Thursday, February 28, 2013

Informed Inspiration and Extending Callings

(See the first post in this series here)

When we first moved into this ward, we filled out some questionnaires about ourselves. One of the questions on the form was "do you know how to lead music?" Janelle quickly marked yes, thinking, "of course I know how to lead music -- how many young women activities did I have on conducting? What woman who grew up in the Church doesn't know how?" The next week, she was called as the Relief Society (women's group) chorister. She says it is the most uninspired calling she has ever had. But recognizing that she was new, her talents were as yet unknown, and someone had to do it, she accepted the position.

About a year later, she was asked to meet with a member of the bishopric (we'll call him Richard). They found an empty classroom, sat down, made the requisite small talk, and had a prayer.

"Janelle, we would like to call you to be the ward music director."

Janelle went off script. She cried.

Richard was a little surprised by the response.  He allowed Janelle to compose herself a bit and gently asked what prompted her reaction.

Janelle replied, "When we moved here, I was called to be the Relief Society chorister, and it felt completely uninspired.  It's unsatisfying and I've felt completely useless, and this feels like more of the same."

"Well I'll tell you what.  I'll take what you've said back to the bishopric and we'll talk about it.  I'd like you to think it over during the week, and we'll meet again next Sunday and talk it over."

Janelle came home and thought more about the position.  With some research, she found that it was more than just directing music during congregational meetings, but also involved helping to improve the music program throughout the ward.  Over the week, she began to feel differently about the idea of accepting this call.  When they met again, Richard explained that the bishopric had a goal of making music a more prominent part of our services and felt like she was someone that was capable of making that happen.  Janelle shared what she had learned in the course of the week and gladly accepted the calling.

In that same meeting, Janelle also asked that a particular musically inclined husband and wife be called to be the choir directors.  In an earlier conversation with the husband, she had learned that his dream calling was to be a choir director, and she figured that was a good reason to give him a chance.  That husband and wife served for four years and ran a great choir the entire time.


I'm sure it seems kind of self-congratulatory to use an example from my own family, but that wasn't actually why I chose it.  I chose this example because there are so many good things happening in it. (I also really liked working with Richard and thought he was a great model of a ward leader.)

There was empathy, patience, an open ear.  Richard didn't try to use guilt, but instead tried to create a vision of the work to be done.  There was no pressure to answer right away, but time was granted to ponder, to let the Spirit work.  There was freedom and flexibility, as well as selection of people who wanted to do a calling.  Above all, there was genuine concern and feeling for the emotions of the person being called.

My favorite times working in ward leadership were when these elements were present.  Some of the most unpleasant moments for me were when these elements weren't.  Fortunately, there seems to be more positive in the current leadership than negative.  But my experience in Mormonism in general leaves me with the feeling that there are some underlying assumptions and beliefs about callings that could still haunt us if left to their own devices.

Traditionally, callings in the Church are deliberated in confidence.  The final decision rests with the bishop, and he normally involves his counselors.  Usually, they request recommendations from the presidents of the affected group (women, youth, men, children).  Aside from this small group, discussions about callings are kept entirely confidential.  There are some valid reasons for this, but it's quite possible we take it a little too far.

Our process of recruiting volunteers might benefit from a little more openness.  Involving the people we are considering for a position earlier in the process could also improve the selection.  For the remainder of this post, I'm going to propose different ways that ward leaders could consider, select, and call members to volunteer in the church.  The purpose of these tools is to encourage the use of more information when seeking inspiration.

The more informed you are going into a decision, the better prepared you will be to receive inspiration.

Listen to Inspiration
First and foremost, spend time listening to the Lord.  Give Him a chance to weigh in on who He wants in a position.  In a discussion of informed inspiration, it may seem counter-productive to start here, but definitive guidance from God is itself a form of informed inspiration.  It shouldn't be set aside lightly.

So, without question, it sometimes happens that the Lord has a specific person in mind for a specific calling.  But not always, and I'm not even convinced that it is often.  If God doesn't give you a definitive answer within a few days, maybe it's time to seek other avenues of inspiration.

Ask People You Trust
Typically, a bishop will ask his counselors and other ward leaders for recommendations. But there's no real reason to keep the circle so closed. There could be other people in the ward that have different perspectives and insights that could prompt inspiration. Ask former leaders, bishops, your spouse, or teachers who they think is a good fit for a position, and be sure to ask why.

Ask People Who Have an Interest in the Work of That Calling
Need a new young men president? Ask the parents of the youth which men they think their sons and daughters would look up to.

Need a new youth Sunday School teacher? Ask the youth if there is anyone in the ward they would like to learn from.

Ask teachers who they think could serve well in the library; ask men who they could look to as an elders quorum president. If the Lord hasn't already told you who can fill the needs of the position, perhaps someone who will be served can give you an idea.

