Monday, December 30, 2013

The Logistics of Sacrament Meeting Programs

I furtively glanced at the clock on the wall of the chapel. The remaining meeting time was slipping away. Yet the first speaker gave no sign of concluding his talk. I quietly expressed gratitude that I was merely a congregant and not among the bishopric members that were seated on the stand and who were responsible for the meeting.

The speaker, a newly returned missionary, spoke with purity, reverence, love, and conviction. Despite the large congregation, most were reverently attentive to the speaker and seemed to be engaged in his message. There was a minimum of distracting noises or even white noise. I could tell that many present were feeling the Holy Spirit.

Still, I felt anxious for the two other speakers that were sitting on the stand awaiting their turn to speak. Moreover, I knew that a number of 11- and 12-year-old girls had worked hard to prepare a special musical number for the program. Would there be time for any of these items?

I frequently try to remind myself that the main purpose of sacrament meeting is for "members of the Church [to] renew their covenants by partaking of the sacrament" (Handbook 2, Section 18.2.2). Other purposes such as to "worship, provide gospel instruction, perform ordinances, conduct ward business, and strengthen faith and testimony" are icing on the cake, as it were. Each of these has value and is important, but each is also ancillary to the main feature of the ordinance of the sacrament where we covenant to make the Atonement of Christ the central component of our lives.

Our bishop is a wonderful man that seems to exude love. As a convert to the church he was not raised amid church protocol. He seems relatively willing to conduct meetings "after the manner of the working of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 6:9).

Still, church protocol exists for a reason. Bishoprics that plan sacrament meeting programs know that each meeting should last 70 minutes (Handbook 2, Section 18.1). Adhering closely to this schedule becomes more important when sacrament meeting occupies the first segment of the three meeting block or when another ward is waiting to enter the chapel for their own meeting.

When I served in a bishopric I quickly discovered that the meeting opening and the sacrament ordinance consumed roughly 25-30 minutes. It sometimes took longer if the number of visitors made for an unusually large congregation. The closing hymn and benediction usually took about five minutes. This left about 35-40 minutes (sometimes less) for the program.

Bishoprics are sometimes guilty of over scheduling—trying to cram too many program items into the allotted time. That's unfair to those that are asked to participate on the program. Musical numbers are generally limited in scope. But once a speaker steps to the microphone bishopric members have remarkably little control over how long that person will speak.

When I was responsible for issuing callings to speak I gave each a slip of paper that described the topic, where they were scheduled on the program, the time frame for their talk, and a list of people that would be willing to help them prepare. Most speakers stayed close to the time frame and topic. Some didn't.

I recall one brother (whom I dearly love) speaking with random aimlessness for about 25 minutes when he had been slated to max out at 12 minutes. The bishop twice very nearly got up to ask the man to sit down, but he restrained himself. The man's wife restrained herself too. Very rarely have I seen a speaker add anything of much value after exceeding his or her time limit.

Being the final speaker in a sacrament meeting can be challenging. You might end up with far more, or more likely, far less time than anticipated, requiring you to adjust your talk accordingly. I have also noted that with rare exception the congregation largely stops listening with about five minutes remaining in the meeting. At that point whatever you have to say just isn't important enough for people to listen.

Ending up with excess time at the end of sacrament meeting is an infrequent problem. But when I served in a bishopric our stake presidency asked us to stop referring to such events as "high five Sundays." (We had sacrament meeting last, so most congregants went home early under such conditions.) I note that nowadays any excess time is usually filled by a member of the bishopric or stake presidency. Another option is for the bishop to ask people to bear testimony.

In the meeting mentioned at the start of this post I could tell that the young man felt good about his talk as he concluded. But he did a double take when he glanced at the clock and realized that only five minutes of meeting time remained. He appeared a little nervous as he seated himself beside the other planned speakers. Our bishop got up and made a few kind remarks, noting that the Spirit had been present and that the other speakers would be asked to address the congregation on another occasion.

