Monday, February 22, 2010

Singing (LDS) Hymns of Praise

I have long had a deep appreciation for Latter-Day Saint hymns. I frequently sing hymns, play them on the piano, listen to them, or even just replay them in my head.

The messages of many hymn lyrics are spiritually profound. Hymn tunes alone often seem to carry a sense of the sacred. The combination of a hymn’s lyrics and tune can carry a spiritual message to the soul that exceeds the sum of the parts. Sometimes that can be a soul healing balm. Other times it may be a witness of truth or a motivation to do right.

One of my favorite hymn listening experiences is when a woman in our ward (congregation) and a man from a nearby ward team up to play a piano-violin duet hymn medley. Choirs can be enjoyable to hear as well.

But best of all is listening to my little daughter sing sacred songs. She has loved to sing since she was very young. She frequently spontaneously sings wherever she happens to be. Most often, her songs are children’s sacred songs. Almost every night you can hear her sing herself to sleep after bedding down for the night. It is a precious and sacred experience to be a dad listening on the other side of the door.

While I derive strength from listening to hymns, it is even more impactful for me to sing or play hymns myself. The action oriented, first person nature of this activity is soul enveloping.

While I love many LDS hymns, I must admit that there are a few that I find rather odd. At the beginning of family home evening each week, we sing a hymn from the LDS hymnal. We began years ago with hymn #1. Each week we advance to the next hymn number. Sometimes we repeat a hymn if the family has found it especially difficult. We have run through the entire book a couple of times, so we have sung every one of the 341 hymns in the book.

If I had to guess, I’d suppose that most active LDS adults that live in the most populous areas of church membership are very familiar with about 50 hymns. They probably have some familiarity with another 50 and can recognize more. But I’d bet that most of them would be very surprised at some of the songs in the book.

Every once in a while our family comes across a hymn that we’re certain is in the book only because it was written by a church general authority, a member of the church music committee, or a relative of one of these. Seriously, there is a reason that you never hear some of these hymns. Sometimes it may be due to the tune and other times the lyrics (or both in some unfortunate situations).

Conversely, we have come upon a few hymns I have never heard in any meeting that seem to be wonderful both in word and tune. Other decent hymns are seldom sung. My kids think that songs like Raise Your Voices to the Lord (two short two-line verses), Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord (one verse), When Faith Endures (one verse), and Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow (one verse) ought to be sung more often.

Not every hymn is intended for congregational singing. Some, such as What Was Witnessed in the Heavens? are suited only to talented choirs. You never hear some tunes because they are too complex for the average accompanist to play. (Some composers seem to have been competing to jam the maximum number of accidentals into a hymn.) Other hymns come from a musical era that has fallen out of style.

There are hymns that I am sure others love that I can’t stand. The tune to Come unto Him drives me nuts. The lyrics are beautiful. But I can’t listen to the tune without hearing it played on a circus calliope in my head. A friend of mine detests Who’s on the Lord’s Side? because the tune sounds like a seafaring ditty. He says that every time he hears it, he expects to see Popeye come floating by in his boat with his pipe clenched in his teeth. (Toot, toot!)

Another friend dislikes If You Could Hie to Kolob because it’s dreary and continually repeats the phrase, “There is no end to ….” She quips, “There is no end to this song!” Father, This Hour Has Been One of Joy is set to one of the least joyful tunes I have ever heard. In fact, there’s a whole section of dreary hymns that sound like music designed to induce depression. (Are those really necessary?)

Some hymns with nice lyrics but unpleasant tunes can be redeemed by singing them to the tune of another hymn. Each hymn has a meter. The tunes of hymns that share the same meter are interchangeable. Switching the tune and lyrics of two familiar hymns can add variety. For example, you can sing the lyrics of Sing We Now At Parting to the tune of Onward, Christian Soldiers. Look at the meter section of the hymnal and try mixing and matching hymn tunes at home. Even some hymns with mismatched meters can be mixed. You can sing the lyrics of Joseph Smith’s First Prayer to the tune of Jesus, Lover of My Soul.

While sacred matters should be treated with appropriate demeanor, I must admit that our family is not above occasionally poking fun at certain hymns. Truth Reflects upon our Senses is a running joke in our home for two reasons.