Ask for Volunteers
I suspect that a call for volunteers would be a horrific shock for a lot of Mormons. Our culture forbids ambition for leadership (perhaps to a fault), and volunteering to fill a need would be framed by some as 'aspiring to a calling.' but here is the simple truth: aspiration isn't always bad.

I can see the wisdom in avoiding this tactic with certain leadership roles (bishops and presidencies especially), but for various teaching and administrative roles, this could be beneficial. Why not get a volunteer scout leader, or girls camp director, or nursery teacher. A person who comes forward willingly is much more likely to perform his responsibilities than a person who must be persuaded1.

Get to know what people are interested in, start your search among them
I'll admit upfront that this is hard work. It requires knowing people personally, speaking with them often, and remembering details about them. One suggestion might be to keep a database of notes and enter each person's interests as you discover them. Meeting with members when they join a ward and annual tithing settlements would be good times to gather this information. Then, if you aren't feeling inspiration for a calling, pull out the notes and see if anything sparks some inspiration.

One of the strengths of the example at the beginning of this post was that the choir directors were chosen based on their interest in leading a choir.  It was their interest that made them successful, and there's no shame in admitting that as a reason for selecting them.

Talk to people about what the needs of the ward are
Your idea of what the needs are may be very different from what the members' idea of what the needs of the ward are.  We all tend to see the world through our own experiences and biases.  Asking for input on what the needs of the ward (or a group) are can be extremely informative.

I know a woman who, when called as a Relief Society president, had a very clear vision of what she wanted to accomplish with the women in the ward.  She spent a year running programs and activities that suited her vision.  After a year, she took the time to meet with each woman in the ward and asked in those meetings what they felt were the needs of the Relief Society.  A great number of women pointed out some areas that they felt were lacking that the Relief Society president didn't think were a need.  After those interviews, she adapted her leadership to better fit the needs that the women felt weren't being met2.

Ask the person you are replacing for suggestions
Often, the people with the most time and energy put into a position are those that have been serving in it.  They are likely also the best source of information about what the needs of the people they serve are.  Their input on who in the ward is well suited to continue that work could be extremely valuable in making a selection.

Make sure you know the names of everyone in your ward (and make sure they know it)
This may seem like a strange item to put on the list, but the mechanics are simple.  If you don't know who a person is, you can't possibly know that much about them.  If you don't know much about them, you can't really expect much in the way of inspiration about their talents and abilities3.

This certainly isn't an exhaustive list for how to seek informed inspiration, but I think it's a pretty good start. None of these should be a favorite tool, or the only tool you ever use to find someone for a calling.  Using multiple tools at a time, and using a variety of tools may help spark the inspiration on who to call.  Going about it in some of these ways will certainly break down the confidentiality that normally surrounds callings.  Remember that what really counts is that a person you are asking to volunteer knows that, even if their name wasn't the first name to come up, it was the right name to end with.

1 Though interviews would still be important here. You would want to impress on volunteers the requirements and expectations of the permission. Otherwise you risk picking up volunteers who may be more interested in reliving their days of youth than in building youth into adults, for example.

2 In the process, she also became one of the most effective and confident leaders I've worked with, and someone I would consider a model of quality leadership.

3 As a practical matter, if the members feel like you know them and are personally invested in them, it becomes a lot easier to persuade and inspire them to take on new callings.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Uninformed Inspiration: Recruiting Volunteers at Church

Brother Samuel invited Sister Elaine into one of the empty classrooms.  They sat down and had the usual small talk.  Samuel then invited Elaine to say a prayer.  After finishing the prayer, Samuel introduced the purpose of their meeting.

"Sister Elaine, we would like to call you to be a nursery teacher.  Would you be willing to accept this calling?"

Elaine went off script.  "I'm not sure that's a good place for me right now."

"What is your concern?"

"My husband is in medical school, and is gone before the kids wake up.  I am home all day with my four year old, my two year old, and my 8 month old, and my husband barely gets home before the kids go to bed.  Sunday is the one day that I feel like I have a reprieve from the child care duties."

"Well, Elaine, I certainly understand what you're saying.  My two children certainly are a handful for my wife.  I want you to know that this calling is inspired of God, and you will be blessed for your willingness to serve.  Will you accept this calling?"


That's a dramatization of an actual report from when I was working with the bishopric (each LDS ward has a bishop and two counselors responsible for overseeing all the affairs of the ward).  If fact, I've underdramatized it--and it happened more than once.  These were times when I wanted to scream.  After multiple accounts such as this one, I began to take note of flaws in how volunteer labor is recruited in the LDS church.

Most churches rely on volunteer labor at some level.  One of my coworkers described the process of recruiting volunteers at his Catholic congregation.  Typically, an announcement is made that a volunteer is being sought.  Over the course of a couple weeks, the announcements become more intense/desperate.  Finally, the clergy approaches a handful of people and begins the art of arm twisting.  Eventually, a volunteer is persuaded and fills the role.

