Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Missionaries, Flies, and Honey

The LDS Church has recently stepped up its missionary efforts. The lowering of the minimum age for young people to serve missions has led to a significant increase in the number of missionaries from about 52,000 to more than 70,000. Some estimates suggest that the number could peak at around 100,000.

The church has long emphasized that the responsibility for finding new investigators for the full-time missionaries to teach rests on the rank-and-file members. But this has not changed the fact that full-time missionaries spend most of their time finding new investigators rather than teaching. Without a change in the practices of the membership, adding more missionaries would mean missionaries spending yet more time finding people to teach.

The church recently invited stake and ward leaders to a two-hour broadcast called The Work of Salvation. The broadcast clearly conveyed the message that stake and ward councils have the primary responsibility of helping rank-and-file members fill the calendars of full-time missionaries with teaching appointments. They are to develop and carry out plans. The full-time missionaries are there to help the members fulfill their responsibilities.

Our son writes from overseas that this message has been received with marginal enthusiasm in the small branch where he is serving. Some of the branch leaders don't see themselves being much able to develop teaching prospects for the missionaries.

Last Sunday the full-time sister missionaries serving in our stake spoke in our ward sacrament meeting. They came to our area just recently and found little in the way of prospects. So they have been spending most of their time going door-to-door contacting people with little success.

The message these lovely sisters gave consisted mainly of 1) whining about long days of door-to-door contacting in the hot summer weather with poor results and 2) being critical of local church members for failing to adequately fill the sisters' appointment book. Unfortunately, it was kind of an "it's all about us" approach.

I have been a young missionary in a tough area. All of my areas in Norway were tough areas. We expended endless hours contacting people in an attempt to develop teaching appointments. These efforts were occasionally interspersed with actual teaching appointments. On extremely rare occasions, those appointments involved members inviting us to teach their friends, neighbors, or acquaintances. My companions and I saw a lot of work without much success. I understand what missionaries like my son and these sisters are experiencing.

But I have also been a rank-and-file church member for a long time. My neighbor that moved here from out of state said that he was surprised to discover that in Utah there is an unwritten social contract that says that LDS Church members generally refrain from overtly evangelizing about the church to others. While this takes the rough edges off social interactions, it tends to create an us-vs-them mentality for those in and out of the church. Active church members tend to socialize with active church members, so they don't have a lot of non-member or less active friends for the missionaries to teach.

The average Utah Mormon, when asked to think of friends and family members that could benefit from meeting with the missionaries, draws a blank. They all know people that should hear the Gospel message, but they also know that most of these people have already been approached plenty of times and have more or less indicated that they don't want to be bothered about it.

Our local sister missionaries said that church members often ask what they can do for the missionaries. The implication is that these members are willing to drive them places, feed them, supply clothing and other needs, etc. When the sisters respond, "Please give us some names of people we can teach," the members stammer, hem and haw.

Living in a predominantly LDS area, I can glance through all of the addresses in my ward and tell you who is active in the church, who is kind of active in the church, who is a member but is not currently active in the church, and who is not a member of the church. The missionaries could visit all of those in the latter two categories in our ward in one or two evenings without getting a teaching appointment. Multiply that by all of the wards in our stake and the missionaries could fill two to four weeks of evenings, likely without much success.

Another challenge where ward, stake, and missionary area boundaries are small is that the prospects members have often live outside of the missionary area where they live. Sometimes outside of the mission boundaries. This makes it hard to fill the local missionaries' calendars unless the prospects come to the member's home to be taught.

Yet another challenge is the fact that my entire stake is part of a bedroom community. People vacate the area to go to work, school and activities during the day, making it hard to provide daytime appointments for the missionaries. Evenings are busy as families grapple with church, community, school, and social commitments.

I'm not saying that missionary work is not possible where I live. I'm saying that an area like ours presents certain challenges to the kind of robust missionary work these sister missionaries would like to be doing. Members are not unwilling; they just don't know how to improve on what they are currently doing.

Given this situation, I feel that the good sister missionaries had a great message, but went about delivering it in a way that likely generated less cooperation rather than more. Instead of whining about tedious work and berating members for their inadequacies, it would probably have been better to focus on the joy and exhilaration that comes from sharing the gospel with friends and family, explaining ways to do that within the regular course of a busy life, and describing where the missionaries can help.

The old adage about honey attracting more flies than vinegar is applicable here. Helping members focus on the great blessings in store for them and encouraging them to feel that they can actually do the work is certain to bring a better response than complaining about the failure of people to achieve the ideal.

