Monday, December 29, 2008

A rare white Christmas in western Oregon

We arrived at our Christmas vacation destination in western Oregon just in time for the biggest snowstorm the region has seen in recent memory. Over a foot of snow fell the weekend before Christmas, causing church to be canceled. My father-in-law received permission to administer the Sacrament here at his home, so we had a nice little church meeting with 18 members of my wife's family. That's bigger than some branches I remember from the mission.

Since we're up on a hill out in the country, the only way to get out for a while was with 4-wheel-drive and chains. There's been a lot of "Rock Band 2" and pinochle playing going on to pass the time. I also found "The Life of Heber C. Kimball" on my in-laws' shelf of old Church books and was happy to get the chance to start reading it. This biography was written by Orson F. Whitney and contains a lot of church history, especially relating to the spread of the Gospel in Great Britain.

Today my wife and I are off to the Oregon coast to celebrate 5 years of happy marriage! Thanks to parents, in-laws, and grandparents who have been such a great example in this regard.

We wish anyone reading this post a Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lending with a conscience pays off

The Sun carries a story about one Southern California mortgage lending company who is actually experiencing success lately. Mike Douglass and Gary Martell, Jr. have been dealing in home loans together for years. Instead of making a money-grab selling subprime mortgages, they stuck to more conventional packages such as FHA loans. Says Martell, "In lending, you have to have a conscience to do this."

Although their more conservative lending strategy took more work, Martell and Douglass still have their money, and their competitors who sold subprime mortages are all gone. Furthermore, because housing prices have dropped, more people are looking into the capped FHA loans and business is good.

The lending with a conscience is literally paying off.

Read the full story

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter comes to Southern California

We get a few good storms like this every year. The snow level was down to 2000 feet last night and in the valley we got drenched with rain. Here in Smogtown it feels very cleansing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Do Mormons celebrate Christmas?

The official name of the "Mormon Church" is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons believe in Jesus Christ and celebrate Christmas in recognition of Jesus' birth. Like many other Christians, we also feel that Christmas is a good time to remember Jesus' life and atonement for us.

Mormon families that I've experienced Christmas with tend to read the nativity story in Luke 2 on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. I also like to read the Book of Mormon chapter 3 Nephi 1, which describes what happened in the Americas at the time of Christ's birth.

There's no special religious service that Mormons attend on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, unless one of those days falls on a Sunday. In that case Sacrament Meeting is held as usual, perhaps with a few special musical numbers added to the service. If Christmas day is a Sunday, there are usually no other church meetings held besides Sacrament Meeting so that members can spend time with their families.

Mormons also participate in secular Christmas traditions such as exchanging presents, talking about Santa Claus, lighting fireworks (if you live in Latin America), etc. However, church leaders frequently urge members to remember the spiritual side of Christmas ahead of the secular traditions.

The first Sunday of December the First Presidency of the Church holds a special Christmas devotional in Salt Lake. The music is superb, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square performing several numbers. You can find out more about how to watch the devotional here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Favorite Joseph B. Wirthlin talk: Lessons Learned in the Journey of Life

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, an Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, passed away on Monday night at the age of 91. I gained a special respect for Elder Wirthlin in the early days of my two-year mission for the church when I found this talk Lessons Learned in the Journey of Life.

At that point, two years in the mission was starting to look like a really long time. The work wasn't as easy as I had expected. When I read Elder Wirthlin's experience, I realized I wasn't the only missionary who had ever felt that way. Elder Wirthlin's assignment was the Austrian/German mission in 1936. He describes how he felt in his first area, alone, with Hitler mounting armies just across the border:

"I remember those days well. I don’t suppose there has been a time in my life when I felt more discouraged, more lost. The mission was a difficult one; no one seemed to have time for me or the message I brought. I wondered if there would ever be enough members in that city to make a ward.

"Six weeks I was alone. Six weeks I waited for a companion. Six weeks I wondered about what I might be doing had I stayed in Salt Lake City and continued my studies."

As often happens to dedicated missionaries, things eventually got brighter for Elder Wirthlin and he received a companion to work with. That year at Christmas, they visited the village of Oberndorf, where the hymn "Silent Night" was written. On the return walk home they discussed goals for how they wanted to live their lives after the mission:

"As we walked, my companion and I talked of our hopes and dreams. We talked of our goals and what we wanted to have happen in our lives. The more we talked, the more serious we became about achieving the things we talked about. As we walked under the light of a full moon, we both made serious resolutions.

"I committed that night that I would not waste my time. I would renew my efforts to serve the Lord. I made up my mind that I would magnify any callings I received in the Lord’s kingdom."

Elder Wirthlin then shares five points that he has learned for living a happy and successful life:
  • Have faith in Heavenly Father
  • Set righteous goals
  • Work to accomplish your goals
  • Magnify your callings
  • Enjoy the journey

Elder Wirthlin realized the effect these points had on his life when he traveled to Salzburg many years later to organize a stake of the church and as he walked with his wife on the same road back from Oberndorf.

"The resolutions I made on that holy night in Oberndorf, Austria, have been a guiding force throughout my life. Although I still have much to learn and to accomplish, I’ve done my best to have faith in God; I’ve done my best to focus on the things that are important in life; I’ve done my best to work hard at righteous tasks; I’ve done my best to magnify the callings I’ve received in the Church; and I’ve done my best to enjoy the journey.

"May you do the same as you create of your lives something worthy of your divine heritage."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Expell me!

When I signed up for my required Biology general education course in college, I was a little apprehensive about whether the curriculum would contradict or raise doubts about my feelings on religion. I found that just the opposite was true. Learning about the elements, the pieces of the cell, the progression of the human body as it grows in the womb, and similar topics actually strengthened my belief that only a God could have created life and the earth we live on.

I've observed with interest the intelligent design movement that has blossomed over the past few years. I think there's merit in admitting that some things in the universe are so complex and perfectly balanced that they are unlikely to have occurred by random processes. Unfortunately, scientists in America who dare to suggest this do not always face an easy road. Ben Stein presents some of their stories in his documentary Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed, which my wife and I watched together last week.

In Expelled! humorist, lawyer, actor, and documentarian Ben Stein interviews a parade of scientists who have been blacklisted for asserting that life is so complex and organized that it did not come into being by undirected processes. The movie doesn't argue against the established fact that organisms change and evolve over time. But Stein does challenge the notions that Darwinism explains how life first appeared on the earth.

A main theme of Expelled! is that the American scientific estabilishment views intelligent design as a cunning tool of the creationists in the decades-long battle over American science curriculum. Defending evolution is not enough for these scientists; they have gone on the offensive against religious belief and promoted the idea that science and religion are "at war", and that science is the obvious winner. Stein interviews some very bright individuals, some religious and some not, who counter that a belief in God can be an asset to a scientist, and that "we may be able to encounter God through science, if we are free to go there."

Stein presents Richard Dawkins as Exhibit A from the "Darwinism = no God" school of thought. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University whose book "The God Delusion" has sold over 1.5 million copies. In the movie's climax, Stein sits across a table from Dawkins in a one-on-one interview. When pressed to explain the origin of the first cell on earth, Dawkins actually suggests that life might have been "seeded" on this earth by a highly evolved intelligent life form on some other planet (a life form whose origins Dawkins confesses not to know). At this point the cool-as-a-cucumber Stein probably figured he had his documentary in the bag.

The Berlin Wall also gets a lot of footage in Expelled! The movie states that American science has placed a wall around what it is willing to believe, and is missing out by failing to consider ideas outside this wall, however meritorious they might be. Through all this, Expelled! ends on an optimistic tone. After all, the Berlin Wall came down, and Stein suggests that incorrect ideas will eventually fall as long as there are enough people willing to listen to and pursue the truth.