That is a stark contrast from what we saw in the dramatization.  I would be surprised if many churches recruit volunteers like the LDS Church.  Then again, I'm not sure you can say the LDS Church really 'recruits' volunteers.  It more or less drafts them.  Mormons receive 'callings' to serve in their local units.  These callings typically come from the bishop of the congregation1, who is himself a 'volunteer' that was selected by the regional leadership.  Generally, when making a decision about who to call to a position, the only source of information from outside the bishopric is from the presidents of the various organizations (men, women, Sunday school, etc).  It is rare to have any other feedback about the calling until someone springs it on the member, often times with only a moment's notice, and normally with the expectation of an immediate answer.

If you think about this process from outside of the LDS mindset, you might wonder how anything gets done2.  What makes this model succeed is decades of rhetoric about accepting callings that come from divinely appointed leaders.  Most of the rhetoric behind this success falls into two major themes:
  1. Each calling is inspired of God through the leaders of the congregation
  2. “Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.” (source)
Thus, the implication that is behind every request from a bishopric to volunteer is that you are turning down the Lord if you say no, and that you are automatically entirely qualified for the position if you say yes.

I've observed that the Church is getting better about (not) enforcing those implications (something I'll discuss in greater detail in a subsequent post).  There also seems to be a positive trend toward assimilating feedback from the members who are asked to serve.  Yet, it remains hard to determine how much progress is being made because a) some leaders do continue to push this rhetoric, and b) a substantial portion of the membership continues to live by this rhetoric.

The rest of this post is going to focus on some of the negative results of callings rhetoric.  Please don't assume that I have nothing good to say about volunteer recruitment in the Church--I just plan to say it later this week.  And because I can't think of a good way to talk about it in prose, you get sections.  Enjoy!

Guilting people into accepting
The first attitude I dislike is one of guilting people into accepting callings. In my time working with the bishopric in my ward, I listened as a couple of men recounted extending callings to people and then being somewhat taken aback when it wasn't immediately accepted. In some cases, they even reported telling the person, "this is an inspired calling from God and we are asking you to sustain your leaders and have faith in the Lord by accepting."  Nothing says love and compassion like that reminder that you're failing God in one promise if you are for any reason (valid or otherwise) hesitant to make another.

"By virtue of being the bishop, I can match you to the right calling without ever talking to you"
I also dislike that people are matched to responsibilities based on what the leaders think is a good fit. Often, this works out well, but I have yet to hear of a bishopric who asks people "in what areas would you be most interested in teaching and serving" or "in what areas do you least want to serve?"

Calling people into positions of no interest to them is usually detrimental to the quality of the program. I have heard multiple youth leaders, for example, express their distaste for weekly youth activities. They often express relief if a meeting is cancelled for lack of a plan. That kind of attitude gives incentive to poor planning. Those individuals tend not to attend trainings. And the youth program suffers as a result. It would be far better to first consider in your pool of candidates people who have expressed an interest in serving in said position.

"I'm so faithful, I've never turned down a calling"
In Mormonism, people sometimes use their willingness to accept any calling as a badge of honor.  It's a symbol that they are truly devoted.  More imortantly, it's a symbol that they are more devoted than anyone who says no. People who express this attitude probably don't think much about whether their interests, talents, and abilities fit well to the responsibility being accepted.  Part of working for a volunteer organization is not letting the organization down.  Sometimes, it might be better to decline a calling so that someone better suited to fulfil the responsibility can do so--and that can be just as noble as accepting.

"Because I am called, I am qualified"
LDS leaders are, in my opinion, grossly undertrained.  In some ways, I think the Church has realized this.  I've seen LDS Family Services do a lot of the counseling that my father would have done as a bishop 20 years ago.  This is a good step.  But at times I feel like the prevailing attitude is that if you've been attending church for several years, you've had sufficient training to be a leader in the Church.  It also seems like Mormons don't take seriously the opportunities to receive more training.  I've fallen victim to this myself--I spent years avoiding some of the Boy Scout training programs because "I already knew what was in them."  Fortunately, with some mentorship and maturity, I've learned that I would benefit a great deal from more training on things that I already know.

Even if you could convince more leaders that they need more training, there just aren't many opportunities.  Formal training meetings tend to come once every six months with the regular stake conferences.  Most of these training meetings I've attended consist of someone standing at the pulpit and talking about what we could be doing better.  The format just doesn't work for translating theory into practice.

In closing, I don't mean to say that the uninformed inspiration model--where the bishopric decides in confidence who to extend callings to--is a model we should never use.  Only that it shouldn't be the only model that we ever use.  There is certainly room for inspiration in that model.  There are certainly times where a wise and spiritually in-tune leader can nudge an individual into a calling that will allow him or her to grow.  My concern is that we try to force this model when that inspiration isn't there.  If you don't feel that inspiration, maybe you should try a different approach before carrying on.

