucus meetings and escalating conventions has been under fire lately by well funded politically powerful interests. But at present it appears that the system will likely endure in some form. At any rate, it remains unchanged this year.

The First Presidency's letter describes precinct caucus meetings as "a grassroots level of political involvement in Utah [that] are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens." The Presidency also notes that those "who attend play a critical role in selecting candidates for public office."

For those that are interested, the Utah Democratic Party will hold its caucus meetings on Tuesday, March 18 at 6:30 PM and the Utah Republican Party will hold its meetings on Thursday, March 20 at 7:00 PM. You can see a full list of links to Utah's registered political parties here. Check your party's website to see whether/where your local caucus meeting will be held.

My problem is that I have entered a post partisan phase. At one time I was a staunch Republican. But when I found myself trying to defend some of my party's horrible politicians and policies I started to take a more critical view of the party and of the political process in general. When I looked across the aisle and saw Democratic apologists defending their party's awful politicians and policies I realized that there was a lot of the same kind of thing going on throughout the system.

The more I studied politics and separated what political actors really do from their stylistic and rhetorical approaches, the more it looked to me like all political actors (whether they believe it or not) were more of one kind — folks that get fulfillment by trading power over the lives of others — while the general citizenry were another kind — pawns in the political game. It looked to me like most of what partisans argued about boiled down to style and hyperbole rather than substantial differences in actions and results. The more I learned about how politics really works the less I wanted much to do with it.

I think that I really got on the road out of the GOP last time I attended a caucus meeting. Turnout that night was impressive. It soon became evident, however, that those that held individual liberty dear represented only a tiny minority of those present. Any that didn't enthusiastically support establishment candidates were quickly eliminated from vying to become delegates for the county or state conventions.

After watching the GOP for several more months I couldn't see how my views could ever be adequately represented by the party. I'm not like those sour grapes folks that whine that the party left them behind while their views remained unchanged. I think, rather, that as I became more clear on both my own views and the nature of the party I found too many irreconcilable differences to remain a member. Nor did I see a ready home for my views in any of the other parties. So I registered as an unaffiliated voter.

I have the utmost respect for those that know that their political party is deeply flawed and yet view it as the best avenue for them to see their political views represented in some measure. I have less respect for those that are well tuned to the defects of opposing parties while being largely blind to their own party's faults. (Maybe that's because I am abhorred that I was once among this latter group.)

My post partisan condition means that I have no neighborhood caucus meeting to attend this month. While some parties that do hold caucus meetings welcome unaffiliated voters, I cannot presently bring myself to work directly with those parties any more than I can bring myself to work with the GOP.

Others may legitimately come to different conclusions for themselves, but in my case I believe that the best way for me to have my political views represented is to vote with my feet and remain aloof from all political parties for now. Even after reviewing the First Presidency's counsel, I inwardly feel that this is the right approach for me. Thus, for the first time in many election cycles, I will not be attending a neighborhood caucus meeting this time around.

I pray for those that will be attending their caucus meetings this month, but I do so with limited faith. I'm afraid that I find myself agreeing with P.J. O'Rourke when he says that he has difficulty seeing God in politics, which appears rather to be the domain of "the Other Fellow."

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Baking Cookies for Mental Health

I like baking cookies. Or at least I used to like baking cookies.

I whipped up my first batch of cookies on a Sunday afternoon when I was nine years old. The task took three times longer than was necessary, dirtied three times more gear than was needed, and required repeated bouts of assistance from my mom. I also may have overcooked the morsels a bit. But in the end I was proud of the plate of cookies that I had (sort of) made all by myself.

It's easier — and probably cheaper — to buy ready made cookie dough than to mix up your own. For that matter, it's even easier to buy ready made cookies. In many cases it's likely cheaper too, when you consider the value of your time and the cost of running the equipment. But your house never fills with the magnificent scent of freshly baked cookies when you buy them already baked.

I have always relished the process of making cookies from scratch. And although experts warn against the possibility of food poisoning from eating cookie dough suffused with raw eggs, I can't seem to help sampling some of the concoction before it reaches the oven. And no, I have never (yet) been poisoned via this indulgence. (Knock on wood.)

We have plenty of cookbooks full of cookie recipes at our house. Of course, nowadays you can find copious volumes of cookie recipes online. We have the general ingredients needed for most basic cookie types at the house. Fancier recipes might require a trip to the supermarket for additional supplies.

But I hardly ever bake cookies nowadays because, along with all truly tasty treats cookies are bad, Bad, BAD, BAD!!! for you — as we are constantly reminded by an annoying army of health and nutrition scolds that are absolutely certain they know what's best for us.

I have always loved wheat, rice, and other grains. Ditto when it comes to refined sugars. The combination of grains and refined sugars aspires to a culinary ecstasy for me that is achieved in no other way.

Of course, ice cream — a frozen combination of refined sugar and dairy products — excels any grain based confection in exquisiteness for me. The difference being that I never make ice cream at home because I can never get the results to approach the delectability of the commercially made stuff. Nor does ice cream making produce the delightful scents conveyed when treats are baked.

But eschewing bondage to my sweet tooth I have largely avoided grains and sugars for the past several years. Yes, I feel better when I do so; although, I do not claim that such abstinence would be the right approach for others.