Expelled! is available on the Netflix "Watch Now" list.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Breakfast with Brigham

The newspaper has been pretty depressing lately, so I switched to some more enlightening breakfast table reading: an old copy of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young that my wife found. Brigham Young was an inspired man whose advice about the world is great to start the day with. Here are some favorite quotes from the skimming I've done so far.

On thrift and industry:

"We will have to go to work and get the gold out of the mountains to lay down, if we ever walk in streets paved with gold. The angels that now walk in their golden streets, and they have the tree of life within their paradise, had to obtain that gold and put it there. When we have streets paved with gold, we will have placed it there ourselves. When we enjoy a Zion in its beauty and glory, it will be when we have built it." (p. 226)

On learning about the world:

"We are in a great school, and we should be diligent to learn, and continue to store up the knowledge of heaven and of earth, and read good books, although I cannot say that I would recommend the reading of all books, for it is not all books which are good. Read good books, and extract from them wisdom and understanding as much as you possibly can, aided by the Spirit of God." (p. 197)

On how we live our religion:

"Our work, our every-day labor, our whole lives are within the scope of our religion. This is what we believe and what we try to practice." (p. 189)


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Joshua Tree day hike: Lost Horse Mine Loop

This past weekend we took the Scouts out to one of my favorite outdoor venues in Southern California: Joshua Tree National Park. I like camping in the desert because it's relatively quiet and empty compared to the rest of Southern California.

One way the desert is similar to the rest of Southern California is that almost every inch of it has been subject to human activity at one time or another. Our day hike on the Lost Horse Mine loop trail showed evidence of that.

Lost Horse was a gold mine, one of the biggest in the area, and it's fun trying to spy the various ruins still strewn about, such as old car parts, cables, scraps of metal, and rusty nails (make sure your shoes have thick soles if you do this trail). The actual mine site is fenced off. I shot this picture through the chain links.

The mine is situated on the side of Lost Horse Mountain. It took just a few minutes to scramble to the top, and the view was well worth it.

Most people visit this mine as an out-and-back hike. We continued on the less-traveled 6.5 mile loop option for some real desert solitude. The trail grew fainter as it descended Lost Horse Mountain and wound along and around a ridge. There was more evidence of mining in this area, including at least one open shaft and this interesting chimney thing.

The trail was flatter for the final few miles, following a wash along the western base of the Lost Horse Mountains. This was a good place to concentrate on the desert plants. I was impressed by the circular leaves of this yucca.

This part of the trail also had the most Joshua trees. These two looked very friendly. It's nice to have someone to go through life with.

Right about the time when our eyes started to blur with the same desert plants, rocks, and sand, and our water started looking frighteningly good, we were back to the truck. The parking lot, which had only a handful of cars at 9 AM, was now overflowing at noon.
For lunch we hopped in the truck and took a side trip down to Keys View. This is where you reach the edge of a desert plateau and can see a broad swath of the Salton Sea, Coachella Valley, and San Gorgonio Pass areas.

I imagine on even a normal day Keys View would be windy, but this was during a Santa Ana wind event and the gusts were almost enough to knock you over. From the viewpoint, we saw the smoke of the Orange County fires over 80 miles away, fanned by the same winds.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Learning about places in your family history using the Internet

Below are some notes from a workshop "Learning about places in your family history using the Internet" that I've presented several times to local genealogical interest groups. When we say the Internet is an "information superhighway", that includes information about places all over the world. The amount of geographic information on the Internet, in the form of pictures, maps, and articles, has grown immensely even since I first gave a presentation like this two and a half years ago.

Although getting pictures of where you ancestors lived may not help you get through that "brick wall" on your pedigree chart, the information can be a nice supplement to your published family histories and can help you feel a stronger connection to your ancestors.

Getting pictures of your ancestors’ homelands

  1. Open a Web browser to

  2. Type in a place name and click Search

  3. Browse the pictures that appear

  4. If you see one you want to save, right-click it with the mouse and click Save Picture As…

  5. Optionally, leave a comment for the person who posted the photo. Use a “junk e-mail” address

Why is this useful?

  • Supplement your histories with beautiful photographs of your ancestors’ homelands.

  • See what the area looks like without visiting it.

  • Communicate with people that took the photographs.

  • Add your own interesting photographs for the benefit of others.


  • Submit JPG photos. They are smaller in size and will load quicker.

  • Can’t submit photos of people to Panoramio.

  • Flickr provides a similar way to browse photos on a map, but the photos can be of anything.

My ancestors' homeland: Killybegs, Ireland. Photo obtained from Panoramio.

“Driving” through a neighborhood

  1. Open a Web browser to

  2. Click the StreetView button. You’ll see some cameras of areas where StreetView is available.

  3. Zoom to one of the cities with a camera icon or type in an address from one of those cities and click Search Maps. You should see a little yellow man and some streets outlined in blue. The blue streets have StreetView.

  4. Drag and drop the man onto the street you want to view. A viewer window should appear.

  5. Use the arrows on the viewer window to take a “drive” down the street. You can look to the right or left, zoom in and out, or turn around.

Why is this useful?

  • Tour your ancestors’ neighborhoods without actually having to go there.

  • Enter addresses from vital records, journals, etc. to see what the area looks like.

  • Take a screen capture of a house, landmark, etc. for your family records.


  • If you something you want to save a picture of, press the Prt Scr (Print Screen) key. Then open Paint and click Edit > Paste. Then save the file.

  • If you’re taking many screen captures, try SnagIt by TechSmith software.

  • The address that Google Maps gives you may not put you at the exact house. Some prior knowledge of the area is helpful.

  • If your area doesn’t have StreetView, keep checking back.

My great-grandparents' former home in South Gate, California, as seen in Google Maps StreetView.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Piccolo Pete

Since I've spent most of my life in the dry Western United States, fireworks have been banned in most places I've lived since I was a kid. So my wife and I had to go way back to remember this old favorite: the Piccolo Pete.

What brought this little blue screecher instantly back to memory? Our one-year-old daughter, who has recently demonstrated that she can emit a high-pitched noise just like a Piccolo Pete in church, in the library, in the store, or anywhere else where she can find a captive audience.

I wonder how many years she'll have this talent. It might be a good self-defense mechanism when she grows older.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Proposition 8: A letter to the editor

The San Bernardino County Sun was kind enough to print a letter I sent last week regarding Proposition 8. A section that The Sun edited out (probably for length) is enclosed in []:

"Proposition 8 would amend our state constitution to recognize only marriage between a man and a woman as valid in California. [Interestingly, 75% of voters in San Bernardino County voted for this same wording in 2000 before the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage earlier this year. As I’ve talked with many voters in our community on Proposition 8, it’s become clear that the mainstream of our county still believes that marriage between a man and a woman is the God-ordained way that families are created and established.]

"Many Californians, including me, are concerned that if Proposition 8 fails our children will be taught in schools that same-sex marriage is equal to traditional marriage. Opponents of Proposition 8 say that this won’t happen, but should we really believe this?

"Earlier this year we saw how a few individuals using the court system can widely affect what our state is required to do. All it will take are a few activists and a court decision to change the way marriage is taught in our schools. In fact, all it takes is one teacher with an agenda to change the way marriage is taught in your child’s class. I see little protection from these scenarios without Proposition 8.

"Opponents of Proposition 8 say that even if same-sex marriage is taught in schools, I have the right under California law to withdraw my child at any time. But do we really want it to come to this? And what about teachers who aren’t comfortable including same-sex marriage in their curriculum? Will they be able to withdraw without fear of losing their jobs or being sued?

"Please consider these questions before you vote on Proposition 8."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Got The Message?

Lately I've been using some additional Bible translations to help get a supplemental understanding of phrases that are complex or archaic in the King James Version (the official English translation used by the Mormon church). This is a trick I learned at BYU when a professor required us to read at least one additional translation of Isaiah to give us another perspective on difficult passages.