Upcoming Posts
Informed Inspiration and Extending Callings
A Thought Experiment in Informed Inspiration

1 Or one of the counselors on behalf of the bishop.

2 Giving generous estimates off the top of my head, I'd say about 10% of stuff just doesn't get done, 15% gets done poorly, 60% gets done well enough, and 15% gets done exceptionally well.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

To the COJCLDS on LGBTQ in the BSA

(Read it in a better viewer here)

Dear Church Leaders,

The recent announcement by the Boy Scouts of America regarding a potential change in the policy barring homosexuals from membership has been of great interest and excitement to me. I have strong opinions about this issue and am emotionally vested in the upcoming decision to be announced in May. Based on discussions I have had with other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is clear to me that my beliefs and opinions on this matter are a minority opinion within the faith. This fact notwithstanding -- indeed, because of this fact -- I feel impressed and obligated to share my beliefs. To be clear, I support a change in the BSA's policy that would permit each local chartering organization to decide if it will permit homosexual members within its scouting units, consistent with that organization's beliefs.

My support for this policy is an outgrowth of my experiences in the Church, in Scouting, and in my professional activities. I am an active member of the Shaker Heights Ward of the Kirtland Ohio Stake. I served an honorable full time mission and have served in young men presidencies, and as an executive secretary and ward clerk. I am also an Eagle Scout and have served as an assistant scoutmaster in Troop 662 of Shaker Heights, Ohio for more than five years. Additionally, I have worked with homosexual members of my community in the course of my professional life and developed open relationships of trust and respect with them. Through all of these experiences and deep reflection, I have developed the belief that a change in the BSA's policy will be a benefit to the scouting movement and to thousands of boys who cannot or do not participate because of the current policy.  Supporting this policy change would also open the door to better relations with those of other faiths and allow for more productive dialog between our faiths.

Before elaborating on the reasons and principles on which I base my stated policy preference, I wish to express how I feel regarding homosexuals and those who live a homosexual lifestyle. First and foremost, I accept and believe in the Church's teaching that “family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children”and that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God 1” to be the foundation of the family unit. I accept and believe in the Law of Chastity; that sexual relations are intended by God to be shared by lawfully married men and women.

Holding these beliefs, however, does not prevent me from recognizing the divine worth of those who do not share these same beliefs.  I have a firm belief in the divine heritage of those who choose to live a homosexual lifestyle.  Although they disagree with me on this one aspect of my faith, my belief in their divine heritage compels me to assist them in any way possible to improve their lives, seek happiness and fulfillment, and develop a relationship with their Savior.  Through my discipleship of Christ, I feel a moral obligation to provide the same acts of service, charity, and compassion I would give to those who share my beliefs.

The Scouting program is committed to “build[ing] character, train[ing] [youth] in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and develop[ing] personal fitness.2”  These are characteristics that benefit youth and adults of every race, gender, religion, and even sexual orientation.  Those who uphold these values are those who will have the greatest impact on shaping the future of our communities, and development of these values should be encouraged in all youth and adults.

The principles and values that Scouting encourages share considerable overlap with the purposes of the Aaronic priesthood3.  Scouting and the Aaronic priesthood both encourage giving meaningful service; both encourage obtaining education; both encourage building worthy husbands and fathers; and both encourage commitment to one’s religion.  Denying homosexuals the benefits of the scouting program removes an effective and successful way of encouraging such values that are known to grow better individuals and, subsequently, better communities.  I believe that if we wish to encourage these values in our young men, we should also encourage them in all young men.

The dissonance that arises is that, according to the Church’s teachings, an individual cannot uphold the doctrines of family and chastity while choosing to live a homosexual lifestyle.  This is understandable dissonance, and I believe it is sincere.  Instituting a change in the BSA’s policy is difficult for those who believe as we do, as it cuts into a central belief of our religion.  I understand and empathize with this concern.

Being a volunteer with a troop chartered by an Episcopal church has given me great insight into the beliefs of others.  While I can empathize with the concerns of LDS scouters, I also empathize with the concerns of scouters from other faiths.  For some, such as the Episcopalian parishioners with whom I volunteer, the choice to live a homosexual lifestyle is not at odds with their view of a moral and chaste life.  This disagreement, however, has not hampered our ability to serve the youth who come to our troop.  We have recognized that the greatness of our similarities easily overcomes our differences, and mutually agree to let each other “worship how, where or what [we] may4.”

Furthermore, we have recognized that it is not for us, as scout leaders, to instruct the youth in our troop about what is moral or immoral with respect to sexual relationships.  As stated by the BSA, “same-sex attraction should be introduced and discussed outside of its program with parents, caregivers, or spiritual advisers, at the appropriate time and in the right setting5.”  Understandably, it is difficult for many LDS scouters to separate scout leaders from religious leaders.  However, outside of the LDS scouting units, it is not uncommon for scouting leaders to not be directly affiliated with the religion holding the charter.  Troop 662, for example, is hosted by an Episcopal church.  The charter rep is Episcopalian, but attends a different congregation.  The scoutmaster is methodist; I am LDS; and other assistant scoutmasters and committee members include people from Lutheran, Universalist-Unitarian, and Jewish faiths.  While we encourage all of our youth to pursue their religious education, we do not consider ourselves the proper resource for that education.  This separation is a major difference between LDS and non-LDS scouting.