That's a lot to ask of young missionaries that are doing tedious and mundane work day after day without generating much interest in their message. After all, even the great missionary Paul was not immune to grousing and remonstrating on occasion. But he also gloried in his trials for Jesus' sake and frequently sent encouraging messages. I hope that our local sister missionaries, my son abroad, and other missionaries learn to use more honey and less vinegar when working with members.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why Do Politicians Insist That They are Not Professionals?

Why is it so common for those engaged in the profession of politics to deny that they are professional politicians? In what other line of work do professionals assert that they are simply amateurs?

I guess this phenomenon also occurs at certain levels of athletics. While Olympic level competition has given way to openly admitting professional athletes, we continue to ridiculously insist that all collegiate athletes are amateurs. It might be somewhat common for drug pushers and prostitutes to deny that they are professionals to law enforcement officials, but probably not to their customers.

The denial of one's own professionalism is never or almost never seen in fields like medicine, education, business, entertainment, finance, technology, etc. Even if there were no laws about who could perform surgery, you wouldn't see some guy openly advertising that he wants to be your surgeon, despite being an amateur. But politicians do this kind of thing all of the time, asserting that they are political outsiders.

So what is different about politics, some athletics, and illegal activities that make people deny that they are professionals? It would seem that each of these parties has something to gain by such a denial. Crime professionals are obviously seeking leniency. College athletes are simply working within collegiate association rules that (wink, wink, nod, nod) seek to maintain an appearance of amateurism that all but the most gullible can easily see through.

Politicians assert non-professionalism to get voters and constituents to view the politician as one of their own—someone just like them that shares their same concerns and wants the same things. That is, they are attempting to blind their constituents to the reality that they have personal political incentives that dramatically differ from those that vote for them.

I once heard a local politician complain that he had many supporters when he was running for office that turned on him once he was elected. "I was their friend and hero when I was running against the incumbent. Now that I am in office they all treat me like the enemy," he said. "What is it about getting elected that turns someone into the enemy?" he asked.

While this politician couldn't understand the phenomenon, his erstwhile supporters did; at least subconsciously. They understood that once in office he would operate according to what he felt was best for him rather than what was best for them. He would discover, for example, that he had to grease the skids with the power brokers if he wanted any piece of legislation he created to have any chance of progressing.

The development of political relationships and the necessary exchange of favors creates incentives that ofttimes run counter to the interests of voters; although, the politician is expert at convincing himself that he is actually acting in the voters' best interests.

As long as these political activities do not raise too many hackles, the politician can hope to be re-elected or even elected to higher office. But the politician works in a dynamic system where things are constantly shifting. More than one politician has been surprised to have his career cut short when what he has always done suddenly hits the spotlight in a negative way due to factors beyond his control.

One of the common tools for hedging against this is for the politician to carefully market himself as a politically erudite amateur rather than a political professional. He doesn't have to really convince everyone that he is not a professional politician; just enough to ensure election.

A friend of mine ran for mayor when his city planned to widen the road adjacent to his home only on his side of the road. Much of his yard would have been consumed. Due to a number of factors, he ended up becoming mayor and having to learn what a mayor really does. Immersion in the political world was an eye opening experience. After getting his bearings, he found that he rather enjoyed it.

The voters booted my friend out of office the following election because they sensed that he had moved from concerned citizen to politician. Interestingly, he made a comeback four years later, posing once again as an outsider. But once back in office he again showed himself to be an insider. The voters demonstrated at the end of his second term that they had finally had enough of him.

Politicians don't always deny their profession. U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, who initially ran as an outsider in 1976 garnered a seventh term mainly by running as an experienced Washington insider. The most adept politicians sense what the public wants to hear and market themselves accordingly.

Majestic rhetoric about politicians doing their civic duty is often bandied about to bolster the idea that politicians serve some kind of higher purpose than their constituents that spend their days working regular jobs and raising families. Some of the politicians might even believe it. But doing so will not stop them from acting in their own interest while in office, even if they tell themselves otherwise.

Political systems exist of necessity. Due to necessity they are staffed with politicians—politicians that act chiefly in their own interest. The wise voter will recognize these realities rather than believing mythical stories about political saints and saviors.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Returning to Civilization

I spent last week at Camp New Fork, a Boy Scout camp on the edge of the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I lost data coverage on my phone more than a dozen miles away from camp. I lost all coverage about three miles away from camp. All of the other adults with my troop continued to have both voice and data coverage in camp. But my employer-issued phone uses a sub par carrier. The first time I heard another leader's phone ring in camp I realized that being out of my provider's coverage area for a week was going to be a blessing.

