Instant Pot Butter Chicken with Potatoes and Peas

As part of my goal this year to cook new international dishes, I wanted to share this is a great and fairly simple Indian butter chicken recipe. It is based on a recipe recommended by someone I follow on Twitter, but with a minor tweak to the amount of Cayenne Pepper, and added potatoes and peas.

Servings: 8-12

Ingredients:

  • 28oz can of Diced Tomatoes
  • 10-12 cloves Minced Garlic
  • 3-4 tsp Minced Ginger
  • 2 tsp Turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • 2 tsp Smoked Paprika
  • 2 tsp Kosher Salt
  • 4 tsp Garam Masala
  • 2 tsp Ground Cumin
  • 3-5 lb Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
  • 8oz Butter
  • 1 cup Heavy Cream
  • 1/2 cup Chopped Cilantro
  • 1-2 lb potatoes
  • 1-2 cups Green Peas

Directions:

  1. Add the Tomatoes, Minced Garlic, Minced Ginger, Turmeric, Cayanne Pepper, Smoked Paprika, Kosher Salt, half of the Garam Masala (2 tsp), and Ground Cumin to the Instant Pot, stir thoroughly.
  2. Rinse and cut the Potatoes into large chunks — 1 inch cubes or bigger, and add them to the mixed tomatoes and spices. Add the chicken pieces over the top of the tomatoes, spices, and potatoes.
  3. Turn the Instant Pot on to it’s Pressure Cook setting, with a timer set for 10 minutes on High.
  4. If you want to serve this on rice, you can start the rice at about this point. I’d recommend 2-3 cups of either Jasmine or Basmati rice to go with this much butter chicken.
  5. Once the Instant Pot pressure cooking cycle is complete, let the Instant Pot naturally vent for 10 minutes, and then manually release the rest of the pressure.
  6. Remove the chicken pieces using a pair of tongs. If desired, cut the chicken into chunks of similar size to the potatoes. Set the cut chicken aside.
  7. Remove the potatoes from the Instant Pot using tongs, and put them with the cut chicken pieces.
  8. Take the sauce from the Instant Pot and puree it in a blender or using an immersion blender. Return the pureed sauce to the Instant Pot, and add in the Butter, sliced into thin slices to melt easier. Once the butter has melted in, add the Heavy Cream, the other half of the Garam Masala (2 tsp), the Chopped Cilantro, and the Peas.
  9. Mix together thoroughly, and add the chicken and potatoes back in. If necessary reheat for 3-5 min using the Instant Pot sauté function.

The amount of chicken, potatoes, and peas to add is up to you. The original recipe would have only called for 2lb of chicken, and separating half of the sauce, but by adding in potatoes, peas, and extra chicken, the amount of sauce seems about right. I used frozen peas and thawed chicken, though apparently you can use frozen chicken too. Depending on how much chicken you put in, you may want to add in a little extra salt. And finally, if you’re dairy free, you can substitute coconut oil and full-fat coconut milk in place of Butter and Heavy Cream.

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2023 Goals

Ok, after my previous post looking back at how I did on goals in 2022, I’ve created some updated goals for 2023, including rolling over a few from last year that were worth keeping. I added an extra category for house and family related goals.

Physical

  1. Get to the point where I can jog a 10K: I can jog a 5K, but getting to the point where I can do a 10K should help build endurance, and will require me pushing on improving my aerobic threshold, which frankly should help a lot of other health goals.
  2. Finish getting my 5k race time down under 30min: I made progress on this last year, but still have a bit to go. This one is synergistic with my first goal, since improving my aerobic threshold (which is almost certainly a must if I want to jog a 10K) should also help me speed up my 5K time.
  3. Finish getting to the point where I can do all five Home Fitness body weight exercise sets, on the Advanced level, at full reps, and without having to take extra breaks in the middle: I made good progress on the goal of getting to full reps last year (I was at 2/3s of full reps on all but one of the five categories), but still have to take a lot of extra or extended breaks. I think this is achievable, but also meaningful.