For this purpose, I feel it is important that we allow each chartering organization to decide for itself what its policy will be with respect to homosexuals.  Doing so will allow each unit to make a policy consistent with its own morals and beliefs and to allow parents and youth to seek out troops that support and uphold their own beliefs.  I feel that enforcing any other policy would be disrespectful of other religions and would unnecessarily deny the benefits of citizenship, preparedness, and physical fitness available to those who participate in scouting.

While voicing my opinions on this policy, I would also like to state my hope that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue its support of the scouting program if the proposed policy change takes effect.  There are numerous benefits for the Church through its support of scouting, such as insurance, infrastructure, and training.  I believe the training available to scouts and scout leaders is especially beneficial to LDS scouters.  The BSA provides a training program for youth protection for which no similar training exists in the Church.  Basic training for leaders in the BSA exceeds any training I’ve received through the Church, and I believe leaders who have had the BSA trainings have led better youth programs in the Church than those who have not.  The National Youth Leadership Training program for youth may be one of the most successful and effective training programs in the country, as is its adult counterpart, Wood Badge.  Programs such as these are not found in the Church, and participation in them would unquestionably improve the quality of teaching and leadership in the Church.

Lastly, I believe that an opportunity exists now to be leaders in our communities and in our country.  We have an opportunity now to initiate a dialog that promotes tolerance, understanding, and respect with those who disagree.  I have had deeply personal discussions with individuals of other faiths on this issue.  Some of them had stated that they felt no policy change would be adequate except a policy that required full inclusion of homosexuals in all scouting units.  After discussing with them my beliefs regarding family and chastity, while also stating that I felt that other religions should be free to practice according to their beliefs, they have developed a respect for my beliefs.  These individuals now support the proposed policy--out of respect for my beliefs, they have eased off of their earlier stance in favor of a policy that allows all religions to practice according to their beliefs.  We do not completely agree in all religious matters, but we have grown to respect and appreciate each other’s beliefs, as well as mutually support the other in those beliefs.  I believe this can be accomplished on a wider scale.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an avid scouter, I encourage Church leaders to support the proposed policy change.  Allowing and encouraging chartering units to set their policies regarding homosexuals will promote tolerance, respect, and community.  The scouting program will become available to more of our country’s youth, promoting better leadership, citizenship, and better participation in religion.  The Church will be able to maintain access to training programs, activities, and physical resources while simultaneously building relationships with other faiths through which the gospel can be shared.  I appreciate your time and consideration of my thoughts and look forward to many years of service to God and to the youth of our communities.

With Love and Faith,

Benjamin Nutter
Shaker Heights Ward, Kirtland Ohio Stake
Assistant Scoutmaster, Troop 662, Shaker Heights, Ohio

1 The Family: A Proclamation to the World 
3 Handbook 2, 8.1.3 
4 Articles of Faith, 11 
5 Bryan Wendell, “Boy Scouts of America clarifies its membership policy,” Bryan on Scouting,

Monday, February 18, 2013

I Almost Walked Out of Stake Priesthood Meeting...Twice

This one was quite a trip! It all started out benignly enough. I was mostly enjoying the meeting until one of the speakers (an Elders Quorum president from one of the wards) started his talk. He asked us to think back over the past year and consider some of the events that have taken place in our country. He made reference to the explicit nature of music and other media, which I am inclined to agree is becoming increasingly trashy in some forms. Then he derailed the train. "there are groups who exist to put an end to school prayer; and we saw two states legalize marijuana."

Really!? You're going to lump those in with Ke$ha?

"We cannot allow these evils to penetrate our homes." That's right! The belief that prayer doesn't belong in our schools is as damaging to our spiritual well being as overly sexualized lyrics. Legalized marijuana is as dangerous a threat to our souls as violent imagery and pornography.

To be clear, I don't think that marijuana is a substance to be used recreationally. But the reality is that as a prohibited substance, it is widely used. There is some merit to the argument that legalizing it is a first step to reducing its use through public campaigns like the one we waged against tobacco.  I understand the merits of both sides of the argument, but I have to question the appropriateness of advocating either side from the pulpit1.

Things went even further into the wacky when the stake president chose to speak.  He started off by reading a Church statement from November: "We invite Americans everywhere, whatever their political persuasion, to pray for the President, for his administration and the new Congress as they lead us through difficult and turbulent times. May our national leaders reflect the best in wisdom and judgement as they fulfill the great trust afforded to them by the American people."

Okay, this could be interesting.

