Sunday, July 1, 2018

How to Keep People in the Church

This post is more of an announcement than anything else. I feel impressed to spend more time on this blog, as there is much to be said, and I may offer a unique perspective.

Most recently, I have been concerned by the news of friends leaving the church (whether it be LDS, Christianity, or all religion altogether) for all kinds of different reasons. In addition, I've had my own recent struggles, giving me new perspective on this issue.

Thus I would like to launch a series of posts touching on why people leave, and what can be done about it. With the realization that some topics might be on the interesting side, remember that my intentions are to help to strengthen testimonies, identify ways to reach out to those who left, and to discuss how to help current members maintain their activity.

With this announcement, here are the following plans for this blog:
  • Continue working on the "Why I'm A Mormon" book.
  • Finish the series on Self Reliance principles.
  • Explore how to strengthen the membership of the Church.
  • Present a few works of LDS fiction.
  • Continue to discuss random religious topics.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Self Reliance Principle #6: Perseverance

Do you ever feel stuck in life? And do you ever feel like no matter what you do, you can't seem to get ahead? If so, it turns out that this is the best time to exercise perseverance.

Often, when we feel overwhelmed and we start wondering why we even try to do the things that we're trying to do, the temptation is very strong to give up and stick with simpler tasks. I've been there and I do this often. Most of the time, I turn to relaxing and playing video games or watching TV.

However, sometimes I decide to stick with the task at hand and push forward to the end, and something good happens. Often I find ways to speed up the task -- that is, I learn how to do it more efficiently and with less effort. Sometimes I find an alternative solution that's just as good as what I was trying to accomplish. Either way, when I actually finish something, I usually take a brief moment to take pride in the accomplishment.

Then comes what I like to call the "establishment principle." Once you establish something (build an item, create a work, strengthen a relationship), it generally cannot be undone, and in most cases it ends up laying down a framework for accomplishing more difficult tasks, or to make other tasks simpler. For example, if a lawn mower is built, it becomes much easier and faster to cut the grass. If you make a hammer, you can more easily build a home. If you compose a piece of music, you can take what you learned to compose other similar pieces more quickly.

But starting from scratch, coming out of debt, or just being overwhelmed with tasks at home, it's just going to take a long time to pull up to the next level. That's where perseverance comes in. First, you must realize that it's your own responsibility to do what needs to be done, and then to never give up. 

James E. Faust said, "Perseverance is demonstrated by those who ... don't give up even when others say, 'It can't be done.'" I can't tell you how many times I have lived this idea, especially when it comes to programming. A couple of years ago, my place of work needed to pull together this really complicated file. They turned to consultants that talked about how difficult the task would be and how it would take almost two years and how expensive it would be. They pulled me in and told me what they wanted, and it was crazy, requiring code to write code, and I said, "I'll figure out a way." Two weeks later I had working code, and it did exactly what they wanted.

Here are the four steps of perseverance as listed in the Self Reliance manual.

1) Keep a positive attitude -- list your blessings.
2) Remember to work together -- don't be afraid to ask for help from friends, neighbors, etc.
3) Replace fear with faith -- doubt is the #1 thing that breaks our forward motion -- if you turn to God, he can help you overcome.
4) Move forward with patience and courage -- never give up and endure with faith.

People always ask me where I find the time to do all the things I've accomplished (while at the same time, I'm usually frustrated with how much I'm NOT accomplishing -- how much more is left to be done -- I suppose that never goes away). Either way, the answer is right here: Don't quit. Push forward and eventually you'll be flying.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Self Reliance Principle #5: Use Time Wisely

Looks like I took a couple of months off on this blog; other things have been taking precedence, and then it fell off my radar. It's the story of my life. There are so many important things I would like to get done, but more "urgent" fires need putting out, and then I forget. Often I feel that I'm stuck and there is no direction in life.

In Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat teaches that if you don't know where you're going, then it doesn't matter which way you go, and that's when you really feel lost. Often the battle is to first decide exactly where you want to end up. It's not enough to say, "I want to get out of this situation." You must know what you want to do instead and then it becomes easier to find how to get there.

Thus it helps to set goals. You can set lifetime goals, five-years-from-now goals, yearly goals, monthly goals, and even weekly goals. These provide direction and help us to achieve tasks we wish to accomplish.

In the realm of self reliance, goals can help you get out of debt, find a better job, organize your finances, and even in promoting a business.

Then once you have good long-term goals, it helps to have daily mini-planning sessions to help organize the time of the day. What do you want to work on that day? How can you push forward?

