Thursday, September 29, 2011

How Can You Beat TV Church?

TV Church. That’s what a friend of mine calls conference weekend.

I love conference, and I really look forward to its coming around each Fall and Spring. We have for quite a number of years participated at home via the internet. We don’t get cable (and none of our local cable stations carry conference anyway), and we can’t use a dish because our home’s trees don’t allow a clear line of sight to the satellite (without a VERY tall tower which I’m unwilling to have built). So I’m thrilled that the church has dramatically improved the availability of video feeds of conference through the computer.

We used to go to the stake center in our family’s pre-internet days (yes, children, there was a time when not every home had a computer with a high-speed connection). I can remember spending conference weekend in the “children’s” room with kids playing on the floor while we watched the small TV at the front of the room. (I remember sneaking out of that room into the cultural hall for the solemn assembly sustaining of President Benson.)

The internet has been especially helpful when we lived in Asia recently. “Conference weekend” is a week later there, since the live broadcasts are in the middle of the night. Sessions were available at our stake center in Mandarin and English, though we watched most of them at home, thrilled to have figured out how to use our TV as a monitor for our daughter’s laptop. (Yes, we can be taught…)

This was all a marked improvement over our experience in Japan years ago, when we'd received videos of conference weeks later and circulate them among the English speaking members of our ward. By the time we got to Venezuela, we had someone in Utah record the English sessions for us, since only Spanish tapes came to the stake, but we convinced our stake president to allow us to watch a session of conference in lieu of Sunday School and Priesthood; there was a real power in our ward's being able to watch conference together.

My wife and I tend to be note takers during conference. I do it out of habit – for years I had one assignment or another that required me to be able to recall what happened at conference (either planning speaking assignments or preparing conference quizzes for seminary or institute or priesthood lessons). My wife (again) has a calling where she participates in determining which talks will be used for the Teaching For Our Times lessons.

Now I tend to take note of my impressions during the talks more than the subject matter of the talks. I note talks I’ll want to go back and read or listen to first when they’re available. (I also load the talks onto my I-Pod as fast as I can so I can listen to them en route to work shortly after they are televised; hearing them a second time allows me to get new nuances I’d missed the first time around.)

I try hard to go into conference with a clean slate of expectations for the meeting. Of course I pray about issues that are important to me and listen for counsel on those subjects. But I try not to guess what the speaker will say before he or she says it. Sometimes I’m surprised; sometimes I’m comforted; sometimes I’m gently prodded to improve (sometimes by my son who hears a talk he thinks I need to pay specific attention to: a number of years ago when Elder Oaks told fathers what their children wanted most for dinner was for their fathers to be home, my son leaned over to me and said, “He’s right, Dad”).

Our children are getting too old for conference bingo, though I think we may implement a little game our sister-in-law uses. She sets out bowls of various goodies with a word attached to each one. When the word is mentioned in a talk or song, the goodies are available to those who hear it. (He who hath ears to hear, let him munch!) That might be enough to keep my 15-year old awake for a session or two.

I hope you’ll fire up your La-Z-Boy and enjoy some TV Church of your own this weekend.

You can tune in at Live sessions are Saturday and Sunday at 10 and 2 MDT in the US (UTC +6).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Heard in sacrament meeting: "I love coffee!" (Twice!!)

I love my ward. We had a terrific sacrament meeting on Sunday.

Our first speaker was a new member (less than a year) who talked about his conversion story and his experience reading the Book of Mormon. He said years ago a friend gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon, and he tried to read it, but he could not understand it. In the last year, however, something changed. As he was taking the missionary lessons (after he wandered into an LDS chapel), he not only was able to read the Book of Mormon and understand it, but he couldn’t put it down. He read late into the night and within days had finished the book and had a testimony that it was true.

I was reminded of the Parley Pratt story from his autobiography:

“I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep” (Quoted in “The Extraordinary Life of Parley P. Pratt,” Ensign, April 2007).

Our good brother then pointed out that as he read, he kept himself awake with a cup of coffee. He said, “I love coffee.” He acknowledged that learning to live the Word of Wisdom was a challenge. If only for his talk last Sunday, I’m glad he’s made the effort.

The next speaker was sister who joined the church at about age 20 – 30 years ago. She began her talk by acknowledging that she also loves coffee, and that before she came into contact with the church, she did many of the things common among the youth in the European country of her origin, including drinking coffee. She then reassured the first brother that he would be fine.

