Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Year in review [Bryan and Ellie]

A number of exciting things have happened to 8-year-old Nora in 2011. In the spring, both her grandparents were able to come to Ohio for her baptism. The baptism was a very sweet experience, and we were so grateful to have family there to share it with us. In the summer, Nora swam in our favorite lake and took tennis lessons. In fall, she started her gifted class (“Fun--like preschool!”(?)), continued piano, and kicked her first two goals in soccer. These goals were a long time in coming, so her father can be excused for jumping up and down and screaming like a maniac. Finally, Nora moved down to the new basement in a room all her own. She is in heaven.

Andrew is eagerly awaiting his 6th birthday this month. His big news is that he started Kindergarten, which he loves. He’s also taking pre-piano music class this year. Andrew lost his first tooth in Utah at his Warnick Grandparents’ home this summer. Our Tooth Fairy still found him, so she won’t be fired, despite her sometimes flighty and forgetful ways. His drawings of semi trucks, buses, airplanes, and Jeeps decorate our fridge and the fridges of his teachers and grandparents. Andrew is the resident rule-enforcer in our home, much to his sister’s chagrin. Not much is missed by his penetrating, petty-criminal-bustin’ gaze.

Stephen, at two, shifts rapidly between unbearably cute and just unbearable. On the cute side, we have his claims of having a beard (we think he means his upper lip), his love of hugs, his somersault attempts, his obsession with writing his name, and his big brown eyes and blond curls. On the unbearable side we have the typical toddler whining and tantrums in addition to the messiest eating we have ever experienced. (He is not done until he has pulverized every cubic inch of his food, and has eaten. . .any?) Stephen provides the comic relief in our family. The past few weeks, he’s taken to answering every question, “Yes, sir!”

Ellie and Nora joined a Mother-Daughter Book Club this year, and have had a great time reading and discussing some childhood classics together. In March, Ellie tagged along with Bryan to England for a conference at Oxford. (Thanks to the Merkley grandparents for making this childless trip possible!) Going to England has been a lifelong dream for Ellie, and she loved every minute--even the one where she mistook white wine for water (low lighting!), took a big swig, and just about spit it across the table onto Bryan’s distinguished British colleagues. She’s still running, albeit a little more slowly to keep pace with her favorite pregnant running buddy (sister Anna).

Bryan was consumed early this year with finishing the basement. He put up the drywall, sanded, hung the doors, put up the wood trim, and painted. He is pleased with how it all turned out and can often be found in the basement admiring his craftsmanship. Meanwhile, he gave professional presentations in St. Louis and Oxford, organized a conference in Dayton, spearheaded a major curriculum change in his college, published two papers, and finalized a publisher for his second book. He has recently become fascinated with wood-grilling. His peaceful and quiet life was abruptly interrupted last week by a new church assignment...bishop (a lay leader of a local LDS congregation). Time will tell if he survives to see next Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2011

It's the end of the world (as we know it) [Bryan]

Most of the time, as you know, email is mundane and trivial. I received an email last week, however, that will change my life forever. Wednesday morning I returned from my morning jog to find a message with the subject line "appointment with President Welling?" My heart sank. It not only sank, it went crashing to the floor, shattering into a thousand tiny pieces. Ellie heard me exclaim, "Oh no!" We both knew exactly what it meant.

You won't fully understand this if you aren't Mormon. Some background may help: The first thing to know about my church is that major responsibility is placed on the local, lay leader of the congregation, a person that we call a bishop. The bishop is responsible for looking out for the physical and emotional well-being of the members of his congregation (hundreds of people) for five to six years. It is a major time commitment, almost a second job, a substantial lifestyle change. The second thing to know about the church is that if you, as a member, are asked to serve in a specific capacity, even a bishop, you do it. These are "callings." Accepting callings is a part of who we are.

You probably realize that the email was about me serving as bishop to our local congregation. I accepted the calling. Right now, I feel a strange mixture of happiness, sadness, and anxiety. Happiness, because it will be an honor to serve others (and God) in such a deep and meaningful way. I do want to be of real use in the world, and there is no better way than through something like this. Sadness, because I realize that some of the projects that are important to me must now be relinquished, some maybe forever, some temporarily. Blogging will slow, some books will remain unwritten. Anxiety, because of deep-seated fear of being unable to do, or do well, all that will be asked of me. Sometimes I feel like I have more questions than answers, more weaknesses than strengths, more folly than wisdom. I haven't slept well since Wednesday.

On Sunday, I was sustained by my congregation and officially "set apart" in the calling. Something happened during that meeting that was particularly meaningful to me. After I was sustained, I was asked to come and sit behind the pulpit. I slowly walked up and took a seat in front of the congregation. I looked out over the congregation, and saw many smiling and supportive faces (and a few surprised faces). I felt a bit numb. At that moment, though, I heard the organ playing what is perhaps the hymn that is most sacred to me, "As Now We Take the Sacrament." The personal significance of this hymn is a small fact about me that no one really knows, I suspect, but God. As soon as I heard that playing, I pretty much lost it, emotionally. Part of the hymn goes, "As now we praise thy name with song, / the blessings of this day / will linger in our thankful hearts,/ and silently we pray / for courage to accept thy will, / to listen and obey./ We love thee, Lord; our hearts are full. / We’ll walk thy chosen way."

Hearing that hymn, in that moment, was like God saying, "Bryan, I am here. Have courage." I can think of only a few precious moments in my life where it felt like God was specifically mindful of me and was speaking to me personally. That was one of them.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Is the world getting worse? [Bryan]

I often hear that things are getting worse and that "the world" is sliding into moral decay. I don't really believe that is true. The world from 1900-1974 (the year I was born), with the mass slaughter in two world wars, genocide on an unprecedented scale, brutal apartheid racism in the United States, and so forth, seems like a place that had no where to go but up, morally speaking. I collected a bunch of graphs that try to explain why I believe that things are actually not getting worse with respect to morality. Of course, it is possible that certain things might be worse. I'm talking about the big picture here.

Let's start with violent crime rates, which seem to be consistently dropping over the past 30 years.

Below are the categories of violent crime broken down more precisely. Everything, from murder, to assault, to rape, is down since the 1980s.

Trends in domestic violence are particularly tricky, since what gets reported is always fluctuating. Below is a graph, though, indicating that domestic violence has dropped over the past decade.

Below is a chart attempting to capture the presence of armed conflict in the world. The trend seems to be down over the past 20 years meaning the world is, on the whole, a more peaceful place. This is hard for us to conceive, because we ourselves have been engaged in minor conflicts since 2002. Overall, though, the trend is down.
Abortion rates seem to have slowly declined since 1980.

Divorce seems to be declining fairly significantly since it reached its peak in 1980s. (There are many reasons for this, of course, not all good.)

And well deserved [Bryan]

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to allow indefinite detentions of people suspected of terrorism, even if they are found in the U.S. This means that if the government merely thinks you are a terrorists, it can lock you away forever. You get no chance to defend yourself, no trial or due process. Unbelievable. Anyway, Jon Stewart gives this vote the nervous ridicule it deserves.