The Self Reliance lesson manual suggests the following 5-point plan for optimizing daily time.
  • List Tasks: Make a this list in the morning of things you want to accomplish.
  • Pray: Review the list, pray for guidance, and commit to do your best.
  • Set Priorities: Determine which tasks are the most important -- perhaps putting a "1" on the highest priority, and a "2" on the next, and so on.
  • Set Goals, Act: Follow the Spirit to know how to proceed, and work down the list.
  • Report: At the end of the day, pray to God and report on how you did, and ask how you can do better.

Okay, a little honesty here: I don't have time to do all that every single day, but I've incorporated some of these principles, and a month ago, I believe that I've successfully altered my goal system to something that better fits the way my brain works, and also minimizes time I spend administering the system. This also borrows from principles learned from 7 Habits.

Weekly Planning Session

Every week, I have a planning session -- no more than an hour. I consider my yearly/monthly goals and determine what I want to concentrate on. I make a list, using the system. It's free and flexible. It works on desktops, phones, iPads, etc. (you have to download the free app). So, I can open it and use it practically anywhere.

During the weekly session, I go ahead and split the tasks among the following seven days and assign priorities, of which there are four different levels. The default is Priority 4 (white color), and the highest is Priority 1 (dark red color). Tasks left done from prior weeks stay on the list and have their priorities escalated. For example, I added "Blog -- Principle #5" on my list a month ago, which I left undone until this past week when it obtained Priority 1. Thus I remembered today and finally got around to it.

Daily Routine

The weekly sessions not only help me reach my long-term goals, but it also helps me to save time during the week. Every day, I only need to look at the list I had already put together for that day. Thus Step #1 above is already done. Step #3 is also already done.

I then prayerfully and thoughtfully move the list around. With Todoist, you can click and drag to rearrange the order of the tasks (within each priority level). Thus I can set the order of events for the day. This usually takes only a couple of minutes. Sometimes I'll move something from the "Overdue" list to today.

At the end of the day, I consider what I accomplished. The unfinished tasks will move into the "Overdue" status at midnight, but that's okay. I've learned that worrying about what you didn't get done is not productive. Rather, it's better to celebrate what you did get done. If you can say at the end of the day, "I worked hard," then it was a good day. You can attack the undone tasks at some later time.

With this setup, I'm able to spend more than 95% of my time actually accomplishing the tasks rather than having extensive daily planning sessions wondering what to do. When I accomplish a task, I just check off the circle, and the task is removed from my list. It also never gets old -- the joy I get from being able to click a circle.

Hopefully you can find or refine your own goal system so that you can move closer toward strengthening your own self reliance, and closer to achieving your dreams. Go and do it -- test it out, and see if it works.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Self Reliance Principle #4: Obedience

The fourth principle of self-reliance is repentance and obedience. The manual first asks how these two concepts are connected to self-reliance. I'll first analyze the religious side of this question, and then come back around showing how it relates to temporal matters -- again this whole thing about temporal and spiritual being the same.

We are all familiar with commandments: the ten commandment such as don't kill, don't steal, don't cheat, etc. There are other commandments sprinkled throughout the scriptures, such as paying tithing, being nice to your neighbors, and so on. We Mormons have additional commandments such as don't smoke, don't drink alcohol, and so on.

Outside of church, we also have laws of the land which must be followed: pay your taxes, don't let your grass grow too tall, don't make loud noises at night, etc. Everywhere a sign!

What good are all of these commandments and laws? When we ignore or "break" a commandment, this is usually concurrent with committing a sin, which will then require repentance -- some kind of restitution and remorse, and then returning back to following the commandment. Breaking a civil law can further lead to fines, jail time, or other punishments.

I've had several people tell me, "I could never be a Mormon--there are too many rules." But I'll let you in on a little secret.

You don't have to follow a single commandment or law!

When it comes down to it, having to follow all these rules is 100% optional. This is otherwise known as free will, or in other words, the freedom to do whatever you want to do. Commandments and laws do not take this freedom away from you.

However, the consequences are mandatory. Sure, you're free to kill your neighbor, but then you would be punished--thrown into jail or even a more severe punishment. Many commandments are like this--breaking them leads to punitive consequences.

On the other hand, most commandments also have positive rewards when followed, such as being nice to your neighbors, which usually results in reciprocal niceness landing on you.

