Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review - Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Holy Cow!  This was a long time coming.  I've been busy in the "thick of thin things" and sure enjoyed getting back to more reading.

Gaiman and Pratchett were amazing in this collaboration!  A story of the end of the world featuring an angel and a devil who rather botch things, or do they.  You might say the Apocalypse comes off with a hitch.  Or was it a glitch, or several. We humans have a tendency to mess things up, but occasionally, we do things right as well. Blame it on Heaven or blame it on Hell eventually, the buck stops with us.

Good Omens is a glorious romp through the meadow of human nature.  We are so funny and these guys have made it their millennial mission to point that out.  I laughed out loud on page after page.  Mostly at myself.  There is a bit of me in every character in the book; all fodder for funny.  I learned to take myself and life a little less seriously and realized that humanity and the human experience is a joyous blessing to be celebrated!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Trouble With The Biggest Loser

I like The Biggest Loser.  I've watched it regularly for years.  There is something very inspirational about watching the successes of people you grow to love.

A friend called me last night.  He was looking for someone who'd recorded LOST.  I hadn't.  When I asked him why he'd missed it, he said, "I thought I had set it to record on the DVR so I sat down with a bowl of ice cream and watched The Biggest Loser."  My friend is morbidly obese.  I went to bed wondering what is it that appeals to him watching that show.  I have several friends, including myself, who do the same thing.  Week after week we cheer for our favorite contestants from our comfortable sofas, while eating and loafing ourselves into oblivion.  We don't seem to have the slightest inclination to let the program affect our behavior.  We seem to enjoy the show without the slightest personal discomfort.  There seems to be a huge reality disconnect, when it comes to watching this particular "reality" show.

I'm not finding fault, I'm just trying to understand.  While I wouldn't qualify to be a contestant, I am overweight and have other issues that I'm not addressing either.  Are we vicariously letting someone else lose our weight for us?  I think maybe we are.

Eating disorders are so closely aligned with other addictive behaviors.  To me there is little difference between running to the bottle or the fridge for a fix.  We don't like ourselves, or how we feel and so we seek something external to ourselves to help us feel better.  Be it alcohol, narcotics, hallucinogens, Twinkies, gambling, porn or adrenalin, if we are looking for a way to escape our discomfort, we are looking in the wrong places.

That was apparent in last night's episode where Darris ran all day and then stayed up late stuffing his face.  Home for a month, running daily, completing a full marathon in 4 hours and 2 odd minutes, he still gained two pounds.  What's up with that?  Why would Darris "sabotage" himself after all that effort?

Here's what I think.  While there is so very much good about The Biggest Loser, the program has some fundamental flaws.  One of them being the Ranch.  Now don't get me wrong.  These are generally people who won't get better without a major, even institutionalized intervention.  The Ranch is literally saving their lives and there is no getting around that.  The problem lies in the fact that in that artificial environment many are not learning to deal with real life.  Bob and Jillian seem to be very aware of this and the program makes great effort to prepare the contestants for reality.  Still they often fail.  Here's why.

The Biggest Loser deals well with the physical and emotional side of addictive behavior, but they entirely neglect the spiritual aspect.  The 12 Step model established by Alcoholics Anonymous is so uniquely successful because it does not neglect the spiritual component.  The "higher power" AA includes in its approach to recovery is essential to every recovery.  God and a spiritual connection to Him is a vital component in obtaining and maintaining sobriety.  There is no getting around it.  A higher power is part of Biggest Loser's success, don't get me wrong.  Too often though, that higher power is Bob or Jillian or $250,000.00.  This works, until you no longer have Bob or Jillian to serve you.  Or until you no longer have the financial carrot dangling before your eyes.  Here again, Bob and Jillian recognize that the contestants need to be weaned from the trainer's influence, but they try to introduce self as the alternative and self is the absolute worst higher power they could choose.

Darris was clearly struggling without his higher power, while at home.  Absence from Bob and Jillian and his friends at the Ranch, left a painful void in his life and automatically he went right back to his old "go to" remedy to fill that emptiness.  Koli, had the same problem, so he went to Vegas and found a substitute for Bob and Jillian in another trainer.  Even Sam was not enough to keep Koli going at home. That rather surprised me.  But then on reflection, Sam has his own life to live and surely couldn't devote his whole time to Koli.  That's the way it is for each of us.  Our lives are inconsistent.  Our relationships are inconsistent.  We are inconsistent.  The only thing consistent in our lives is God, if we'll let Him provide.

