Monday, June 24, 2013

The Big Meeting

Like many others, I watched the leadership training broadcast yesterday afternoon, and like some I watched it at home. (No one but me got the comfort of my General Conference La-Z-Boy seat.)

I did not have huge expectations of great new innovations in the missionary program of the church. (It’s easy to say that after the fact, of course!) I was a little amused by some predictions of what would be announced at the meeting, or what people hoped would be announced.

In the end, the key messages of this meeting were not a lot different from similar meetings in the past: Missionary Work is one part of the work of Salvation. It is not the only part or the most important part, and it cannot be separated from the other parts. Do it. Do it now. And do lots of it. And don’t limit your efforts to finding new people to teach; work on re-finding those sheep who have been lost. And work on getting them all to the temple.

Oh, and we have lots more missionaries. And they’ll do some things a little differently as time goes on, making use of more modern equipment.

But You (meaning Me): get out of that La-Z-Boy and get to work.

It comes as no surprise that the message doesn’t change much. One Eternal Round and all that. And it comes as no surprise that there are some innovations (lower entry ages, electronic media, chapel tours).

What I also found wonderful was just watching Elder Holland conduct the meeting, watching him interact personally with the video “guests” from outside Provo, and having him share his testimony of this incredible work. Seeing that enormous missionary choir was really impressive. I felt sorry for those mission presidents and their wives, and I wondered how many sessions they had already sat through that day and how overwhelmed they might be as they drink from the firehose.

I remember first learning really about the “Unified Effort” when I was a bishop in South America. Our mission president was in our ward, and he taught us well the value of the ward council in helping people to stay active once baptized. We had two ward councils a month to keep track of our 75+/year converts. It was really impressive to see the whole ward council pull together to help these new converts stay active in the gospel (and that ward council was pretty successful at it, too).

The same theme was repeated when I was a bishop in the US when President Hinckley gave his famous “double the number of baptisms” fireside. But the principles were the same. Every new convert needs a friend, a responsibility and to be nurtured by the good word of God. That message certainly has not changed.

I’ve participated in various church councils since I served as a Deacon’s Quorum president over 40 years ago. I learned then what I know now: we almost never need a “new” program to do the work. We need to do the work. Yes, there will be minor shifts in focus from time to time. New tools may be available to aid us in the effort. But in the end, the work of salvation is one-on-one, face-to-face. An old Sting song years ago proclaimed, “Men go crazy in congregations; they only get better one by one.” (Not that I take all my gospel teaching from rock stars, mind you.)

So why such a big meeting to preach a message that has been preached before? I can think of several reasons:

  1. We need to be taught and re-taught. If we got things right the first time around, there would be no need for repentance. And President Packer (bless him!) taught us again in this meeting, we all need repentance. 
  2. There are new people hearing this message for the first time. All those fresh-faced missionaries in the Marriott Center are new to this work. They didn’t see Elder Packer teach the 3-fold mission of the church in the 1980’s, nor hear the brethren teach the unified effort in the 1990s. And they’re not the only ones. Many members of ward and stake councils -- especially in growing areas of the church -- are new to this part of the work, and they are hearing this for the first time.  
  3. There is value in hearing renewed testimony of eternal things. If it were not so, why would we have General Conference twice a year? Why would we have fast & testimony meeting once a month? Each time we hear truth, we have an opportunity for the spirit to touch our hearts.
I for one was glad to hear the messages of the apostles who spoke, to hear of successes in various parts of the vineyard, and be made to squirm just a bit in my La-Z-Boy.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"We're just like you."

We had a special stake conference this past weekend. Four general authorities (including an apostle, one of the presidents of the Seventy, another member of the Seventy and a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric) were in our state for a Priesthood Leadership Council on Saturday (a meeting with stake presidencies, bishops and perhaps other priesthood leaders from across the state), and then they fanned out over four stakes for special stake conferences on Sunday.

Our visitor was Bishop Davies, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. I didn’t know anything about him before he spoke to us. It turns out that for the decade prior to his call to serve in the Presiding Bishopric, he worked finding land for all those temples the church is building. And he had some cool stories to tell us about his interactions with President Hinckley on the site in Paris, and with the mayor of Philadelphia regarding the site there.