I was reminded of what Clayton Christensen taught us a few years ago in some leadership training, that if we don’t smell some tobacco in our sacrament meeting, we’re falling short, suggesting that it is good for us to have in our midst those who are striving to be better than they are today, and that associating only with those who have “arrived” at righteousness (if such a thing were possible) would shortchange us.

I’m grateful for those who are willing to associate with me, despite my striving to improve, and I’m grateful for those around me who show me how to improve.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Happy (Re-)Birthday To Me

Tomorrow is my other birthday, my born-again birthday, the anniversary of my baptism 44 years ago. I was 11 days shy of my ninth birthday when my parents, my siblings and I were baptized. I have some clear memories of that event and some not-so-clear ones.

In our branch's building (now a stake center), the baptismal font was in the hallway outside the cultural hall. I think our baptismal service was held in the chapel (because I think I remember being confirmed there).

At the time, I had no idea how unusual it must have been to have a baptism of an entire family of six. We were introduced to the gospel by a family up the street. I went to school with one of their nine children, and he invited me to a Primary Halloween activity. (I chickened out on the activity when I realized my store-bought costume sans mask looked completely dorky next to his uber-cool pirate get up.) Fortunately for us, my friend invited me again, and I became a regular Primary attender. His sister invited my sister, and eventually his folks invited the six of us to join the 11 of them for a family night.

My mother, to be polite, invited the parents only to a quiet dinner at our home. They ate in the dining room (we kids were banished), and Brother and Sister S. invited my parents to hear the missionary lessons. My parents accepted. (Twice before my folks had been tracted out, but the missionaries did not return either time; we were far from any chapel, and maybe the elders didn’t have enough miles on their car to make the long trip to see us a second time.)

Over the next few months we took the lessons from Elder Kelly and Elder Gledhill (and once in a while a stake missionary or another full time elder on a split). Those were the flannel board discussion days; the lesson I remember was one in which Christ is show as the cornerstone with apostles, prophets, etc. added on. The flannel board display was contructed so that when the cornerstone was removed, the rest of the pieces fell off the board, as well.

I smile when I think about what the missionaries must have thought when – after several months of lessons -- my folks told them we were going away on vacation, driving from Pittsburgh to Idaho to see my dad’s parents and that we would call when we got back. They must have thought they had lost us forever. (I would have thought that as a missionary, for sure.) But we read the Book of Mormon in the car across the country.

We did return, and plans were made for the baptism. I remember practicing how to hold onto Elder Kelly and how to plug my nose at the same time. I remember asking the missionary in my baptismal interview what the O in David O. McKay stood for (he didn’t know; he said it probably didn’t stand for anything). I remember our baptismal night, though I don’t really remember standing in the water and actually being baptized, though I remember blue tile in the baptismal font (was it really blue?) and the excitement in the dressing room as each baptism was performed. I have a vague memory of being confirmed – surrounded by men with their hands on my wet hair.

As a boy I was thrilled to have been baptized. I loved being a member of the church then, and I do now. I had what I considered then (and still do) to be significant spiritual witnesses of gospel truth. I spoke freely about our family’s baptism with people I knew. Our family began immediately to be involved; Dad helped with scouts and became an assistant clerk; Mom taught Junior Sunday School. We prepared to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple (which we were about ten and a half months later, with special permission to go early).

Happy (re-)birthday to me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

42 Questions To Virtue

Sister Mary N. Cook of the general Young Women’s presidency visited our ward two Sundays ago. She happened to be in our area for training and stopped in our ward before returning to Salt Lake, and she
gave quite a lovely talk on Virtue in our sacrament meeting.

She highlighted what’s in the new Young Women’s value in the YW Personal Progress program, and she mentioned an activity that seemed pretty cool. The third activity recommends:

“Read Alma chapter 5. Make a list of the questions Alma asks. Answer the questions for yourself….”

This is a really cool exercise. I love Alma 5; it’s one of my favorite chapters of the Book of Mormon to teach.

As Sister Cook talked about this exercise, she mentioned 42 questions. I’d never looked at the chapter in this way, so I went and counted them. All 42 of them.

Two interesting things about the exercise:

1. The value project is about temple worthiness
2. None of the 42 questions is specifically about sexual purity

Young Women are invited to list the questions and answer them, and then to make a list (based on the questions) of ways in which they need to be worthy to go to the temple.

There are some interesting questions. I won’t list all of them here (count them yourself!), but here are some that stand out to me in terms of thinking about temple worthiness and virture:

Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? (v. 6)

There’s a series of questions on the history, and it reminds me of Moroni’s preamble to his promise, that as we ponder the Book of Mormon, we should also ponder “how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things” (Moroni 10:3). These questions also remind me of the “testimony” questions at the outset of the temple recommend interview.