Intellectual

  1. Cook at least one new recipe per month, with at least one recipe this year from each of the six inhabited continents: I like cooking, and I like trying out new recipes. So, this should be a fun goal, that will hopefully force me to explore recipe areas I haven’t really thought of before. For the recipes I like, I may even post them here on Taong Boondocks.
  2. Write at least two substantiative (technology, policy, etc) blog post series of at least three posts long each: I’ve been struggling with my blogging goals for the past several years. I think that by putting it in the case of finishing two blog series, it will help improve my odds of getting things done. The first series I’m hoping to finish is my one on space environmental management policy, technology, and economics that I started on my Starbright Engineering blog.
  3. Finish at least two significant crafts projects (making things that involve multiple components, that weren’t a premade set from someone else): I have a fun Snapmaker Original 3-in-1 3d printer/laser cutter/CNC router setup, and it would be fun to actually use it to make something useful. Whether that’s something that can become a Christmas present, something cool to decorate my office, or something useful for the house, or even something work related, I’d like to get more experience working through hands-on projects.

Spiritual

  1. Read the New Testament (including Joseph Smith – Matthew) cover to cover: My church is studying the New Testament this year, and while I’ve read it cover to cover more than the Old Testament (at least two or three times), I figured this would be a good scripture study goal for the year. This will be less of a slog than finishing the Old Testament. It looks like 1pg per weekday plus 2 pages per weekend day should get me there. I’ll probably also try to do the Book of Mormon cover to cover again in parallel, like I did last year while I was reading the Old Testament.
  2. Do something meaningful for each ministering family at least once per quarter: I’m keeping this goal from last year. I did decently with it, but it’s also a good goal to work on improving over time.
  3. Attend the temple with Tiff at least once per quarter, and with the boys at least once per quarter: This one ties in with goals that Tiff and the boys set, so hopefully will be more self-reinforcing.

Social

  1. Visit somewhere in Central or South America for at least a weekend, where I will have to speak Spanish: I swapped this out last year for giving a talk in Spanish, but I wanted to put it back on my goal list for this year. I have two really promising opportunities — one I have a friend whose job is moving him to Quito, Ecuador for two years, starting this summer. Visiting him would be a lot of fun, and frankly Quito has always been a place I wanted to visit. The other option is the homeschool co-op my boys went to for several years would do service trips to a village in Guatemala every few years, I think there’s a chance 2023 was supposed to be their next trip. In both cases, by leveraging friends, it may make the logistics easier, and make it more likely I can do this, have fun, and stay safe in the process.
  2. Take Tiff on meaningful dates at least once per month: Renewing this goal from last year. It’s not super ambitious, but it’s a good thing to maintain or try to exceed.
  3. Invite neighbors or church friends over to dinner at least twice per quarter: My parents used to be really good at inviting friends over for dinner on a regular basis. With the pandemic and the move, we got out of the habit, but I’d like to get back into the habit. And would particularly like to use this as a way to build friendships with some of our neighbors and church friends.

Family/Home

  1. Do at least two home or yard improvement mini-projects per month: I’m defining mini-projects very loosely. This could be as simple as mounting some wall lamps or shelves, cutting down and tossing out the branches from one of the dead bushes in the back yard, mounting the whiteboard in my office, etc. Keep it simple, but try to make steady progress on making the house nicer./
  2. Finish reading at least one book each on parenting for two of my boys’ specific learning disorders: A few of my boys have some mild learning disorders. I got a few books last year to get advice on how to do a better job supporting them as a parent, and though I made a few chapters headway into one of them, I’d like to finish at least two of them this year. Doesn’t seem impossible, and should hopefully help us better navigate those challenges.

Anyhow, those are the goals. I try to review them semi-regularly, and may update some of them over time based on changing life situations. But I wanted to put those out there for accountability sake.

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2022 Personal Goals Progress

Up until about two years ago, if you had asked me about how good I was at making and keeping goals, I would’ve said I was pretty lousy. Other than keeping my goal to practice Spanish on Duolingo daily, almost every other goal I set only lasted for a few weeks. Journal writing? One-again-off-again. Daily scripture study? A bit better, but only because I was ok with counting it if I only read a verse or two. Almost nothing else stuck.

