Friday, August 23, 2013

Politics May Be a Religion, but Religion Need Not Be Politics

I found this D-News article about religious progressives interesting. I think that some of the assertions made or alluded to are faulty. For example, the article notes that among religious people, conservative views increase with age and progressive views increase with youth.

It is suggested that this means that progressives will overtake conservatives on the religious landscape in a few years. No account is taken of the well documented fact that people in general (not each specific individual) tend to hold more progressive views in their youth and more conservative views in their golden years. They don't remain static in their views.

Each of us is continually on a journey where our understanding is undergoing change. Hopefully this means that we are being educated and are developing. It seems to me that remaining completely unchanged in one's views would indicate being damned; that is, being stopped in one's progression. Eternal principles do not change, but our comprehension of them and how to apply them should be constantly improving.

I am not the same spiritually as I once was. Nor do I hold the same political views that I once did. In fact, I like to think that I have grown tremendously in both areas. The change of which I speak is not always in the forward/upward direction for each person. Some people choose to regress. I think we all do from time to time. That's OK if it's part of a long-term pattern of improvement, but that's not always the case.

The article says that it is far easier for religious conservatives to work as a group than for religious progressives because the latter hold such a broad variety of views as to defy easy categorization. I'm not sure religious conservatives are really as monolithic as suggested. Perhaps more instructive is the fact that progressives tend to be "less involved in their local congregations than conservatives, making it more difficult to communicate" and organize.

As much as some would like to separate religiosity and politics, that's never going to happen. We are whole individuals. Very few of us are so successful at segmenting and compartmentalizing our lives that our religious, business, social, and political lives don't heavily influence each other. Indeed, that would seem unhealthy. What is the use of religion if it is not lived when you aren't at church and if it doesn't color your approach to the rest of your life?

That being said, I bristle at those that would pigeon-hole me into this or that political category based on my church membership or when people wrest religious teachings to promote a political agenda. My political views have evolved to become rather complex, especially in recent years. I find no coherent party, movement, or political ideology into which I fit well. But along my journey I have also gained a certain degree of tolerance for other views with which I do not presently agree.

I very much appreciated President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's discussion of this topic in the April 2013 general priesthood meeting, where he said:
"But while the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities.
"It also contradicts the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, which acknowledges and protects the moral agency—with all its far-reaching consequences—of each and every one of God’s children. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.
"The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples."
I liken our current telestial existence to a two-dimensional plane. We struggle to make sense of things according to our two-dimensional understanding. God's celestial realm in this analogy would be like a three-dimensional universe. Some people occasionally get glimpses of the three-dimensional, but they can't fully describe it in available two-dimensional terms. This explains some scriptural terminology.

In our two-dimensional world it is very easy to get tied to linear political thinking. It is difficult to comprehend the three-dimensional view that the political dominions of this world "are as nothing" and "are accounted to [God] as less than nothing, and vanity" (Isaiah 40:17).

My telestial political understanding may appear to me to fill my entire two-dimensional plane, but it would seem more like a spec in God's three-dimensional space. It might intersect with other people's political viewpoints or be on a completely different non-intersecting plane.

Having had a glimpse of the eternal from time to time, I think that my current political views are extremely limited and that this is likewise true of the vast majority of my fellow citizens, regardless of how well informed they believe themselves to be.

Yes, my religion affects my political views. But, no, politics is not my religion. Nor am I required to hew to certain man-made political views because other members of my church choose to do so. I will try to be tolerant of others' political views up to the point that I think that they violate God-given liberties. But please excuse me for ignoring those that wish to use scriptures and religious quotes to badger me into adopting their political views.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Resolving Family History Dead Ends

His name was Knud Jonsen. Born in 1760, he hailed from a little farm called Erland not far from Arendal Norway. All that we know about him comes from the birth records of his four children.

Knud's father's first name was obviously Jon. I have been searching for information about Kund's parents and siblings for more than three decades. I can show you on an online satellite map exactly where he lived, but I have yet to find any more information about him or his family.

Why am I interested? Because he is one of my ancestors. One of his descendants moved to Germany. One of that man's descendants moved to America and became my father. I began researching information on our Norwegian line even before being called to serve as a missionary in that country. Once I learned to speak Norwegian, I took responsibility for this line.

Progress was rapid at first, even before the Internet was commonly used for family history work. I was thrilled to discover that one of my ancestors who we thought was an only child had five siblings. But the names of my ancestors are extremely common. Finding a birth record of someone where year, name, and place match closely does not guarantee that they are the right person.