The most interesting Bible I've come across in these studies is The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson. Originally employed as a teacher of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary, Peterson took a job as a pastor and, in his words, "I was now plunged into quite a different world. The first noticeable difference was that nobody seemed to care much about the Bible, which so recently people had been paying me to teach them." (All quotes are from the The Message Preface.)

Peterson realized that he had a gift for conveying the message of the Bible in everyday, conversational language:

"I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible and the world of Today. I had always assumed they were the same world. But these people didn't see it that way. So out of necessity I became a translator..."

Peterson's interpretations of "the Bible in the language of Today and the language of Today in the language of the Bible" caught the interest of an editor, who convinced him to work on a complete translation, or paraphrase, of the Bible. This became The Message.

You can get a good taste of what The Message is like by reading the Ten Commandments story in Exodus 20 (link is from You can fly through a chapter in a minute or two. I find this useful for getting a quick overview of a story or an alternate view of one of those occasional "Say what?" verses in the writings of Paul or Isaiah.

Peterson states that his intent with The Message was just to get people reading the Bible. "It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available."

For me that excellent study Bible is the King James Version published by the LDS church, which contains the Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, and excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation. But when I've got five extra minutes to hang out in the kids' room while they fall asleep, The Message makes for a very nice inspirational read.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Salvaging a rough sports week in a big way

I guess a Modern Mormon Dad is entitled to a sports post once in a while, especially after a week like this. Last Sunday at this time things sure looked a lot brighter for the Dodgers, who are now facing a long and uncertain offseason, and the BYU Cougars, whose BCS-busting hopes fell to pieces Thursday night at the hands of an energized and clearly superior TCU team.

Thankfully I have another football team that wears blue and white, makes their home in "Happy Valley", and plays the same faux-roar recording after a first down, and these guys are the REAL DEAL this year. But for two and half terrible quarters it looked like Penn State might also falter this week and drop their tenth straight game against Michigan. The Nittany Lions battled back, though, and took the lead with this play:

This safety late in the third quarter made it 19-17 and from there Penn State decided to tack on 27 more points just to make the win a little sweeter.

Wasn't that a great video, by the way? That's the $200 ticket and $500 airfare I didn't have to buy to see a guy jumping up in front of me during the game-changing play. Someday I'd still like to make it to Beaver Stadium and camp in the parking lot and wave a white pom-pom...hopefully before Coach Paterno calls it quits.

BTW, this will be my second straight year dressing up as JoePa for Halloween. Time to roll up the khakis!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

What do you do at the Happiest Place on Earth?

We've lived in Southern California for over 3 years and have not yet set foot in Disneyland. (I've hit the Rose Bowl, Dodger Stadium, and the Staples Center, so I guess my priorities lie elsewhere.) Thanks to an overseas visit we'll be getting from my sister, we've finally scheduled a magical day to check out "The Happiest Place on Earth". But that's the catch- we have one day, probably 6 hours if the kids do real well and we try to beat traffic.

So what are the "must-see" places in Disneyland with a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old, and 6 hours? Any tips for taking young children there? I'm hoping some of you friends with Disneyland experience can guide me on this one...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

SALSA...the way WE know it!

One reason I like having Netflix is that I can get jazz videos that would be difficult to find in a mainstream rental store. These are often hit or miss, but this week we found a great one: "Tito Puente: Live in Montreal". This one-hour excerpt of a concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival contains a nice variety of Latin jazz styles. I am no expert of these, but as Tito explains in the bonus interview, his intent is just that you have fun listening.

There's no question that the band is having fun playing the music. The members vary so much in culture, age, and grooming, that it looks like Tito just grabbed a bunch of cats off the street, but the beautiful thing is that they all come together in a tight, intense sound. Tito himself leads the charge, scatting and pounding the timbales and other instruments whose names I don't even know. My son especially enjoyed seeing those.

The film is no piece of artwork, even for 1983, but skill and enthusiasm of the band members makes up for that. Near the end, Tito quips to the audience that to get invited to these festivals, he has to portray his band as a "Latin Jazz Ensemble", but "Now that I got my foot in the door...we're gonna play SALSA! The way WE know it!" The roaring finale of "Pare Cochero" leaves no doubt that Tito's salsa is hot, hot, hot.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A second temple for Argentina

At the opening session of today's Mormon General Conference, President Thomas S. Monson announced the locations for five new temples, one of which is Córdoba Argentina. I would love to have seen the reaction of church members and fellow missionaries that I served with on my full time mission in Argentina. I can imagine packed meetinghouses of members gathered to watch the broadcast, buzzing with excitement at this announcement.

We occasionally speculated that the next temple in Argentina would be built in Córdoba. The city is centrally located and is home to at least four stakes. I don't have a Church Almanac, but I'm pretty sure that's the most of any Argentine city outside Buenos Aires, where the first temple in Argentina is located. Since I returned from my mission I have listened closely to every temple announcement in General Conference to hear if Córdoba's name would be called. Today's announcement is a confirmation to me of the Church's inevitable growth across Argentina and the world.

It was my privilege to work with many stalwart missionaries from Córdoba and other provinces that will be in this temple district, such as Catamarca, La Rioja, and Santiago del Estero. I love to think of them attending the dedication of this temple and frequently worshiping there with their families.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mormon General Conference happens this weekend

This weekend millions of Mormons around the world will be watching or listening to the church's General Conference, broadcasted twice a year from Salt Lake City. At the conference, church leaders give short talks about Jesus Christ, the Bible and Book of Mormon, the restoration of Christ's church in modern times, and other gospel topics. Traditionally the president of the Church addresses the conference several times. Musical interludes are provided by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and other local volunteer choirs.

If you're curious about Mormons, General Conference is a good way to get a dose of the church's official teachings straight from its world leaders. The talks cover basic topics and are easy to understand. This is partly because the talks need to be translated into many languages and reach an audience that includes many new members of the church.

I like to listen to conference through the Internet. This page will get you to video and audio streams. You can listen to the live broadcasts or hear archives of previous conference. The live sessions will occur on:

Saturday, October 4, 12:00 PM EDT
Saturday, October 4, 4:00 PM EDT
Sunday, October 5, 12:00 PM EDT
Sunday, October 5, 4:00 PM EDT

Monday, September 29, 2008

Southern California night hike

It's officially autumn now in Southern California, but from the 90+ degree heat the only way to know this is that the days are getting shorter. The early sunset leaves little daylight for backpacking into Friday night Scout campouts. This past weekend we tried our first hike in the dark and realized that you don't need flashlights if you plan your trip on a slope above 10 million people. The view was enthralling.

That lowest band of lights you see near the mouth of the canyon is a bunch of commuters getting nowhere on the 15 freeway heading out Cajon Pass.

Below is one unexpected source of paranoia on this trip...

That is a real tarantula, seen near the beginning of our trek. I was hoping we would gain enough altitude to be out of their habitat before setting up camp for the night.

More scenes like the one above lit our way to the top of the hill. The Scouts found it a tough climb and fell asleep within minutes of reaching our campsite. But in the morning the daytime views made the hike well worth the effort.

We passed a lot of hunters driving up to scope out the area and one mountain biker, but we were the only ones crazy (and fortunate) enough to be out hiking.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Hugh Nibley classic: Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites

The Book of Mormon includes travel narratives from two ancient groups who crossed the ocean from the Old World to the Americas. The Nephites, who are the principal subject of the book, came from Jerusalem in 600 BC and the Jaredites came from the scene of the Tower of Babel thousands of years earlier. In 1952, Mormon scholar extraordinaire Hugh Nibley presented Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, which compares the Book of Mormon details about these travels with what scholars know about the ancient Middle East and Asia.

Nibley's grasp of fine detail in both historical works and The Book of Mormon is astounding. He examines words, place names, traveling style, family relationships, and warfare of the Nephites and Jaredites, showing repeatedly how these align with things we know about the Mideast and Asia at the same time period.

