Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ellie's Easter Talk

A few years ago I had a conversation with a sister that stuck with me. She talked about how difficult the winter was for her. Winter's dark dreariness sent her into a depression each year which it was hard to emerge from. I can sympathize with this. I don't know whether it's seeing the bright sun more often or not having to wear four layers of clothing when I go running in the mornings, but my body and my spirit both just feel lighter when spring comes, as if a burden has been lifted from my shoulders. I'd like to talk today about the return of spring, particularly the event of Easter, and about the lifting of burdens.

The scriptures contain imagery of burdens borne and lifted. In Psalm 55:22 we are urged to "Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall sustain thee." In Matthew 11:30 we find the familiar invitation of the Savior: "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Both these scriptures are to be understood metaphorically--no actual burdens are being carried. The weight we're contemplating is spiritual rather than physical. But both scriptures are very physical in their imagery. The phrase "cast your burden upon the Lord" brings to mind an image of "casting" or throwing a heavy sack that the Lord will catch and carry for us. The idea of being granted rest after strenuous labor might remind us of times when we were "heavy laden" with an exhausting physical task.

I think it's no mistake that the relief being offered here, though spiritual, is spoken of in physical terms. Burdens of body and burdens of spirit affect each other. Physical burdens can afflict our spirits and spiritual burdens can cripple our bodies, since our bodies and spirits together make up our souls.

If these two scriptures begin with the worry of burdens, they end with assurance of divine aid--having our burdens lifted. David promises in his Psalm that if we do throw our burdens to the Lord, that "he will sustain thee." In Matthew, Jesus promises us rest for our souls and a lighter burden.

There have been two moments in my life when I have felt a keen sense of relief as a burden was lifted from my shoulders.

The first occurred when I was about fifteen years old. My dad took my brother and sister and I on a backpacking trip to Zion National Park in Southern Utah. I'm no natural athlete and the physical demands of the hike were a shock to my system. The summer sun in Zion's beat down hard and by the late afternoon I was sweaty and dirty and my whole body ached from carrying the bulky backpack. When my dad finally declared that we had reached camp, my siblings and I were ecstatic. I had never felt such relief as when I sat down and removed the straps of my pack. My shoulders still ached for a few minutes, but my body was overjoyed to be carrying only my own weight again. With that burden lifted from my shoulders, I felt like skipping around our camp, and since I was fifteen, I probably did.

Christ understood how physical burdens can weaken our souls. He spent much of his ministry healing wounded bodies. One man whose physical burden was lifted by Jesus was Bartimaeus. His story is found in Mark 10: 46-52:

". . .And as He was leaving Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. . .was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!'

"And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more. . .

"And Jesus stopped and said, 'Call him.'

"And they called the blind man, saying. . ., 'Take heart; rise, he is calling you.'

"And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said unto him, 'What do you want me to do for you?'

"And the blind man said to Him, 'Master, let me receive my sight.'

"And Jesus said to him, 'Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.'

"And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way."

Bartimaeus was both eager and full of faith. He would not be dissuaded from his goal of being healed, pursuing Jesus despite the discouraging remarks of those around him. We can only imagine the burden his blindness caused in his life. We know that he was begging along the roadside. Surely his blindness contributed to his inability to work for a living. Imagine what it meant to him to have Jesus give him his sight. It must have turned his life around. Jesus lovingly lifted the burden of Bartimaeus's blindness and opened the door to a new life for him.

During his ministry Jesus healed the blind, the deaf, the crippled, the leprous, and even brought people back from the dead. What pains he did not heal directly, he came to comprehend in the Garden of Gethsemane. As it says in Alma 7: 11-12, "And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities."

The second time I felt relief from a great burden came shortly after my daughter Nora was born. For some reason, at that time I began remembering a wrong I had done my sister in the past. It happened when we were both children, and I didn't know if she even still remembered it, but I began dwelling on it and experiencing terrible feelings of guilt. I soon realized that even though it had happened long ago, if I wanted to move forward with my life, I needed to resolve my feelings of guilt. It was really the first time I ever thought of applying the Atonement to myself. I had never felt this kind of suffering for sin. I knew I had to repent; I had to talk to my sister and I had to plead that she and my Heavenly Father would forgive me.