As congregants filed out of the chapel following the closing hymn and prayer, I noticed that the mother of one of the girls that was to have sung had one of the bishop's counselors cornered. She was explaining that a number of grandparents had braved snowy roads and had rearranged their schedules to see their granddaughters sing at the meeting. The uncomfortable counselor nervously said that he would discuss the matter with the bishop. I remember days like that. Bishopric members always seem to be in trouble with some members of the congregation.

Bishopric members have a lot to do and think about as they prepare for and execute sacrament meetings. After stumbling over a few seemingly simple announcements at the beginning of a sacrament meeting, one bishop remarked that conducting the meeting looks easy until you have to stand up and do it.

In my experience I have discovered that bishopric members can do much to help sacrament meetings go more smoothly. It's their job to help speakers understand their assignment, including how to stay on topic and within their allotted time frame. Too often bishopric members are so relieved to get someone to agree to speak that they drop the ball on the specifics of the assignment.

Church members that are asked to speak can also help. For starters, there is no need to get so uptight about speaking. It isn't really about you. Unless you do something incredibly memorable (which doesn't happen a lot), the memory that you even spoke will fade for most people after a few weeks. Just ask your family members who spoke in sacrament meeting two weeks ago.

Members of the congregation want you to succeed. Most are just trying to survive your talk. If you think about it, you will likely discover some things you can do to help them out. For starters, don't criticize the authority that asked you to speak and don't make it sound like a huge ordeal. That's prideful and selfish. Just dive in and do your assignment without making a big deal about it. I promise that you will feel a lot better about your talk.

If you are an active member of the LDS Church, you have likely attended many sacrament meetings and you will likely attend many more. At some point during your life you will likely have the opportunity (or many opportunities) of taking part in or affecting a sacrament meeting program. It goes with the territory.

Mistakes can be expected to happen in an all volunteer church. And that's OK. God will still love you even if you make some stupendous social faux pas. Nothing can really go very wrong in an eternal sense. Just follow the Spirit and try to enhance the worship experience. It will all work out. You will survive and so will the members of the congregation.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Echo of The Angels' Songs

Last year I wrote about my love of Christmas music. I related how as a child I once stood in our carport and looked at the neighborhood Christmas lights shining through the big fluffy snowflakes that were falling. Feeling overwhelmed by the Christmas spirit I spontaneously sang O Holy Night at the top of my lungs. I didn't care who heard me. I wasn't singing for my neighbors. I was singing for my God. And it felt so right.

When we listen to or participate in sacred Christmas music it is as if our heart strings faintly vibrate with the echo of the songs the angels sang for the shepherds outside of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night—songs of praise declaring that Jesus Christ, the son of God had come to earth as a mortal baby and that he would grow to accomplish the Atonement so that each of us might have the opportunity of living the kind of life that God lives and owning the joy that God owns.

In fact, I believe that every sacred Christmas song, ancient or modern is an attempt to recapture the glory of the songs of praise the angels sang that first Christmas night. Our poor mortal talents can never accomplish that goal. But when we sing or perform in the same spirit of praise as did the angels or listen in the same spirit as did the shepherds, we can sense the echoes of those angelic songs. We can get a glimpse of the angels' glory, feel their testimony of Christ, and sense God's love for us.

May you have a joyous Christmas season. At some point as you experience the sacred songs of this season, may you feel your heart strings vibrate with the echo of the songs the angels sang those long years ago.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Young are Best Suited to Parenting the Young

Years ago I worked with a lady that described a neighbor family as having 15 children, all single births. She said that the first half of the children turned out pretty well but that the last half provided an endless source of both private and public problems.

Some years later I became acquainted with a family that had eight children. Both parents seemed fairly sharp. The four older children were all solid citizens raising their own stable families. The next two both experienced a number of challenges before righting their ships of life and becoming productive members of society. The last two.... Well, frankly, it was, as a mutual friend said, as if the parents had run out of energy by the time those two were being raised.