He proceeded to talk about the phrase "difficult and turbulent times," and then followed it up with a few quotes about government excess, big government, and welfare.  (The LDS Church doesn't support any political party or platform...really, it doesn't!  Why doesn't anyone believe us?)  The president's message for the nights boiled down to this: get your houses and your affairs in order for the tough times ahead.  Furthermore, "I predict that in three years, we will look back at February of 2013 as a time of comfort."

I understand and encourage the idea of getting your houses in orders.  I believe in saving up for a rainy day, paying down debts, and having some food stored away for tough times.  I believe doing those things is prudent because life is unpredictable.  I do not, however, believe in doing those things because of the same kind of end-times rhetoric religionists have been spouting off for thousands of years.

And let's not forget that the world today is enjoying a level of wealth and education never before seen in history.  Slavery is at an all time low.  Men and women have more opportunities for education, career, family, and fulfilment than ever available in history.  If you're going to complain how bad things are today, at least take a moment to recognize that things are also better than they've ever been.  Again, I don't question the prudence of the counsel given; only the appropriateness of framing the counsel in terms of politico-religious pseudo-doctrine.

Still, I'm willing to wait this out and see what comes of it.  I have put on my calendar for February 17, 2016 a reminder to check this blog post and compare the state of the world in 2016 to the state of the world in 2013.  Some measures to consider:

  • The United States is withdrawing from a major conflict in Afghanistan, but is otherwised engaged in no major conflicts.
  • On February 18, 2013, the Dow Jones Industrial Average opened at 13973.39; the NASDAQ at 3,198.66; and the S&P 500 at 1,521.38.
  • Unemployment was 7.9%
  • Minimum wage was $7.25
  • The median income $50,502 (based on a 2011 report)

In three years, I'll check back and see how things look.  I might be eating my words then.  I might not.  In the meantime, we'll be saying our prayers at home and not smoking marijuana.  I suspect things will be just fine.

For right now, however, I want to thank that Elders Quorum president for sharing the account of Nehemiah. As his enemies tried to prevent the building of the temple, Nehemiah boldly proclaimed, "I am doing a great work."  That's exactly how I feel!  This meeting reaffirmed my belief that I need to say more of what I think (something I failed to do last night.  I'm still working on that part of my courage) lest the work on the temple of my faith be halted.

1 We'll avoid the issue of school prayer for now, since I'd prefer not appear at least moderately kind.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Scoutmaster's Widow

Janelle, if it is not Valentine's Day, do not read this.

Our family got hit hard by the flu last month. There was a great deal of yuckiness and very little sleep for a few days. This was a cause of great stress on my scout troop, as they had been counting on my vehicle and my presence at the annual Klondike Derby. If we continued to be sick into the weekend, they would need to hastily find another leader1.

Much to their relief, it appeared that we were all back to good health in time for me to go on this trip. So I packed everything up and took off on Friday night for another weekend with the scouts.

Janelle got about two hours of sleep that night. Bug got worse again.  Bird got worse again.  Janelle was feeling worse.  At 10:30 on Saturday morning she sent a text requesting that I come home and relieve her.  But thanks to a lack of cell phone reception at the camp, the text never came through.  Her only hope for relief went devastatingly unanswered.

After I got home and she was telling me about her weekend, a phrase came to mind that I once heard, though I can't remember who it was that said it to me (Molly Urban, maybe?).

"The Scoutmaster's Widow."

Whoever said it was lamenting the incredible time commitment and sacrifice required by a scoutmaster to make a successful program for the boys.  Although I'm not the scoutmaster (whose time commitment is even greater than my own), I began to wonder how much time I've spent away from my family because of scouting.  I compiled the following stats:

  • 44 Camping trips
  • 80 Nights camping
  • 3 Full weeks at scout camp
  • 2 Full weeks leading high adventure trips
  • 40 Weekly meetings per year
  • 25(ish) Patrol Leaders' Council meetings (about two hours each)
  • 25(ish) Troop Committee meetings (about 90 minutes each)
  • 5 Annual planning meetings (about 5 hours each)
  • Various all-day training meetings, certifications, and recertifications (scoutmaster specific training, first aid, wilderness first aid)

All told, I estimate I've given up the equivalent of over three months of my life to scouting in a little over five years.  And I think the worst complaint I've ever heard from Janelle in that time is, "I wish you were staying home, but I am glad you're going to have fun."

There should be an award for the women who put up with what Scoutmaster's do.  Scouting has awards for everything else, so why not an award for the scoutmaster's wife.  If I were to make a recommendation for the award requirements, they would be as follows:

The Scoutmaster's Widow Award

  1. Be the spouse of a active scoutmaster or assistant scoutmaster for at least three years.
  2. Watch your spouse go away for 90 nights of camping.
  3. Support and encourage your spouse to complete the Wood Badge Training program

That's it!  (Ha!  as if that isn't a lot).