But those stories are not the point of this post. Instead it’s two other things that struck me.

First, he mentioned that in his role in the Presiding Bishopric he meets with the First Presidency every week. For last meeting before coming to our conference, President Eyring and President Uchtdorf were absent, and they met just with President Monson. Bishop Davies observed that he often reminds himself that it is a privilege that the vast majority of Latter-day Saints will never know: meeting the prophet face-to-face. I was heartened by his acknowledgement of that fact.

I’ve never met President Monson, though I have shaken hands with President Eyring and President Uchtdorf, both long before they served in the First Presidency (and perhaps before their call to the Quorum of the Twelve). And I’ve shaken hands with a couple of other apostles in my life, in connection with meetings where they spoke and shook hands with many people. I have no doubt they have no recollection of me, even though I remember the circumstances of each of those meetings clearly.

The other thing Bishop Davies said that touched me was really tender. He was speaking about his own family and told of a family member who had become distant from the church despite years of activity and parental teaching. He spoke of his love for this member of his family, and his acceptance of the circumstances. And he said something like, “So you see, even general authorities have similar struggles to yours. We’re just like you.”

And, though it’s true that he’s not like me because he meets weekly with the Lord’s prophet, I believe he is more like me that I would have imagined. And I’m grateful to learn from his example.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Provider, Protector and Plumber

Yesterday was an awesome Father’s Day. I had calls and wishes from all my kids, a lovely dinner orchestrated by my lovely wife (including a steak my 16-year old son grilled for me and cupcakes from my 12-year old daughter) and lovely gifts.

After dinner, before cupcakes and gifts, I was on the phone with my oldest son who lives in a different city. I could hear something going on in the background at home, but was trying to enjoy my time with my oldest on the phone. But I heard hushed concern speaking, sloshing of water, unhappy sighs. Finally I ended my call with my son and wandered back to the powder room to find my lovely wife and my 16-year old trying to plunge the toilet.


Let me say that this has been a problem toilet for some time. It was the nexus of the great Thanksgiving Plumbing Disaster of 2010, when an over-use of the kitchen garbage disposal resulted in a clog that forced the house’s entire outflow to come back through this particular toilet, resulting in TWO trips by emergency plumbers over the Thanksgiving weekend (one on Saturday, one on Sunday), and resulted in the explosion (yes, explosion) of the powder room toilet when the snake used by the first plumber ended up going the wrong way through an octopus of a plumbing connection while trying to clear the clog. (It was the second plumber who discovered that it was just a clog from over-use of the disposal; we were so happy we would NOT have to have the backyard dug up to replace outdoor sewer lines we were almost giddy. There’s some great psychological / sales lesson there somewhere.)

As a result of that excitement, we replaced the toilet in the powder room with a new one from Home Depot. And new in our community meant low-flow. And since I did it myself, it meant I bought the cheapest one.

We have a low-flow toilet in the main bath upstairs. It works great. It never clogs. Not so with the one in the powder room. It clogs if you look at it funny, which people must do often. And since it’s an elongated bowl, no plunger fits properly. So clearing clogs is a challenge.

Which brings us to yesterday.


I entered after my lovely wife and son both tried their hands at the less-than-effective plunger. I took my turn and we determined we needed to use the snake. Which meant first that we had to find the snake. Which meant I had to dig through the cabinet in the garage.

Even using the snake is no picnic. It’s a manual hand-crank type which is only moderately useful, but useful enough. Alternate the snake and the plunger enough times and the clog eventually clears. As it did yesterday. On Father’s Day. Between an awesome dinner and an awesome dessert.

So, not only did I get to be treated to an awesome meal with gifts, but I was also allowed to feel useful. Who could ask for anything more?


Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Boomerang, My Father, and Me

When I was 11 or 12, my father and I embarked on a project to build a boomerang.

I’m not sure why we did this thing. Perhaps Dad just wanted us to share an experience. Perhaps it was to try to have a “project” going when his father came to visit. (Grandma had died and Grandpa had stopped his woodcarving hobby after her death; perhaps Dad was trying to rekindle that interest.) Whatever the reason, I was thrilled.