My brother, who has been an empty nester for several years recently described hosting his son, daughter-in-law, and their three young children for several days at Thanksgiving. While the association was nice, my brother said that after their guests were gone he and his wife collapsed exhausted on the couch and listened to the quiet.

I quipped to my brother, "What you are saying is that the parenting of young children is best left to young parents." "Precisely," he replied. Someone then remarked that by the time you've learned all of the lessons of parenting children you no longer have any at home, but that this is good because you also lack the necessary energy for the task.

Our older children regularly harangue us with the "You never let us get away with that" refrain. I openly admit to them that they are often right. But then I rattle off my reasons:
  • There are more of you to deal with at present than there were back then.
  • I now have a much better idea about which battles are worth fighting, thanks to training provided by the older children.
  • Each child is an individual. The tactics that worked for you don't work well with your younger sibling.
  • Perhaps more important than any of the above is the fact that I am older and have less pep than I did back in the day.
This last point is not to be underestimated. My wife and I married later than most of our friends. Then it took us several years (and some fairly invasive infertility treatments) to begin having kids. The age difference between me and my oldest child is greater than the age difference between my brother and his youngest child. We had five kids while many of our contemporaries had fewer. Not that I'm complaining. This was, after all, our own choice. Also, biology being imperfect, the births of our children were often spaced further apart than we had hoped.

This means that my wife and I are fairly well seasoned. Some of our friends have grandchildren as old as our youngest child. People have occasionally thought that our daughter was our granddaughter. It kind of shocks me to think of how old I will be when I am attending our daughter's high school graduation ceremony.

My wife and I have studied a great deal of literature on how to properly raise children. The world is full of experts that, despite having very imperfect family relations, apparently know how to market books about ideal family life. Heck, my wife has a degree on the subject. (Family relations, not book selling.) I often know what I should do. But sometimes I simply lack sufficient vitality to do it. The weakness of my flesh sometimes means that my hard gained knowledge and wisdom are worth naught in practice.

It used to amaze me to see the extreme eagerness of some to get their kids out of the home. I wondered why they had embarked on the parenting adventure in the first place. Given my ever increasing weariness, I am much less prone to such judgments nowadays. Although our nest will be occupied by more than just the two of us for many years yet, I am told that there is joy (or maybe joyful terror) to be found in watching a fledgling take flight.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Big Break Came From Another's Service

"Be good to others," my boss told me. "You never know where your next break will come from. Besides, kindness costs you very little." He went on to tell me about being in a situation where he had to regularly meet with the same group of people for a number of months. He wasn't close to any of them but maintained a good professional relationship with each.

A couple of years later when a position opened up in another area, one of my boss' colleagues from his old task group championed him for the job, which was a promotion for him. He still had no idea why she did this, since there were other competent applicants that might have fit better. But he figured that exercising common courtesy and treating team members respectfully had helped.

A couple of years later I was doing decreasing amounts of tax auditor work and increasing amounts of office automation. This allowed auditors in our office to focus less on clerical functions and more on audit functions that required human judgment. It also provided information to which they previously had little access. I was gaining a reputation as a competent programmer,

One day my boss (a different boss by this time) called me into his office and said that the I.T. department had requested me to work on a 120-day temporary assignment. I wondered how they selected me. I didn't even know anyone the I.T. department, but I jumped at the chance.

By the time my temporary assignment was coming to a close I had proven my I.T. worth by successfully completing development work on several projects. There was talk of extending my assignment. To my disappointment, the approval didn't come through and I unhappily returned to my old auditor digs.

Eventually a permanent programmer position was announced and I applied. But things move awfully slowly in government agencies. So months went by before I was finally selected for the job. In the meantime I spent many evenings going back to school to enhance my programming skills.

I later learned that a lady in the personnel department whom I only obliquely knew had been my great benefactor. She had engineered my first temporary assignment to the I.T. department. She had also killed the extension of that assignment because she knew that I.T. would keep me on temporary assignment indefinitely rather than fill a permanent position that had growth potential. (The money came out of different budgets categories.) When I.T. couldn't fill the temporary assignment they were forced to open a stable position. My temporary assignment had uniquely qualified me for the job.