Bravo!  To all the contestants on this inspiring show for their courage, effort and success as they shed the physical and emotional baggage of their lives.  I just hope that in the process they discover what I am discovering, that spiritual emptiness is what got us in our predicaments in the first place.  I am a physical Schmiegel inhabited by a Spiritual Golum when I neglect to connect with God.  I am quick to feed my body while starving my Spirit.  We all recognize physical hunger, but most of us have not been taught to recognize spiritual hunger.  We experience the discomfort, but not realizing what's causing it, seek to satisfy the pain with things that cannot satisfy.

The answer is not knowledge.  Darris knew he was hurting himself.  Koli was embarrassed too.  My friend knows there's a better way than to eat ice cream on the couch.  The same goes for me.  Why are we failing amid so much success?  Because we are climbing the ladder of success, sometimes with Herculean effort only to find it leaning against the wrong wall.  The goal that will make us happy is not weight loss, it is not a quarter of a million dollars or a title or record or a good job.  The goal that will make us happy, fulfilled, satisfied and ultimately successful is a healthy, well fed Spirit that is constantly connected to God.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I Don't Believe In Coincidences

It was the fall of 1969.  I was still a Greenie Missionary having only been in the Mission Field for three months (I had eaten Balut by then, so maybe not - depends who you ask and how you measure such things).  The church in the Philippines was in a great expansion period directed by President Paul S. Rose.  Elder Daniel Johnson and I were given the blessed assignment of opening the city of Dumaguete on the Oriental side of Negros Island.

President Augusto Lim was a Counselor to President Rose.  Dumaguete was President Lim's home town.  He graciously accompanied us to Dumaguete to introduce us around and help us get established.  We stayed in his parents' home for a couple of weeks until we were able to rent a place to live and hold meetings.

There was one member of the Church in Dumaguete, when we arrived; President Lim's sister Dalisay.  Not too long after our arrival, his sister Beverly was our first baptism in that wonderful place.  Elder Johnson labored in Dumaguete for five months and then was released to go home.  I stayed another month or so.  We were blessed to bring four souls into the Church in those precious days.  Beverly Lim, Loline Valero, Grace and Virginia Llego.  We had some disappointment that the numbers were so few after having labored so diligently.

We were comforted by a promise we'd received from President David O. McKay.  In the Mission Home in Salt Lake City, we were given a promise from the prophet that there would one day be a convert baptism for every Book of Mormon we placed.  In Dumaguete, Elder Johnson and I placed over 1200 Book of Mormons.

I lost track of Elder Johnson.  I made several attempts to find him but was unsuccessful.  I even visited his hometown in Washington on a couple of occasions and checked the directory and asked around among the locals, all to no avail.

About ten years ago, my nephew received a mission call.  I was invited to attend the Temple with him when he recieved his Endowment.  I was seated in the Temple chapel, waiting for the session to start when, to my great surprise and inexpressable joy, in walked Grace Llego, one of our four converts from Dumaguete.  We recognized one another imediately, but were unable to converse until we found one another in the Celestial Room.  What a joyous reunion is was.  What a joy to introduce my nephew to the flourishing fruit of my labors.  Grace had met and married an American working in the Philippines.  A member of the Church named Greg Frame.  They had moved to Grand Junction, Colorado which was in Vernal's Temple District.

What a blessing it is to have reconnected with Grace and to learn of her life and joy in the gospel.  Additionally, I learned of her sweet sister, Virginia and even some about the others.  I was replaced in Dumaguete by Elder Beecher.  As Grace's parents hadn't joined the church and weren't much support, Elder Beecher had arranged for Grace to be a pen pal with his sister back home.  They wrote consistently for quite a while and became good friends.  Then, somehow they lost track of one another.  Years passed and Grace moved to Colorado.  Shortly after their arrival she received a visit from her new Relief Society President.  As they got acquainted it became apparent the Grace was from the Philippines, so the visiting sister mentioned that she once had a pen pal from there.  Sure enough.....it was indeed they, who'd been pen pals. 