After a week of misery and a pep talk from Bryan, I called my sister. Nervously, I told her what I remembered, gave her my heartfelt apology, and waited for her response. She remembered what had happened, but gave me gracious and immediate forgiveness. When I hung up with her and got down on my knees to ask the Lord's forgiveness, the relief I felt was one of the sweetest feelings I had felt in my life. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of the Atonement, for knowing that I did not have to dwell in misery and shame over things I had done in the past. I felt such hope and such love. My burden was lifted and I could move forward with my life.

Christ's Atonement lifts our spiritual burdens. In one of my favorite stories of Jesus, a woman is brought before Jesus by an angry mob, and accused of adultery. Continuing in John 8, it says,

"They said unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very
act. . . .

"But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. . .

"And when they heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, they went out one by one. . .

"And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. He said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

"She said, No man, Lord.

"And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."

Jesus's forgiveness here is so simple and so clear. As Bible scholar Frances Taylor Gench notes, not only has He both acknowledged and forgiven the woman's guilt, while possibly saving her life, he has brought the accusing crowd to recognize their own sinful state, and perhaps repent themselves. They arrived as a mob, but left, to their credit, one by one, each pondering his own sin. We can only imagine the woman's feeling of gratitude and relief. Surely, after having such a terrible burden of sin and fear lifted from her shoulders, she went forth and sinned no more.

In this Easter time, it seems fitting to remember that Christ spent his life and ultimately his death lifting the burdens, physical and spiritual, from other's shoulders. From the woman taken in adultery, he lifted the burdens of public humiliation and sin. From the blind man, he lifted the burden of a lifetime of struggling in darkness. I have felt his forgiveness change my life.

During this fateful week we now celebrate as Easter, He took on his fragile mortal frame every burden of grief or sickness or suffering man has ever had call to bear. In Gethsemane, during his arrest and scourging, and on the cross, He suffered mental and physical anguish, the weight of which broke his body and nearly broke his spirit, but He bore it all, and completed His task on the cross, out of love for His Father and love for us.

That He fulfilled his mission and rose, glorified, that Sunday morning from the tomb, is a joy we can all share in and call sweet. Through His suffering in the Garden, and then through His glorious resurrection, we too have the hope of a new day. Through His grace and our repentance, we can have our burdens lifted. Whether the darkness that surrounds us is the dreariness of February, the loneliness of loss, or the hopelessness of sin, if we will let him, our Savior can take our hand and leads us into the light.

What will happen this year? [Bryan]

Here are some of my favorite changes that will immediately be in place thanks to the new health care reform (Kevin Drum has a more comprehensive list). Starting this year:
  • Small businesses that choose to offer coverage will begin to receive tax credits of up to 35% of premiums to help make employee coverage more affordable.

  • Children with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied health insurance coverage.

  • Insurance companies will be banned from dropping people from coverage when they get sick, and they will be banned from implementing lifetime caps on coverage. Annual limits on coverage will be banned for certain plans.

  • Adults who are uninsured because of pre-existing conditions will have access to affordable insurance through a temporarily subsidized high-risk pool (this is to help until the exchanges and subsidies get up and running, I think).

  • The bill increases funding for community health centers, so they can treat nearly double the number of patients over the next five years.

  • The bill creates a new, independent appeals process that ensures consumers in new private plans have access to an effective process to appeal decisions made by their insurer.

  • New private plans will be required to provide free preventive care: no co-payments and no deductibles for preventive services. And beginning January 1, 2011, Medicare will do the same.

  • The bill starts to close the Medicare Part D 'donut hole' by providing a $250 rebate to Medicare beneficiaries who hit the gap in prescription drug coverage. And beginning in 2011, the bill institutes a 50% discount on prescription drugs in the 'donut hole.'