And now I ask of you on what conditions are they saved? (v. 10)

There are some doctrinal questions about salvation and atonement that are deep and moving. How much easier for young women (and any of us) to strive for virtue when we understand the doctrine.

Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? (v. 14)

This core question of the change of heart is at the center of a lot of teaching around this chapter. And it’s a critical question for a young person: if you haven’t experienced the change, how can you do it? And if you have, how can you retain it? (Of course King Benjamin spent some time on retaining a remission of our sins, and Alma will teach a similar lesson.)

Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? (v. 15)

Verse 15 starts a series of performance related questions – are we exercising faith, keeping commandments and covenants? Some of these questions will be more near to a young woman’s experience than others. I imagine most young women will not feel warm and fuzzy about questions like: “How will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness?” (v. 22) But intermingled with those hard questions is a great deal of discussion of pure and white garments, signifying one who has lived worthily and taken advantage of the blessings of the atonement.

I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances? (v. 19)

Ok, two for the price of one here. The pure heart and clean hands is what worthiness is all about, and it’s what virtue is all about. And how to get there is implied in the second question. When we so live that we reflect the Lord in our lives, we are approaching virtue.

Behold, are ye stripped of pride? (v. 28) …of envy? (v. 29)

President Benson’s landmark address comes to my mind, but likely not to the minds of young women who were not even glimmers in their parents’ eyes when he gave that talk. But what parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have a daughter free of pride and envy?

Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? (v. 45)

More great lessons on how to learn truth from the spirit. Alma’s inference is If I can do it, so can you. You can do what I did: fast and pray for many days.

And there’s more! (Not that I want to sound like a Sham-wow info-mercial…) Alma teaches the atonement. He teaches us to give up costly apparel, to care for the poor, not to punk our enemies (it’s in there – extra points for anyone who can identify the verse).

42 questions to virtue. Very cool.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

God: Good; Me: Bad? No!

I listened to a Mormon Channel Conversations podcast yesterday featuring Rodney K. Smith, former president of Southern Virginia University. I’d recommend the interview to anyone: Brother Smith is a legal scholar and educator and an experienced academic administrator. He articulated a unique vision for SVU that I had not previously appreciated, and his own conversion story was great to hear.

That said, Brother Smith mentioned a concept in relation to his own life and to one of the guiding principles for SVU that stuck in my craw. It’s not an uncommon idea, and it’s frankly one I have espoused in my life before. Basically, he said that when something good happens, he thanks God; when something bad happens, he blames himself. He calls it accountability. I used to call it humility.

Now I call it unhealthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I started this post speaking highly of Brother Smith. I do not intend to attack him or his ideas here, and I suspect I’ve drawn more meaning out of his two-second comment than it deserves. This post is about my idea, one that I myself used to espouse, not about Brother Smith. He simply reminded me.

We should be accountable for our failures and our successes. It’s healthy to examine what went wrong and what we have power to change in the future. But it’s equally healthy to examine what we did right that led to success so that we might repeat it.

Attributing all success to God and all failure to us robs us of a part of the blessing of the atonement, namely the power to improve.

Don’t get me wrong (again): We should praise God. We should thank him for every blessing in our lives. Without Him, His plan of happiness, the atoning sacrifice of His son, we would be nothing. As King Benjamin teaches, we are beggars, and we are regularly blessed, even in ways we do not see. We owe our Father in Heaven a debt of gratitude, and we should offer thanks continually. The very fact that we can improve is by the grace of God and through the atonement of our Savior.

Still, when I stay up late working on a project for my employer and deliver more than is required I want my employer to reward my efforts. I don’t go to work for the fun of it; I go to be compensated so that I can support my family (and I’m very fortunate – even blessed! – to have the job I do). So when I succeed at work, I also want the commensurate rewards. Do I also thank God for facilitating that success? Of course I do: He gave me opportunity in my life to learn; He gave me intellect; He gave me health. But I used those God-given gifts to the advantage of my employer. And so I want my employer to reward me (and I believe God does, too).

Attributing all success to God and all failure to ourselves is not humility. And it’s not accountability.

Accountability is reporting on my stewardship – good and bad. When the ruler gave various talents to his servants (see Matthew 25), they then accounted for their efforts – one returning ten for five, one four for two, and one returning only his original talent. Each of those servants was held accountable; two were rewarded and one was not.