And, now she and I were also reunited after 30 long years.

A couple of weeks ago I was surprised to get a letter from Daniel Johnson.  He too had a desire to reconnect and was a bit more able than I in his ability to track down an old pal.  He had another amazing story to report.  He'd gone to visit a daughter who is now living in Maryland.  While there he and Sister Johnson went to church.  In attendance that day was Loline Valero Lim, married to Ismael Lim, Augusto's brother.  They too, were visiting children abroad.  That connection led to the Johnsons making a trip back to the Philippines and to Dumaguete.  There they found a warm welcome and several Branches of the Church.

We had been counselled in those days to avoid keeping contact with our converts.  The thinking was that we wanted them to be weaned from the missionaries and to depend upon God.  I had often mourned the fact that I had no idea how anyone was doing.  Now, God has miraculously brought them back into my life and I can't express enough, how grateful I am for that great gift.  Some folks might call all of this a coincidence - I do not.  These remarkable events, against extremely long odds, have been orchestrated by a loving Father who grants such tender mercies in abundance to his children.  Children of whom He is obviously very fond.

I haven't yet spoken or corresponded with Beverly or Loline but that day shouldn't be too far hence.  Just yesterday I got a CD from Dan containing photos from 1969 and from his recent visit. The flood of memories those pictures restored to my mind is overwhelming.

 Now a whole new generation is emerging from those four sweet daughters of Zion.  Among them, missionaries, who are continuing to share the blessed truth.  Grace, even had a son who went to France?!  They say there are close to 1200 members of the Church in Dumaguete today.  A prophecy fulfilled; one for every Book of Mormon we placed.  Another promise was also fulfilled ... "how great shall be your joy with them in the Kingdom of my Father."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Remembering to Trust -or- Meet Joe Hapi