The truth is that most of our family history lines have long run dry. Almost every one of them has been at a dead end for a long time. This D-News article suggests that if you've been stopped on your family history research for some time, now is a good time to begin researching again, because oodles of historical records have been digitized and have become available since you last set your research aside.

I have done family history indexing to help make more records electronically available. And I keep searching to see if I can find more information from the records that have come online. But I continue to hit dead ends. Someday I hope to find more information about Knud Jonsen's family. Maybe it will work like this:

Monday, August 19, 2013

Voting Most When Your Vote Matters Least

Last week my town held a primary election to winnow a field of six candidates vying for two city council seats down to four. The final election for the two open seats will be held in November, when we will also select our next mayor.

There are some fairly significant disagreements among the candidates about how the city should be run. I may be putting too fine a point on the matter, but in general, some of the candidates seem to be more government centric and some seem less so. The former say that they are in favor of prudently planning for the city's future, while the latter say that they are all about keeping taxes and government encumbrances low.

Of the nearly 10,000 registered voters in my city, exactly 829 bothered to show up and vote. Despite the impact future city council members will have on the lives of citizens, slightly more people voted in this election than voted in last spring's student body elections at the local junior high school. The city's paltry 8.3% voting rate is actually pretty standard for municipal primary elections in our area; although, about 10 times that many voted in the November 2012 general election.

So why don't people bother to vote in municipal elections? They can't really complain about inconvenience. Early voting was offered for nine business days in advance of the formal election. Yet turnout was not any better than before the advent of early voting. I love the convenience of early voting, but I can't help but wonder whether it makes much sense to spend funds to offer this accommodation.

A personal survey of neighbors reveals that most of them felt uninformed about the election. Only two of the six candidates bothered to campaign much. Their campaign materials were so general as to leave potential voters scratching their heads as to their actual positions. What does a candidate mean when he says that his major issue is favoring more civility in city government? That people that don't agree with him should just shut up? Or that he is a pushover if anything controversial comes up? Nobody knows.

It seems paradoxical that voters in my city would turn out in droves to vote in general elections, where each vote carries very little weight, while ignoring local elections where each vote actually matters.

The outcomes of last year's presidential, congressional, and state level races would have been completely unaffected had no one in my city voted. Some of the county races might have been impacted and some legislative representative races would definitely have been impacted. But to be honest, the vast majority of those that voted can't even name the county and legislative office holders for whom they voted.

People will vote if their emotions are tied up in it. Voters in my town will come out to local elections if there is a tax or spending related issue on the ballot. They can be reliably counted on to vote against tax and/or spending increases. They vote in presidential elections because they sense that who they vote for says something about themselves.

But when it comes to voting for city council members that are likely to have a disproportionately large impact on their lives and community, people in my city are pretty much ho-hum. They've got better things to do than to learn about the candidates and take a few minutes to vote. It doesn't matter that their votes could actually change the outcome of the election.

Perhaps voting patterns are somewhat information and emotion related. The average citizen can't avoid being harangued mercilessly for months in the run-up to a presidential election. They can't avoid the information stream; although, this says nothing about the quality of that stream. After being force fed, people become emotionally engaged and vote accordingly.

As stated above, there was little information available in the city council primary race. Interested voters had to go out and gather information on their own. It didn't flow to them endlessly through every form of media and in private conversations. The low information flow resulted in few people becoming emotionally invested. So they didn't vote.

One school of thought says that the modern state of voting is absurd because there is so little connection between how you vote and how candidates actually act in office. Nor does your vote in any way provide balance against the kind of control government exercises over your life. Yet regardless of the outcome of a race you are assumed to have acquiesced to the results. If 50+% of those that bother to vote choose to increase your taxes, you are assumed to have assented. At any rate, the victors have the coercive power of government at their disposal to forcibly ensure your obedience.

Another school of thought says that the ballot box is the best way we have in a democratic republic to keep the ruling class in check. So that your vote is valuable in the aggregate even if ultimate outcomes would have been unaffected by whether you cast a ballot or not.

Yet another school says that voting is both a right and a civic duty. It is something that responsible citizens do to maintain a civil society. Political power has always been traded throughout human history and such will continue to be the case. Violence and brutality has commonly been central to these transfers. Voting is part of a system that allows for the peaceful transfer of political power, thus, helping promote stability and prosperity. This view must, of course, be tempered by the reality of despotic regimes that hold elections. Sometimes these are stable, but at what cost?