Focusing only on my failures is false humility, and it is unhealthy. If I see myself as one who only fails, how can I enjoy the blessing of the atonement in my life? The Savior suffered that we might live. Failing to accept that gift suggests that it has no value to me.

In twelve step programs, participants engage in a fearless written moral inventory, including their weaknesses and their strengths. Most veteran 12-steppers understand the value of remembering our strengths as we engage in self-examination. There is something of value in each of us, something worth saving, worth building upon. If we seek to be like Christ, then we must also find his qualities in us, however weak, however small, so that those qualities may grow. As we see them grow in us, we recognize that the atonement is working for us and on us; we value the Savior’s gift.

Let me conclude with the words of Elder Uchdorf from the Priesthood session of conference in October 2010. He was speaking about pride, as a postscript to President Benson’s landmark address on that subject just over two decades earlier:

I also remember one interesting side effect of President Benson’s influential talk. For a while it almost became taboo among Church members to say that they were “proud” of their children or their country or that they took “pride” in their work. The very word pride seemed to become an outcast in our vocabulary.

In the scriptures we find plenty of examples of good and righteous people who rejoice in righteousness and at the same time glory in the goodness of God. Our Heavenly Father Himself introduced His Beloved Son with the words “in whom I am well pleased.”

Alma gloried in the thought that he might “be an instrument in the hands of God.” The Apostle Paul gloried in the faithfulness of members of the Church. The great missionary Ammon gloried in the success he and his brothers had experienced as missionaries.

I believe there is a difference between being proud of certain things and being prideful.

I do, too. I believe we can feel good about our successes. We can thank God for our blessings, but still recognize the value of what we, as His children, can do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are Men Biologically Adapted To Nurturing?

We know that The Family: A Proclamation teaches that fathers are to preside, provide and protect, and that mothers are to nurture, and that they are to support one another in these roles. We’ve heard a number of talks in recent conferences that seem to suggest (or directly state) that mothers are more in tune with the tasks of nurturing than men.

That may be, and I do not intend in any way to refute the Proclamation, but there’s a new study published in The Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, and reported by the New York Times that would suggest that fathers also are biologically adapting to a more nurturing role.

Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Northwestern University and co-author of the study said,

This should be viewed as, "Oh, it’s great, women aren’t the only ones biologically adapted to be parents."

Humans give birth to incredibly dependent infants. Historically, the idea that men were out clubbing large animals and women were staying behind with babies has been largely discredited. The only way mothers could have higly needy offspring ever couple of years is if they were getting help.

The study, which tested men before and after becoming fathers involved over 600 men in the Cebu province of the Philippines:

Testosterone was measured when the men were 21 and single, and again nearly five years later. Although testosterone naturally decreases with age, men who became fathers showed much greater declines, more than double that of childless men.

And men who spent more than three hours a day caring for children -- playing, feeding, bathing, toileting, reading or dressing them – had the lowest testosterone.

Researchers view the drop in testosterone as a positive thing for families, hormonally encouraging men to be more faithful to their families than straying.

“This is part of the guy being invested in the marriage,” said Carol Worthman, an anthropologist at Emory University who also was not involved in the study. Lower testosterone, she said, is the father’s way of saying, “’I’m here, I’m not looking around, I’m really toning things down so I can have good relationship.’”

So, it would seem there is some biological evidence that a father’s role extends beyond conception, and that the father is biologically tuned to participate in the nurture of his children.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Law of the Letter

Dear Reader,

Ok, it’s not so much a law as a discussion.

Maybe less a discussion than a remembrance.

Recently I wrote about letters written by my lovely wife to a friend in their youth that were recently returned to her. They’ve been interesting for her to re-read. In addition to exposing the lie that was my story of when we met, the letters also reveal things my lovely wife thought about in those days and provided some insights into her character.

I’m not going to reveal any of that. Let my lovely wife write her own blog if she wants to spill all that. (Don’t hold your breath, by the way. My greatest surprise was seeing that my wife wrote actual letters at all: she really does not like to write, and I understood her remarkable sacrifice to write to me during my mission.)

But these letters do demonstrate some things my children may never know: the value of the written word – and by written word I mean word written by hand on paper and put in an envelope and mailed – not half-words typed into a telephone keypad to be sent out into the ether to be captured by another phone, consumed in seconds and deleted forever.

These letters used complete sentences, capitalization, spelling, paragraphs – all that stuff your English teachers have been trying to get you to do! These letters required some organization of thoughts, because each letter included multiple thoughts and stories (unlike texts and tweets); each letter included reflections and conclusions and even promises of what was to come.