My body is now so unused to grains and sugars that my occasional forays into their consumption tend to produce mild to moderate unpleasant consequences, not all of which are physical. The bony blue fingered nutrition nags have succeeded in making me feel guilty whenever I take a dietary diversion. I can't seem to bring myself to enjoy as I once did the art of making cookies. So I don't do it very often.

For some reason I am reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride where Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen (the bad guys) are discussing their plans to torture Westley (the hero) and murder Buttercup (the maiden in distress):
Count Rugen: Ah. Are you coming down into the pit? Wesley's got his strength back. I'm starting him on the machine tonight.
Prince Humperdinck: [sincerely] Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped.
Count Rugen: Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything.
We are constantly regaled with similar assurances that we will be much happier if we do our best to maintain optimum physical health. For years I have seriously followed a strict health regimen involving exercise and diet. I am in pretty good shape for a formerly obese guy my age that has MS and hypothyroidism. I am grateful for the relative level of health I enjoy.

But if I am totally honest with myself, there is a certain grimness to my approach. What is the value of a longer and healthier existence in this nasty little world if such a life is bereft of simple pleasures such as baking and eating an occasional cookie without shame? Mental health is important too, you know.

I see a batch of cookies in the near future — for the sake of mental health, of course.

Monday, March 03, 2014

When A Church Lesson Goes Off Topic

I generally enjoy teaching at church. It wasn't always that way. At age 16 I was assigned to teach a church lesson the first Sunday of the summer I spent planting pineapple in Hawaii. The lesson went well for about seven minutes. The trouble was that I had about 38 more minutes to fill. I had planned on more input from class members (who were all teenage boys). Bad planning on my part. We survived, but it was pretty painful for all involved.

Yesterday I was assigned to teach a priesthood lesson. The only instruction I had was to focus on the Savior. I like to think that I have become a fairly adept teacher in the years since my debacle in Hawaii. I've been down the road of preparing and executing lessons a time or two. I have even stepped up to unexpectedly teach classes. Many of these experiences have been wonderful.

As I worked over several days to prepare yesterday's lesson I kept getting impressions. But there seemed to be something missing. None of these disparate ideas seemed to gel into a cohesive message. Nor did I get any particular impression about timing or order of presentation.

Finally I fell back on the talk given by David S. McConkie in the October 2013 general conference, where he said, "After you have prepared yourself and your lesson to the very best of your ability, you must be willing to let go. When the quiet promptings of the Holy Ghost come, you must have the courage to set aside your outlines and your notes and go where those promptings take you."

I had prepared. I had plenty of material to choose from. I could just jump in and let the lesson go where it needed to go, based on the needs of class members as dictated by the Spirit. Due to an unusual number of business items during priesthood opening exercises, about half the class period was gone by the time it was my turn. That would have bothered me if I had had more of an idea of how the lesson should go. But feeling rather rudderless, the short time remaining comforted me.

We had already sung a hymn in opening exercises, but I felt like I should start my lesson with a hymn. I chose My Redeemer Lives, a poem by Gordon B. Hinckley set to music by his lifelong friend G. Homer Durham. Then I quoted a favorite scripture, Omni 1:26. My intent to was to choose selections that testified of Christ.

Some of the best teaching that I have ever experienced in priesthood lessons has been during discussions where members have taught each other. I hoped to start a discussion based on the Savior by inviting class members to offer any favorite scriptures or sacred songs about the Savior.

Brother B. offered Hebrews 4:14-16. Brother H. talked about how he feels when he hears the children's song, I Feel My Savior's Love. So far so good. These were good things to mention, but not much discussion ensued.

Then another brother cited the Psalm of Nephi from 2 Nephi 4:15-35. These are powerful verses that are among my favorite scriptures. But they don't specifically mention the Savior, so they were somewhat off topic. Another brother then talked about how inspired he feels when he hears America the Beautiful and My Country, 'Tis of Thee; songs I love but that don't directly reference Christ.

It kind of went on in that vein with brethren talking about fine songs and scriptures that uplifted them but that were off the lesson topic. I would express appreciation for the insights offered but would then try to pull the discussion back to the Savior without much success.

With time running out I closed off discussion. Hoping to return to my assigned topic, I referenced some inspiring events recorded in 3 Nephi 17 and the story of the disciples walking with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35.

After concluding I felt unsatisfied about how the lesson had gone. It felt like a jumble in my mind. Why had I felt like I was wrestling with the class members? Moreover, why had I felt like I was wrestling with the Spirit? I had done my best to follow the assignment given by my priesthood leader. Should I have jettisoned the topic and allowed the discussion to flow with less restraint? What was the Spirit trying to tell me that I had been too hard hearted to receive?

Yesterday's lesson was enough to make me question my teaching abilities. But maybe that's where the problem lies. In church instruction, human teaching skills are only valuable to the extent that they are used to assist the Holy Ghost in teaching. Sticking too tightly to a topic can sometimes get in the way of that instruction, even when the topic is as centrally important as the Savior. Or perhaps the Lord had prepared a different path to such a witness than I was willing to permit.

I'm still not sure what went wrong yesterday. But I will be taking a different approach the next time I prepare a lesson for church.