Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Love's Pure Light

Sometimes I sing songs without giving the lyrics much thought. This is especially true of familiar songs. I have always loved the Christmas lullaby Silent Night, but I was long into my adult years before I paid close enough attention to understand the third verse.

Most people in North America can sing the first verse of Silent Night and most are familiar with the second and third verses. I have sung these lines countless times throughout my life. From the time I was old enough to do so, I sang verse three like this:
“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God loves pure light….”
As a child, I pictured in my mind’s eye the baby Jesus in a manger peacefully enjoying pure light from heaven shining down on him. As I matured, I added to this the concept of the Savior loving pure light, as in loving intelligence and truth.

Then one day I actually read the third verse of Silent Night in a choir arrangement I was singing. It read this way:
“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God, love’s pure light….”
I did a double take. The comma after the term “Son of God” and the apostrophe in the word “love’s” seemed out of place. Surely this was a printer’s error. I quickly opened my hymnbook and read the exact same phrase.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had always understood the third verse incorrectly. While the Son of God certainly loves pure light, the phrase really means that Jesus Christ IS the pure light of love. It is a description of his identity rather than a report of his enjoyments.

There it was, right before my eyes in language simple enough for a third grader to understand. Yet I didn’t get it for most of my life.

As I comprehended the actual meaning of this phrase, the next phrase made more sense to me. It had always seemed kind of disjointed — filler added in to make the meter and rhyme work. Now I understood that radiant beams come from Jesus’ holy face because he is the source of the light of love.

I also understood that the love mentioned is Christ’s atonement — his redeeming grace. Having just been born, it would be years before he carried out his atonement. But his miraculous birth was certainly the dawn that would culminate in the accomplishment of his redeeming grace.

These simple and beautiful rhythmic lines accompanied by an even simpler lovely melody suddenly had an impact on me that I had somehow missed up to that point in my life.

“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth;
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
Although I have always cherished the hymn Silent Night, I now love it even more because I finally comprehend its actual meaning.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Coping with Technological Change

Novelist Orson Scott Card offers salve to the minds of those wringing their hands about the social changes brought about by the Internet and social networking media in this WSJ op-ed. In essence, Card suggests that people get over it. Society is morphing in this direction and nothing you do will stop this trend.

Card acknowledges that there are down sides to our modern (and continually shifting) social-technological conventions. For example, “Pornographers, pedophiles and other predators use their online invisibility to evade the negative consequences of their activities.” While this is surely a problem, it is hardly the only problem. The most frequent complaint I hear is people becoming disconnected from those around them.

I think, however, that Card has a point when he compares the Internet revolution with other socio-technological changes that we’ve learned to live with, such as the automobile. While we grapple with traffic problems and environmental impacts, few of us would care to, as Card puts it, “give up cars, trains and planes to return to the hay-eating, vet-needing, poop-generating, one-horsepower horse.”

As far as people becoming disconnected, Card asserts that people are actually connected in different ways that do not necessarily require close proximity. He says that we “sort ourselves into interest groups and communities that have no relation to geography.” Indeed, some observers claim that our society is more socially connected than at any time in history.

Maybe. But there are also those that claim that the quality of these social interactions is wanting; that our social networking gives us unprecedented width in our relationships while providing equally unprecedented shallowness. Unlike physically helping a neighbor in need, a tweet-if-you-care exercise conveys little more than a good feeling. There is no real sacrifice required or substance behind it.

In several of his works, C.S. Lewis decried those that regarded themselves as being caring and loving for adopting a level of concern for distant people and groups with which they had little real contact. Many of these people, said Lewis, treat their closest neighbors with disdain. This allows them to feel good about having largely imaginary love for people they can only imagine while harboring real hate for the fellowmen that surround them.

This is not strictly an either-or proposition. The point is that we can, through our social networking, come to feel as if we care deeply for those we know only as acquaintances, while allowing our closer and more important relationships to suffer. There is no shortage of examples of this in our modern world.

In the last LDS general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard disapprovingly said, “Not long ago a bishop told me two of his youth were standing side by side texting one another rather than talking to each other.”

It almost seems as if Card (a Mormon) is replying to Elder Ballard when he says that “it makes perfect sense for teenagers to text each other even when they're at the same party, or sitting on the same couch. For one thing, nobody can overhear them. And texting gives them time to frame their words more carefully, even if they're using shorthand their parents don't understand, like "imo" (in my opinion) or "aaf" (always and forever).”

Still, it is wise for parents to be aware of their children’s media choices so that these can be steered in a healthy direction. As a parent, I find this extremely challenging. It used to be that the only TV in the house was in a common room so that it was difficult for family members to privately view unwholesome material. Youth might escape to their rooms or to the car to listen to music their parents didn’t like, but it was difficult to keep that completely private.

