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.

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?