Now, on those criteria, Janelle wouldn't qualify for this award yet.  I'm a little shy on the camping, and I have yet to do the Wood Badge Training (next year, I hope).  But since this is my award and my rules, I get to fudge them a little bit.  Which is why, prior to reading this post, Janelle found a box in front of the computer containing her pin (patches are ubiquitous in Scouting, but the coolest awards come with pins), pictured below (it hasn't arrived yet :( )

(Image is Copyrighted by Ruby Lane)

So, Janelle, on this Valentine's Day, I give you my sincerest condolences on being a Scoutmaster's Widow.  You also have my heartfelt thanks for allowing me to have all the fun I am having in Scouting.  As ridiculous a gift as this is, I hope you read in it the message I intend: I love you.

1Lest you think that my fellow leaders are callous, I received two separate calls Thursday night asking if I was okay to go and if Janelle would be able to handle the girls. It was important to them that Janelle not be left at her wits end. It was a courtesy that we were touched by and the sensitivity should be recognized.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Scout-Hack #1: Egg Carton Fire Starter

Normally I carry a wad of twine to use as fire starter. I likely will continue to do so when I intend to use flint and steel. However, I wanted to start putting together some simple-to-make fire starters that I could teach my scouts to make. If they take the time to try some of these ideas, I would hope that their fire building would improve.

We try to teach our scouts that a fire requires three components to burn--oxygen, fuel, and heat.  This firestarter is designed to provide low level and long lasting heat that will assist in igniting the kindling.  It also has the advantage of being fairly waterproof.

The basic materials for your firestarter
This fire starter is based on very simple and available materials.
  • Egg carton
  • 8 oz. Paraffin wax
  • Saw dust
 You will also want a double boiler, some parchment paper, and a skewer.

Instead of a double boiler, I filled a pot with water and placed a glass pyrex bowl on the pot. I only did this because the bowl would be easier to clean than the double boiler.  Melt the wax in the double boiler.

While the wax is melting, fill the egg carton cups about 2/3 to 3/4 full.

Place some parchment paper under the egg carton; after you pour the wax into the cups, it will soak through the cardboard and congeal on your counter.  Once the wax is melted, pour it into the cups (careful, the bowl will be hot).  Use a skewer to submerge the saw dust into the wax.

Cover the sawdust with wax.

Pour any unused wax into an old tin can, or outside. Do not pour the wax down the sink.  While the bowl is still hot, use a paper towel to wipe the inside.  If you're quick, you may be able to remove most of the wax residue from the bowl.

If a little extra cleaning is needed, place a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie sheet, turn the bowl upside down on the cookie sheet, and warm it in the oven (low heat). The excess wax will melt and drip onto the parchment paper.  A dry paper towel will be enough to remove the residue, and any remaining wax won't hurt you if it turns up in your food.

Once the fire starters are done, you can either remove the wax from the cups, or simply cut the cups apart.  Either way works well.

The disadvantage to this firestarter is that it is a little bulky, and a little heavy.  I wouldn't recommend these for backpacking, but they are probably suitable for the home and for trips where you aren't concerned with minimizing your weight.

Funny story:  While I was making these I hadn't thought to put the parchment paper under my egg carton.  When I saw the wax soaking through, I rushed to get the parchment paper and placed it on an unlit burner on the stove with the egg carton on top.  I then rushed to get the wax cleaned off the counter while it was still fairly warm.

Then I started to smell something.  I looked at the stove and found that the parchment paper had been too close to the operating burner under the double boiler.  And it was on fire! Remember, if there's a wax spill, don't be like me.  Wax cleans up fairly easily even after it is cooled.

1 Dryer lint or some other tinder works well, too.  I think I read somewhere that somebody used magnesium flakes.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

All Worthy Young Women May Participate in Temple Ordinances

Almost a year ago, there was an incident in an LDS temple where a couple of young women were not permitted into the baptismal font because they happened to be menstruating. This provoked some discussion on the internet, and even an organized information gathering campaign to find out how widespread was the policy of not allowing menstruating girls into the font. I remember reading about the issue, and was prepared to call my nearest temple until I found that someone had already done so. Apparently, I missed the follow-up. While reading comments on another topic, I learned that the information was given to Church headquarters, which prompted a response. Having completely missed this statement, I went in search of it. The best source I can find is the Salt Lake Tribune.
Performing baptisms in church temples is a sacred ordinance open to all members who are at least 12 years of age and who meet the standards of the church," Trotter said in a statement. "The decision of whether or not to participate in baptisms during a menstrual cycle is personal and left up to the individual."
Kudos to the Church for shutting down that line of nonsense.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"I Tell No One Any Story But His Own"

The first time I read The Chronicles of Narnia I wasn't very impressed.  I thought the allegory was forced and sometimes artificial1.  Yet there was one book in particular that stood out to me.  I still consider it to be the most thought provoking book in the series.  Consistent with my personality, it happens to be the book that I understand to be the least favored by most people: The Horse and His Boy.