It was May of 1971.  I had three months left on my Mission to the Philippines.  I received a transfer to the Marikina/Pasig area.  I hoped to exit with a quiet cushy assignment.  Instead I was given a Greenie, made a District Leader and assigned to be Branch President of the Marikina/Pasig Branch.  I was overwhelmed until I met with the District President, then I was floored!
The District President informed me that a new building had been announced for Quezon City and that each Branch had an assignment to raise funds for the local portion of the cost of the building.
(I was so heavily occupied during this three months that these are the only months I failed to keep a journal.  For this reason I’m going to be vague about exact figures in my account of what happened.  I am also going to condense the story greatly.  Hopefully, the highlights will convey the miracle I am about to describe.”)
The District President assigned the Marikina/Pasig Branch a large number of pesos to raise.  And after making the assignment he added, ” We want it before you go home Elder.”  Did I tell you I was floored?  Understatement!
From there I met up with my new companion, Elder Joe Hapi.  Elder Hapi is a Maori from New Zealand.  He was the first foreigner to receive the David O. McKay scholarship.  Joe was twice captain of the Church College of New Zealand Rugby Team.  He’s large, robust, engaging, courageous, joyful and full of faith.  Elder Hapi arrived with the discussions memorized, the confidence of virtue and a profound testimony.  Elder Hapi hit the ground running!
Getting acquainted with a new Branch, learning so many new jobs, and getting everything organized had my head spinning for days.  Promptly, we organized a Branch Carnival hoping to raise a good chunk of the money.  It was well attended but didn’t yield 1% of what we needed.  I was just sick.  The average family in the Branch made ten pesos a week.  There was no way they could contribute anywhere near the required amount.
I was heart sick about it and expressed as much to Elder Hapi.  “I can’t do it!” I complained.  “You don’t have to,” was his response.  “God is able to do his own work,” he declared, in such a matter of fact tone that I just stared at him.
I’d had exposure to that kind of faith, but not in circumstances where it applied so directly to me and not at the feet of a mentor who manifest his faith in such a simple, forthright and confident manner.  He was sure and I knew it.
Day’s later we were out tracting and were invited in by a nice, middle aged man.  We asked him what he did for a living and he answered that he was a manager for the UTEX (professional) baskeball team.  Elder Hapi nudged me with an elbo.
“What?” I asked.
“Here it is.”
“Here’s what?”  (I didn’t get it.)  My companion, accepting my position as Senior Companion, asked for permission to take the lead.  I granted it, still confused.
“Would your basketball team consider playing an exhibition basketball game as a fund raiser to help build a church building in the area?” he asked.  Our new friend responded affirmatively, noting that the final decision wasn’t up to him.  He went to bat for us and acquired the go ahead.
We had a number of missionaries in the greater Manila area who regularly gathered on P-day to play ball.  Some had played college ball, others were High School stars.  Often they would arrange to play local college teams.  President Smith granted approval for the Elders to face UTEX.
We were able to rent a large arena, which supplied tickets enough to fill it.  I was beginning to think it might actually all come together.  Then, in rapid succession came three seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
First, the Philippine Basketball Association denied UTEX’s request to play an exhibition game.  To make matters even more impossible, the head of the PBA was a Catholic Priest from Ireland.  I am freaking out!  “What are we going to do?”  “We’ve already sold the tickets all over the city!”  The only hope I could think of was the immediate destruction of the island by a sudden eruption of Mt. Pinatubo!  Elder Hapi, calmly reminded me of 1 Nephi 3:7.  I didn’t get it.  He had to spell it out for me.  We needed to go meet the Priest.  Clueless, I asked, “What will we say?”  He didn’t know and didn’t care.  He was totally comfortable with “not knowing before hand” what we would say or do.  To make the story short our good friend the Priest, granted permission and sent us on our way saying, “Go with God, me boys, and tell ‘em a Jesuit sent you!”
Second, we discovered we would be in violation of the law if we held a fund raiser within 120 days of a National Election.  I was catching on.  We went to see the Philippines Election Commission.  Again, our way was miraculously opened before us.
Finally, there became a very real concern that anti-American sentiment could be agitated by this event, which could result in a very dangerous and ugly situation.  Again, Elder Hapi’s confidence and faith carried the day.  We went forward with assurance.  God had, time and again, guided our steps and cleared our path.  Indeed, God is able to do his own work.
That night at the commencement of the game, we presented the colors and a large block of foreign, mostly American, missionaries stood and proudly, boldly sang the Philippines National Anthem in Tagalog.  This completely dismissed the fear of anti-American demonstrations or activities at the event.  The entire crowd was moved by the Spirit they felt as we enjoyed those moments together.
We lost the game 78 to 87, placed dozens of Book of Mormons, had a wonderful event and raised more than enough money to reach our goal!
Each of us is given stewardships in this life.  God entrusts us with people and things to care for.  Elder Joe Hapi taught me that God is sure to provide the resources to properly care for those stewardships.  Seeing myself as a steward rather than an owner greatly facilitates my optimism.  When things look impossible, when the road ahead is dark and appears treacherous, I think of my Maori friend, trust in God and step forward with confidence.  Nothing is impossible for God and if I am on His errand I may proceed with a perfect brightness of hope, knowing God is fully able to do His own work.
I had not seen or heard from Joe for these many years since the summer of 1971, until this very week.  I found him on Facebook and we are in the process of reconnecting our lives.  I marvel at the impact one great man could have on my life in three short months.  He has been the yard stick against which I have measured my faith for all these years.  I will be forever grateful to know him.

Note:  I wrote this for another blog some time ago and was thinking of it today.  This past week has been another week of miracles for me.  So often Nephi and other Book of Mormon prophets reminded themselves of the great things God had done for them and their people as a way to find courage and faith to face uncertainty in their futures.  The Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt was their benchmark experience in that regard.  This experience with Elder Joe Hapi, was my benchmark experience.  As I faced the utter impossibility of making the house payment this week, my mind went back to the story above described.  My faith and trust grew and I knew that somehow, God would move this mountain too.  I is with tears and gratitude this morning that I affirm that He has.  Thanks again Joe, for teaching me to put my trust in God.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Please Remove Obama from the Eagle Scout Certificate

The President's use of the F-Bomb the other night was the last straw for me.  His total disregard for social convention, societal morays and simple etiquette are disgusting.

This man clearly thinks he is above all that and can literally do as he pleases.  His behavior is a disgrace to us and to what his office represents.  