The average voter likely senses some mixture of all of these philosophies plus more. But they're not consistent. Most voters in my city certainly feel that failing to vote in a general election would represent civic irresponsibility, yet they obviously don't feel the same way about local elections.

None of my observations are going to change voting patterns. Nor am I sure that I really want these patterns to change. I don't want people to vote just to vote. Increasing the number of uninformed and unmotivated voters that cast a ballot hardly seems likely to increase or preserve liberty. Maybe it could diminish the sense of disenfranchisement that many citizens feel, but I'd like to see evidence for that.

I doubt that people are suddenly going to decide to go out and become more informed about elections and political matters than they are at present. Indeed, the increase in political information over the past several decades seems to have turned the field into a specialty niche for wonks and political animals. Many average joes and janes are more than willing to stay on the sidelines rather than feel out of their league in the pro/semi-pro fray.

The upshot is that I think it's reasonable to expect to continue to see lackluster municipal voting patterns in my town. Oh, there will probably be a hot issue that causes a spike now and again. But for the most part people will go on being uninformed non-voters.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mission: Successful OR How to be a Successful Missionary

While every member of the LDS Church has been admonished to regularly share the gospel with others, many members dedicate a portion of their life to full-time missionary work. (It's usually 18 months for young women and older couples; two years for young men.)

While successful missionary work for rank-and-file members is worthy of its own post, this post is aimed at full-time missionaries. What makes me qualified to comment on this topic? Well, I served two years as a full-time missionary for the church in Norway (the land of the chosen frozen) some years ago. I currently have a son on a mission. And I just finished reading this article by Jason Wright.

To be quite honest, I have struggled with whether I was very successful as a missionary or not. I served faithfully. But I wasn't immune to slacking a bit when I should have been street contacting.

I've never been much good at sales and its attendant skills. It was one thing to ring people's doorbells day after day, only to be turned away 99 out of 100 times. But I just hated accosting people on the street and talking to them about my religion.

I didn't mind being at a display where others initiated the conversation, even when they were simply there to argue. But initiating the contact without the kinds of safety barriers offered by doors or pavilions discombobulated me. I'm still that way when it comes to anything; even things that I feel strongly about.

If you measure missionary success by baptisms, I was not a successful missionary. But I suspect that the Lord measures success differently. This has repeatedly been impressed upon me as from afar I have watched my missionary son go through many of the same kinds of experiences I had back in the day.

So, what does Wright tell us are the keys to successful missionary work? Four of his eleven tips involve obedience. This might seem obsessive, but Wright says, "Obedience is the only frequency that the Spirit operates in." One cynical commenter says, "We are a church, not a corporation." I note, however, that Pres. Monson's premier speech at April general conference focused on obedience.

Wright claims, "You are unlikely to meet returned missionaries who were obedient but still regret their missions. But you will certainly encounter others who were never consistently obedient and never found the promised success and happiness." Anecdotally I'd say this seems right, but I don't know what a real study would find.

Wright's other tips include avoiding being judgmental, serving your companions, giving praise, loving others, exercising faith, loving your mission, and being yourself. One commenter adds that the willingness to work hard is indispensable.

My score on these points as a missionary is a mixed bag. I did great at some and less so at others. I was likely so enamored over my callings to serve in various leadership positions that I couldn't look far enough outside of my me-box to properly love others as I should have. And let's just say that being judgmental has always been one of my stronger traits. (One that I have tried to tame.)

I particularly appreciate Wright's admonition to be yourself. Over my young life I had developed a mental image of what a good missionary was like. At the outset of my mission I tried very hard to follow every rule. I was very much a letter-of-the-law kind of guy. And I knew how to work hard.

In the MTC I became a Norwegian-learning, discussion-learning machine. (Yeah, we memorized the lessons back then.) In fact, some of my fellow missionaries as well as our instructors wondered if I was a machine and questioned whether I had any personality at all.

I continued trying to be the perfect missionary during my first month in Norway. Then I got a new companion. After a couple of weeks he sat me down and told me to lighten up. I still remember him saying, "Elder, God blessed you with a personality. You're not supposed to hide it under a bushel; you're supposed to let it out and use it to do his work. You've got to quit being a cardboard cutout of a missionary and show your gratitude to God by openly using the gifts he has given you."