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Forgiving Love [Bryan]

"Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of a divine mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, feel themselves as well as their fellow men convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the difference between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in his sight....When life is lived in this dimension the chasms which divide men are bridged not directly, not by resolving the conflicts on the historical levels, but by the sense of an ultimate unity in, and common dependence upon, the realm of transcendence."

Reinhold Niebuhr, "Love as Forgiveness"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nine! [Ellie]

I just ran 9 miles! Nine miles! For my running friends this is no big deal, but for me it's very big. It's the farthest I've ever run in my life.

Until now my plans for running a half-marathon on May 1st have felt a little like a pipe dream. But now I've run nine miles and I feel great.* The endorphins are terrific. I have always had very strict mental limits on what I thought I could accomplish physically. I would never have believed I could do this in high school. Hooray for allowing yourself to grow and change, and hooray for 9 miles!

*Not to be taken entirely literally. I'm a little sore and I have blisters and Anna and I had to stop to walk for about 1 minute when we had twin stitches in our sides.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A certain blindness [Bryan]

Not far from Yellowstone National Park sits the small town of Chester, Idaho. On the outskirts of Chester once lived a relative of mine, now deceased, an elderly great uncle. When I was a teenager, we visited this uncle before our backpacking trips to the Grand Tetons or Wind Rivers. He was a widower, a kind and gentle man, retired from the Forest Service, living alone in a perpetually unfinished house. The house was surrounded by enormous uncultivated fields, full of weeds, dust, sagebrush, and swirling wind. Every morning, this uncle would go out with a weedwacker and wage a Sisyphean struggle against the quarter mile of weeds lining his driveway down to the main highway. It was hard, difficult labor, and I failed to see what the point was – the weeds, after all, weren’t causing any obvious harm, and they grew back as quickly as he could cut them down. A wasted effort, I thought. A sad way to end one's life.

I have since learned, however, that life is a continual struggle to overcome our blindness to the inner significance of other human lives. As William James writes, "Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives."

And so it was. As I became better acquainted with this uncle, I learned that his wife had designed the original plan of that house. I learned that he and his wife had been very close. I learned that he was intent on finishing the house to her every specification, even though she had died many years earlier. The daily struggle against the weeds, I came to suspect, was an act of affirming the relationship with his beloved. It was a heroic refusal to let her memory die.

Hence, the stupidity and injustice of my opinion. Every person has an inner secret, I think, a "vital" secret, a secret that gives each life its driving energy. It is a great adventure to uncover and understand, however dimly, the eagerness that drives the lives of those who surround us. Even prisons and sickrooms have their own revelations. Our job is to to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The time has come - Updated [Bryan]

Tonight the House of Representatives will be voting on the Senate's version of the health care reform bill and its related amendments. This is a big deal to me. A really big deal. Readers of this blog know that health care has been something I've long been concerned about. We have a health care system in which up to 45,000 people die each year because they lack insurance. Meanwhile, current health care spending is growing rapidly and will bankrupt the country within a few decades. These are problems we need to address; if we can't, our country is indeed broken.

If you haven't been following this debate closely, here is a quick run down of what the current bill looks like.

The conservative side of me is happy for the substantial cost control. The current bill is projected by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to cut the deficit by $130 billion in the first decade, and $1.2 trillion in the second, although many health care experts believe it may actually be much more than this. This is the most ambitious attempt to slow medical spending ever undertaken. Harvard health economist David Cutler recently argued, "What is on the table is the most significant action on medical spending ever proposed in the United States. Should we really walk away from that?" (Cutler's important article can be found here). The conservative in me also likes harnessing the free market through the new health insurance "exchanges." These exchanges will help consumers and small businesses navigate the health insurance market and make insurers compete, in a more clear and transparent way, for their business. Markets can be cool things.