According to Wikipedia the President's signature was removed from the Boy Scouts of America's Eagle Scout Certificate after the Monica Lewinski incident.  It was included again in 2002 while George Bush was President.

If I were an Eagle Scout I would insist that it be removed again.  President Obama does not embody the principles of the Scout Oath or Scout Law and having him sign the highest award that BSA offers boys is a travesty.

Politics aside, I am ashamed to have such a crude person representing me in the White House.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mistaking Symptoms for Causes

I've really enjoyed watching BBC's Irish Drama/Comedy Ballykissangel.  They developed such a wonderful mix of characters and over several seasons, I came to love each one.  In a recent episode Padraig O'Kelly a regular at Fitzgerald's, local pub, went on a drunken binge after being rejected first by a young woman he was interested in, and then by his only son.  Dr. Michael Ryan pays him a visit and makes a simple but profound statement.  "Drink is only a symptom of a deeper problem."

Can you spot the alcoholic?  It's Ireland, they may all be.  Pardraig (pronounced Porrick) is third from the left.  A life of sorrow, self pity and disappointment shows pretty plainly on his face.  I identify with Padraig.  I don't belly up to Fitzgerald's Bar but I've been on plenty of sorrowful, disappointed pity party binges of self indulgence.  Most of the time I had no idea that my behavior was just a symptom of a deeper problem.  Like Padraig just thought he was a hopeless lush.  I thought I was hopelessly lost in my addictive behavior as well.

It's like my problem is an injured leg.  I can't deal with the injury right now so I wrap it in a bandage and forget about it. It hurts but, in denial, I refuse to acknowledge it and the fact that beneath the bandage it is festering.  I need to continue to function in society so I take up a crutch.  Something that helps me get along and helps me to ease the pain.  Pretty quick I'm back on my feet and have myself convinced that I'm functioning on a par with my previously undamaged condition.  I even manage to convince myself that the crutch is invisible and that no one notices how heavily I lean upon it.  Occasionally, I hear a talk or have some other reality check that reminds me of how disgusting and evil my crutch is, so I resolve to throw it away.  I do, but now I'm crippled by my unattended wound and cease to function at all.  I remain in denial and do nothing to treat the wound, except to heap more bandages on the old ones.  I have even forgotten how it got injured in the first place.  Needing to function I take up the crutch again.  A cycle of repeated tossing and retrieving of the crutch ensues.  Years pass this way.  Discouragement and then despair follow.  Determined, I carry on hobbling on a crutch that becomes ever more burdensome, ever more ugly and apparent.

Finally, someone like Dr. Michael Ryan points out to me the possibility of healing the wounded leg and invites me to go to the Great Healer and have the infected gash healed.  I do and before long, I am walking pain free.  I suddenly realize that I no longer need the crutch.  Serving no purpose I set the crutch aside and go on without it.  The Doctor of my Soul reminds me that I have a particular vulnerability to re-opening the wound and that I must remain constantly vigilant against doing further damage.  At first I don't heed that counsel.  I feel so great!  So emancipated!  Before long, recklessly, I reopen the wound and instantly my need for my old faithful crutch returns.  Or I receive another injury and automatically go to the same old ridiculous remedies. Again by invitation, The Good Doctor returns and heals my leg once more.  This time I'm more careful, more watchful, more vigilant.  Gradually, with care and determination, I rehabilitate the atrophied muscles and grow in strength.  Eventually, months and then years pass and the crutch becomes long forgotten and entirely left behind.

I loved he scene where Padraig puts down his crutch.  There is a light in his eye and a lightness of being in his countenance.  The pity party is over.  He has dealt with his pain.  The sore is healed over and the alcohol is put aside.  I loved it because I've experienced it!

When it comes to addiction I still find most people operating under the misconception that the booze, or Twinkies, or joints, or needles or roulette wheel or the porn sites are the problem.  They are not.  Not in any case I've worked with.  Those are only the symptoms of a deeper problem.  A deeper problem most of us are loath to explore.

