Wednesday, July 28, 2010


After last week's post, I received concerned feedback from family members and close friends. I was touched by the display of love and concern from many who thought that I was unnecessarily shedding some – most, almost all– of my future plans. I think that, perhaps, a few more words on the subject will be sufficient to alleviate your fears.

Parents, family, friends: I love you, and I have grown more grateful and appreciative of your love as you have written me with your concerns about the recent change of direction I have decided to take in my life. I truly do appreciate your concern.

I had made plans to juggle three full time careers: international travel, extreme mountain climbing, and LDS education. It is possible to do all of these things simultaneously; I had a plan to live and work in Asian nations as a professional education consultant, and it's a viable plan. But when I have prayed about it recently, I feel more and more that that is not what the Lord wants me to do. More importantly, that plan will not help me be what the Lord would have me be.

The primary focus of my life must be my future family. I've felt that before, which is why I gave up music. It's possible to have a family as a professional singer, but it is a very difficult, constrained possibility. Similarly, although it is possible to have a family and do all of the things I previously wanted to do, my previous goals prioritized my welfare over my family's.

Similarly, climbing mountains – climbing Everest, especially – unrighteously risks my life and my ability to fulfill the things I have been called to do. My primary calling in life must be as a husband and father, followed by my occupational calling as an educator establishing LDS schools. Everything else is tertiary, and if the tertiary things conflict with my core goals, they have to be cut away.

And so, I exercise the principle of triage and redefine myself again. This week has been one of rebirth, as I've shed successive layers of constructed identity in the pursuit of a new and better one. I may no longer even live outside of the United States; although I would still like to live and work in China (and the rumored six figure income directly out of grad school wouldn't hurt either), I understand that I may not be blessed with that opportunity. Even if I am blessed with that opportunity, I understand I may be called to go another way (Alma 22:4).

In this time of meditation and renewal, I have refocused on my original goal of establishing an LDS school system. Since I no longer have other goals in my mind, I have found a lot more energy and fire as I've considered LDS schools. I've gone back over my original notes on the subject, and rediscovered a pure and holy fire that I haven't felt concerning my future for a long time. I feel I've shed a great weight, and that I'm being lifted again on the underlying currents to something much higher.

And I've shed precious time. I'm going to graduate in two semesters, I believe, two semesters and a Spring term if I'm unlucky or unpersuasive. My new major gives me a far greater breadth of options in the education field; international relations supports only international and comparative development education; sociology supports that field, and each of the other education majors in grad school. I want to work in the field of education; sociology gets priority.

Similarly, I gain precious time. One year allows me a year of practical experience in education before I get a doctorate, or makes Teach for America plausible, or other opportunities. If I can get the same benefits at a cost one year less expensive, again sociology gets priority.

But regardless of all the rest, I feel better and happier about my new course of life. I can honestly say that my previous plans weren't making me happy. I think these new ones will.

Much of my personal image, my definition of myself, was wrapped up in travel and international change. The decisions and prayers of the past week have stripped much of that away, and so I am re-orienting myself according to my new paradigm. I ask for your understanding and continued love as I redefine myself.

But know this: my old paradigm was removed. “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor 12:11) And though I still see through a glass darkly, I couldn't go back now if I tried. My metamorphosis has already progressed past that point; were I to return to International Relations now, it would not be the same as before. To large degree, the young man from before died, and his successor is different. Better, but different.

Someone counseled me to rely on the Lord in this, concerned that I wasn't doing so in making this decision. This decision has been to rely upon the Lord and His promises concerning my future happiness. This decision was to cross the Rubikon, and to march forth; or rather, to sail forth in an unknown course, in search of a destination I do not see, for a far country that lies beyond the horizon. But I believe in revelation and the Lord's promises. He knows where He is sending me, and I know that this is the right way for me to go. My new life is not as glamorous or exciting or dangerous as my old one; but it is a better life, one filled with more happiness. I'm looking forward to it.

And so, I go forward.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Change of Plans

James 1:5 – If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.

2 Nephi 32:5 – For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.

A good friend and mentor of mine talked with me recently about my future. We discussed my plans to travel for the rest of my life, working with foreign governments to set up schools, and climbing mountains in my spare time. He rightfully brought up that my plans were excellent for a young, single man, but that when I had a family, things would become much more difficult. He suggested I consider an American alternative plan, as a back-up, in case I wanted to return to the States, and recommended majoring in Sociology instead of International Relations. I returned that I was confident of my plan, had felt like it was what the Lord wanted me to do, and that was that. My friend urged me to reconsider, to spend more time in prayer, and to think about my future family's welfare. I agreed, and prayed again, but felt, still, confidence in what I was doing.