Nibley's intent is to show that The Book of Mormon is a real work of ancient history. A repeated theme is that Joseph Smith, or anyone else in 1830, could not have produced such a historically accurate narrative. Nibley invites the reader to give this some thought:

"...let the reader make a simple test. Let him sit down to write a history of life, let us say, in Tibet in the middle of the eleventh century A.D. Let him construct his story wholly on the basis of what he happens to know right now about Tibet in the eleventh century--that will fairly represent what was known about ancient Arabis in 1830, i.e. that there was such a place and that it was very mysterious and romantic. In composing your Tibetan fantasy you will enjoy one great advantage: since the canvas is an absolute blank, you are free to fill it with anything that strikes your fancy. So you should have no trouble in getting 'smoothly launched into your narrative'--which Mrs. Brodie seems to think was the only obstacle confronting the author of the Book of Mormon. But there will be other obstacles, for in your chronicle of old Tibet we must insist that you scrupulously observe a number of annoying conditions: (1) you must never make any absurd, impossible, or contradictory statement; (2) when you are finished, you must make no changes in the text--the first edition must stand forever; (3) you must give out that your 'smooth narrative' is not fiction but true, nay, sacred history; (4) you must invite the ablest orientalists to examine the text with care, and strive diligently to see that your book gets into the hands of all those most eager and most competent to expose every flaw in it. The "author" of the Book of Mormon observes all these terrifying rules most scrupulously." (Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, p. 133 - 134)

Nibley does not attempt to "prove" the Book of Mormon's authenticity with any one piece of evidence; instead he submits a mountain of examples that, when considered together, make it impossible that any charlatan could have authored the book. Nibley continues:

"In your Tibetan epic you might get something right by happy accident once in a while but don't expect it. "

An original edition of Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites was a steal on eBay for under $10.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prisoner of pop culture

Before one of Pastor Philip Miles' frequent trips to Russia, he decided to toss a box of hunting bullets in his luggage as a gift for a friend. Pastor Miles' travels took an unexpected turn when he was arrested and charged with smuggling ammunition. Russian courts sentenced him to three years in prison, later shortened to just a few months. Pastor Miles is now safely home in South Carolina.

Dick Gordon interviewed Miles about his experience on NPR's "The Story" (listen to MP3). Interestingly, Miles recounted how his least favorite part of incarceration was the television blaring nonstop movies, music videos, etc:

"It almost drove me crazy. Finally everybody'd be asleep, I'd turn it off, and I'd have maybe a couple of hours that I could read, pray, and just have some solitude. I can't tell you how I craved just silence."

Pastor Miles explained how he obtained relief from the worst of the programs:

"I remember one time they were watching some full-on porn. I got up, went into the corner, opened up my Bible, and just stood there with my back to the TV. And in about 5 minutes, they changed channels. That was the last time they watched porn in the room while I was there."

Have you ever felt like you were trapped by inappropriate or overbearing movies, television, and music? From experiences in doctors' waiting rooms, the bowling alley, dorm rooms, and so on, I can relate to the feeling of being imprisoned by explicit media. What do you do to escape? Pastor Miles' seeking refuge in the scriptures seems like one good technique.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What to do if Mormon missionaries knock on your door

Mormons are widely known for their attempts to proselyte door-to-door. Chances are you've seen young Mormon missionaries in white shirts and ties "tracting" a neighborhood, looking for people interested in learning about the Mormon faith. Perhaps they've even come to your house before.

In this post I'll give some tips on what to do if Mormon missionaries knock on your door or contact you on the street, whether you're interested or not. These tips come from my own experience of two years as a Mormon missionary in Argentina and various other times volunteering with missionaries in the United States.

There are a few things that make Mormons different from other people that might knock on your door. First, Mormons are not selling anything; they are paying their own way to be on the mission and they stand to gain no status, privilege, or monetary reward from finding proselytes or teaching lessons. Second, Mormons do not believe that you are doomed to a fiery eternity in hell if you don't listen to their message. Mormon theology is not this superficial, which is one reason I find it so believable. When Mormon missionaries knock on your door, they are sharing a religious message that they feel will augment or enlighten existing beliefs that you have.

Mormon missionaries are instructed not to argue with people or deride their beliefs. If missionaries do this to you, ask them for their local mission president's telephone number so you can report their misconduct. But I really doubt this will happen. The vast majority of missionaries feel that their time is too valuable to spend extensive effort trying to persuade people who are not really interested.

With this in mind, here are some tips for conversing with Mormon missionaries that approach you, depending on your attitude about hearing their message:

If you're not interested in what they have to say...

Politely and briefly explain that you are not interested. If you really don't want them to come back, don't make up an excuse like, "I have to go to work right now," which might be misconstrued as possible interest. You're not going to offend the missionaries if you politely explain that you're not interested. It's nothing they haven't heard before.

I also suggest that you don't ignore the knocking. It's possible the missionaries are looking for a neighbor, or maybe they got your address by mistake. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, someone at your house requested a visit. If the missionaries think someone with possible interest is living at your address, they will come back many times even if no one answers.

Missionaries rotate areas usually every 3 to 6 months, so it's possible you will get them coming to the door again even if you are not interested. If this happens it will only take you a few seconds to explain that you are not interested and that will take care of them for a while longer. Given the amount of work missionaries have, I think it's unlikely they will knock on your door by chance more than once a year. Missionaries usually only knock on doors when they cannot find people to teach by other means (member and media referrals, etc.)

If you're not sure if you're interested...

Ask them to give you the 5 minute overview on your doorstep. They will be thrilled to do this. I think you will have a good idea after 5 minutes if you want to continue listening. In many cases, people are more attracted to the "spirit" of the missionaries rather than what they are saying. This makes sense. If someone really is bringing a message from Jesus Christ, as the missionaries purport to do, it should be detectable in the way you feel while you are talking to them.

If you are interested in what they have to say but they caught you at a bad time...

Tell them this and suggest a time they can return. Accustomed to rejection, some missionaries will interpret, "This isn't a good time right now" as "I'm not interested." If you suggest a time for them to come back and indicate that you are really interested, the missionaries will gladly make an effort to return to your house at the time you suggest.

If you are interested in what they have to say and you have some time...

Invite them in and tell them a little bit about your religious background. If you have a Bible on hand, go grab it. Then listen closely as they present their message, which should last about 30 - 45 minutes. If you like the visit, the missionaries have additional lessons they can share with you during other visits. At any time you can decide if you want to continue hearing more or if you want to discontinue the lessons.

If you want the missionaries to knock on your door but they never do...

Visit the Have missionaries contact me page at the web site. You can fill out a form with your contact information that will be sent to your local missionaries.

If you're interested in learning about Mormons but you're not ready for the missionaries to visit...

Take a look at the Church's informational web site If you click Basic Beliefs and go down the menu items on the left, you'll get a good outline of the message that missionaries share when they visit people's homes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Kickin' it in Quebec

I spent a lot of time during my trip to Ottawa going back and forth across the river that divides Ontario from Quebec, something that I imagine is routine for many of the city's residents. I was fascinated by the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences between the two provinces.

One of the most striking is the change of the dominant language to French. It's easy to forget about this coming from the west coast of the U.S. My first day at the office I went to grab lunch at a Gatineau mall food court. I went for all-American: A & W. As was the case everywhere I went in Canada, the restaurant staff greeted me kindly. "Bonjour," the clerk welcomed, "____ _____ __ ___ ______ __?"

I held up three fingers, "I'll have a number three," I slowly articulated.

"Do you want fries or onion rings with that?" she replied in perfect English. It was like the first days in my foreign-speaking mission, but with a safety net. I loved it.

There are five main bridges in Ottawa, and I think I got to go over at least four. This one, the Pont Alexandra, is right across from Parliament and is great for walking. I was startled by the width of the river. It took me somewhere from 10 to 15 minutes to get across.

The Quebecois city across the river from Ottawa is called Gatineau. It's made up of several neighborhoods. The one you hit when you cross Pont Alexandra is called Hull. It contains a few sprawling federal office complexes, built by the Canadian government to distribute jobs to the Quebec side of the river.