Thus my career was permanently changed for the better thanks to the work of a lady I hardly knew. I will never know why she worked to benefit me. It is quite possible that I just happened to provide the easiest way for her to accomplish her own assignments. Regardless, I will always be grateful for her help. It has helped me achieve many things in life that would otherwise have been impossible.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Family Christmas Traditions

I realized a few weeks ago that we no longer have any little kids. We still have nearly a full brood at home and we can still look forward to years of homework combat. But the kids are growing up. How do I know this? Other than the usual observations of children growing to adult size, I was surprised at this year's vote on Christmas decorating.

Our family policy has been to decorate not a moment earlier than the first weekend in December and then to put the decorations away sometime before New Years Eve. I quite enjoy the Christmas season, but its rarity is among the features that render it so endearing. While some people start decorating in October, for me that kind of thing increases the season's commonality, thereby, decreasing its specialness.

A few weeks ago, noting that December first this year fell on the Sunday of a long holiday weekend, I offered the family the opportunity of putting up Christmas decorations that weekend. It wasn't that I was eager to decorate. It's just that my practical side considered the available time. The kids flatly turned me down. They didn't care to decorate even one day early.

As it turned out, the kids didn't really care to decorate much at all. The younger two joined my wife and me part of the time, but they mostly preferred to watch a video. The older kids didn't bother to ascend from their basement habitations during the decorating festivities. Our children all seem to enjoy the Christmas decor, but this year they reminded me of the Little Red Hen's associates when it came to doing the work involved—a far cry from the days when seven bodies (many of them energetic young children) all tried to haphazardly jam ornaments on the tree simultaneously.

We put up two Christmas trees each year. Our living room ceiling is more than 12 feet tall. So we have a gorgeous 12-foot-tall tree in there. But the room is too small to host gift opening for our entire family. So we set up a second much smaller Christmas tree in the family room. We recently obtained a wall tree, which is only one half of a regular artificial tree so that it stands flat against a wall. Some of the children gnashed their teeth about that, but it takes up far less room so that we don't have to move furniture around.

Our decorating is limited to the two trees, a porcelain Nativity set, a few doorknob hangers, and a couple other odds and ends. I have never been one to put up outdoor lights. I tell the kids that they are welcome to enjoy the lights our neighbors graciously put up.

Our kids are somewhat flexible about some Christmas traditions, but they are very inflexible about others. In a post last year I described our tradition of giving each child a box of their favorite breakfast cereal on Christmas morning; a tradition we concocted long ago to make sure that family members ate breakfast before opening gifts. I recently asked the kids if they wanted their usual private cereal or if they would prefer that I make them a hot breakfast this year. I was shouted down for heresy. We will be doing cereal, as usual.

Another cherished tradition that will continue is our Christmas Eve dinner on the floor. Years ago we thought we'd try holding a dinner that would have been reminiscent of Passover dinners in the Jewish culture of Jesus' day. We're not Jewish so we didn't try to serve a kosher meal. But we got pita bread to imitate the unleavened bread, served dried fruits and nuts, and found a variety of other interesting fare. The main thing that intrigued the children was that we ate on the floor by candlelight.

Over the years our Christmas Eve dinners have turned to much more American fare that lacks any reasonable semblance of foods served in Palestine 2,000 years ago. But we still continue to hold dinner on the floor by candlelight. A lot of it is electric candlelight these days, simply for convenience and safety.

Not that this tradition is without challenges. We set up seats and TV trays for our aging widowed mothers whose joints find floor seating decreasingly tolerable. And since getting a dog two years ago we have had to figure out how to keep him away from the meal. We usually give him a nice meaty bone, which keeps him busy long enough for us to serve, dine, and clean up.

Another tradition that will stay for awhile longer was carried over from my childhood. Each Christmas we would draw a sibling's name for a gift exchange. Sibling gifts were presented and opened after dinner on Christmas Eve so that we had something to occupy us while we eagerly awaited Christmas morning.