I loved spending time with my dad. He worked what seemed to me a lot of hours. He traveled quite a bit, and he was on the high council in our stake and advised a different ward from ours so he was almost never in church with us. So the chance to build a boomerang was way cool.

My first boomerang had been a gift from Dad, brought back from a business trip to Australia (and looked a lot like the one in this photo). I’d never tried to throw it, just because it was cool. (And heavy. I was surprised how heavy it was. It was probably about two feet long, and my scrawny 10-year old frame was not up to throwing it.) The plan was we’d build one we could throw together.

We headed off to the Carnegie Library in Oakland, east of downtown Pittsburgh, next to the Carnegie Museum and near the University of Pittsburgh. I was pretty much in awe that Dad knew how to find plans for a boomerang in the magazines in the library and photocopy them for our use. (No internet then, of course; that “trip” would be accomplished with a few mouse clicks today.)

Armed with our plan we headed to the lumber yard in Coraopolis, down the hill from our home, to buy the wood – pine – and glue.

Like all projects Dad did, this would be a test of patience. This was not a one-day event. There would be gluing, clamping, cutting, sanding, filing. We created a three-layer laminated piece of wood from which we cut the basic shape, and then had to file the “wings” properly so it would spin and return to us.

In reality, I have no idea how much of the project Dad let me do. Some of it, to be sure. And I don’t remember how many weeks of Saturdays we worked on it, but I’m sure it was quite a few.

I remember the day we finally took it out of the vice on Dad’s old workbench at the back of the garage and he suggested we go give it a try. We walked the quarter mile up our road to the local elementary school. We stood on a hill above the playground and he let me have the first throw. I had no idea what I was doing and I tried throwing it like a Frisbee. It sank like a stone to the playground below, and I ran and retrieved it.

Dad took the next turn. He held it high above his head, holding it like a torch in his hand. He heaved it forward with a grunt and I watch in awe as it leveled out and spun through the air, first away from us and then returning, just the way it was designed to do.

Dad was awesome. I was amazed. We had done it.

Dad was pretty pleased, too. I have no idea if he wondered whether it would work, but he never expressed any doubt that it would.

Since we were on top of the hill, I scampered down to retrieve the returned boomerang and brought it back to my dad. “Throw it again!”

He obliged. He held it up like a torch and heaved it forward. This time, though, it spun forward, end over end, spinning straight into the ground of the playground below with a loud crack. One end stuck in the ground and the other snapped off. In one shot, the boomerang was in two useless pieces.

Dad walked slowly down the hill, sighed, and pulled the wedge of wood out of the ground. We walked home quietly. We didn’t talk about what happened. I didn’t fuss about not getting a chance to throw again. He didn’t fuss about weeks of work broken in one poor throw. We simply carried the pieces home and returned to our lives.

But that memory still lives on with me over four decades later.

Thanks, Dad. And happy Father’s Day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

35 Years Later -- Memories of the revelation on the priesthood

Saturday was the 35th anniversary of the announcement of extension of priesthood blessings to all worthy male members of the church, that is the lifting of the priesthood ban. This item from LDS Living highlights some of the implications and is worth a read.

It often happens that we remember where we were when certain big things happen in our lives. I remember where I was when I heard this news. I was a missionary serving in Worms, Germany. Our branch president lived in Mannheim and we had just knocked on his door. His 20-something daughter answered the door, saw us and excitedly said, “The Blacks can have the priesthood!” I stood in the hallway outside their apartment, stunned.

As it happened, the branch president had gone to a leadership meeting with the stake leaders where he heard the news.

Years later as I read accounts of the process that President Kimball followed in receiving and then sharing that revelation, I wept at the care and love he showed. I was aware that President McKay had sought similar revelation years earlier and did not receive it; still he also did his best to exercise care and love within the bounds that he felt surrounded him.

In October 2011, after the announcement of new temples in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo prompted this blog post from me, which I reprint here because of its relationship to the lifting of the priesthood ban.