Then, right before the pandemic hit, my church rolled out a goal setting program for the children and youth. It was based in part on a scripture from the New Testament about how Jesus improved as he grew to adulthood:

And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

Luke 2:52

The basic idea for the goal setting was to focus on four areas of personal progress: Intellectual, Physical, Spiritual, and Social. They’d encourage the youth to find things they wanted to work on in each of the categories, set goals, and then work on them, on their own, with their family, and with their youth groups. The pandemic hit right after the goal setting program was launched, but in 2021, they tried renewing interest in the program, and it gave me the idea that I ought to try it out.

So, just like we were encouraging the youth to do, I decided to set some goals in each of those four areas. I also decided to set goals that were longer term ones, like setting the goal to try Noom out for six months, or to see if I could get to the point where I could jog a mile by the end of the year. I realized that setting goals over a wider period of time allowed for some chance to catch up if life threw a curveball (like SBIR proposal silly season at work, or deciding to quit my day job and strike out as a consultant, or the whole family getting sick for several weeks, or deciding to move houses, etc.)

And for the first time in my life, I actually had some real success with my goals in 2021. I could look up the notes, but long-story short, I got into decent physical shape for the first time in my adult life, finished reading an almost 800pg book in Spanish, and also made progress in most of the other areas. I didn’t accomplish all of my goals, but I made enough progress that I decided to try it again in 2022. Without further ado, here were my 2022 goals in each of the four categories, and how I did with them.

2022 Physical Goals

  1. Be able to do each of the five advanced-level Home Workout app bodyweight exercise sets with full reps and proper form: At the start of the year, I had been using this bodyweight exercise app that works on abs, chest, arms, legs, and shoulder/back for about half a year, and was getting to the point where I could kind of do things at the basic level. By the end of the year, I hadn’t quite made it all the way to my goal, but was up to ~2/3 the reps for each exercise set at the advanced level. Though my form is sometimes crappy on some of the newer exercises. All told, I did 94 bodyweight exercise sessions this year. I didn’t meet my goal 100%, but I made pretty solid progress towards it, and frankly for exercise new year’s resolutions, I think I did pretty good.
  2. Run at least one 5K per month, and get down to <30min time: I also didn’t nail this one 100%, but also made really good progress. I think I did 5ks at least 9 out of the 12 months, and got my best time down to 32:10 at this year’s Thanksgiving race in Louisville. More importantly, I got the boys to do the same None-to-Run program I did in 2021, and all three of my teenagers were able to get to the point where they could jog a complete 5K. It took all summer and most of the fall, but getting to that point with all of my teenagers was really fulfilling. All told, I did 53 jogs this year, including 5Ks and none-to-run jogs with the boys, which worked up to 5Ks over several months. While I didn’t get my time down under 30min, like I wanted to, I did get some solid advice on how to do so, by working on increasing my aerobic threshold — which entails running for long distances while keeping my heart rate in the 130-140bpm range. I bought myself an Oura ring this year to help with heart rate monitoring (though I wish it would give you real-time feedback during the run instead of just a post-run heart-rate chart), though I ran out of time to start doing the aerobic threshold runs, and decided to refocus my efforts on my first body-weight exercises goal.
  3. Get to the point where I could do 5 chin-ups in a row: This one ended up being a lot easier than I had expected, and I think I achieved this in late January or early February. I think the max number I got to before I called it good was like 8 chin-ups in a row. For someone who had never been able to do a chin-up or pull-up as an adult before 2021, I felt that was pretty good.
Me and the boys after running the Louisville CO Turkey Trot 5K

To summarize, I only got one of my three physical goals all the way completed, but did really well on the other two, and made significant progress. I ended up doing jogging or a body weight exercise over 40% of the days this year. More importantly, I was able to help my boys also do better at getting regular exercise, and building their strength and endurance. I’m pretty happy with how I did in this category in 2022.