You can tell you're in Quebec because the stop lights become horizontal and they have all kinds of options. The lights actually have two reds, I guess to tell you that you really need to stop (Californians take note). Then there's yellow, green, blinking green (!), sideways green arrow, straight green arrow, etc.

I have French Canadian ancestors who lived a few hours east of Ottawa and I felt a great pull to the Quebec side of the river. Although work committments prevented me from making the trip out to their exact homeland, I did get to see a portion of Parc de la Gatineau, a massive forested recreation area north of the Ottawa metro area. This is Lac Pink. Guess how you say that in English.

This trail to a waterfall reminded me of scenes from Mormon history in upstate New York. I imagine the forested Quebec landscape is similar to that near the Sacred Grove.

No one was on this waterfall trail and the excursion was very quiet and peaceful with clean, clear air. Just what a Southlander needs once in a while...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Images from Canada's capital

While USA political convention-goers were bathing in the stars and stripes, I spent last week surrounded by maple leaves on a business trip to Canada's capital. Ottawa is a fortunate place to get sent on a business trip. The city is beautiful, clean, walkable, and offers a lot to do. Before and after work each day I had just enough time to walk around and see most of the important stuff...from the outside. Next time I might have time to go inside something.

Here are a few pictures from the Ontario side of the river. Later I'll post some images from the Quebec side.

Below is the Rideau Canal which was built by the Army to be a water arterial through Ontario. It runs north-south through Ottawa and becomes a skating rink in the winter.

The canal ends at the Ottawa River with this series of locks.

The eye-catching architecture of these Parliament buildings is so different from what you would see in Washington, D.C., an interesting distinction between two countries that are so similar in other ways.

The National Gallery of Canada mimics the architecture of the Parliament in a modern, glassy way.

Here's what happens when you stand outside the art museum and look at the cathedral.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Proposition 8 at the grassroots

Recently I spent several mornings talking with voters door to door about Proposition 8, which would amend the state constitution to say that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. My walks were part of a group effort by people from multiple faiths. We were canvassing neighborhoods and learn which registered voters are in favor of Proposition 8 or still undecided. These voters will receive more information and get-out-the-vote reminders as the election nears. A classic grassroots campaign.

While talking with voters about Proposition 8, I realized several important things:

  • Many people are confused about Proposition 8 or do not know what it is. As I introduced myself and began talking about the proposition, I could tell many voters were trying to size up which side I was on. A number of people wanted me to clarify whether a Yes vote was "Yes on traditional marriage" or "Yes on same-sex marriage" before they gave me an answer.

    This means that the grassroots voter education movement is extremely important. People need to know exactly what they're voting for or against when they encounter Proposition 8. In this way, Attorney General Jerry Brown's biased reword of Proposition 8 may actually help the proposition more than it hurts it. Although Brown's "eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry" phrasing casts the proposition in a negative light, it makes it clear what "Yes" and "No" votes mean.

  • Proposition 8 has a good chance of passing. Very few people are undecided about Proposition 8, and opinions run strong among both supporters and opponents. At many houses I visited, voters would tell me their opinions on Proposition 8 before I even asked. This causes me to believe the outcome will be similar to that of Proposition 22, a similarly worded law that was passed by 61 percent of California voters in 2000.

    Sure, things are a little different this time around. Proposition 8 would carry more weight as an amendment to the state constitution, and public sentiment seems to be more open to same-sex marriage than it was eight years ago. But will this be enough to sway the outcome? Somehow I doubt it. Our canvassing effort only sent us to the houses of registered voters, and the majority were strongly in favor of traditional marriage. I'll admit I was assigned to precincts whose demographics are socially conservative, but it was comforting to realize that many folks have not changed their minds on this issue.

  • Apathy is the most dangerous opponent of Proposition 8. Because most people's minds are made up about the issue, Proposition 8 will be decided by how many people from each side show up at the polls. At that point it won't matter what the media thinks or says about same-sex marriage or even what popular opinion is on the issue. It's all decided by who registers and who shows up (or mails in their ballot). In this way, our democracy is beautiful. It requires you to care about local, state, and national affairs enough to make an effort to get to the polls. If there's any issue on the ballot that merits a supportive effort, it's Proposition 8. Please do all that you can to support its passage on Election Day.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I gotta go my own sleep

For one year of my baby daughter's life I was at a severe biological disadvantage when it came to putting her to sleep. But now that she doesn't nurse as much we've discovered that we can sway her into a slumber with some soft music. I'm all over that. Nothing beats dancing with my baby girl.

She doesn't go out without a fight, though. For a while we had a CD of soft music I had made for my wife that was pretty effective. "Sailing" by Christopher Cross would always take her out. But after a few weeks she caught on to us and would writhe in protest upon discovering our intent. So we had to find a new tactic, and a new song.

Lately the breakup scene from High School Musical 2 has done the trick every time. Some nights it takes a few go-rounds, though. Did you know that this song starts 1:22:14 into the DVD? My wife and I have that figure memorized.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Death of a sax man

This week saw the unfortunate passing of talented saxophonist LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band. Moore, 46, died from complications related to an ATV accident he was in earlier this year.

I am not a Dave Matthews Band fanatic; many of their lyrics have an overly gloomy tone that I've never really felt was “for me”. However I will acknowledge that the band has created some very complex and beautiful music, due largely to Moore’s woodwind efforts on all ranges of saxophones, the flute, and even the penny whistle. To me, DMB’s finest moments came after Dave stopped singing and LeRoi started jamming with violinist Boyd Tinsley and drummer Carter Beauford (one of the best in contemporary music).

Moore is to be commended for using the saxophone in alternative music and for introducing the instrument to a wider audience.

Multiple tributes to LeRoi Moore have appeared on YouTube. The one below contains a soaring solo from the song “Spoon”. It reveals Moore’s background in jazz and is representative of many of Moore’s solos in DMB’s live recordings.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pinkberry smoothie: Smooth, but not pink

Had another Southern California experience a few weeks ago visiting my first Pinkberry. This is a minimalist, hip frozen yogurt establishment that currently exists only in California and New York. It’s designed to make you feel cool enough to shell out a few more bucks to get Cap’n Crunch and kiwi fruit on the side of your Green Tea flavored yogurt. For the Word of Wisdom compliant, there’s regular frozen yogurt, shaved ice, or a smoothie, which is what I tried.

The Pinkberry smoothie is not pink, but it definitely has berries in it. I think its purple color and abundance of hard seeds come from the blackberries. The smoothie has a very milky taste which I wasn’t crazy about at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I really want another one. It may be time for another family trip to Victoria Gardens

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How much does a Mormon bishop get paid?

Mormon congregations are divided into wards, usually comprised of several hundred members. The leader of the ward is the Bishop. The Bishop helps ensure the ward members' physical and spiritual needs are taken care of. The Bishop spends many hours each week counseling individuals about their families, marriages, spiritual questions, assignments in the ward, relationships with other ward members, financial struggles, etc.

So how much money does a Mormon bishop earn? The answer is nothing. Even stake presidents, which oversee multiple wards, are not compensated for their time. Unless they're old enough to be retired, bishops and stake presidents work at full-time jobs to provide for their families. In fact, you might be working alongside a Mormon bishop at your day job without knowing it.

So why do bishops make the effort to serve? I would guess this scripture in the Book of Mormon reflects the attitude many bishops have about their church service:

"And now, if we do not receive anything for our labors in the church, what doth it profit us to labor in the church save it were to declare the truth, that we may have rejoicings in the joy of our brethren?" (Alma 30:34)

Because most bishops also hold a full-time job, their church service is done mostly on nights and weekends, supported by patient wives and children who sacrifice their husband and father so that he can help other ward members. This takes an extraordinary family effort, which is not unnoticed by the Lord. I've heard bishops' families talk about the divine help they've received in working together to help their husband or father fulfill his calling as a bishop, which usually lasts 3 -5 years. This article contains a particularly touching story about one bishop's wife realizing the importance of her sacrifice.