And, perhaps most importantly now, these letters could be saved to be read later. They are historical artifacts. I suppose there may be some giant repository of electronic stuff that contains tweets and texts and Facebook status lines, but I certainly don’t know how to get at it.

Letters still have a place in our world, even beyond credit card offers that come in the mail. In my lovely wife’s family, for instance, there’s a monthly family letter to which each sibling (or spouse of sibling in the case of my lovely wife) contributes. That letter (which is emailed as an attachment, ready for printing) serves as part of an ongoing family history, recording events and milestones.

I have written specific letters to my children at key times in their lives or mine. Most of those go as e-mails now, but I hope they’re still saved for future reference. I save copies of each one. Topics range from financial planning to politics to family relations to gospel principles. Some are sent to individuals and some to the children as a group. The value of the letter over a phone call is that I can think more carefully about content, and my child can choose to read or not read, and I’ll never know the difference.

We still encourage our children to hand-write thank-you notes. It’s our small contribution to their letter-writing education.

May you engage occasionally in the great art of letter writing.

Best Regards,


Monday, September 5, 2011

Presiding with equal partners

The proclamation on the family is clear: "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness...."

But it's also clear: "In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."

How does Dad preside when Mom is an equal partner?

We discussed this topic in our high priests' group yesterday, and although we did not resolve it, we had some good thoughts.

In his talk "Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church," Dallin Oaks helps us understand the relationship between partnership and presiding. He says that although the structure in the church is hierarchical (we follow our "file" leaders), in the family it is patriarchal. He quote the partnership line from the Proclamation as I have above, and he quote President Kimball who urges wives to have a full partnership with their husbands, not a limited or silent one. He reiterates that the concept of partnership between husbands and wives is not the cultural norm all around the world, but that it is ordained of God. And he quotes Doctrine & Convenants 121:

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge (verses 41-42)

declaring, "When priesthood authority is exercised in that way in the patriarchal family, we achieve the 'full partnership' President Kimball taught."

As I listened to the discussion, I thought about what I've heard about how the Quorum of the Twelve functions -- that they and the First Presidency consider matters of policy for some time, that they have open discussions, and that they often carry over those discussions for weeks in order to allow all members to come to consensus. This certainly seems to be the process described in Edward Kimball's biography of his father's presidency of the church (Lengthen Your Stride) when President Kimball discussed his revelation regarding extension of the priesthood to all worthy male members of the church (see OD2).

And I thought of an example in our family from the past week. We have a particular delicate issue that my wife and I are trying to works through with one of our children. There is no easy answer, and we are not personally equipped to resolve it on our own. We have discussed the matter a number of times over the past months, and in the last few days it has become more acute. We agreed to pray separately and together. We have been discussing the promptings we have received (some in the moment we need them). Our path to consensus has been bumpy. At some moments we've been completely aligned and at others we've appeared to be diametrically opposed to one another. But we continue to counsel together to find a solution.

In this matter, I would never assume that as "presider" I had the sole right to revelation on the matter. Nor would I want to "delegate" the matter to my lovely wife -- not because she is not capable, for she is! -- but because I would not want to ask her to bear the burden alone.

We have not come out on the other side of the tunnel, yet, and we may not for some time. But I'm grateful for an equal partner who is sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit and who is gracious in how she shares the burdens of parenthood.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It was all a lie!

I learned this morning that I’ve been living a lie.

And it’s the fault of those friends I blogged about earlier this week.

Turns out our friends brought my lovely wife a packet full of letters that she wrote to her friend, including letters from my wife’s first year at college. Some of those letters from our first year in college mention me. And how we met.

(Here’s comes the lie.)

I have for years (35 of them, in fact) been telling the story that we met on the first Friday of our freshman year. Say it out loud. First Friday of our freshman year. See how nicely it rolls off the tongue? First Friday of our freshman year.

Except it’s not true.

In a letter dated September 12, my lovely wife (then my lovely wife-to-be, though neither of us knew that then) told her friend that we met when my college roommate and I visited her apartment on the first Saturday of our freshman year.

You can see why I’m upset. Our whole history is based on our romantic beginning on the first Friday of our freshman year. And now, after 35 years, I learn it was a lie.

Well, a mistake.

Oh, and I’ve always gotten the date right: September 4, 1976. And, yep. That’s a Saturday.

So this coming Sunday, when we celebrate the 35th anniversary of our meeting, at least we’ll know we got the date right. And I’ll have to look for a new alliterative way to tell our story.

How about the first Saturday of September?