This tradition evolved to family gift exchanges as my brothers and I began forming our own families. We eventually called it quits after a family discussion on the matter because we were all going home from the family gathering with more junk than we needed. I am probably still in hot water for making an insensitive comment about the proliferation of Christmas craft items generated by some of my craft-y and artistic sisters-in-law.

I'm not sure how much our kids care about our family's first Christmas tradition. The Christmas we were engaged my wife and I bought a heart shaped ornament. Every Christmas since then we have found some kind of unique ornament that features a heart. Each of these ornaments is labeled with the year. Perhaps this tradition will become more meaningful to our children in the future.

Our family Christmas traditions will evolve as our family dynamics change. Eventually our children will develop their own Christmas traditions as they form their own families. Maybe some of these traditions will stem from those they enjoyed while growing up.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Utah Politician Thinks He Knows How to Force Parents to Do the Government's Bidding

The problem with public education, thinks Aaron Osmond of the Utah Senate (R-South Jordan) is that schools can only assign homework to students and not directly to their parents (see KSL article). Osmond says that our system focuses too much on forcing students to be in school for certain periods of time rather than focusing on educational outcomes.

While Osmond certainly has a point, his proposed solution offers yet another Big Brother top-down approach to a broad cultural problem that Big Brother has played no small part in fostering. Why is it that when statist policies fail to produce desired results, statists always see the answer as more statism, more government control over individuals, more coercion, and less liberty?

Osmond's proposal would, among other things "require parents to attend parent-teacher conferences and agree to support children in completion of homework assignments." Never mind the fact that many experts dispute the value of most homework as it is actually assigned. (Education experts know what productive homework is, but despite extensive training, educators persist in overwhelmingly assigning unproductive homework, insisting that their assignments have value.)

The policy Osmond has proposed is rife with problems. For starters, it is based on a faulty understanding of why parents don't attend parent-teacher conferences and buys into the education system's "deeply seated assumptions about parental involvement" that conflict "with the views of many parents" (see 1994 Educational Leadership article).

Osmond, along with many educators, seems to perceive that the parents that most need to attend conferences are often those that don't attend. This thinking reveals "an assumption that one of the main reasons for involving parents is to remediate them. It is assumed that involved parents bring a body of knowledge about the purposes of schooling to match institutional knowledge. Unless they bring such knowledge to the school, they themselves are thought to need education in becoming legitimate participants."

But non-attending parents usually aren't uncaring. Rather, their "school experiences, economic and time constraints, and linguistic and cultural practices have produced a body of knowledge about school settings that frequently" differs dramatically from that of educators.

These parents often feel that their concerns continually go unheeded and unaddressed. They feel like the system treats them as subjects to be commanded rather than actual partners. Osmond's proposal would enhance rather than assuage this sentiment.

Many parents feel that they have little voice in their child's education, which is managed by a massive bureaucracy that passes out mandates left and right and commands what they and their children must do outside of school hours. (Incidentally, some teachers feel the same way.) Parents might be excused for seeing this as an admission that the school is insufficiently competent to provide instruction in a seven-hour day.

The education system often views such parental concerns and issues "as serious problems rather than valued knowledge." What parent wants to show up for conferences where she is treated as inferior and deficient?

Underperforming students are disproportionately concentrated in lower income families, which are themselves disproportionately single-parent families. Lower income parents struggle just to put food on the table and to put clothes on their kids. Many work two or more part-time jobs. These economic constraints often prevent attendance at school conferences and events, even if parents would like to be there. How will Osmond's proposal help these people?

We have a child that by some measures was ranked in the top 1% of students in the entire nation for his age group. His educational outcomes were spectacular. His younger brother has a number of challenges that will prevent him from ever aspiring to such lofty heights. Almost everything school-wise is a struggle. This son requires a great deal more parental involvement than did his older brother.