I have served as secretary to several Bishops and I can attest to the effort they devote to their callings. As secretary, my assignment was to help the Bishop organize his calendar; if someone needed to visit with the Bishop they called me and made an appointment. So I knew how much time the Bishop was devoting each week to visits. Or so I thought. Often the the Bishop would show up at our weekly planning sessions and start talking about additional visits he had made the past week that I knew nothing about. Some people don't want to call the secretary and they go to the Bishop directly, and often the Bishop was inspired to stop by and visit members on his own. That's the diligence offered by many bishops in the Church.

To learn more about how Mormon church assignments are made and carried out, see Serving in the Church at

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes: Images of industry in the new China

If watching the Olympics has piqued your interest in modern China, you'll be fascinated by the 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes and the China-related exhibitions of Edward Burtynsky.

Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer whose interest is portraying "industrial incursions". Consequently Burtynsky found all kinds of inspiration in China, a nation powered by coal that manufactures enormous amounts of goods not only for the United States, but for its own population of over a billion.

In Manufactured Landscapes, director Jennifer Baichwal follows Burtynsky through China and Bangladesh as he performs his work. We see endless ranks of uniformed factory workers, eager residents chipping apart e-waste for scrap metal, aisles of crates at the port of Tianjin, new ships built to transport the goods, old ships broken apart with bare hands and a blowtorch, residents displaced by the Three Gorges Dam who are forced to tear down their home cities, mountains and mountains of coal extending into the horizon, shantytowns in the old Shanghai overshadowed by new skyscrapers just blocks away, and so on. If this imagery sounds depressing, it can be, but as Burtynsky's assistant explains to some skeptical Chinese coal field administrators, through his camera lens, "he'll make it look beautiful."

Neither Baichwal nor Burtynsky preach about what they are showing. They present the story with pictures and allow the viewer to grapple with the awesome and disturbing feelings the images invoke.

Viewing this film will forever change the way you understand the stamp "Made in China". One lesson I took away from Manufactured Landscapes is that everything we consume, from food to electronics to electricity, has a beginning and an end that we rarely see. The beginning and the end places may not be pretty and they may be far away from our homes where we consume the item. This makes it easy to forget the environmental and human cost of what we consume, which might rise far above the sticker price at Target or Wal-Mart.

Manufactured Landscapes is appropriate to watch with older children (toddlers will lose interest) and will provoke some good family discussion from the very opening scene.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympics in Heaven: How will this happen?

I spent part of this evening watching the parade of athletes in the Olympic opening ceremonies. The mix of nations, peoples, languages, costumes, and religions in this parade is always thought-provoking. As a Christian, how do you reconcile the fact that billions of people on the earth, from many of these nations, will not fully learn about the teachings of Christ during their lives, even though His is the only name under which salvation can come? Will they be condemned for this in the afterlife?

An excellent commentary from LDS Newsroom, titled Everyone Else Makes Such Lonely Heavens, describes the Mormon belief that a just God could not condemn his children for something they have no control over in this life. The article gives a brief but accurate overview of the Mormon belief in performing baptisms on behalf of people who have died, so that they can have the opportunity to accept Jesus after this life. The doctrine of baptism for the dead upholds the Christian belief that salvation must come through Christ, without unjustly condemning those who did not have the opportunity to hear about or accept Christ's teachings in this life.

For more on this subject you can also see a video clip on What happens to people who've never heard of Jesus Christ?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Brigham Young University: The nation's top party school

For the 11th year in a row, Mormon-operated Brigham Young University has earned #1 on the Princeton Review's list of Stone-Cold Sober Schools. BYU did well in a number of categories, causing university spokesman Michael Smart to remark, "We maintain that [BYU's] top 20 rankings for happiest students and best quality of life go hand in hand with being considered Stone-Cold Sober".

He couldn't be more correct. The Stone-Cold Sober list is often contrasted with the Princeton Review's list of Party Schools, which generally gets more publicity from the media. I noticed that BYU did not appear on this year's list of party schools, but I believe this could be an error.

It depends on if a "party" is defined as having alcohol or if a party is defined as having fun. If a party is defined as having alcohol (a dangerous definition, especially for a publication aimed at high-schoolers like the Princeton Review), then BYU doesn't belong on the list; but if a party is defined as having fun, then BYU should be at the top.

I haven't seen a place in the world where people have more fun than at BYU, and this all happens without a drop of alcohol. I loved living in (the old) Helaman Halls and (the old) Glenwood Apartments, well-known centers of said fun. Despite all the pressures of schoolwork, those were some of the most spontaneous and carefree times of my life.

It's easy to have fun at BYU because the students share a common commitment of faith and values, and most are genuinely kind and willing to make friends. From snowball wars to Creamery runs, from football games to tunnel singing, from "Dining Plus" to Fall Fling, from intramural ultimate frisbee to "Ward prayer", from midnight pranks to midnight runs to Denny's to midnight renditions of "The Saints Go Marching In" at the Library, there's not a school the Princeton Review could name that has a bigger party than BYU.

Did I forget some reasons why BYU is THE top party school? Go ahead and list them here.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Playlist from a 90's stake dance

In Mormon lingo, a "stake dance" is a social event where teens 14 through 18 can get to know each other, bust a move, and collectively wish they were old enough to be out doing more exciting things, like driving and dating. Actually, that's not totally accurate. When I was 15 there's nowhere I'd have rather been on a Saturday night than at the Yakima or Selah stake center "cultural hall", catching up with friends from around "The Valley".

I was an adolescent during the late 90's and am endeared to the great music of that period. That was back in the days when you had to shell out at least $10 for a CD even if you really wanted only one track. Thanks to the modern miracle of songs for under a buck apiece on the Internet, my wife and I were able to construct a 90's stake dance megamix, containing these songs.

  • "Hero" - Mariah Carey

  • "Angel of Mine" - Monica

  • "You Gotta Be" - Des'ree

  • "Show Me Love" - Robyn

  • "Still In Love" - New Edition

  • "Come and Get Your Love" - Real McCoy (although "Runaway" might have been more likely)

  • "Twisted" - Keith Sweat

  • "One Sweet Day" - Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men

  • "Crash and Burn" - Savage Garden

  • "The Background" - 3rd Eye Blind (as Simon would put it, this one was "an indulgence")

  • "You're the Inspiration" - Chicago (although it's 80's, a lot of 90's stake dances played it)

  • "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" - Eiffel 65

  • "I Think I'm in Love" - Jessica Simpson

  • "Someday" - Sugar Ray

  • "All I Want" - Toad the Wet Sprocket

  • "Walk on the Ocean" - Toad the Wet Sprocket (had to slip in a 2-for-Toad here)

  • "The Animal Song" - Savage Garden

  • "I Can Love You Like That" - All 4 One

  • "I Knew I Loved You" - Savage Garden

Whoah, I can almost taste the stale Chips Ahoy now. I'm sure a few of you are saying, "That's great Sterling, but what about 'Cotton Eyed Joe', 'Linger', 'Macarena', 'Coco Jambo'..." etc. Well, if you put on this CD at 8 PM it currently doesn't make it 'til 10:30 (although it does switch on every light in your house as soon as it finishes). We need a 2-volume set, so go ahead and add your own suggestions to complete the ultimate 90's stake dance playlist!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Today's earthquake, a magnitude 5.4, was just enough to really shake things up without causing any serious damage. A definite blessing for 20 million Californians who live within 100 miles of the quake's epicenter in Chino Hills (to get that figure I used this nifty application).