Son #3, who has achieved the distinction of being the tallest member of the family (a title I believe he will maintain) participated in the camp's high adventure program. I spent the week shadowing my youngest son as he went to merit badge classes and activities. Despite serving as the troop's assistant senior patrol leader, his particular case of Asperger Syndrome renders it unlikely that he would complete all of the requirements for any badge without occasional one-on-one intervention. I sat around much of the time so that I could provide this assistance when needed.

Sometimes it's easy to know when to jump in. Other times, not so much. As I doggedly followed my son around the field archery range thinking that it should never be so hot in the mountains and cursing myself for leaving my water bottle at the campsite, I slowly learned to just stay in the background without offering any instruction or critique. Just making an occasional positive comment and helping retrieve arrows following each target turned out to be enough. Archery is a challenging merit badge. My son was on cloud nine when he completed the requirements at nearly the last possible minute on Friday afternoon. I remember his oldest brother doing something similar at Camp Aspen Ridge nine years ago.

We were pleasantly surprised at the low number of biting flies, something that is quite unusual for that area this time of year. I used repellent only once and sustained fewer than a dozen bites. But cattle range through the camp. They are mostly benign, except for the piles of excrement they leave behind and their frequent bellowing. Who knew that cows could be so darn loud (especially at night when you're trying to sleep)?

Most days were blazingly sunny and quite warm. Of course, we did get some rain. One evening we experienced a spectacular thunderstorm, complete with blinding lightening and torrents of rain. We stayed dry in our tent. The moisture reduced the dust for a day. Nights were cool and comfortable.

All of our 18 boys had a great time; although, I considered the program somewhat sub par compared to some other camps I have attended. Some of the more experienced staffers were away attending the BSA National Jamboree, leaving the staff short handed. After the Monday evening campfire, son #3, who has served on Camp Loll staff said, "That was no Camp Loll campfire program." How right he was. There were a number of faux pas throughout the week that belied a somewhat loosely run ship.

Still, the overall experience was pretty good. There was a troop in camp from Colorado and another from Reno. Despite the scout camp facilities available in their areas, both considered their Camp New Fork experience superior to their local camps.

I made friends with a strapping man in his 30s who had bold tattoos covering his arm. He offered some obviously expert archery advice to my son. The man is a Green Beret who was taking time away to spend a week at camp with his son. He described how he and his son stayed dry when they were camping at the other end of the lake on the overnight canoe hike when the thunderstorm hit. Scouting allows friendships like this to be built.

Camp New Fork has good quality dirt roads that run to each campsite and program area. The gate is kept closed, so access isn't open. But each troop gets to keep one vehicle parked at their campsite. This is a tremendous logistical benefit for loading, unloading, and storing scented items that are hard to store in the campsite bear box (such as grills greasy from years of scout camps).

When we finally got everything loaded up on Saturday morning, we headed home like horses heading back to the corral after being out on the trail. We made good time too. Until we ended up in a huge line of traffic stalled on I-80 due to a serious crash that killed two people. After waiting in 97° weather on the pavement for over an hour, we were diverted to a detour that consumed an additional hour, getting us home much later than expected. How grateful I was for the DVD system in my SUV that kept boys occupied during the delay.

Another week of scout summer camp is past. I have tried to count up all of the summer weeks I have spent at scout camps over the years. I think it's somewhere in the high 40s or maybe even low 50s. (That would be a year of scout summer camps.)

I am once again home. The gear is cleaned up and stowed. A number of boys have once again spent a week implementing the methods of scouting 24x7, hopefully further developing the character traits that lead to happy and virtuous lives. That, even more than the pleased look on my son's countenance as he told his mother of his triumphs at camp, is why I continue to go to scout camp.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country

A few weeks ago our missionary son, who is serving half a world away sent an interesting message. He and his companion went to the branch chapel to meet with a church member and an investigator. When they arrived they found a note written in English attached to the door from an American church member that happened to be traveling in the area. The note said that he said that he would return in an hour or so.

While our son was at the chapel, the American walked in. He had been spending summer semester studying in a neighboring country. After completing his coursework, he decided to travel to the city from which his ancestors hailed, which happened to be where our son is serving. The man, known as KC had served a mission in yet another country and spoke a different foreign language. But he didn't let that deter him from traveling in the area.

The missionaries and church members were able to direct KC to the places he was most interested visiting. He also joined my son and his companion from time to time over the succeeding days in doing missionary work. On one occasion KC was able to teach a fellow from yet a different country that happened to speak the same foreign language as him.