Spiritual Goals

  1. Read the full Old Testament plus the Book of Moses and Abraham from the Pearl of Great Price: My church for Sunday School and family gospel study rotates each year between the Old Testament/Pearl of Great Price, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants. In 2022, we were doing the Old Testament/Pearl of Great Price again, and I had only ever read the Old Testament all the way through once before, so I decided to try to read it through all the way this year. This isn’t the kind of goal you can just binge makeup at the end, but I’d check myself every few months to see how I was doing and if I needed to increase or decrease my reading rate. In the end, I finished the last page of the Old Testament this morning. All told that was 1226 pages. In parallel, a few days or weeks into the year, I decided I also wanted to read the Book of Mormon all the way through this year too, and finished that this morning as well. That’s another ~540pgs (including introductory pages).
  2. Always have a temple appointment scheduled, no more than 1 month out: Temple attendance is a big part of what we do as latter-day saints, and I had done only a so-so job of attending regularly in the past, so I set this goal. In the end, I did okish. I think we ended up going a total of 5 or 6 times this year. We sometimes had to reschedule when illness or other things got in the way, and I often had the “schedule next temple session” on my weekly to-do list for several weeks in a row before I actually got it done. I didn’t really come close to achieving this one, though I do think having the goal did probably make a significant increase in the number of times I was able to attend with Tiff and/or the boys.
  3. Do something meaningful for each ministering family at least once per quarter: My church assigns every family a pair of “ministering brothers” who are there to be their friends, to be someone they can count on to be there for them when life gets difficult, to encourage them, etc. Me and one of my sons, James, are assigned as a ministering companionship, and I’ve often been less than satisfied at how well I’ve done serving others. Hence this goal. I’m not sure I found meaningful things for every one of them every quarter, but having this goal definitely reminded me to try and be more involved. One of the brothers I had been ministering to had a horrific motorcycle accident this spring that he’s been slowly recovering from. He’s a fellow engineer, so we had the idea of tricking out his wheelchair with omnicasters, as a way to enable him to get around easier in cramped quarters in his house. In the end they didn’t work as well as we had hoped since a lot of his house was carpet, but we really enjoyed trying it out, even if that particular experiment wasn’t successful. I’d say that while I didn’t hit this 100%, I also felt like I did decently well, and it was a significant improvement over what I had managed in the past.
Pip and James helping install omnicasters on our friend’s wheelchair. They didn’t work on carpet, so we had to take them off, but he still appreciated the attempt.
James machining aluminum bushings on the Altius lathe to go inside the ominicasters. Calvin from Altius taught James how to do so safely. It was James’s first time using machine tools.

So, as with Physical Goals, there was only one that I completed 100%, but we had a good time working on the other goals.

Intellectual Goals

Ironically, this category was the one I probably did the poorest at.

  1. Read at least 3 books per quarter, with at least one parenting-related: I didn’t do very well at this. I started a lot of books, but didn’t actually finish many, other than some books on tape we listened to as a family during our summer road trips. We did listen to/read most of two parenting-related books though. One on a learning disorder one of our boys have, and another on different personality types.
  2. Write at least 2 substantive blog posts per quarter: I think I may have written 3 or 4 substantive blog posts this year between Selenian Boondocks, my new Starbright Engineering blog, and this one. I had a lot going on this year, with leaving Voyager, starting Starbright, and then joining Gravitics, but this is definitely an area I’m still doing poorly in relative to where I’d like to be.
  3. Develop and present a business plan/investment request: I also didn’t get this one done. At the time I set the goal, I was the VP of On-Orbit Servicing at Voyager, and I thought this would be me putting together a business plan/investment request to go after a satellite servicing product and/or service offering at the Voyager level. But I ended up leaving Voyager in May, and spent the summer chasing a promising startup idea. I figured that would be what I’d build the business plan on. But that idea required convincing a friend’s company to license some technology to apply it in a field that is outside of their main focus area, and I was unable to convince him. My old Altius cofounder Colin Doughan then recruited me for Gravitics, as a product strategy lead, and while I’ve been doing customer discovery and trying to build a story for some potential product/service offerings, what I’ve been working on is still a long way from a full business plan.

Anyhow, as I mentioned above, I don’t feel like I did really well at the goals I set in this category this year.