When I was a kid, every time we sang this song, the voices of two older widows in the ward could be heard above the congregation. These wonderful sisters probably had beautiful voices years earlier. But age had taken its toll to the point that they sounded an awful lot like cats in heat. Also, their vocal training had come in an age when sliding from note to note was popular. People singing like that are sure to hit the actual note at some point, albeit, briefly. I loved these ladies, but their singing grated. And it never grated worse than when singing Truth Reflects.

Then there’s the rhyming problem. The hymn’s lyricist, Eliza R. Snow was a renowned LDS poet. But even for a Massachusetts native, the rhyming of some of the lines of the third verse is strained beyond recognition. I’ve never been able to make “mote” and “out” rhyme. Likewise with “dim” and “beam.” It is not uncommon for members of our family to joke about having a bim in their eye or seeing a supporting bim in a construction project.

One recent Sunday when singing this hymn, my teenage son glanced slyly at me sideways along the bench and sang, “Once I said unto another, in thine eye there is a mote. If thou art a friend and brother, hold and let me pull it ote.” I held my composure. He then sang, “But I could not see it fairly for my sight was very dim. When I came to search more clearly, in mine eye there was a bim.” I chuckled right in the middle of the song.

I like some hymns better than others. I suspect that most other worshippers feel the same way. But I usually count it a blessing to sing even those hymns I don’t particularly care for. I am grateful for talented and willing accompanists. I have often taken my turn as music director, but in wards like mine a director is hardly needed. The congregation follows the organist.

The current edition of the LDS Hymn book was published in 1985, so it is a quarter century old this year. The previous edition came out in 1948/1950, some 35+ years earlier. A lot of sacred LDS music has been written since 1985, but given the track record, I assume that it will be quite a while before a new LDS hymnal is published. In the meantime, the hymns in the 1985 edition will continue to bring peace and joy to me and hopefully to many others.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Our Scout Flag Fundraising Project

Our local Boy Scout troop runs a perpetual patriotic fundraiser that is employed by many troops in our area. Scouts sell subscriptions to place an American flag on the subscriber’s property on certain patriotic holidays each year.

I was serving in the sponsoring institution’s leadership at the time this fundraiser was proposed a number of years ago. Mine was one of the voices against the plan. But that turned out to be the minority opinion. So the fundraiser went forward.

The cost of an annual subscription must be minimized, while the net revenue from the operation must be maximized. This usually means getting cheap flags and poles. In our case, as is the case with every other similar project that I know of, cheap lightweight flags are permanently attached to 8’ pieces of ¾” diameter PVC pipe using plastic cinch strips. A short piece of rebar is pounded into the parking strip, and the end of the pipe is placed over the rebar.

One of my objections to this project had to do with the fact that it didn’t seem to teach proper respect for our nation’s flag. According to the U.S. Flag Code, §176(e), “The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.” Rolling the flag around a piece of PVC, and chucking it into the back of a truck strikes me as less than complete compliance with the code.

The way the project works in our troop, new subscribers pay $30 for the first year. Returning subscribers pay $25 annually. The $5 surcharge for new subscribers is meant to cover the cost of materials. Scouts put the flags up on 10 holidays annually. That’s a cost of $2.50 (or $3) per day. The proceeds are used to help defray the cost of the troop’s annual weeklong summer camp.

After my oldest son entered the troop, we got to where we started to hate certain holidays. The flags had to be put up around sunrise and then taken down around sunset on these days. It put a crimp on family activities.

We had a large troop back then. The practice was for boys to show up at the scoutmaster’s house early in the morning. The flags were usually divided between two or three vehicles, which ferried the flags and the boys around to do the setup. The process was repeated in reverse in the evening. Sometimes there weren’t many helpers. Families often go away on these holidays. My son/s was/were gone for 60-90 minutes each of these mornings and 60-90 minutes each of these evenings.

The scoutmaster divided the total amount of annual subscriptions (less the cost of new and replacement equipment) by 10 to get the amount allotted to each holiday. That amount was divided equally among the boys that showed up to do the work each time. Frequently this meant that my sons earned less than $5 for three hours of work.

That didn’t seem like a very good deal. With revenue that low, why not just put up the flags as a cost-free service? After all, my sons could earn better wages toward camp by mowing lawns and cleaning cars in the neighborhood.

The troop and the sponsoring institution have gone through leadership changes since then. There have been other changes too. The troop has half the number of boys, for one thing. The current scoutmaster only issues and receives flags. He does not participate in putting them up or taking them down.