However, in the period of discussing with my friend and asserting confidence, I was also in deep trouble. I didn't feel close to the Lord, I felt unsure of what He wanted me to do, and I felt confused and frustrated in many of my activities. During this time, also, my scripture study had decreased to a bare minimum, mostly in order to say to myself that I had done something; I had allowed my studies and my social life to take priority over other, more important things. This was a dark period.

Coming here to Africa was a humbling experience. As I have described in earlier posts, and in the Field Study blog posts, I struggled adjusting to a new culture, to a new set of rules, to the workload, and to the people around me. This process literally brought me to my knees. In retrospect, the things I was going through seem small and manageable, but at the time they were remarkable obstacles that I despaired of overcoming. Somewhat broken, I learned in prayer that I am not to travel forever, and that I indeed need an American plan. I assumed I would simply pursue a different graduate degree program, and carried on.

As I have written more and considered more than I have taken time to do since serving a mission, a whole series of small course changes have come. Like a rolling stone gaining momentum, these have become more frequent and have had greater impact as I have followed them. The promptings have led me to study the scriptures and General Conference, ( Look in Gospel Library,General Conference) more intensely, to pray more sincerely, and to be more honest with myself and the Lord. I feel that for the past year or more, “I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore, I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know; therefore, I went on rebelling against God in the wickedness of my heart until the fourth (in my case, fourteenth) day of this seventh month, which is in the tenth year...” (Alma 10:6). I have been taught and reminded concerning certain things I have felt prompted to do, and not to do. As I have accepted and acted on the initial promptings, additional promptings have come.

And so, I have had a change of plans. Rather than risk my life and my future family's husband and father for personal accomplishment, I won't climb the Seven Summits. Similarly, though I may live abroad at some point, I will prepare for a career in the United States for the sake of my future wife and family. And, at last, I have also decided that I will change my major to sociology and pursue the opportunities attendant to that degree.

My plans now are to work very hard to graduate in the next thirteen months. I am confident that with the help of the Sociology secretary – who I pray will be merciful in transferring my work from IR into sociology (thereby waiving some of the courses I need to take), I can finish the sociology major in two semesters and a summer. After graduation, I will pursue Teach For America, and earn a Master's degree while involved with the program. From there, I will have theoretical, practical, and publication experience sufficient to pursue a doctoral degree. In this way, I should be finished with my education in the next six years, allowing me to begin a career fully just before my twenty-eighth birthday. From there, I will work in China, or elsewhere as the opportunity to establish LDS schools presents itself.

At each stage of planning, at each stage of revelation, the plans have evolved. The history of what I have felt is right for my life is a series of discreet plans, each better than the last. Interestingly, I prayed about a plan for my life just a few weeks ago, and felt like the Lord accepted it as a plan. The fact that it has since changed is rather immaterial; the first was given by revelation – or accepted by revelation, and I feel that my new one is as well. I anticipate that there will be changes in the future, but until the Lord reveals them to me, I will pursue the path I have with all my heart.

One great lesson from this summer is that Lord really does give guidance specific and accurate for where we are at that moment, and then leads us forward to become whom he wants us to be. When we go in the wrong direction, if we seek Him and are seeking Him, He leads us back in the way we should go. As we go forward, he steers us in the way we need to go at that time. That process of revelation causes changes in us, leads us to learn and grow and become whom He would have us be. If the Lord had simply commanded me to study sociology originally, I would not have learned the important lessons or made the important friendships that I did in Kansas City as a vocal performance major. My testimony of the Gospel would probably not have been strengthened as it was by the experiences I had in Kansas City. At BYU, I would not have taken Econ 110, which let me study under one of grandfather's few remaining colleagues in the last year before that colleague retired. That professor helped me wrench open my mind to the scientific study of human behavior at the collective level. From that class, I learned to seek evidence of the truth of the Gospel in the aggregate behavior of individuals, and to see “angels in the architecture” of society (“You can call me Al,” Paul Simon. Negotiations and Love Songs). I wouldn't have taken the introductory courses in political science or geography, or the research methods courses in political science and anthropology which have so blessed my life, pried open my understanding, and opened my eyes to a more brilliant sunlight of inquiry, knowledge, and truth.

Therefore, I don't regret the two and a half years I've spent studying in other fields; the Lord has blessed me through it. And I don't resist this course correction; I know He will bless me in this change of plan as well.

“Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the Lord thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldst go.” (Isa. 48:17)

“And ye cannot bear all things now; nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. ...“ (D&C 78:18)

A really cool door, somewhere near my home. This house is slightly unusual in that it doesn't havea wall or fence, or razor wire around it. These are the "Big 5" that safari seekers come to Africa to see.

Over the past two weeks, I've watched an apparentky homeless family rake away grass, burn the ground, and then hoe in lines across this patch of former brush. I assume they're going to grow something there. This is across the road, maybe two hundred yards from our house. Interestingly, as I stopped to take a picture, someone walking by said, "This isn't the safest place to do that, you know." We live next to a cemetery where a lot of squatters sleep (it's about three houses down from us.) Sometimes I forget how much poverty exists in this country; I don't think these people would be clearing this field if they had a better option.

Prayer cards, containing prayer requests from the youth of Amalinda Baptist Church.

I'm not entirely sure why I took this picture - I think it was to point out the big cloud front that had just rolled over us.
Sadly, I forgot my camera on the YSA Sports day, so I don't have pictures from that. Just imagine all the YSAs from East London holding up a first place trophy instead of this picture.

And here is me today. I wrote the post yesterday while I was healthy; today I'm running a fever. Brandon thought I looked pretty funny and snapped a pic, and then got one with my camera as well.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sunny Side of the Street

The Sunny Side of the Street: 7-12-2010

I felt the need to pray intensely on Friday night. As a result of that prayer, I studied the scriptures intensely Saturday and Sunday. As a result of scripture study, I felt the need to pray more intensely, and did so. And in this process, in just a few days, the clouds on my life lifted. “Oh, how praying rests the weary – prayer can change the night to day!” (“Did you think to pray?” Hymnsno. 140) I am amazed at how quickly this process could begin.

And now, I find myself on the sunny side of the street. My project, which up till now had consisted of a few interviews, has exploded – this Friday I will meet with 40 Xhosa Baptist secondary school students, and in the following Fridays I hope to meet with another group of 40 or more. On one of my upcoming Sundays, I will visit a Baptist congregation in which everyone is Baptist – actually, through the generosity of the woman who couldn't give me directions the other day. As I was walking to a Baptist service this week, they saw me and gave me a ride, and I learned that her husband is a Baptist minister in an entirely Xhosa congregation. They were excited to hear about my study, and invited me along for next Sunday or the Sunday following.

Today, I had a fantastic interview, and during the interview found that I will indeed be able to finish my research study and do a good job with it – it was in this pivotal interview that some of the other opportunities opened up, and it was a good interview in and of itself.

We had our mid-semester retreat this weekend as well, which was also nice. I was able to get enough to eat, and to chase away some of my fears about my project. It was also good to spend time with the rest of my research group. Interestingly, the retreat prompted some of the questions that prompted me to pray on Friday night, and again (especially) on Saturday.

“Draw nigh unto the Lord, and he will draw nigh unto you,” “Ask, and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find, knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” - these verses have been verified in my life this week, and it has provided me with a far greater measure of happiness.

This process required some change - I had to face up to the realization that risking my life to climb mountains unnecessarily jeopardizes my future family, and my ability to fulfill my mortal responsibilities. I cannot afford the risk of the Seven Summits. Ah, well – like tornado chasing, I'm afraid the summits are things I will not experience in this life. C'est la vie! The things I have chosen are better.

In all, though, that's what I wanted: knowledge, information, strength in doing what's right; some goals are really a small price to pay for that feeling. And I've wondered about the Summits for some time now, so it wasn't too much of a surprise. I'm sure my life will have enough excitement and risk as it is – heaven knows that it won't be boring!

In all - “the rover has crossed over: If I never had a cent, I'd be rich as Rockefeller: gold dust at my feet, on the sunny side of the street!”

On our group retreat, when we were finished with everything else at the beach, we decided to bury Brandon. He was a good sport about it.

Here, hamburger isn't hamburger, it's mince.; hamburger helper isn't hamburger helper, it's mince-mate! I'd never seen this before, and thought it a funny sight.

Oh, the things a young man can do with a young woman's suit jacket turned inside out. You know he's baad, he's bad, he's really, really bad.!

This is my copy-cat picture - I loaned Heather my camera, and thought thisa a good shot of her walking away.

But, I can't claim the idea, as I saw her take a picture of me as I walked up.

An AFrikaner mother and child at the beach.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Three Lessons

Three Lessons - 7-5-2010

First: Suspicion, Criminal and Mormon.