My Nephew taught school in a little village on the North Slope of Alaska.  Despair and Alcoholism were rampant there.  One day he drew a line down the middle of the chalk board.  On the left he asked the students to list what was right with their village.  The list grew quite large.  On the right they needed to make a list of what was wrong.  The students rebelled, they threw chairs, they shouted and stormed out of the room.  The travail of dealing with our problems is no small thing.  Eventually, the negative list was completed.  Finally, they could address what they were going to do about the problems.  You would be amazed today to see the results of that project!  We need to be willing to do the same thing.  To take the bandages off the infected wounds in our lives, clean them out, treat them appropriately and actually get better.  We need to learn to face our pain and to quit anesthetizing it with treatments that only mask the problem and inevitably make it worse.

I think this applies to everyone, addict or not.  We are a society full of folks running around trying to avoid or ignore our problems and the resulting pain.  We want easy fixes instead of genuine healing.  Let's stop that and get on with living.  Really living.

Increasingly, we live in a Plutarchy

As a young adult I read a 1300+/- page book called Tragedy and Hope by Caroll Quigley.  It was about the ultimate conquest of global society by the wealthy.  Later I read W. Cleon Skousen's book about the same thing.  It was called The Naked Capitalist (same story only much shorter).  I was pretty skeptical at the time, but since I've watched Quigley's predictions unfold before my very eyes.  So, here we are enveloped in the Plutarchy Quigley envisioned.

Here we are in a society controlled by the wealthy.  We can hardly call it otherwise.  Our very lives are under the deliberate thumb of Wall Street.  Our government leaders are literally owned by them.  A year ago I abandonned the Republican Party.  Or rather, I discovered that the Republican Party had abandonned me.  Don't panic, I didn't become a Democrat. 

I've spent the year wondering what I am, wondering where I fit, wondering if anyone is like minded out there.

The other night I heard Bill Moyers interview Populist Jim Hightower and thought I was hearing the most refreshing views I'd heard in a long time.  Still, I hesitate, Populists tend to favor unions, I don't.  Well, that's not true either.  I favor unions in the original or pure sense.  But the big unions have become as Plutocratic as the Government has.

Goldman Sachs has been on the carpet this week for their power mongering antics.  Clearly theirs is not a matter of guilt, but rather a question of legality.  They are guilty, but was it legal?  Congress will ultimately create bigger government to resolve the issue, which will fail.  The result will be more taxation and less control, both of which benefit the plutarchs and harm the rest of us.  The Securities and Exchange Commission will continue to sit in their Ivory Tower and view pornography while we assume they're spending our money looking after our best interests.

Moyers, in his program Bill Moyers Journal drew my attention to a policy statement from Citigroup that made big business' position and strategy plain:

Citigroup Mar 5 2006 Plutonomy Report Part 2

Is it any wonder that the economy is struggling.  Not the economy of the rich, but that of the average American.  I've long struggled with my feelings about Sean Hanity and his version of Conservativism.  In light of what I'm presently learning, Hannity appears to be the Plutarch's Poster Boy.  I don't struggle any more, Hannity is out, my mind's made up.  Don't suppose by this that I am opposed to Capitalism.  On the contrary I am in full favor of Capitalism.  Greed has turned Captialism in to Plutarchy in the hearts and minds of far too many.  It is to be expected; with money comes power and power corrupts - at least sometimes.  Contrast that with Capitalism as described in the book The Mormon Way of Doing Business and you'll understand what I mean.  The distinction between Captitalism and Plutonomy (a term coined by Citigroup) is an important one and as long as we fail to make that distinction we will fail to treat Plutarchy as the demon it is.
Hannity is often heard defending big corporations by saying that no one was ever employed by a poor man.  This may be true, but Plutarchs are not about employing people but rather about exploiting them and then laying them off while cleaning out the coffers the workers filled. Plutarchs are not hard to recognize.

It is going to be thus.  At least as long as we depend on the Republicans and Democrats to managage our economic lives. 

I wrote this morning on The Book of Mormon Today that I think the solution is not governmental but personal.  I do think we need to be politically active and to stand up and be counted.  But on a personal level there will always be Plutarchs trying to control our lives.  The answers, at a personal, individual level, lie inside us, not outside in the polical and public arena.  We may never see an end to Plutarchy in our life time, but if we focus too much on the problems Plutarchy creates we will miss the blessings that are ever present in our lives.  Blessings that difficulty and hardship, even Plutarcy assure us.
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