I was on the phone with a co-worker in Indiana when the quake hit. This must have been a bizarre experience for him ("Hang on, Tom, we're having an earthquake!") The experience was different than most small quakes we feel around here which are just a quick jolt. Instead, today's quake gave a slow, rocking sensation that just kept going and going. It seemed like it took at least a minute to settle down, which is a long time for an earthquake. I was down on one knee ready to get under the table if it got any worse. Thankfully that was not the case.

I think folks closer to the epicenter got shaken up a little more (I live about 30 miles away). My wife and kids were at Costco and did not feel the quake, but noticed people pointing up at the swaying overhead lights after it was over. I am glad my three year old son did not notice anything. He's recently very paranoid of earthquakes after just a 2.6 jolt that happened last Wednesday a few miles away.

I don't blame him.

Monday, July 28, 2008

From the life of President Kimball

While attending a recent activity at the Stake center, my wife came across a pile of old church books that someone had left for the taking. She thoughtfully snatched a tattered copy of President Spencer W. Kimball’s biography, written by his son Edward Kimball and grandson Andrew Kimball, Jr.

Spencer W. Kimball served as President of the Mormon church from 1973 – 1985. Mormons often refer to their current church President as “the Prophet”, believing that he is the only one authorized to receive prophetic guidance from God for the church as a whole. I’ve always felt a special attachment to President Kimball, maybe because he was “the Prophet” at the time when I first learned what a prophet was. When I was a teenager, long after he had passed away, I remember discovering some of President Kimball’s books and referring to them often.

I like President Kimball’s plain, no-nonsense explanations of many doctrines and practices. He was a champion of kindness, reverence, and rectitude, and his life was an example of what he taught. One thing that has struck me from skimming this biography is that no part of his life was easy. His church service as a stake president was so demanding that it seems a miracle that he could still run a business and provide for his family (Mormon stake presidents and bishops receive no salary and must keep regular “day jobs” to provide for their families).

This passage is particularly revealing of the burdens Spencer felt as a stake president:

“To visit each ward and return home would take 1,750 miles. Spencer and his counselors did that repeatedly. He initiated a stake bulletin which kept missionaries and members of the scattered wards informed of Church-related news.

“Responsibilities as a new stake president sometimes seemed overwhelming. Spencer wrote to Camilla, who was in California again with Eddie: ‘Tomorrow is a heavy day—I dread it and will be glad when it is over. I find I am weak and too small and too lazy and too inefficient. Maybe they will release me after a year or two. I really hope so. I could step out today with the best of feelings and no misgivings, but I guess I’ll have to go on at least until an Apostle comes down to see how poor it is.’”

This humble passage may seem foreign to Church members who saw a strong and steady leader in President Kimball. It's reassuring to read this and know that it is okay to feel tired and inadequate sometimes while giving Church service; it happens to the best of them.

Despite his feelings of inefficiency, Spencer was an effective stake president and one of the most well-known and respected men in his community. He ran a prosperous business and sat on numerous local boards and committees in addition to his Church service. When called to serve full-time as an apostle of the church, Spencer and his family left their dream home they had completed several years earlier, in which they had planned to retire. Although this was also a challenge, they made the sacrifice and gave decades of service for which members like myself are very grateful.

I may be posting more excerpts from this biography in the future. It is a very worthwhile read.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pioneer Day 2008: Remembering a visit to Martin's Cove

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the arrival of the first company of Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. The Mormons had fled mob violence in Missouri and later Illinois that resulted in the murder of their leader Joseph Smith. Before Joseph died he had investigated sites for the Mormons to eventually settle in the Rocky Mountains. The second president of the church, Brigham Young, was the one to lead them there.

For several decades starting in 1847, thousands of Mormons walked across the Great Plains to Salt Lake City and surrounding Mormon colonies. Many of them traveled without incident, but a few parties experienced sickness and deadly weather conditions. One such group was the Martin Handcart Company, which left very late in the year 1856. Members of this company were too poor to afford oxen or wagons, so they loaded their possessions into two-wheeled “handcarts” that they pulled along behind them. Although others had crossed the plains successfully with handcarts, this group had left exceptionally late in the year and were struggling through cold weather with very little food. When Brigham Young learned of their condition, he commanded church members in Salt Lake to form a rescue party:

“I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak to-day and during the Conference, it is this, on the 5th day of October, 1856, many of our brethren and sisters are on the Plains with hand-carts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be-to get them here…

“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the Plains…” (Journal of Discourses 4:112)

Soon after the first rescuers arrived, a ferocious blizzard struck the company and they were forced to seek shelter in Martin’s Cove, near present-day Alcova, Wyoming. A number of pioneers died and were buried in the cove as they waited out the storm. Miraculously, a large part of the company survived and completed the trek to Salt Lake City thanks to the supplies and moral assistance brought by the rescuers.

You can visit Martin’s Cove and even take a hike pulling a handcart at the Mormon Handcart Visitor’s Center. In June of 2003 I did just that with a group of students from Brigham Young University and, wouldn’t you know it, we got caught in the snow! Only in Wyoming… Here are some thoughts I recorded about the experience shortly afterward:

“As we exited the Visitor's Center we encountered some marble-sized hail that had fallen, still melting on the ground. It was pretty windy and chilly as we began pulling our handcarts toward the west along the south side of the Sweetwater River. Almost immediately it began to rain, and as we passed Martin's Cove off to the right, large flakes of snow began to fall! It was quite the sight, to be experiencing a little of what the pioneers must have seen and pull and handcart through the storm. Luckily for us, it was not cold enough for the snow to stick, and the storm soon died down. We made a little over 6 miles with the handcarts and then camped on the plains.

“That evening a senior missionary came who impersonated Ephraim Hanks, one of the initial rescuers from Salt Lake. Brother Hanks told a story about how the Lord had called him as he lie in his bed and informed him that he was needed to help rescue the people out on the plains. The next day Brigham Young extended the call to him and he was already prepared to go. Bro Hanks used his medical knowledge to perform amputations of the pioneers' frozen limbs and saved many from dying of gangrene. He performed the operations with his hunting knife, and before each one he gave a priesthood blessing to the person being operated on, promising that they would not feel anything. Not one person complained of pain during his operations. This was in fulfillment of a blessing that Brigham Young gave him right before he left Salt Lake.

“The senior missionaries that visited our camp loaned us some tents for the night. We had planned to sleep under the stars but it was threatening to rain again, and sure enough, right around bedtime drops started to fall. We were grateful for their rescue efforts to us, and that we didn't have to sleep in our makeshift plastic lean-tos.

“The next day we hiked back along the same trail four miles, crossed the Sweetwater (on a convenient foot bridge), and then parked the handcarts for our hike up into the cove. When President Hinckley dedicated the site he said it was "hallowed ground," and it is…

“The cove itself is a horseshoe-shaped rock formation along a long ridge/range of rocks. In the middle of this horseshoe, an enormous hill has formed over time by blowing sand, leaving a marshy ring around the inside between the hill and the rocks. This is where the pioneers camped. When we reached the lower cove, a senior missionary met us at a little amphitheater and told us some of the history and stories of the Martin Company. Then we did a silent walk-through around the cove. As one missionary who was native to Wyoming put it, the state doesn't have a temple yet, but Martin's Cove is their temple. I can testify that the spirit I felt there was the same as in the temple, and that it was a place very conducive to spiritual contemplation and communication.”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tribute to an old Scouter

Earlier this month I spent a week up at Scout Camp in the San Jacinto Mountains with our ward’s troop. This brought back great memories of the Scout camp I attended as a boy in the Cascades of Washington state. We were blessed to have leaders who were great role models. Two seasoned adult Scouters from the ward volunteered every year to attend camp for a week, so that our Scoutmaster and his assistants could take time off for trips during other parts of the year.

One of these brave shepherding souls who attended camp with us each year was Don Flinders. He was about 70 years old, but that didn’t slow him down. Between the day’s routine trips to the flag assembly bowl, dining hall, and other areas around camp, he rejuvenated himself by lounging on a camp chair and reading Louis L’Amour westerns by the fire.