Commandments and laws exist to help us enjoy life to its maximal potential. A series of simple rules helps us to avoid pitfalls and to work well with others. Not smoking can help me not die of lung cancer (and living longer allows me to enjoy more of life). Not drinking may help me not get involved in a driving accident (and staying out of jail gives me more freedom in the long run).

Thus, following these rules, which looks like limiting freedoms in the short run, actually ends up providing much more freedom and choices in the long run. So far, in the first 49 years of my life, I feel that following the "Mormon" rules has overall helped me to live a full and rich life that has provided me with many different opportunities to choose from.

Before continuing, I'll share what I often call my favorite scripture. Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21.
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
I also call this the "no-duh" scripture. You reap what you sow. Every action has its consequences.

The lesson manual then asks us to do this strange exercise, which sounds backwards at first. It says to write down three blessings you want to receive, and then write down the corresponding laws or principles to obey. I've always thought that it's best to just follow the rules and commandments, and then let the blessings follow from your choices. After all, are we really supposed to be doing good deeds just to get personal blessings? Isn't that selfish? (Look for a bonus funny clip on this topic at the bottom.)

But this exercise helps to answer the initial question at the top of this post. It provides an alternative way of looking at how commandments work. If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't really matter what you choose to do.

And that's the key to self-reliance.

If you know what you want, you must first learn how to get there, and then you must follow the appropriate plan to have success. Following the plan is like following a commandment, and the results at the end are the reward.

For example, in my music publishing business, if I want thousands of people to play my music, I have no choice but to exercise persistence and diligence in getting the word out. Well, I do have a choice--I could choose not to advertise, but if I go that route, I know my music will not be played. So, the choice is clear. I could either relax now and enjoy playing video games, or I can spend a little bit of effort now and have the joy of hearing someone else play my music.

Are you willing to do what it takes to get where you want to go?

P. S.: Here is that funny clip I promised earlier. Joey and Phoebe from the TV show Friends have a surprisingly intelligent discussion about there being no true selfless acts. After doing a good deed, the simple good feeling of doing something good makes us selfish creatures. Yet, Phoebe tries to prove she can do a truly selfless act. (Warning: mild language)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Self Reliance Principle #3: Managing Money

The third principle of self-reliance is managing money -- this time focusing on temporal skills rather than the spiritual. But don't forget as discussed in principle #1, temporal matters are also spiritual matters. For example, D&C 104:78 says: "And again, verily I say unto you, concerning your debts--behold it is my will that you should pay all your debts."

I like to think that I've always done well managing money. In fact, my work colleagues will often laugh at my desire to eat cheaper lunches. They'll say, "Surely you can afford to pay $15 for lunch." And sure, I could, but I'd rather spend that money elsewhere and not waste it away on just an hour of my enjoyment. When you budget, you can plan how much money goes to which categories. You can plan a big trip with the family, or build up an emergency fund. Currently, we're working toward replacing some furniture.

However, most of the US appears to have a big debt crisis. Here's a good read:

Americans are dying with an average of $62,000 of debt. (CBS News 3/22/2017)

As we pile up on debt, interesting things happen. Choices become limited to us--that is fewer entities will provide further credit. Emergencies can devastate us financially with no hope of recovery. Less money will go to our children when we die--creditors get their money first until assets run out. And when creditors lose money, they become less willing to lend money to others, which results in higher interest rates, and so on.

Robert D. Hales said, "There seems to be a sense of entitlement in today's culture. ... When we become burdened with excessive debt, we have placed ourselves in self-imposed servitude, spending all of our time, all of our energy, and all of our means in the repayment of debts. ... It is essential that we ... develop a spending and savings plan--a budget--and distinguish between wants and needs."

I have learned the virtues of waiting for the "wants," leaving open possibilities and having more financial freedoms in the long run. And I've witnessed what happens when people get the "wants" first and end up dodging creditors and experiencing the feeling of being financially trapped.

So how does one manage money? The lesson manual provides a 4-step process.

Step #1) Work hard and smart to receive money.

I don't know many people who haven't been tempted by get-rich schemes. Even I have have tried a couple. Of course it hardly ever pans out. I wouldn't complain if a million dollars landed in my checking account from some nice philanthropic dude, but on the most part I've earned most of my money the old-fashioned slow-and-steady way.

By the way, do you know what JOB stands for? Just Over Broke. And that's what it often feels like, but at least I can look back and take pride in how I got where I am today. I've been honest in my dealings. I've worked for practically every penny, and I've taken every available opportunity to increase that income. Hopefully it will translate into an early retirement so I can finally spend a lot more time writing music and fiction.