This past week, I was walking to a nearby appointment in mid afternoon. The sun was out, and children were literally playing in the streets as I walked past in a quiet neighborhood. I didn't know exactly where I was going, so I approached a white woman standing outside of her car, outside of her driveway gate. I realized after I began to approach her that driveways are the scene of a lot of violent crime here, but I assumed there wouldn't be any problem as I am white and don't look particularly threatening. Additionally, to assure good intentions, I called out to the woman. “Ma'am – ma'am?” She didn't turn around (she had been facing away from me.) Her dogs were milling about – a big shepherd, a large white lab, and a small, low dog with fur similar in appearance to the shepherd. I have been told that I'm rather soft-spoken; assuming she didn't hear me, I walked towards her, again, calling out, “Ma'am?” She hurriedly climbed into her car – fast!- closed the door almost with a slam, and look up at me through the tinted window, pointedly pulled the lock. Surprised, but not showing it, I again asked, “Ma'am?” and she rolled down her window a hair. I asked if she knew where a certain store was, and how to get there. She said, “I don't know where it is, and my dogs are running loose in the streets.” I said alright, and she pulled her car in, The dogs, by this point, were running full tilt at me, barking like mad, and then charging off after they had come as close as they dared. I don't back away from such aggression, but neither do I encourage it; seeing that I had unnerved the woman, I turned and walked off of her property to the next driveway. The white lab in particular kept charging and barking; the other two dogs came up to me, but seeing no aggressive movement from my side, went back in the gate. The woman closed the gate with an automatic pad, keeping the dogs out. When the gate was closed, she got out and came to the gate, opening it just far enough for the dogs to squeeze through, though it took a few minutes for the persistent lab to stop charging at me (again, even though I was no longer on its territory).

After the gate was closed again behind the dogs, the woman asked, “What do you want?” I told her I was supposed to meet someone behind CNA, a store chain here. I later learned that the store I was actually looking for was CTM, but at the time I had no idea. By this point, I was being very careful to keep my voice as non-threatening as possible, and was remaining a few steps back from the gate. The woman went on a few sentence exposition that there wasn't a CNA here, only in Vincent; I could tell she still didn't trust my intentions and didn't want me there, and her attitude didn't change until I said that the house I was looking for – behind the store- was on Middlesex Rd. That she recognized, her shoulders relaxed, she smiled, and said – Middlesex rd, that down there, but there's no CNA! I thanked her and walked off, rather shocked at the treatment I'd just received. She didn't do anything, per se – it was simply an attitude towards me that I haven't experienced to that degree before.

Similarly, I had an interview scheduled with a woman on one of the following days. When I arrived, she said she had some concern about being interviewed, as she hadn't spoken with her headmaster and wasn't able to speak for the school. I assured her that was alright, and that I was interested in her experiences and her perspective. She seemed at least partially mollified, and so I gave her a copy of the consent form to read over and sign. She again gained the concerned look on her face, and after she had read it, said, “I see that your studying the Baptist faith, which is all well and good, but this is a Mormon school – Brigham Young University.” I said, “Well, yes. But the school just funds the University; the research is separate. I'm a Mormon, but this is not a Mormon study. The purpose of this study is for [publication] in an academic, peer-reviewed journal.” But to no avail. When I had said I was Mormon, her eyes widened, and she refused from then on to hold an interview and was of no further help.

In both cases, I faced an unusual degree of prejudice. Fortunately, I have not run into that much here – apart from being called umlungu (“whitey;” it's not as much of a slur as cracker is in the US; which means it's really not a slur at all. In Grahamstown, I saw a t-shirt I liked that just had the word umlungu printed in white on a dark grey background.) a few times by black people who thought I couldn't understand them, I haven't really had to face prejudice based on either my religion or my skin color. I realized, after the negative experiences I had, that what I experienced was just a small taste of what black people experience all the time. I had thought of my approach in racial terms: because I was white, - the same race as the woman - I assumed I wouldn't be suspected of criminal intent. I think that I was operating based on my understanding of the white Afrikaner psyche, and not based on my own internal prejudices; I believe and hope so. But the implicit statement remains: had I been a black person approaching a white woman, I wouldn't have been surprised at the treatment.

I'm studying ethnicity and race in one of the sociology classes I'm taking; I don't think I've ever really understood before how it feels not to be given a chance, based on characteristics I cannot or should not change. As a man, a criminal; as a Mormon, not to be helped. I gained a whole new understanding and appreciation for those who fight against racial discrimination. I don't feel it yet in terms of gender discrimination, though perhaps I should, but I can see more from that perspective. I don't agree with the anger, or the methods of hate used by some counter-prejudice groups (who I have consistently found are as prejudiced or hateful as those they fight), but I better understand where the rage comes from, and had a small taste of its source.