The more liberal part of me is happy about several things. The bill helps 32 million people get health insurance, mostly buy giving them "vouchers" to help them purchase insurance (more precisely, tax subsidies based on income). People with preexisting conditions will be able to buy insurance at a reasonable cost, and insurance companies won't be able to rescind your coverage once they have given it to you. The bill finally closes the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit's notorious "doughnut hole" thus making medicine more affordable for grandma and grandpa. It will invest in new funding for community health centers to serve up to 20 million patients by 2015. It will increase the number of primary care providers in underserved communities, with new funding for the National Health Service Corps. This will fund scholarships and loan repayment to entice more doctors into primary care medicine.

The final bill has been endorsed by a wide variety of groups like the American Medical Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Nurses Association, the American Association of Pediatrics, the Catholic Health Association, the American Hospital Association, the National Council of Churches, the Consortium of Jesuit Bioethics Programs, the American Heart Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, and many, many others.

Of course, there is some medicine to take, also, and it is not all fun and games. Expensive insurance plans will be taxed at a higher rate within the decade (which will probably affect me), and everyone will now have to buy insurance or face a fine (Mitt Romney called this a "personal responsibility" provision in his Massachusetts bill, which is very similar to the current bill). There will also be a 3.8 percent tax on investment income for families making more than $250,000 per year (which would definitely not affect me). Nobody likes these things, but they are necessary to pay for the bill and to allow for the insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions.

So, this is a good bill, even a great one. We need it for moral reasons. We need it for our fiscal health and to reduce the deficit. We need it so that business can be more competitive internationally. If this bill passes tonight it will be the most important piece of legislation that has passed in my lifetime. It is time to do the right thing and pass the bill.

UPDATE: Well, they did it! History has been made.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rumblings in today's paper [Bryan]

There was much of interest on the internet today. You may have heard, for example, my fellow religionist Glen Beck ranting crazily about churches that talk about social justice. "I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church web site," Beck told his television audience. "If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

Now, Beck rarely know what he is talking about with respect to any subject, and this is no exception. Turns out even we Mormons talk about social justice every now and then:

Kent P. Jackson, associate dean of religion at Brigham Young University, said in an interview: “My own experience as a believing Latter-day Saint over the course of 60 years is that I have seen social justice in practice in every L.D.S. congregation I’ve been in. People endeavor with all of our frailties and shortcomings to love one another and to lift up other people. So if that’s Beck’s definition of social justice, he and I are definitely not on the same team.”

Philip Barlow, the Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, said: “One way to read the Book of Mormon is that it’s a vast tract on social justice. It’s ubiquitous in the Book of Mormon to have the prophetic figures, much like in the Hebrew Bible, calling out those who are insensitive to injustices. A lot of Latter-day Saints would think that Beck was asking them to leave their own church.”

On a different topic, I should admit that I often disagree with conservative columnist David Brooks, particularly about health care. But he seems to have a grasp of who President Obama actually is, and who he is not. He writes:

Readers of this column know that I’ve been critical on health care and other matters. Obama is four clicks to my left on most issues....But he is still the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington.

Liberals are wrong to call him weak and indecisive. He’s just not always pursuing their aims. Conservatives are wrong to call him a big-government liberal. That’s just not a fair reading of his agenda.

Take health care. He has pushed a program that expands coverage, creates exchanges and moderately tinkers with the status quo — too moderately to restrain costs. To call this an orthodox liberal plan is an absurdity. It more closely resembles the center-left deals cut by Tom Daschle and Bob Dole, or Ted Kennedy and Mitt Romney....

Take education. Obama has taken on a Democratic constituency, the teachers’ unions, with a courage not seen since George W. Bush took on the anti-immigration forces in his own party. In a remarkable speech on March 1, he went straight at the guardians of the status quo by calling for the removal of failing teachers in failing schools. Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency.

Take foreign policy. To the consternation of many on the left, Obama has continued about 80 percent of the policies of the second Bush term. Obama conducted a long review of the Afghan policy and was genuinely moved by the evidence. He has emerged as a liberal hawk, pursuing victory in Iraq and adopting an Afghan surge that has already utterly transformed the momentum in that war. The Taliban is now in retreat and its leaders are being assassinated or captured at a steady rate....