Our son excitedly sent pictures of KC and himself, explaining that KC was from our town and had graduated from the same high school as him. Despite a few years age difference, KC and our son had a number of common acquaintances.

A couple of nights ago, a tall young man came to our door and introduced himself as KC. We were thrilled to invite him into our home. He told us about his visit to the town where our son is serving and told us about how our son is doing. We spent about an hour talking with him, even showing him pictures from my son's mission and having him tell us who some of the people in the pictures were.

Perhaps only a missionary parent can understand what kind of joy this tender mercy brought us. The title of this post quotes Proverbs 25:25. Indeed, KC's visit to our family was like cold waters to thirsty souls.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Utah's High Teen Binge Drinking Rate Is Really a Low Binge Drinking Rate

News corporations like to foster the perception that they are all about objectivity and truth. In fact, all news organizations operate with a profit motive just like any other corporation. They slant, twist, embellish, and selectively report matters in ways designed to help them achieve greater profit. This is true as well for "nonprofit news organizations" that simply measure profit in in non-monetary terms.

A good example of sensationalistic misreporting was published in an AP News article published by the Standard Examiner under the title Less Utah teens drink booze, but those who do drink more.

We soon learn that this conclusion is drawn from a nationwide survey of high school seniors asking whether they drank alcohol in the last month and whether they engaged in binge drinking in the last month. But the shoddy reporting tells us nothing about how many teens were surveyed, the survey methodology, who commissioned the study (only that it was recently presented to Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control), the margin of error, or whether the survey has a history so as to reveal trends. Without this information you really know nothing about the validity of the numbers reported.

We learn in paragraph three that "of those Utah seniors who reported drinking, 72 percent said they had been binge drinking in the past month. That's significantly higher than the national average of 55 percent." That sounds pretty bad.

But wait. In paragraph two we learned that 17% of surveyed Utah high school seniors said that had drunk alcohol in the last month, compared to the national average of 40%. Let's apply some math to see how that actually works out.

U.S.: 40% * 55% = 22.00%

Utah: 17% * 72% = 12.24%

In other words, the national average of high school seniors that engage in binge drinking is nearly double Utah's rate. But the editor and the reporter chose to give the numbers a bad slant rather than a good slant. Why not? Sensationalism sells. I keep hearing Don Henley's 1982 song Dirty Laundry going through my head.

Of course, it could be that journalists are just bad at math. Or that teen binge drinking does not vary in direct proportion to teen alcohol consumption. Or that Utah high school seniors lie about their drinking habits at a higher rate than the national average. Self reporting is a notoriously faulty method of data gathering. But the numbers reported are not out of line with Utah's observable overall low rate of alcohol consumption, which most researchers feel is closely tied to social and cultural factors.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for news corporations to truly report straight news. Doing so generally runs counter to their ideological, financial, and power motives. But it pays to be aware of this so that one can better balance the 'news' that comes their way.

Monday, July 08, 2013

(Ir)Reverence, Please

We hold kneeling prayer together as a family every evening. We started this practice when we were first married and it has evolved over the years into a somewhat formal activity.

A wheel chart on the wall that tells whose turn it is to act as voice for the prayer. We begin by singing a religious song selected by whoever acted as voice for the previous evening's prayer. We kneel in a circle and hold hands as the prayer is voiced. Then we turn in our scriptures to where we left off the previous evening and each of us takes a turn reading a column. Then people go to bed.

Or more accurately, I go to bed. I get up in the wee hours of the morning to exercise before heading to my job, arriving at work before most people's alarms have gone off. Consequently I turn into a pumpkin pretty early in the evening.

I'm sure this makes it appear that our family is very spiritual. And on occasion we are. But more often our preparations for our evening devotional as well as the devotional itself are peppered with a great deal of irreverence, sniping, and decidedly un-Christ-like activities.

Half of the time the song picker takes longer to select a song than it takes to sing it. Or a song is picked that not everyone knows well enough to sing from memory. Or a song is selected that people are tired of singing. I mean, how often can you sing the Wise Man and the Foolish Man before you tire of it?

Despite my wish that everyone stay put during devotionals, family members continually develop excuses for wandering in and out of the family room during the event. People talk over each other or have private conversations during scripture reading. People (especially the youngest two) stare daggers at each other and make unkind remarks under their breath. Parents are sometimes overly critical of children that may be tired and cross. The list goes on.

I am relieved that even apostles have had similar challenges in their families. See Elder David A. Bednar's October 2009 general conference talk where he quotes his sons saying things like “He’s touching me!” “Make him stop looking at me!” “Mom, he’s breathing my air!” during family devotionals.