The book tells of the travels of Shasta, a boy who tries to escape the life of his childhood by fleeing to Narnia.  Along the way, Shasta meets Aravis, a daughter of the ruling class who hopes to escape an arranged marriage by fleeing to Narnia.  Their travels cross paths with a lion several times, who they later learn is Aslan.  In one of these encounters, the travelers are fleeing a lion (unaware that it is Aslan) and the lion catches up to Aravis and wounds her.

When Aslan (quasi-)reveals himself to Shasta a little later, Shasta observes, "It was you who wounded Aravis?"  And upon Aslan's confirmation, "But what for?"

"Child, I am telling you your story, not hers.  I tell no one any story but his own.2"

This story fascinated me immediately.  Perhaps it doesn't seem like a very interesting story, but the idea that God will personalize His messages to those who seek Him stood out to me.  Still, I never really understood how powerful a message it was until a couple of years later.

Truthfully, it's pretty much the same story you hear from every returned missionary.  Boy meets girl...boy falls in love...boy prays to know if this is the woman he should marry.  But this is my story--so let's face it: it's extraordinary.  To start with, if I believed in soul mates, I would have called this girl my soul mate.  We connected immediately.  We had great chemistry.  Multiple people that saw us together would ask one or the other (or both) how long we were going to wait until we finally got married.

After some time, we planned a trip to Montreal together.  We had a fantastic time.  And as I had been praying about whether I should pursue a more serious relationship or not--and felt good about the prospect of us as a couple--I decided that this would be the time to ask her how she felt about it.

"So I've done a lot of thinking about us, and I feel like we'd make a great couple.  I think we should talk about whether or not we could get married," I told her.

"I've thought and prayed a lot about it too."  I thought my heart stopped beating.  This was it--prayers were about to be answered and angels were about to sing.  "I think we'd be a great couple, and I would love to pursue a relationship with you."  Cue the harps!  "But I feel strongly that the Lord is telling me I haven't yet met the person I'm going to marry."

The world stopped.

I managed to maintain my composure for about 6 seconds, and then I cried.  She put her arms around me to console me.  And then I bawled.

As you might imagine, recovering from that blow wasn't easy. I was so confident that this was the right step for me to take in my life. Why were our answers to prayer so different? Fortunately for me, I already knew: "I tell no one any story but his own."

Sure enough, God gave me the answer to prayer that was in my narrative: that she would have been a great fit for me. He wasn't going to give me her narrative, however. As much as it sucked for me at the time, I admire Him for that.

These occurrences where God tells me something that seems to be at odds with what He's telling someone else are fairly common.  Not many of them are as dramatic as the one I've described, but occasionally a situation comes along that is emotionally charged enough to bring out some interesting behaviors.  A couple of years ago, I was asked by my stake presidency to be a "scouting specialist" or advisor for ten local congregations.  Despite my misgivings about how the Church runs its scouting program, I told them I would consider it and get back to them.  I responded within a couple of days that this just wasn't a position for me, and declined to take it. When discussing this with others, I'm sometimes criticized for my decision.  How could I turn down a calling from God?3 Well, I didn't feel good about saying yes, so I said no.  I don't know what it was God was telling them when they decided to extend that position to me.  All I know is that God was telling me to go in a different direction.

More recently, when discussing my political preferences with other Mormons in the last round of presidential elections, you can imagine that many were surprised to learn that I intended to vote for President Obama's reelection.  There were also a few people who couldn't quite come to grips with the possibility of a fellow Mormon voting differently than they did.  On more than one occasion, I was faced with the question, "Well have you prayed about it?"  As an honest inquiry, that question doesn't really bother me.  But the underlying message was terribly upsetting to me.  It usually seemed less of an honest question and more of a reprimand--as if to say "if you were seeking confirmation from God, you'd vote like me."  Once that line of thought comes out, I usually become pretty dismissive (for better or worse).

I am completely comfortable thinking that God would tell the stake presidency that I'd be a great scout advisor (I would be) while telling me that this wasn't a position I should take (at least right now).  I am comfortable with the idea that God will confirm my choice to vote for one candidate and confirm the choice of another person to vote for a different candidate. (sure, I wish He'd tell everyone to vote like me, but He clearly hasn't.)  I've come to terms with the idea that regardless of what I think or what I feel like God has told me--He's only telling me my story, and I need to trust that other people are correctly hearing the story He is telling them.  Perhaps if we were better about doing that (and I don't exclude myself from that statement--I tend to think everyone should get the same answers I do, too), I wouldn't be writing this blog to start with.

1I have since come to realize that this was a consequence of my youthful arrogance (not that my arrogance has really gone away).  I had only recently returned from serving an LDS mission and was determined to read everything based on what I felt at the time were irrefutable LDS truths.  When I later learned how to read from a more mainstream Christian point of view, I found much more of the profound in Lewis' writings. Sounds kind of like I needed to read this post, huh?

2 The Horse and His Boy, p 281

3In LDS culture, it is widely believed that every assignment (usually referred to as callings) are God-inspired. Consequently, there is a lot of pressure to accept these assignments, almost without question.