Step #2) Pay the Lord first.

Yeah--I know. I get a lot of flack from atheists/agnostics, and even other religionists about the idea of paying tithing.

Atheists will say, "You're wasting your money. Of course a religious text is going to say 'Pay the Lord first' as that translates into 'give us money.'" That's understandable. Any atheists reading this can skip this part. Though I realize 10% is a big chunk of money (it could fund a family vacation or cover debt and emergency expenses), I still think it does go to a good cause. When I pay tithing, it feels like I'm helping other people.

Other religionists will say, "I prefer the collection plate mentality where you pay whatever you can when it comes around." However, to me this seems to translate into "pay the Lord second." This is understandable when one is struggling just to survive on what little cash they're receiving. I've been there several times.

I don't know how many stories I've heard where people choose to pay their tithing first and the "heavens are opened" and they received unexpected blessings. One time my wife and I had only $25 in our banking account and no job during the summer--very stressful, but we still paid tithing, and we have never run out of money since.

Yet I strongly suspect that when one chooses to pay tithing first, something else happens. That person most likely takes a good look at his financial situation and then makes decisions that allow the tithing to be paid. The decision making itself helps the person get out of financial troubles, and that's what ends up bringing on the "opening of the heavens." I don't think paying the Lord second ends in the same place.

Step #3) Pay ourselves second.

This one makes sense, though sometimes it's very difficult. There have been times for me when this was impossible, but you should always strive to set aside money for a rainy day. Many jobs offer payments into 401k's with nice matches, but keep in mind that you can't touch that money until you retire. You can also put money into a more liquid savings or money market account. It took me decades to build up my emergency fund, and it's served its purpose several times.

If you're able to pull this one off, it could possibly help you to retire early, or even enjoy life more along the way.

Step #4) Spend less than we earn and avoid debt.

This last one should be called the no-duh rule. If you're spending more than you earn, it's unsustainable. You're going to run out of credit, and then comes financial entrapment and being a burden on others. During my college years, I ended up having to do some creative things with debt, but when I started receiving a more steady income, that debt went away very quickly. And yeah ... during those hard times, it was very difficult to splurge on anything, hardly eating out, getting our furniture from discarded items in the neighborhood dumpster, and so on. I remember saving up money to buy a $100 CD player with good sound -- and we were excited about it. Those were the days!

The biggest part of this is maintaining a budget. First spend a month recording all the money you spend, and then analyze where it all goes. Compare the expenses to what you earn, and see where you can make changes. What can you cut out? What needs more attention? How can you save a little for yourself? Can you see a way to get ahead on your debt?

Just a little discipline can change everything, and eventually get yourself on top of it all. It could take a few years to get there, but it's well worth it. The old-fashioned slow-and-steady way works more than any other failed get-rich-quick schemes.

Finally, to reiterate what I said in Principle #1: I don't know how many times I've heard these concepts discussed in LDS lessons, firesides, and seminars. In particular, I've heard Marvin J. Ashton's "One For the Money" lesson taught several times. (I highly recommend reading his 12-point plan for improving finances.)

With this in mind, it's no surprise to me that many Mormons end up being successful in life. It's engrained in our way of thinking. But yet, many of us still struggle, and there's always room for improvement.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Self Reliance Principle #2: Faith

Continuing with the 12-week seminar on Self Reliance: "Starting and Growing My Business," today I will touch on the second principle of self reliance, which is exercising faith in Jesus Christ.

I'll start off with this big question: how in the world can having faith in Christ help us to be self reliant? How can a spiritual idea like this help us succeed in business?

In my profession, I run into several atheists who have achieved self reliance and are successful in what they do. Thus it seems logical to conclude that faith in Christ is not a prerequisite to success. I'll come back to this a little later, but for now I'll give this quick answer. My atheist friends all have one thing in common. Though they may not have faith in Christ, they have faith in something. You can think about this while I continue on...

The self-reliance lesson manual analyzes a not-so-well-known story from the Old Testament. In Joshua 3, the Israelites are almost at the promised land, but they must first cross the River Jordan. The Lord tells them that when the bearers of the ark step into the water, the waters will part and the whole group can pass on dry ground.

The important thing here is that the ark bearers must first get their feet wet before the miracle happens. They must have faith and do their part first.

And that's how life works. Nobody accomplishes any task unless they first have faith that they may succeed. In the secular world, this is known as taking risks.