This new method is far more family friendly. Each Scout signs up for a specific flag route that covers about 10 homes. The Scout and his family are responsible for picking the flags up the evening prior to the holiday, setting them up in the morning, taking them down late in the day, and getting the flags back to the scoutmaster.

(Yes, I know that a troop with a fully functional troop committee would handle this stuff so that the scoutmaster could deal with his central duties. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the ideal situation?)

The process now takes about 20 minutes in the morning and about 20 minutes in the evening. Parents bear the cost of using their own vehicles, but there is no waiting around for others to show up. Each Scout has a stewardship over a specific route. This is much better than doing the setup and takedown en masse.

Given the number of subscribers, each boy currently earns $10 for setup and $10 for takedown. So each Scout can earn $20 per patriotic holiday. If it’s a holiday when lots of Scouts are gone, an enterprising boy might be able to pick up an extra route, thus earning $40 that day for a little over an hour of work.

One drawback recently came to light. The troop recently grew by three boys. No boys will move out of the troop until the end of summer. The scoutmaster believes that it would be counterproductive to rework the routes and pay rates for such a temporary change, when it looks like the troop roster will stabilize after that for a long time.

So, for the next few months, there will be competition between the boys to get a route. The scoutmaster says he will likely end up rotating the routes to provide for equal opportunity. That means that some boys will have to come up with more money on their own to pay for camp. I suppose that’s not such a bad thing.

Even though the scoutmaster doesn’t do the setup or takedown of the flags any more, administering the project can still be burdensome. Someone has to be there to distribute the flags, look to make sure they get put up, and then receive the flags back into storage. Ah, the sacrifices one makes to be a scoutmaster.

Regarding my fears about disrespecting the American flag, I guess I’ve learned that there is a tradeoff. You don’t want a boy to be casual about handling the flag. But having them put up and take down a number of flags 10 times annually over several years can instill some patriotic values that might not be learned otherwise. Still, I have noticed that in an effort to maximize profits, the troop is sometimes slow to replace flags that get worn or soiled.

Over the years I have learned that the Scout flag fundraiser can provide an overall good experience. Or not — depending on how it is handled.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Government Bureaucrats Aim to Keep Scouts Out of Yellowstone Back Country

At the age of 12 I made my first foray into the back country of Yellowstone National Park with my Boy Scout troop. By age 17, I was guiding Boy Scout troops into the Yellowstone back country as a member of the staff at Camp Loll, which is located about two miles south of the southern border of the park.

Throughout my adult life I have on various occasions hiked into the Yellowstone back country with Boy Scout groups. My oldest two sons have also guided troops on Yellowstone hikes as members of the Camp Loll staff. I have been looking forward to hiking to Union Falls with my #3 son’s troop this summer.

Now, thanks to a bureaucratic response to a Sierra Club lawsuit, my son and thousands of other young Americans may never get an opportunity to enjoy the back country of our nation’s premier national park.

Yellowstone National Park officials have worked closely with the Camp Loll staff for many years to train back country guides, provide marvelous back country experiences to thousands of young Boy Scouts, and help the Scouts minimize impact to this rare and delicate environment. The BSA has not only complied with all requirements, but has taken extra precautions to improve the back country and to minimize impact.

Despite this long and successful partnership between the BSA and the NPS, new rules were recently imposed that would essentially destroy Camp Loll’s back country hiking program. Under the rules, nonprofit group usage of the park’s back country now falls under the auspices of the park’s Concession Management Division (CMD).

With no warning or public input, the CMD has arbitrarily imposed severe limits on the number of Scouts that can hike to the destinations most popular to Camp Loll hikers. Under these rules, thousands of young Americans will be prohibited from experiencing the national heritage that has presumably been preserved for them (per the act that created the park service).

Delose Conner, director of Camp Loll, provides more details on this matter in his own blog post.

There are those that pose as friends of the environment that would turn our nation’s wilderness areas into private reserves for favored groups. In a day when many such groups complain that our youth do not get out into nature enough, some actively work to keep young Americans out of nature.

Our national parks belong to all Americans, not just those with an elitist mindset. It is wrong to prevent those that responsibly use and maintain the back country from enjoying its use. Fortunately, it’s not too late to prevent this tragedy. Timely letters and emails can remedy the problem in time for the upcoming summer season.

Letters should be sent to your congressional representative and your senators, to the superintendent of Yellowstone, and to the head of the park’s CMD. Delose provides addresses in his post. He also provides a copy of the letter he is sending in this post.