Two: The Gospel, everywhere.

The second lesson is not to say that the Gospel is spreading all over the earth, though that is also true. Rather, God is not dependent on culture, location, or time. His grace is sufficient wherever, and whenever, we find ourselves. As I wrote last week in the Prometheus post, the solution to having fire- hope, vision, and passion - is found in the Spirit. I received great comfort this week by reading the Book of Mormon in Swedish, while in my apartment in South Africa - and the Spirit was and is the same. Similarly, I asked a black man from the local congregation for a blessing, and found sweet peace and consolation in the words the Lord spoke through him to me. A good friend of mine is struggling a bit with their testimony, wondering if it is just a cultural prop. I can honestly say that I am experiencing the Spirit of God in ways and through cultural patterns completely foreign to those I was raised with. In other words, this is no cultural crutch; I have tested the Gospel and found it true in multiple cultures, and know that it is true in all cultures. The principles and ordinances of the Gospel are the same.

The lesson to draw from this is: don't forget the Gospel, in a new place! The same thing that has comforted me all my life will continue to comfort me wherever I am and wherever I go. And that is true of the Gospel for everyone. In the throes of culture shock, seek the same source of comfort as for every other kind of shock – namely, Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.

Three: Unexpected blessings

Commandments always lead to the blessings that will help us most at that time. I felt strongly drawn – commanded, even, to check out a series some friends of mine have told me about. Now that we have a different internet situation, I have that possibility when other plans fall through. So, I've watched some of this series – Avatar, the Last Airbender, for the record.

This unusual prompting has had two effects. First, it was difficult for me to follow. I spoke with my roommate about something similar when he came back on Saturday, and in describing my philosophy, I realized suddenly that my attitude towards work and accomplishment is skewed. Incorporating some relaxation is kind of foreign to me; there's not room in my plan for renewal, and so my plans aren't sustainable long term. This is not to say I don't relax, but when I do it's a departure from my plans and not an integral part of them. I realized that I envision myself – my ideal – as a machine that operates perpetually – no maintenance, no sleep, no fuel, simply perpetual motion. That's not correct. I think of myself as lazy; sometimes, that's certainly true, but sleeping, eating, and enjoying myself could be sources of strength rather than flaws to be corrected. Indeed, whether I admit it or not, wholesome recreation is a necessary source of strength and one to which I have not attended. Isn't it the Gospel of work that teaches us that we are in constant need of the Lord's support? Of physical and spiritual nourishment? That we need always to be nourished by the true vine? That on the seventh day, the Lord rested; and that Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath?

As I have done this simple – strange- act of renewal, I've found that my strength has been revitalized. The cartoon reaffirms something that I have lost faith in: the individual. The storyline is about a hero character who grows into his potential in order to save the world. In order to change the world for the better. The great theme of the story is that an individual can make a difference (though the series covers a lot of themes and topics. It is also entirely clean – no swearing, only limited violence (mostly magical), and nothing sexual. I would certainly recommend it as a good conversation starter and as instruction, even, for young people.).

An individual can change the world. An individual can save the world. In my studies of sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics - which consider humanity only in the aggregate, above the un-scientific whimsy or determination of man's agency – my hope, my faith in my ability to make a difference has weakened and waned. The social sciences are designed to map humanity, but not necessarily to change it.

This series has been sweet medicine to combat the inertia of social science. To believe in the power of agency; to be optimistic, to be enthusiastic. I can make a difference, I will make a difference.

I've noticed too, over the past few days, that I have more energy, more strength. My days are happier; I can do better work. Since I believe I can make a difference, I have a lot more motivation to make a difference. And that is worth the time, worth a thousand times the time, I've spent in renewal, or relaxation, or in non-work.

(I was losing my faith in fiction generally, to be honest. This has been a good reminder of the importance and value of fiction to inspire and uplift.)

A huge bug I found squished on the sidewalk; you can see my thumb for a size reference. I didn't really take any pictures this past week, so the selection was pretty limited.

A sunset over town.

This is a Methodist Church I always pass on the way out of Baptist services. This was on Sunday morning, and I thought it was a really pretty shot.

Some flowers - these grow all over the place.

Same Methodist church as before, but with a different and unintentional setting on my camera. I thought it was an interesting photo, so it made the cut this week.