Despite over five decades of age difference, us boys considered ourselves good friends of Don’s. We liked him because he was cheerful, laid back, and had a great sense of humor. He never behaved in a way that would cause us to question the things he taught us about living the Scout Oath and Law and being worthy holders of the Priesthood.

Don just couldn’t get rid of us. When we were age 10 he was called as the Webelos leader. About that time I have memories of bouncing paper balls off his head as he tried to teach us lessons in Church. I also remember a few of us ganging up on him one time in the back of a car on the way home from a church activity. We thought he was an old man so we could take him in a wrestling match. Surprisingly he was able to hold us at bay and return every bite, scratch, and jab we could dish out. I don’t think we ever tried to mess with him again after that. Despite these persecutions Don retained his patience in a way that I wish I could emulate now as an adult.

As older Scouts we got to spend a week every year with Don at camp. He kept up on the merit badges we were each working on and encouraged us to complete our courses and attend the camp activities. He knew that he couldn’t really compel us to do it, and he didn’t try to force us, but he had earned our respect and we wanted to do a good job for him. I believe that’s how successful Scout leadership happens. It’s more difficult to be that kind of leader than it sounds, so I’m grateful for the example of Don and others that I can look back to.

A few years after my last trip to camp, Don suffered a fatal heart attack while setting up tables for a Relief Society dinner at the church. The pallbearers at his funeral were all Eagle Scouts that he had worked with, including, by that time, me. I can attest that Don’s influence in the lives of the boys he worked with has lasted well beyond the day that he left this earth. This post is a tribute to him and many leaders like him who freely give their time and talents to help young men.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What to expect when you visit a Mormon church

Many Mormon (LDS) churches have a sign on the front proclaiming “Visitors Welcome”. Visiting an LDS church service is usually a pretty good way to get an idea of who Mormons are and what they believe. Here’s what to expect if you’re contemplating a visit to an LDS church, along with some tips for first-time visitors.

Where and when can you go?

Visitors are welcome in all LDS meetinghouses. Type your address in this locator to find out where and when your local congregation, or ward, meets.

You may have heard about LDS temples, which can only be entered by baptized members in good standing. Most temples are easily identifiable by their large size, exquisite architecture, and in many cases a statue of an angel on top. Meetinghouses, on the other hand, are usually nondescript and are much more common. There’s probably one in your town or neighborhood.

What happens at church?

Church meets on Sunday and is three hours long. There are three meetings in a row that each last about an hour:

  • Sacrament meeting - This is the most important meeting and it’s held in the main room, or chapel. It starts with a song, a prayer, and announcements. Occasionally, special blessings are given to members of the congregation such as babies or newly baptized members.

    After these opening proceedings, the congregation sings another song and some (usually) young men bless and pass the Sacrament through the congregation. The Sacrament consists of small portions of bread and water that are reminders of Jesus’ body and blood, respectively. This is the most sacred part of the meeting and the room may get quieter, depending on the number of small children in the congregation.

    The Sacrament bread and water is intended for baptized members of the church. However, it’s not taboo if you want to take some yourself. The Sacrament is offered to everybody, so if you don’t want to take it, you can just pass it on to the next person.

    After the Sacrament, a few members of the church give talks about different subjects that the Bishop assigns. This takes the majority of the meeting. An exception to this is the first Sunday of the month which has an “open mike” format where anyone can share their feelings about Jesus Christ.

    The meeting wraps up with another song and a prayer.

  • Sunday School - After Sacrament Meeting, everyone attends a Sunday School class based on age and experience in the church. For visitors and new members of the church, there’s a class called “Gospel Essentials” which covers basic topics. Ask anyone where this class meets and they will be happy to show you where to go. You may be asked to introduce yourself briefly just so others can get to know you.

  • Priesthood Meeting / Relief Society - In this meeting, all of the men meet together in “Priesthood Meeting” and all of the women meet together in “Relief Society”. This is often a less formal environment than the other meetings and is used for more specific announcements about upcoming activities and lessons on special topics. Because these meetings tend to be less formal and convene based on age and gender, this is where you’re most likely to meet members who resemble you.
During both Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society, there are "Primary" classes available for children, and a "Nursery" for toddlers.

In some wards, the order of the three meetings is reversed, so that Sacrament Meeting is last. This is usually so that a church building can accommodate several wards at once.

Heads up...

Here are a few things that might happen when you visit an LDS church and how to prepare for them.

  • Upon entering the church you may be greeted by one or more enthusiastic members. Because the same church members meet together every week, they get to know each other well and it’s easy to spot newcomers. Experience shows that most visitors appreciate this, but if you want to be left alone, just state that you’re here to observe.

  • You may be approached by missionaries. LDS missionaries are usually young men and women who teach lessons to people who are interested in learning the Church. The missionaries are easily identifiable by their black name tags. If you like what you see at church, you can choose to have the missionaries visit your home to teach you more things about the LDS church. If you’re not interested in having the missionaries visit, it’s best to say so directly. You can say, “Thanks, but I’m just observing right now. I’ll let you know if I become interested in having some lessons.”

  • You might hear yourself referred to as an “investigator”. Some members use this term to refer to anyone who is not baptized that is visiting, or “investigating” the church. It’s not meant as a derogatory term, although I prefer the term “visitor”.

  • Someone may ask where you live or direct you to another church building. If someone does this, they’re not trying to get rid of you, they’re just trying to be helpful. LDS congregations, or wards, are defined by geographic boundaries, so given an address, you can find out which ward you belong to. If you enjoyed your visit but didn’t attend your own ward, don’t worry. All LDS congregations teach the exact same things and are “staffed” by volunteers, so most wards tend to be very similar.

What you won’t see

A few things are noticeably absent from LDS services:

  • Requests for donations - Donations aren’t requested publicly at LDS meetings. If you want to contribute money to the church, there are envelopes available in the hallway, usually next to the Bishop’s office. You can give the envelope to the Bishop directly or mail it to his address, which is on the envelope.

  • Crosses - The symbol of the cross is noticeably absent from LDS churches. There’s nothing evil about a cross; the LDS church just prefers to focus on a living Christ instead of displaying the mode of his death.

  • Polished sermons - Most sermons and classes in the LDS church are given by common members of the congregation, who may not have public speaking experience or who may not have been members of the LDS church for very long. This is how we all learn together. Hopefully the sincerity of the discourses makes up for lack of polished speech.

Additional info

For some similar information from the official Church web site, see What to Expect at Sunday Meetings. If you have any additional questions or tips about visiting an LDS church, please add them as comments to this post.

Looking forward to your visit!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cruising the Claremont Village

Yesterday we took the Metrolink train out to Claremont to check out “The Village”. My son was in heaven on the train. Now what three year old wouldn’t give his right hand to look at this kind of thing?

I am glad that he likes to look out the window. My wife and I marveled that a year or two ago he would have been more interested in the tables, chairs, windows inside the train, instead of focusing on what was outside.

The Village is a hip section of town near the Claremont colleges (and the train station!) that offers a range of local shops and art galleries. The older section of the Village is on the east side and contains small, local businesses. To the west there are newer developments, including the renovated Packing House. From what I could tell, this was an old lemon warehouse converted into a mini mall of local businesses and an art museum, with private lofts on the second floor. A very nice mixed use development project, in my opinion. There were works of art on display throughout the Packing House, and this one was by far my favorite. I am trying to find more details on it:

Southern California looks a lot like that, from the street. When you are on the train, it looks like this:

Most of the businesses in The Village were too fragile, expensive, or artsy for the kids, but I would have enjoyed browsing them alone with my wife. We will definitely have to check out the Hip Kitty Jazz and Fondue next time we have a few hours for a date.

If you are visiting The Village with young children, take them into The Boon Companion and get them a toy to keep them occupied for the rest of the trip. Also, if you have some extra time to wait for the return train, the Claremont Library is just two blocks from the station and has a great children’s section.