Were it not for my involvement in the BSA, I probably would never have ventured into the Yellowstone back country. I would never have experienced the natural wonders of Union Falls and Terraced Falls. I may never have learned proper conservation techniques. Countless others fall into this same category. Don’t let the elitists and the bureaucrats lock our youth out of areas that, as Americans, they have every right to enjoy.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Social Studies

School was a difficult time for me — especially my elementary and junior high years. Each school has its own micro-culture. And just like any cultural microcosm, the first order of business is to determine the pecking order — the hierarchy of power.

For students, the process of doing that differs somewhat between boys and girls, but it can be fairly brutal for either group. Actually, I think it’s much simpler for boys. Everything is governed according to size, aggressiveness, and athletic ability. As you get older, there is some credit given for academic ability. But sometimes this can even work against a boy with his peers, as he can become regarded as a teacher’s pet — in effect, being labeled as a shill for the wardens.

The rule is pretty straightforward. The boys that win the size-aggression-athlete lottery intimidate, beat on, and treat as inferior and subservient the boys that come up short on this scale. It doesn’t take long for the boys entering Kindergarten to figure out the hierarchy. Move-ins, move-outs, and physical changes can alter the dynamics somewhat over time, but many are permanently relegated to the same approximate classification throughout their school years.

Just being big doesn’t necessarily push you up the scale either. A big boy that is shy and is poor at sports is likely to spend his school years as a member of the disrespected grunt class. From my earliest years, I knew a boy named Joey that was like that.

Being one of the youngest kids in my class — I was more than a year younger than many members of my class — I was perpetually way behind the average in physical development. Moreover, I seem to have come into this world athletically impaired. I was (am) lousy at sports and I was always one of the last to be picked for any kind of team athletic event.

Being good at sports can help overcome being small of stature. I went to school with Ray from first grade on. Although he was smaller than me, he was great at sports. So he ranked among the popular group in the hierarchy.

Early in life I developed an intense aversion to sports that continues to this day. I don’t know how much money you’d have to pay to get me to watch a whole football game from start to end. You’d have to pay me a lot more to watch a baseball game because I find the sport incredibly boring. Aside from the occasional Olympic event, I don’t watch sports unless one of my children is playing.

In some ways, I think girls have it much worse than boys. Their method of deriving a pecking order is far more complex and sometimes more insidious than the male model. There’s a reason that the word “catty” is used in the English language almost exclusively to describe interactions between human females.

There is also a reason that American politics is heavily dominated by men, some notable exceptions notwithstanding. Our nation’s top politicians are rank political amateurs compared to the average eighth grade girl wending her way through the political minefield that makes up the relationship hierarchy among peers. Why reduce oneself to a lower political status?

Boys can be friends one day, have a scuffle the next, and then be pals again the following day. But if girls that are friends have a falling out, they’ll often end up being enemies FOREVER. Boy fights and girl fights also differ. Despite all the stuff about finesse in boxing or martial arts, most boy fights come down to an exchange of a few clumsy blows.

I got in a few ‘fights’ during my school years. I was challenged several times by guys that, I guess, figured I was marginally wimpier than them. There was a lot of pressure not to chicken out of an after school fight, even if you didn’t think there was any reason for fighting.

The only time any of my fights actually came to physical blows was in the fifth grade when a boy named Ken challenged me to a fight with the warning that he and his friends would get me if I failed to show up. To this day, I still don’t understand what it was we were supposed to be fighting about — perhaps just to establish pecking order and nothing else.

Of course, there were other guys there to make sure it all went off. At first, I just kept refusing to fight. I wouldn’t even put my school stuff down. Then Ken came at me and grabbed me in what I guess was supposed to be some kind of wrestling move. In a panicked response, I brought the ukulele I was holding squarely down on Ken’s noggin. About a quarter of the back panel of the instrument broke off. Ken stood back, laughed derisively, and said, “That didn’t hurt!” But in his eyes I could tell otherwise.

Ken and his friends called out some insults. But the fight was over. I went home scared, angry, and confused. But none of those guys ever bothered me again. The broken ukulele still worked for another 10 years.

I still remember the first time I saw two girls at school engaged in a “catfight.” That turned out to be an appropriate name for the activity. I viewed the spectacle on the front lawn of the school as a girl named Cindy and another girl whose name I can’t remember screeched, scratched, hissed, ripped hair, and otherwise acted very much like two cats fighting. It wasn’t pretty, but it was hard to look away.