New African Temples and Me
I know that several new temples were announced in conference, and as interesting as good fishing in Wyoming sounds to me (btw, interesting is that word your mother taught you to use when you couldn’t think of a nice one), it was the two new African temples that caught my attention.
I have never been to Africa, but my parents lived in Lagos, Nigeria while I was on my mission in the late 1970’s. During those years President Kimball announced the revelation on the extension of the priesthood to all worthy men of the church.

I have in my missionary journal a letter from my mother in which she writes:

Yesterday, Sunday, August 20, 1978 marked a day of history.

On Friday, Brother Merrill Bateman [then a BYU professor] and Edwin Q. Cannon, first counselor in the International Mission presidency arrived in Lagos. They visited us, Brother Miller, a Brother Miller-Aganemi who became a member of the church while doing graduate work in Utah. He is a native Nigerian and is, of course, black. Yesterday [we] held a REAL meeting. [My folks had been meeting just the two of them each week, with Brother Miller joining them a time or two a month.] Sacrament was observed, testimonies and one calling and setting-apart. And this is the “first.” Your Dad was called to be Nigerian Group Leader, to locate those Nigerian men who were baptized during their educational periods in the U.S. and have since returned to this country. These men will now have the opportunity to realize the priesthood.

I would never have imagined that my convert parents would be on the cutting edge of the history of the church. To be sure, they were on the edge. Two senior missionary couples later came to Nigeria and Ghana and did the heavy lifting regarding the initial growth of the church there. They visited with my folks from time to time, but the real work was far from Lagos. But decades later temples came to Ghana and to Nigeria.

I’ve been interested in the development of the church in Africa since my parents were there. An additional temple in South Africa is a great thing. And a temple in the Democratic Republic of Congo is awesome to me. More blessings closer to more people. The Johannesburg South Africa Temple is 350 miles from Durban, and over 2,000 miles from Kinshasa.

I look forward to more African temples in the future.

BTW, you can read my latest post at Real Intent, "Becoming Father," here.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Best Kept Secret

In the last months of my mission, my companion’s brother was travelling through Europe on business and got permission to take my companion and me to lunch. As we visited over pizza, he observed that one of the church’s best kept secrets is what a mission is really like.

I’ve reflected on that reality over the three-plus decades since my mission. This week, my niece, whose brother is leaving the MTC this week for his own mission, pointed me to an article that captures some of the secrets beautifully. You can read it here.  Betsy VanDenBerge gets it just right as she contrasts real mission life with the caricatures we sometimes encounter. She busts a few popular myths, including:

1. It’s all about converting

2. It’s an insular bubble protected from the world

3. Missions foster intolerance
Indeed, she points out what missionaries learn, including the fact that they don’t convert anyone.

Of course there are other mysteries of mission life, including how hard it really is. And one reason it’s an unspoken secret is not that anyone is trying to hide the truth, but rather that experience is the only way to learn it. I will never know the pain of childbirth, even though I’ve observed my wife give birth seven times. Why? I’ve not experienced it. Similarly, I would never have known the pain of mission growth had I not lived through it.

That’s not to say missions are miserable. Quite the contrary, I still speak of my mission with almost a romantic enthusiasm, highlighting the miracles I witnessed (including real live miracles of healing), the conversions I saw (including my own), and the growth I felt in myself over those two years. To say the experience was transformational for me is to master the obvious.

To say I left a boy and came home a man is far too simple, however accurate the description may be from 50,000 feet up. The growth was in the day-to-day journey, negotiating my relationship with companions, mission leaders, church members and non-members, both interested in the church and not. And it was in my negotiating with my own sense of who I was and what I was doing – a vision that was in constant flux during my term of service.

I did not come home an expert in the country where I served, nor was I fully fluent in my mission language (though I’m sure I told myself I was; in truth I was pretty good at church German and had shed most of the most offensive parts of my American accent by the time I came home). I was not a gospel scholar nor a master of the scriptures, though I had developed a pretty clear sense of testimony and could teach the missionary lessons with confidence. I was not the hardest working or highest baptizing missionary in my mission. (Actually I have no idea if I was; my mission didn’t publish any kind of statistics, but I assume I wasn’t.) I was probably a pretty average missionary – far more effective at the end than at the beginning. By the time I came home I had a pretty clear sense of what I was doing as a missionary and how to do it. I felt comfortable in my nametag and my missionary suit, and I knew that I loved the gospel and the church, and I loved teaching.