Social Goals

  1. Invite at least one friend, neighbor, or coworker per week to do something meaningful together: This one was inspired by a talk from one of my friends who is currently serving in the presidency for the Denver Colorado North Mission. He pointed out that a lot of us live more and more isolated lives, and that we need to be more active in inviting friends to do things. Whether it’s a catchup call or text conversation, doing lunch together, going on a walk, doing a double date, or whatever, just getting in the habit of inviting people to do things together can help us introverts get out of our comfort zone. On this one, I think I did okay. I don’t think I did something meaningful every week, but I did end up spend a lot more time deliberately making time to spend with others this year because of this goal.
  2. Original Goal: Spend at least 2 day sin a place where I have to speak Spanish. Updated Goal: give a talk in Spanish: I’ve been studying Spanish on Duolingo for about 8yrs now, and last year I finished reading El Libro de Mormon in Spanish. But I still really feel inadequate when it comes to speaking Spanish. So I wanted to set a goal to force myself to get good enough at speaking Spanish that I would get over that hump. In the fall though, an opportunity opened up where I could give a talk in Spanish to a Spanish Speaking congregation in our stake. It ended up being a really great experience. I had to write the talk out in English first, and then work through the translation, but when the other speaker that Sunday reviewed the talk for me (he was a native Spanish speaker whose parents were from Mexico), he said I did a really good job, and only had one or two tweaks to suggest. It was a neat feeling to realize that I’ve now had the chance to share the message of the gospel in four languages (English, Tagalog, Pangaletok, and now Spanish). I didn’t do my original goal, but I feel like the alternate I came up with was successful.
  3. Take Tiff out on meaningful dates at least 2x per month: Once again, this is one that I don’t think I hit every single month, but having the goal definitely did increase my efforts to find fun things to do. Sometimes they ended up turning into family activities (like going to see I Heard the Bells in the movie theater), but we also had a fun weekend getaway down to Albuquerque, and went to see My Fair Lady at the Beull theater down in Denver. Not to mention breakfast or dinner dates at some fun restaurants.

All told, I think I did ok in this category. I didn’t knock all of these out of the park, but was able to find a good substitute for my second goal, and having my other two goals definitely improved my social life versus not having them.

Parting Thoughts

I’m still learning how to be a goal setter/achiever, but I’ve really enjoyed this framework. Even if you’re not religious, I think you could adapt the “spiritual” goals in a way that was meaningful. And while only a few of the goals were ones that I completed 100%, I feel like this year was pretty successful overall on a goals front. With tomorrow starting 2023, I need to give some thoughts to new goals that build on what I’ve accomplished this year. But I wanted to give some accountability for how I did in 2022 first.

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Thoughts on Moroni and Worship in the Time of a Pandemic

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog, but after recently moving it over to a new server, I figured it was time to start sharing my thoughts again.

By way of preface to my point, I was recently called into my congregation’s leadership as a Ward Executive Secretary — basically a kind of executive assistant for the Bishop and his two counselors. I really love serving with these brothers, as we try to serve the members of the ward, but any of you who know me, and know how disorganized my life tends to be, will probably chuckle at the irony.

Anyhow, long-story short, in one our meetings last week, we were reviewing some guidance our church leaders had sent for holding church meetings during the pandemic, and were reading some scriptures they had included that were the doctrinal underpinnings for the policies they were recommending. The scriptures we were reading were in the last book of the Book of Mormon, known as the Book of Moroni, chapter 6, verses 4-5:

4 And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.

5 And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.

Moroni 6:4-5

As I was thinking about this scripture, my first thoughts were thinking about how important being able to attend church services has been in my life, and how much more aware I’ve been of it during the pandemic. During the early stages of the COVID pandemic, during the shelter at home phase, public church meetings were completely suspended, and we had to do sacrament meetings at home. As restrictions in the state and county were relaxed, we were able to restart meetings, but with many changes both to meet local and state regulations, but also to protect the congregation — people who were under the weather were asked to stay home, the congregation was split up into smaller groups meeting in three shorter meetings, with families sitting in their own benches with the benches in front of and behind them vacant, everyone wearing masks, the music being played but not sung, etc. It was a lot of changes, but it’s been good seeing members of the church willingly abiding by those regulations, even in cases where they personally may have felt some of them were silly. It’s been a weird and stressful time, but I genuinely enjoy being able to gather with the saints. I may be an introvert, but only to a point. It’s been hard being separated and disconnected from people physically, and I really look forward to the time when our country and world have overcome this pandemic and are able to return to a more normal lifestyle.