For example, I still have no idea if my music publishing business is going to succeed. I can't see the future, but I certainly want it to succeed, even though I can see a worst case scenario. If I sell nothing, then all I have a really expensive paperweight. (I suppose I could start opening it up for personal use and my kids' homework would look pretty awesome.) Yet, I took a chance and shelled out the big bucks before knowing for sure beforehand what the outcome would be.

Then again, there's only one certainty. If you don't try, you'll definitely not succeed.

So, look at everyone out there you know who has started a business and is making the big bucks. There isn't a single person among those who didn't first have faith in themselves and in the possibility that they may succeed. They saw potential and they took on the risk. They did what had to be done.

In my case, I know I'm good at music. And my day job has given me valuable knowledge on how to run a business. I have high hopes that I can eventually turn my startup into a profitable venture and benefit many people.

Of course, you also have the others who tried and failed. But guess what! They're all smarter people now. They have gained knowledge. Perhaps they can try again, but next time they'll know what not to do.

This all ties back to my first question. My atheist friends don't believe in a religion, but they do believe in themselves and had enough faith to take the initial risks, and as they take on risks, they succeed.

But what does faith in Christ get you? For one thing, having faith in Him also gives us practice in having faith in other things. Also, doctrine and the scriptures give good advice that easily relates to our everyday life.

Richard G. Scott said in 1984, "I bear witness that [the Book of Mormon] can become a personal 'Urim and Thummim' in your life."

A few weeks ago when we were on this lesson, I chose to go a whole week reading one random scripture a night from the Book of Mormon (turning pages randomly and laying my finger down on the page). I was surprised that I could find applications in my music business -- even a couple of scriptures warning me of paths not to go down.

Thus, even though having faith in Christ and his church may not be a prerequisite to success, it can certainly help. My friends joke about how Mormons always seem to be rich or successful. I haven't seen any mathematical studies on the subject, but I would expect that one would find a strong correlation between religious belief and a predisposition for success.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Self Reliance Principle #1

Hey everyone. I've decided to come back and work some more on this blog. With early church this year (meaning 9AM or earlier), I will have more time in the afternoon to come here and opine on the spiritual.

Currently I'm attending the 12-week seminar on Self Reliance: "Starting and Growing My Business." Already halfway done, it's proven to be a good all around experience -- confirming many principles I already knew, and a few others I needed to learn. Hopefully it will help me grow my already-existing Melkim Publishing and get it off the ground.

Each week we study a specific spiritual principle related to self reliance, and apply it to the temporal needs of growing a business. Other modules use the exact same principles, but apply it to finding a job, balancing the checkbook, or gaining an education. (I highly recommend participating if you get a chance.)

Even though I'm 6 weeks into the program, I'm going to backtrack and start posting here about each of the 12 principles, adding my own thoughts.

This week, the first principle is the fact that self-reliance is itself a spiritual concept.

Dallin H. Oaks, in the Oct. 2003 General Conference ("Repentance and Change") said:
Whatever causes us to be dependent on someone else for decisions or resources we could provide for ourselves weakens us spiritually and retards our growth toward what the gospel plan intends us to be.
For example, if I'm able to work a job, but I instead choose to stay at home and depend on my friends, government, and church for sustenance, then I would be a burden on others. On the temporal side, I would be causing others to have less money to spend. And on the spiritual side I could be weakening friendships and relationships, and would be progressing much slower toward the end goal.

The temporal burdens thus translate into spiritual consequences, which resonates with the message in D&C 29:34. "Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual."

When I talked with my family about these concepts, my son brought up a good point. The Church is really big on helping other people. But when we help people, aren't we stepping in and interrupting their opportunities to be self-reliant, and thus helping to hinder their own spiritual progression?

That's such an interesting concept. Those who help others end up increasing their spiritual position, while those who get helped have weakened positions.

A corollary concept would be like a spiritual broken window fallacy. Could I help others obtain salvation by being a bum, myself, and cause others to step in and help me out? Then since I would be helping increase other people's spiritual position, would I, myself, also increase in position?

Or, how about this: does one need to fall in spiritual position in order for another to increase, kind of like a Newton law of opposite reaction?

If all that doesn't make sense, it's only because I'm leaving out one important concept. When the Church helps people out, it provides sustenance while at the same time helping them to become self-reliant. As the old proverb says: "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

When you teach a needy person how to become self reliant, then both parties will increase in spirituality. You help a person learn how to survive on his own, and he learns self confidence as he comes to support himself. Everyone is lifted.

So, go out there. Be self-reliant, and inspire others to be self-reliant, and everyone will be better off.