Osmond's proposal would presumably generously allow parents to customize their agreements with teachers on homework to address differing needs, as long as outcomes rise to the level of some bureaucratically mandated goal. But what about when our younger son simply can't do any more homework for mental health reasons? What happens when our son fails to reach the mandated standards despite our best efforts? Do we go to jail?

Nor is the fact that both my wife and I are well educated always help. Teachers usually expect students to do assignments in certain ways—ways that are not always clearly reflected in the associated textbook or on the teacher's blog site. I can help my child with his English paper or math assignment, but unless I have actually been in class with my child, I stand a very good chance of helping him magnificently mess up his homework because my method may not agree with his teacher's method. Thus, mandating that parents help their children with homework is not guaranteed to be very helpful and can actually be harmful to the proposal's stated goals.

Educators may also object to the expanded role that would come with Osmond's proposal as they add law enforcement and audit roles. Does anyone think that parents under this new mandate will not demand expanded conference opportunities including more evenings and weekends, professionally scheduled appointments, and the like? Will educator unions put up with this without demanding higher pay? Does anyone think that schools won't have to hire agents to police the parents?

Taking time to customize a homework plan with each teacher could consume copious time. It would certainly require more than the 60-180 seconds that teachers can generally afford in a face-to-face meeting with a parent during open conferences.

A junior high teacher could have as many as 150-200 sets of parents to meet with each term. Affording each set 10 minutes would require up to 80 hours (including meals and breaks), where teachers now spend about 10 hours. I know a family that had five children in junior high and high school simultaneously. Meeting with each of each child's teachers under such a paradigm (including travel) would have consumed all of the productive hours in a day, if the teachers could even manage to arrange consecutive appointments.

And what will Sen. Osmond propose to put teeth in his bill, since a law without consequences is no law at all? Fines? (Yeah, that will help those low income parents.) Jail time, as was proposed in one Michigan district in 2010? (Johnny, we had to put your mom in jail because she allowed you to be such a lousy student.) Home "visits" by government officials to "help" parents? (My Dad witnessed such visits while growing up in Nazi Germany.)

How would any of these coercive measures actually improve a child's education? And even if there was some such hope, how could the asserted positive results outweigh the predictable negative results? Good intentions do not compensate for harm caused by those intentions.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis having written, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Sen. Osmond needs to go back to school and discover the realities of why parents don't attend parent-teacher conferences. As it stands, his proposal hews to C.S. Lewis' gibe on "running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood"

Osmond should ask senate leaders to repeatedly whack his fingers with a ruler until he gives up on trying to use coercion to improve educational outcomes. Senate leaders should put a stake in the heart of Osmond's proposal and bury it so deeply that it will never see the light of day. It is bad policy based on faulty assumptions and is designed to use the wrong tool to achieve its goals. Instead of interfering, government sometimes governs best when it gets out of the way.

Monday, December 02, 2013

White Friday

"No male baptisms today?" asked the kindly brother in charge of the font at the temple. I explained that my wife and I had come to handle only female baptisms and that I wanted to bring my school age sons to act as proxies for the male names that they had researched and cleared themselves (with help from Mom). This would necessitate coming when our boys were not in school.

"Ah," replied the brother. "Then bring your sons here the Friday after Thanksgiving. While the rest of the world is out there having Black Friday, we will be in here having White Friday." This, of course, was a reference to the clean white clothing worn when participating in temple ordinances.

So that is what we did. The same brother was handling the baptistery when my sons and I arrived. He recognized me and was pleased that we had accepted his invitation.

While nearby shopping venues were raucously thronged by bargain hunters seeking to prepare a Christmas cornucopia to be plunged into by revelers "quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice" (A Christmas Story), my boys experienced the quiet pleasure found in giving of themselves to serve others in the serenity of the temple.

How proud I am of my boys. How much more this experience will do for them and for their deceased kin than would the pursuit of any "craptastic item that we genuinely do not need" (Michael Lyons). How grateful I am for the temple workers that spent their day serving so that others might be blessed.