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.

Friday, July 4, 2008

An Argentine 4th of July

Happy 4th of July! One of my most memorable Independence Days was the first one I spent out of USA. I was a relatively new Mormon missionary, age 19, living on the northern outskirts of Mar del Plata on the Argentine coast. That day I recorded:

"For the 4th of July today, Hno. Ferro, a new member, invited the 4 of us out to his house way out in the campo and made us lechón. What he did was kill a young pig, pretty much cut it right down the middle, stretched it out on a metal cross thing, and cooked it by the fire for three hours. Of course we showed up right when he was just about done with the process. The pig looked and smelled great. You could pretty much eat any part of it. The weird parts like the skin you just put between bread like a sandwich. It all tasted great. The only thing I didn’t like was the occasional pig hair or two or three that was still attached until it was already in my mouth.

"They also made a chocolate cake, and we brought sugar cookies. After dinner, to show gratitude, the four of us sang Ye Elders of Israel. We had prepared it before with harmonies, but Elder R. was kind of sick and couldn’t sing very well, so I helped him out on the melody. We sang all three verses in Spanish and one in English. Then we sang the Star-Spangled Banner. When Pedro realized what it was he motioned for everyone in his family to stand up. It was touching - the first 4th I’ve spent out of the USA - and it gave me a greater appreciation for my homeland."

One thing that surprised me as a new missionary was to hear the Argentine people pray, "We're thankful to live in a free country". I frequently included that phrase in my prayers as well, but I guess I only had the stars and stripes in mind. Fortunately many countries in the world, especially the Americas, are blessed with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and many other important freedoms.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Seattle Supersonics: 1967 - 2008 Thanks for the memories

It's official. The Supes are moving to Oklahoma City and it doesn't look like we'll even get two more seasons of them. At least Seattle gets rights to the name and colors for a while.

They can sell your team for millions, but they can't take the priceless memories:

  • Listening to Bob Blackburn and Kevin Calabro broadcast games into my room while I ran around 10 square feet of carpet creating my own epic "hardwood" battles on the Nerf hoop.
  • Attending the free "Seafirst/Sonics Jammin' Hoops Camp", which was about the most exciting thing to pass through my hometown of Yakima during the summer. As kids we were thrilled to get our pictures taken with any Sonics journeyman, but we also got to meet well-known figures such as Michael Cage, Avery Johnson, and George Karl.
  • Being thrilled to see the Sonics and Trailblazers duke it out in the Kingdome in the 1 dollar seats obtained from the aforementioned camp.
  • Riding with my dad 6 hours round trip to see a game in Key Arena as a teenager. Just me and him, winding our way over the Cascades, talking about experiences from his youth that I had never heard him talk about before. (Thanks Dad!)

Good bye Sonics. You will always be my team.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Eight generations on an 8.5 x 11 sheet

I've started a project researching which of my ancestors were the first in their families to join the Mormon church. I have a lot of respect for these ancestors as several of them joined the Church at a time when Mormons were violently persecuted for their beliefs (one ancestor was even murdered, along with 16 others, in an event known as the Haun's Mill massacre).

I hoped to get as many generations as possible into one pedigree chart so I could easily visualize the branches of my family and mark who was the first Mormon in each branch. In doing so, I found this excellent 8-generation fan chart created by Duane A. Bailey. You can print it out on a regular 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. Eight generations is usually just enough to get back past 1830 when the Church was organized, so this chart is perfect for my project. Thanks, Duane!