A couple of weeks later, one of our investigators turned to my companion and asked, "What have you done to him? He used to be so stiff and now he's wonderful." I learned that reverence has its appropriate place and that excess rigidity stifles the Spirit. You don't have to have a long face to be spiritual.

No, I don't regret my mission at all. It was a magnificent experience that brought extremely valuable learning and experiences that could have come in no other way. I was far from the perfect missionary, but then again, who isn't?

Wright's list of missionary tips isn't exhaustive. And some points certainly seem more valuable than others. But you won't go wrong by following his advice.

What would your list of advice for full-time missionaries look like?

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Callings By Inspiration VS Callings By Desperation

I have often heard LDS Church members half jokingly talk about callings by inspiration vs. callings by desperation. I once heard a sister after using those words say that every time she was called to fill a church position, she boldly confronted the calling authority demanding precisely how he knew she was supposed to receive the calling.

I believe that this type of thinking represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the doctrine of callings in the church and what church leaders mean when they talk about callings coming from the Lord. It further misconstrues the doctrine of sustaining church members in their callings.

Article of Faith #5 states that church members "must be called of God, by prophecy ... by those who are in authority...." Handbook 2, section 19.1.1 states that "Leaders seek the guidance of the Spirit in determining whom to call."

No one should expect the spirit of prophecy and guidance from the Spirit to occur any differently for callings than it does on any other issue in life. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has an article in the August 2013 Ensign on the workings of revelation. His points include:
  • Revelation comes to those that are qualified to receive it.
  • Revelation comes on the Lord's timetable and in the Lord's way; not on our terms.
  • Revelation most often comes when we are actively doing our part.
  • Revelation often comes by enlightenment and peace (i.e. quiet whisperings) rather than in a bold manner. Exceptional spiritual events happen, but they are exceptional because they are rare.
  • In the lack of clear direction we "are often obliged to act upon our best judgment, subject to the Spirit’s restraining impressions if we have strayed beyond permissible limits."
Revelation is a very personal matter. Asking someone that has not volunteered the information about how they received a revelation seems improper and likely offensive to the Spirit. While church members have a role to play in alerting proper authorities to possible worthiness issues surrounding leaders, I believe it is improper to inquire as to exactly how a church leader knows that you are to fill a calling.

Rather, it is entirely appropriate for you to prayerfully receive your own revelation regarding whether you are being called of God or not. And while leaders (being imperfect people) are not above reproach, directly challenging calling authorities as default behavior seems to fly in the face of the covenant to sustain them in their callings.

In line with Elder Oaks' teaching on the rarity of exceptional spiritual events, we should not expect that the bishop have the heavens opened to him every time he or one of his counselors calls a ward member to fill a position. Rather, we should expect overpowering revelation to be rare.

The bishop will have listened to the quiet whisperings of the Spirit that bring a sense of enlightenment and rightness to the calling. Or he will have moved forward using his best judgment, having not been told no by the Spirit. At least, that's how it has worked when I have served in callings where I was among those that have had responsibility for determining and issuing callings.

It really doesn't matter which spiritual method the Lord uses to help his servants develop church assignments; "whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" (D&C 1:38).

It is acceptable to harbor some distrust of fallible humans that believe or act as if they have authority from God. For this reason, each church member has the ability to seek their own revelation regarding whether a calling comes from the Lord or not. After all, if you don't trust someone enough to properly issue a calling, why should you trust them to tell you how they received revelation? Go ahead and find out for yourself directly from the source. Such an answer could take time. It may even require working faithfully in the calling for a while.

I have had callings that I have loved and callings that I have hated. I have had callings that I initially hated that I learned to love. But every calling has been from the Lord, and fulfilling those callings to the best of my meager abilities has blessed my life beyond measure.

Releases come by inspiration from the Lord too. Years ago I both loved and hated my calling as scoutmaster. It was very fulfilling and I learned much. But support was hit-and-miss, making it difficult to effectively run a troop with nearly two dozen boys.

A couple of years into the calling I counseled with the bishop about some health problems I was experiencing related to my Multiple Sclerosis condition. After confidentially counseling with my wife about the matter, the bishop decided to replace me as scoutmaster (a process that took about three months). I had not asked to be released. I wanted to do the calling. But when the release came, I knew inside that it was right.