My second thought though, was realizing that when Moroni was writing these scriptures about the importance of meeting together often, about a church that serves and nourishes and strengthens its members, Moroni had been alone for years, possibly even decades. A refugee of the genocidal civil war that had destroyed his people and killed all of his family members. Unlike us who can look forward to an ending of the pandemic and a return to normal worship services, Moroni would never have that privilege again during his mortal life. He’d never have the chance to listen to an inspiring sermon, to serve a fellow saint who needed help, or even to give a hug to someone who needed it. That was a sobering thought. In some ways, it’s interesting that of the last book in the Book of Mormon, Moroni, who’s now been alone and on the run for years, spends so much of his time talking about how his people did worship services, reviewing the words of the sacrament prayers, and sharing a beautiful sermon his dad had taught when he was younger. In some ways I’m a bit humbled, and embarrassed at any grumbling or impatience I’ve had about restrictions over the past months, knowing that at worst we were months away from being able to return to normal.

I’m writing this note from home. I was sick today so couldn’t join my family as they went to church. I had to sing, and say prayers, and bless the sacrament for myself. As I was reading those old Nephite sacramental prayers, the English translation of which we use to this day, I thought of how many times Moroni had had to do those alone, by himself, and what he must have been thinking about when he did so. How much hope and strength those must have given him, being all alone. I wonder how many times he thought back to worship meetings with his family before the war had ended that, or how grateful he must have been for the promise to have the Spirit to be with him, when he literally had no one else who could do so.

As part of my solo sacrament meeting, I also watched the beautiful Book of Mormon video they did of these final chapters. Doing this by myself, but thinking about how much more alone Moroni must have been, it sort of renewed my appreciation for Sundays, and for sacrament meeting, and especially for the privilege of being able to participate in such services with our friends and family. I really think we have no idea how much we take that for granted, even during a pandemic.

I look forward to the day when things can return to normal, and hope we can all have a bit more determination to endure these challenges with humility and gratitude, knowing that we will someday have the opportunity to gather and fellowship and worship again as we used to.

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Golden Rule

As a Christian, I was raised on the concept of the golden rule–that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. And as a Mormon, I believe in the reality that all of humankind are brothers and sisters, children of the same Heavenly Parents, and that we lived together before this mortal life.

As such, I also believe that all of us will someday stand before our Maker with our memories of our pre-mortal life restored, and we’ll see again that all of these people who’ve been around us our whole lives really were our brothers and sisters and friends, regardless of where they were born, what color their skin is, whether or not they lived in accordance with our understanding of the gospel, whether they agreed with us politically, etc. And in addition to remembering them and our past friendships, we’ll also have a perfect knowledge of how we treated or mistreated them.

I think a non-trivial part of hell will be the shame of realizing that the people who we were mistreating, demonizing, bullying, despising, hurting, and rejecting were people we knew and loved before this world, and yet we had been monsters to them. On the flip side, I think a non-trivial part of heaven will be the joy of realizing that those people we helped, and comforted, and strengthened, and forgave, even if  we thought they were total strangers that we would never meet again, were in reality really dear friends long forgotten.

I’m far from perfect at consistently applying this belief. I still get angry at other people, I’m not always kind or forgiving. I’m often quick to impute negative or dishonest motives to people I disagree with. But I still believe with all my heart in the reality of the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind.

You’ve never met a true stranger. Only family.

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20 Years Ago

About 20 years ago, possibly on this very Sunday, I had one of the most important turning points in my life. This story is a hard one for me to share, but I felt I had to write it down. I didn’t start writing my journal till a few months after this event, and I didn’t want it to be lost.