Quite frankly, sometimes I'm part of the problem. That was the case last night; although, this time my contribution was unwitting.

After finally getting everyone into the circle, one child brazenly broke wind. This resulted in gales of laughter from some family members and dramatic whole body recoils of disgust from others. As the cacophony died down, a second child boisterously contributed another dose of flatulence, eliciting laughter as well as drama worthy of a Shakespearean death scene.

As all of the hilarity and theatrics died down, I dispensed with my repeated calls for reverence and went to more direct instruction. "Close your eyes, close your mouths," and then referencing the recent gaseous outbursts I added, "close your butts."

I intended my admonition to be forthright with a slightly stern edge. However, it had the opposite effect. All of the other family members broke out in peals of laughter, as if I had said the funniest words ever spoken. I expressed my confusion as family members dabbed laughter tears from the corners of their eyes.

We eventually did get around to having family prayer and scripture study. Despite some irreverence during scripture reading, we actually had some decent discussion.

But, yeah, that's what family prayer is like at our house. Reverence is more like a journey than a destination—a journey whose end seems perpetually beyond the horizon.

Still, I hope that a lifetime of family prayer and scripture study will eventually, as Elder Bednar suggests, paint a good and worthy picture in the heart of each family member. With God as the master painter, how can it not?

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

An Increasingly Crowded Hometown Fourth

I can't remember the first time I attended the Independence Day parade in my town. The town has held it every year since a generation before I was born. For as long as I can remember the day's festivities have included activities in one of the city parks. The city hosts a full day of events starting with an early morning flag ceremony (where they always fire canon) and wrapping up with fireworks in the evening.

The summer I was 14 I marched with the high school marching band in the parade in the morning. Thinking back to how we sweltered in our formal black wool band uniforms, I am pleased to see that the bands nowadays dress far more appropriately for the summer temperatures.

Later that day I wanted to go to the activities in the park. But I couldn't find anyone to go with me. My two older brothers were away working in Hawaii. Two years later I would spend the summer planting pineapples in Hawaii, but that summer life was free and easy. Except for marching band practice many mornings and newspaper delivery in the afternoons.

My younger brother had other things he wanted to do that day and most of my friends were out of town. But I had newspaper delivery earnings to burn. So I hopped on my bike and rode a mile to to the park. It was the first time I had attended this event without being accompanied by family members.

I wasn't much interested in the annual baseball tournament. I was too big for the kiddie attractions. But I was intrigued by the food and by the event where the patrons paid a fee to bash up an old car with a sledge hammer. As I wandered through the attractions in the shade of the trees behind the baseball grandstand, I saw an artist drawing caricatures of people. I paid the princely sum of $5 for a cartoon image of me skiing.

Then I saw a stand where people were buying lemons with stick candy protruding from the fruit. The vendors would cut a hole in the lemon skin through which the stick candy was inserted. I was surprised to discover that lemon juice could be drawn through the stick candy like a drinking straw. You just kept squeezing the lemon and sucking the artificially sweetened naturally sour acidic liquid until the juice was gone. Then you'd eat the candy.

I'm not sure why that particular Fourth of July event stands out in my mind. After all, I have attended various of the city's Independence Day activities throughout my life. Sometimes I have been volunteering and other times I have simply been accompanying my kids. Maybe that year was something of a coming of age thing for me.

Another memorable Fourth of July was when our then four-year-old (whom we call our wandering child) got lost among the crowds at the parade. Thanks to former neighbors that recognized the family resemblance, we were reunited with our wanderer within 15 minutes. But that was a harrowing quarter of an hour.

Our town celebration still has a hometown atmosphere about it. In fact, that is the comment I hear most frequently from nonresidents that come to these festivities. They note that the parade consists mostly of offerings by local schools, businesses, and organizations, with only an occasional parade float. They find the Dutch oven cooking contest and the homegrown kiddie games charming.

While I don't begrudge others coming to our town to drink in the feeling, the sheer numbers of those that do so render the celebration less inviting. Parking for these events has become nightmarish. My family solves this problem by walking or cycling to the various venues. But once there, the press of the crowd limits enjoyment and threatens to sweep away the bucolic charm of which many attendees claim to be enamored. Maybe the problem is that I'm just not much of a crowd person.

I don't know whether I will end up at the parade tomorrow morning. That depends largely upon whether my youngest son goes back to bed (and how long he stays there) after we put up flags in the neighborhood early in the morning. I am not slated to volunteer at any of the other events this year, and we can easily enjoy the fireworks from our home after taking down flags in the evening. Depending on what the children want to do, we may end up avoiding the crowds altogether tomorrow.