Nowadays, media choices are increasingly individualized. We don’t watch a lot of TV at our house. But we do have a lot of computer, cell phone, and personal media device usage going on. I’ve got Internet filters on all of our computers, but it is still quite easy to access objectionable content. All of our computers are in public areas of the home, but family members often sit at these with headphones on. It is not possible to always monitor what is happening on the computers. And monitoring cell phone activity is even more difficult.

No matter what you or I do, technology will march forward and social trends will adapt. We are as unlikely to be successful in staying aloof from these changes as those that tried to remain behind the transportation revolution. Some will romantically flirt with “living simply,” but not that many are interested in actually living like the Amish. I note that cell phones are a common item at mountain man rendezvous re-enactments.

The answer for most is to learn to use evolving technologies in a healthy manner. This is not really a new thing. People have been coping with technological change since the dawn of history. The pace of such change seems increasingly rapid. But humans are very adaptable creatures.

I have full confidence that societies will successfully absorb even relatively radical technological changes. But individuals will adopt these changes at different rates. Me included. I’m still not on Facebook.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Generous Alternative to Christmastime Neighbor Gifts

A few years ago, some of the neighbors decided that they’d had enough of Christmastime neighbor gifts. No, they didn’t stop liking their neighbors. But they became concerned about the money people in the neighborhood spent each Christmas season to give each other mostly useless knickknacks, unhealthy treats (of which each household already has an abundance at that time of year), and the like.

Instead of running around from home to home distributing useless and unneeded stuff, wouldn’t it be better to gather and spend time face to face? Wouldn’t it be better to take the money spent on neighbor gifts and give it to those that actually are in need?

That’s how our neighborhood Christmas party began. The second Monday each December, we gather to share one another’s company. Everyone brings treats, so we still have the less-than-nutritious Christmas fare. But you feel less of an obligation to sample the various dishes. You don’t feel like failing to eat junk food will offend your neighbors.

When we gather, we socialize and even sing Christmas songs. We collect items and money to donate to the needy. We go home happy that we’ve shared Christmas cheer with our neighbors while also sharing some of our abundance with those that are less fortunate. Nobody is forced to participate, but we generally get a pretty good turnout.

In the early years, we held the event in one of the neighborhood’s cul-de-sacs. Several neighbors provided fire barrels. We roasted marshmallows and sang songs. That was lots of fun. But then came a couple of years in a row where the weather was quite nasty on the second Monday in December. So last year, one family offered their home for the party. It was quite enjoyable gathering inside. It looks like that tradition will continue.

Each year, one neighbor takes charge of gathering the donations and getting them to appropriate charities. Folks have tended to be fairly generous.

I’m grateful for insightful neighbors that decided to transform neighborhood gifting into neighborhood gathering and sharing. It’s a great neighborhood tradition. I hope it will continue for many years to come.

Oh, it’s time to go to this year’s gathering.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Christmas Without a Hot Wheels Car

When I was quite young, I started getting and playing with Matchbox cars. I registered to receive a small catalog annually that showed the available models. I would spend hours looking at each page over and over again, finding the few cars I owned, and coveting many that I did not.

Then Hot Wheels cars came on the scene. This changed everything. While Matchbox cars were made to look like actual vehicles that were in mass production, Hot Wheels cars depicted custom hot rods and muscle cars.

To top it off, Hot Wheels were made to actually race on plastic tracks. The most I could do with Matchbox cars was to play with them on the car town blanket my Mom had made for me. Matchbox cars might have won the reality contest, but that was so mundane. Hot Wheels cars won the coolness contest hands down.

Like every other boy I knew, I wanted Hot Wheels cars. And therein lies the rub. Hot Wheels cars and tracks were the ur-popular Christmas gift for boys that year. In my town, demand quickly outstripped supply. Anxious parents soon found it impossible to buy Hot Wheels toys for their young sons.

I never experienced a needy Christmas. We didn’t get the piles of stuff or expensive things that some of our friends with more spendy parents got, but my parents always made sure that we got sufficient booty each Christmas morning.

That year on Christmas morning, I was as excited as ever as I unwrapped my gifts and piled them in my personal treasure hoard. I was delighted when I opened a shiny miniature race car as my older brothers opened Hot Wheels cars. One brother got a single strip of Hot Wheels track that we quickly attached to the kitchen table with the included plastic C-clamp.

Then came an early lesson in branding. My brothers pointed out to me that my car was not an actual Hot Wheels brand toy. It was from some unknown company. While it was a racer, it had skinny wheels instead of wide Hot Wheels tires. It was lighter weight than my brothers’ Hot Wheels cars. They only permitted me to run my inferior imitation on the official Hot Wheels track after threats of discipline by my parents.