In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.

Very few people on either the right or left seem to understand the sort of president we've got. Bravo to Brooks for cutting through the crap.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What makes a sport good? [Bryan]

I've been trying to figure out if there is an objective way to determine what makes one sport superior to another sport. Here are the criteria I've come up with. Call it my philosophy of sports.

1. The game should be played continually, with few stops in the action. Futbol (or "soccer" to you Norte Americanos) and hockey score well here, basketball moderately well, and football and baseball not well at well.

2. The game should focus on human skill and athleticism, not who can buy the best equipment. So, competitive swimming, which seems very dependent on suits and pools, scores low here. Golf too. Anything with steroid problems is bad.

3. You should be able to play pick-up versions of the sport the replicate the real thing. That is to say, the sport should be simple and uncluttered with equipment, refereeing, or other infrastructure. Futbol and basketball score well here, baseball moderately well, and football and hockey quite poorly.

4. Related to 3, officiating should be unintrusive and relatively objective. I'm not sure about the objectivity part since all sports have subjective refereeing. But in futbol and hockey you rarely see the officials. In football the officiating is moderately intrusive, while basketball (fouls) and baseball (balls v. strikes) score poorly, with referees being a huge part of the game.

5. You should not be able to gain advantage in the sport by getting caught officially breaking the rules. This really bugs me, and it is basketball's great bugaboo. Nothing bothers me more than when someone gets beat off the dribble and then intentionally fouls to stop the layup. Weak, weak, weak. Sports should never allow this. Basketball should make fouls much more costly. In no other sport is breaking the rules so rewarded.

6. Competitive elements of the sport need to be manifest within the official rules. This is hockey's big bugaboo. Half of the competitive spirit is manifest outside of the game itself -- in fighting. In a good sport, this doesn't happen and that spirit is expressed within the game itself.

7. The game should create moments of real beauty. This is a subjective call, but nothing is more beautiful than basketball, manifesting beauty in power, speed, and style. Hockey is too fast for the human eye, so it is the loser. Baseball and football have moments, but they are rare. Granted, your mileage may vary here.

8. Players should be asked to do everything the sport involves. The more player specialization, the worse the sport; if you play a sport, you should really play it all. Basketball scores very well here, futbol moderately well (goalies), while baseball (particularly with the DH) and football score miserably. I can't underscore how bad football fails this test, with offensive, defensive, and special team specialist, each further subdivided by positions that do vastly different things.

So, in the end, futbol is the great winner here, followed by basketball, hockey, and baseball. Football is the great loser. This is odd since I really like to watch football. What am I missing?

Mashed potato update [Bryan]

Yes, indeed, the technique I described in this post makes for some very flavorful mashed potatoes. It was an unqualified success -- best mashed potatoes ever! So, no boiling the potatoes from now on and draining the water for me. Here is the recipe I've modified from Cooks County TV:

Garlic Mashed Potatoes (Bryan's variation)

4 lbs. potatoes
1.5 sticks butter
8 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp. sugar
1.5 cups half-and-half
1.25 cups water
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

1. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a pot. Add garlic and sugar and cook for 4 minutes.

2. Add to pot peeled potatoes, 1.25 cups of half-and-half, 1.25 cups water, 1 tsp. salt. Boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Do not drain. Add remaining butter and half-and-half, whip with mixer until liquid is absorbed.

4. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Not good at all [Bryan]

Not good news coming out of global temperature data:
"January, according to satellite (data), was the hottest January we've ever seen," said Nicholls of Monash University's School of Geography and Environmental Science in Melbourne.

"Last November was the hottest November we've ever seen, November-January as a whole is the hottest November-January the world has seen," he said of the satellite data record since 1979.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in December that 2000-2009 was the hottest decade since records began in 1850, and that 2009 would likely be the fifth warmest year on record. WMO data show that eight out of the 10 hottest years on record have all been since 2000.