My mission president taught us that the first soul we’d bring to God (see D&C 18:15) would be our own.  I think that was true for me, and I think my mission experience had a great deal to do with that process.

As I write now to young friends and relatives who are serving missions, I often reflect on my own experiences. I share probably more than these young missionaries want to read – after all, the learning is in the doing – but I hope that by sharing my experiences I can offer some perspective on theirs. Their feedback tells me sometimes I get it right. (And they’re kind enough to say nothing when I don’t.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Experience coaches vs. helicopter parenting

Last week’s Wall Street Journal featured this story on parents’ serving as “exposure coaches” for their children who suffer from anxiety.

Basically, therapists work with kids who suffer from anxiety to expose them in a controlled way to the very thing that concerns them. Parents are enlisted in the battle and serve as exposure coaches to help their kids grow accustomed to those things that produce anxiety.

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but think about helicopter parents and how their role seems to be the exact opposite.

Helicopter parents are those who seem to want to make everything right for their kids. Exposure coaches have the goal of making their kids right for what life throws at them. Put me down for #2, please.

When I was a kid, if I complained to my mom about something one of my friends did, her standard response was (and I can see her standing at the stove, stirring whatever was in the pot for dinner as she said it), “You’ve got to fight your own battles.”

Who knew that response would be one of the best gifts she ever gave me.

I was the youngest of four kids and I had awesome siblings who treated me well. I tell my own kids I don’t remember being picked on by my siblings (and I don’t). But I also remember growing up reasonably confident that I could do what I set my mind to. It wasn’t that I always succeeded. And it certainly wasn’t that my parents intervened on my behalf; if they ever did, I didn’t know about it. In fact, I’m sure my folks from time to time wondered how I would do some things I set out to do. But they let me do it.

I remember some school assignments that were awesome. And some were awful. And I got the grades for both efforts. I remember succeeding in some social circumstances and failing in others. Some successes and failures I shared with my parents and some I didn’t.

If I asked for help, I got it. If I didn’t ask for help, I got space.

It was a formula that worked for me growing up.

Now I know that the kids in the WSJ article suffer from significant anxiety, and there are lots of reasons for anxiety, most beyond the influence of helicopter parenting. But at the same time I have to wonder if training parents as exposure coaches is one way we can correct misguided efforts of helicopter parents.

Helicopter parents – those who intervene at every step to ensure their children have the best experience – have failed to learn that what we think is helpful is not always helpful. While it may be helpful to offer to call and make a doctor’s appointment for a spouse who has too much to do, it may not be helpful to do that for a teenage child who needs to learn to call and make her own appointments. While it may seem helpful to offer to type a paper for an overburdened student, it may be more helpful for that student to learn to budget his time better next time – a lesson he might best learn by stumbling once along the way.

When we teach our youth about agency and accountability, we typically say that we can choose how we act, but we don’t get to choose the consequences. That is, we take the consequences that come with the choices we make. A helicopter parent who obscures the consequences does no good for the child.

A friend regularly repeats this mantra: Never do for a child what he can or should be able to do for himself. Good advice. In fact, Great Advice!

In recovery circles, families with addicted loved ones learn a lot about enabling a person’s addictions – taking steps to soften the consequences of the addiction. That enabling might be as benign as regular reminders to wake up on time for work or nagging a person to get certain things done. But it can be as serious as covering up an addict’s or an alcoholic’s misdeeds to avoid legal or other troubles. Those enabling behaviors are often symptomatic of a co-dependent person, one who depends on others for his or her own happiness.

But that enabling behavior is common in our society, not just among families with addiction. It’s also deeply rooted in helicopter parents whose happiness is dependent upon the success of their children.

In the end, our goal as parents is to have kids who can grow up and be healthy, happy and successful without us. Helping our children toward that healthy independence requires that they learn skills on their own, that they learn to fight their own battles, that they learn to do the things that they should do for themselves.