Mom explained that there simply were no more Hot Wheels cars to be had and that it had been difficult to find the car they had given me. I refused to be mollified. In a matter of a few moments, my delight with my Christmas bounty turned to vexation. Nothing had physically changed. I still had the same pile of gifts as before. It was just that one of the cheapest gifts was not the popular brand.

I had received a carrying case that was designed to hold 24 Hot Wheels cars, but I had no Hot Wheels cars to put in the case. I stowed my new racer and my Matchbox cars in some of the slots. Most slots were still empty.

All of the slots in my carrying case filled up over the next couple of years, mostly with new Hot Wheels cars. This included my first Hot Wheels car, the greenish Silhouette that had a plastic bubble for a roof. (I still have a replica of it in my junk drawer.) I eventually had so many cars that I had to stack some of the lower profile models together in slots.

I also got new tracks over the next few years. One had a “Supercharger” house that made cars zoom around the track. Another was specially built for “Sizzlers” rechargeable cars. I even got a “Hotline” train set and an “Earthshakers” bulldozer based on the same technology.

I kept my first racer. But I almost never actually played with it. I was ashamed to show it to friends or to let anyone know that I even had the car, although; it was actually pretty fast on the track.

How easy it is to turn from gratitude to unhappiness when something that is perfectly fine on its own doesn’t meet the approval of peers. How tempting it is to hide away a gift when others are critical of it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Equally Precious Brothers and Sisters

Like many others, I recently attended an LDS Church worldwide leadership training meeting. I attended the broadcast at my local stake center, which was pretty jam-packed with people. There were thousands of similar gatherings throughout the world.

The intent of the meeting was to introduce the church’s new second volume of the church administration handbook. In the meeting, some of the handbook changes were highlighted and a variety of principles were emphasized. (Volume one is available only to those holding higher leadership callings at each level of the church. A separate training meeting addressed that book.)

Everyone at the meeting was instructed to read the first six chapters of the handbook, as well as the portions of the manual that relate specifically to their current church assignments. It was noted that the first three chapters contain basic doctrinal principles. This wasn’t a heavy reading assignment. Each chapter is relatively brief, covering only a few pages.

Church leaders decided to give everyone in church leadership positions the entire volume two manual. The practice in the past has been to distribute only the portion relating to one’s current assignment. Leaders will now be able to see how their position is supposed to work with other positions.

One thing I noted right away was that the book is somewhat briefer than its preceding edition. It was explained that an effort was made to achieve both clarity and conciseness. There is a stronger focus on those elements that must be consistent across the entire church, regardless of the size and strength of a congregation and other variable conditions. It was further explained that leaders are to rely more strongly on guidance from the Holy Spirit and from their local leaders when it comes to matters not addressed or only briefly addressed by the handbook.

Organizational leaders in church units are to pick up added responsibilities so that the bishop may focus on those matters that must be handled personally by him. Organizational leaders are not to do more work; they are to delegate what they reasonably can to others. This will spread out the work and strengthen the church by expanding individual responsibility and accountability.

As I began to read the new handbook, I came upon the final paragraph of section 1.4.3 under the heading “Strengthening Individuals.”

“Every member of the Church is as precious as every other. God’s eternal plan provides for all of His faithful children to receive every blessing of eternal life, exalted in families forever.”
The second sentence above is well established doctrine. Hence the church’s strong emphasis on families and eternal marriage.

The first sentence is also not new. But I have reflected on it many times since first reading it. I wonder how many of my fellow church members actually believe the doctrine that each church member is as precious as any other.

That would include church members that live very sinful lives, those that shun the church, the bratty kid that disrupts Sunday school class every week, those that disingenuously mooch off the church’s welfare system, the unconverted for whom the church is simply a social institution, the crotchety guy on the corner that yells at kids that walk across his lawn, the gossip, and those that refuse to accept callings, among others.

It would include members whose lifestyles fail to align with the traditional family pattern, those that are disabled, foreigners that are in the country illegally and/or that speak a different language and have a different culture, the illiterate, etc.

All are equally precious.

It seems to me that there is sometimes a tendency among church members to think of some church leaders as having greater value than other members. I have often heard church general authorities talk glowingly of some that have served in various leadership positions almost as if such service defines worth. While it may denote devotion, official church policy states that these leaders are worth the same as the lowest member of the church.

There is no doubt that some individuals create great value for the church, while others do not. Some actually generate great liabilities for the church. But when you consider the concept that each soul is of infinite value, and that none is able to realize much of that value without the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the principle of equality in value makes perfect sense.

The question then for those of us that are members of the church is how this principle should affect our discipleship. It is frankly easy to minister to some. But what about ministering to those equally precious souls that are prickly about it or that actively repel such ministering?