Being stuck down low on the school social hierarchy can be painful. Being one of the youngest in my class, I was also perpetually developmentally behind the average class member. I can remember sitting in math class in elementary school, watching others around me busily completing their tests, while I sat there without the slightest comprehension of what I was supposed to do on the test. I got used to being stupid in almost every subject.

The situation didn’t improve much during junior high school. But in the last two years of high school, it was as if someone flipped a switch in my head that suddenly made almost everything I worked on highly comprehensible. I earned top grades during those years while hardly ever taking homework home.

For me, school was a place I had to go that was filled with tasks I had to do. Although I occasionally engaged in extracurricular school related activities, I preferred to stay away from the place during off hours. I didn’t get into the social scene at school and I was always eager to leave at the end of the school day.

My wife, on the other hand, found tremendous social fulfillment at school. She still gets together several times each year with a group of women that were schoolmates back in the day. I tolerate attending her high school class reunions, but I avoid attending mine. I didn’t enjoy hanging out with those folks years ago. Why would I want to hang out with them now?

My graduation celebration was rather simple. After turning in our caps and gowns following commencement exercises held in the school’s gym, I went with some friends to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I then went home because I had to get up early in the morning to go to work.

Before going to bed, I looked through the yearbook. I was surprised to find myself crying and feeling something very strange. I had been engaged in compulsory public education for a dozen years and had endured what for me was a fairly unpleasant social structure. Still, it was as if I was mourning the passing of an era. It was like being at a funeral. How could there be any life worth living beyond what I had known for most of my young life?

But life teaches us some wonderful lessons. One of them is that life goes on even after major milestones. I spent that summer working at a Boy Scout camp in a remote area of the Tetons. By the time I returned at the end of the summer, I was preparing to begin college. Since graduation night those years ago, I have never had even a single moment of pining for my old school days. Of course, given where I was on the social ladder in that culture, there’s little wonder that I’m grateful that those days are long past.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Personal Greatness

In a church meeting I attended yesterday, the speaker asked the attendees to think of those few people they had known that they would consider to be truly great. It didn’t take me long to formulate a quick list. I was actually a bit surprised at the first couple of names that popped into my head.

The speaker then asked us to think about what factors made these people great. He then suggested a point that might be drawn from this exercise. I found that I had thought in quite a different direction. Not an opposing direction; just different.

As a side note, I find that I am less prone to single-threaded thinking than I used to be. It used to be that when I found myself drawing different conclusions than an instructor, I would immediately chide myself and work to correct the discrepancy. I have come to realize, however, that in some cases there is no single correct answer and that there can be value in exploring other thought trails.

I sat and mulled over what it was that made those on my list great. My first thought was that each of these people had taken a personal interest in me and had served me. That is, I had (at least at some point in time) a personal relationship with each of these individuals. Each had demonstrated individual concern for me. Moreover, each one engendered in me a sense of personal value.

But there was something more to it. I thought of others that didn’t make my list that had, nevertheless, helped me comprehend my personal value and with whom I had been close. I realized that each of the individuals on my list had helped me stretch to achieve and become more than I thought was possible for me. Sometimes this meant enduring uncomfortable situations. Each of these individuals had required me to try again when I failed and had been confident of my eventual success.

Still, there seemed to be yet another element that was missing, because I could think of a few for whom I could check both of these first two boxes but that were not on my list of greats. I finally concluded that each of my ‘greats’ had been devoted to a cause that was bigger than themselves. They weren’t sacrificing just to do their duty. They cared about the success of a greater cause.

There are probably other elements at play as well. But, in general I can say that the people on my list of those I have known that have demonstrated personal greatness:
  • Cared about and served me personally.
  • Saw more in me than I saw in myself and helped me become better than I thought I could be.
  • Were dedicated to a greater cause.
I also realized something else that I hadn’t thought about much before. Each of my great individuals is (was) a fallible human being with personal foibles and idiosyncrasies. I can perceive flaws in these people and still have a rich appreciation for them. Since greatness does not require perfection, there is no need to ignore shortcomings or to pretend that they don’t exist.

My life has been blessed by association with great individuals. I doubt that any on my list would consider themselves to be possessed of greatness. But that’s just another point in their favor.