No doubt bishoprics sometimes find themselves scrambling to fill positions in the ward. Sometimes it can seem like callings occur out of desperation, even (especially?) to members of the bishopric. But when the process for seeking revelation as outlined by Elder Oaks is followed and callings (and releases) are properly handled, all will be in accordance with accepted doctrine, even if no spectacular heavenly manifestation has occurred. And of course, the person being called is fully authorized to receive and follow their own revelation on the matter, providing for a system of divine checks and balances.

Is a calling from the Lord? You decide. But in light of your covenants, you also are responsible for your decision. That is the Lord's way.

Monday, August 05, 2013

How to Get Lost In the Wilderness

I recently spent time at a Boy Scout camp situated in a remote back country area. The director and program director told me the tale of a lost camper. This story thankfully has a happy ending. I will recite the story as I understand it.

A couple of weeks ago a man in his early 50s (old enough to know better) was at camp with his scout troop. His actions offer a textbook example of how to get lost in the back country. Here are the basic steps:

1) Don't tell anyone what you are doing or where you are going.
The man awoke early one beautiful morning and decided to do a little exploring. Not wanting to bother his fellow campers, he quietly slipped out of camp. He didn't bother to leave a note or anything like that because he wasn't going far. He would be back in time for breakfast.

2) Hike alone.
Since the man was only going a short distance outside of camp, he wouldn't need a buddy. Besides, no one was awake to go hiking with him and he was a relatively avid hiker.

3) Have no plan.
The man really didn't have a destination. He just wanted to explore some of the beautiful region near the camp.

4) Hike in an area with which you are unfamiliar.
Familiarity with the area was unnecessary, or so the man thought. After all, wouldn't he always be able to find the great depression in the landscape that denoted the location of the lake adjacent to the camp?

4a) For extra credit, make sure to hike in an area infested with bear wallows.

5) Take no navigational tools with you.
GPS. Map and compass. Why would such things be needed for such a short hike?

6) Take no provisions with you.
Why take food and extra water when you're going to be back in time for breakfast?

7) Once you realize you are lost make sure to keep hiking.
The man felt quite foolish the moment he realized he was lost because he knew that he had broken almost every hiking safety rule. Since he was on a roll, he decided to break one more. Rather than stay put, he kept hiking around. And around. And around in a circular pattern. Heck, the dense forest all looked the same. How was he to know he was going in circles? And where the heck was that lake?

Some eight hours after the man left, members of his unit came to the camp office and said that they hadn't seen the man all day. Thanks to an updated communication system, forest service rangers and county search and rescue crews were soon involved in the search. Since no one had any idea of what had happened, they began at the man's campsite and started branching out.

One crew came upon a black bear sow that was unusually aggressive. (These were people that were experienced in dealing with bears.) They assumed that she was guarding a carcass, perhaps that of the missing camper. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case.

About 29 hours after the man first left camp, he was returned safely by a crew that had located him a mile and a half from one shore of the lake. Since he didn't stay put once he realized he was in trouble it took search crews extra time to find him.

Earlier in the summer the camp had (much more briefly) lost another camper who ended up being located by helicopter. As in the case above, many rules had been broken. But at least this camper had the excuse of being just a kid.

The wilderness is a beautiful but dangerous area. It really is infested with wild beasts that can be hazardous to humans. More so for humans that fail to follow basic safety procedures. But campers themselves are often their own worst enemies when it comes to back country safety.

The real rules are actually quite simple:

  1. Have a plan for where you are headed and when you will be back. Share the plan with responsible parties (that are not hiking with you and can get help if you don't return on time). 
  2. Take a buddy. 
  3. Either hike in area familiar to you, hike with someone that is familiar with the area, or take navigational tools that you know how to use. Or all of the above.
  4. Take communication tools (if you have any hope of using them effectively).
  5. Avoid areas with high populations of dangerous animals (like bear wallows).
  6. Take extra provisions and water with you.

And if you do get lost, "hug a tree." Stay in one place. Make irregular sounding noises. Hiking whistles are nice, but the sound carries only so far. Whacking on a tree or a log can help, but only if you do it in a pattern that no one would suspect as being naturally occurring. Try to keep yourself in an area with some exposure so that you can more easily be seen by searchers.

Some have suggested starting a fire when lost. That can help if you make it smoky enough. But remember to use proper fire safety because burning down the forest is a bad idea even if it brings fire crews. Being lost is bad enough without having to try to escape from a wild fire that can move at speeds of up to 80 mph.

Of course, the number one rule is DON'T GET LOST! Countless hikers traverse the back country each season without getting lost. A few simple precautions can help ensure that you are not among the unfortunate few that do.