I was just starting as a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, and had also just barely turned 16. In case you’re wondering, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and ended up finishing my last two years of high school in one year via an independent study program. I had moved out of my parents’ home to live with my grandma, who lived about 2 miles from BYU, in large part because I didn’t get along well with most the guys in my youth group at church. My family doesn’t specialize in “black sheep”, so this was about as close as any of us got to “running away from home”.

Not wanting to repeat the experience I had had with my home ward, I didn’t want to be part of my grandma’s congregation. I didn’t want to be a college student hanging out with high school kids, even if we happened to be the same age. So I went to the student ward whose boundaries I lived within. The problem is that being an off-campus student ward that didn’t at the time have any apartment complexes in its boundaries meant that almost everyone in that congregation was of returned missionary age or older (21+), meaning I was the youngest person in the ward by over half a decade. I didn’t fit in at all, or have anything in common with anybody. Nobody was mean at all, but nobody at the time was really any more than “check the box” friendly either. I really didn’t feel like anybody understood me or really cared about me.

Being a teenager and a college freshman, and being away from family the first time is a challenging enough time for most people, but combine that with not really having any close friends, being 2 years younger than almost everyone I knew, and thus not really feeling like I had a connection to anyone made for an extremely depressing and lonely time. I personally hope that most of you reading this have no idea what I’m talking about.

Anyhow, this wasn’t working for me, so I went to talk with the bishop of the student congregation, and he told me that while LDS policy is pretty clear that you’re supposed to attend one of the wards in whose geographical boundaries you reside (we’re not like other faiths where you’re encouraged to shop around for a congregation you like, you’re supposed to worship and serve with those around you, from all walks of life), that in his opinion I might be better served if I found an on-campus freshman student ward to attend. I’d have to eventually move into that ward’s geographical boundaries if I wanted to stay, but at least at the time it was the best option he could suggest.

The only challenge was I had no idea how to find a freshman student ward to attend.

I remembered that a few of the students who had been in my freshman orientation “Y Group” had lived somewhere down in an on-campus housing complex known as Heritage Halls. But I wasn’t really sure where, or when on Sunday they went to church. I was getting ready to give up on the LDS church and organized religion at this point, but wanted to give it one last chance. I decided I’d head down to Heritage Halls, and find a place to wait to see if anybody I recognized happened to stop by. If they invited me to go to church with them that Sunday I’d go. Otherwise, I was ready to be done. It’s not that I thought the church was false, or that anything like that. I was just spiritually and emotionally done.

That was 20 years ago today.

As you can guess if you know anything about me, I did meet some friends there that day. When I told them that I was trying to find a ward to attend, they didn’t hesitate for a second, but cheerfully suggested that I should join them and their ward. As a brief aside, I have a Pandora station going in the background as I’m typing this, and right as I typed that last sentence a song started playing talking about how You’re Not Alone. I’m not sure there’s a more fitting way to put how I felt that moment.

They took me in.

I was young enough to be their annoying little brother, but they took me in. They introduced me to their other friends. After church, they asked if I sang, and when I said yes, they invited me to join them for choir. And when they found that my walk home was 2 miles, they invited me to stay around for dinner, and ward prayer that evening.

I was home. For the first time in many years, I felt like I was really and truly at home.

Did life stop being awkward for me, being 2yrs younger than all of my peers? No. Do I really feel like any of them understood me at all? Did I even understand me at all? No. Was my social life all roses from there? Not even remotely. But I was home. I knew that even though they didn’t understand me, they really honestly cared. In some ways that made it mean even more. Of all the places in the world I could run away to, and all the crowds I could’ve fallen in with, I’m not sure I could’ve found a classier group of 18 year old men and women on the planet.

Spiritually speaking, that year really was a turning point for me.

I wouldn’t be ordained as an Elder in our church for another two years, but when I sang “Ye Elders of Israel” with the brothers in that ward, I really felt that the song meant me as well. When the sisters sang “As Sisters In Zion”, I truly came to appreciate that the errand of angels was quite often given to women. After all, it had been a group of those sisters who had cheerfully invited me to join them that day 20 years ago.

Being surrounded by such good examples gave me strength, and made me want to be a better person–someone who was worthy of having friends like that. It gave me a desire to know for myself if the restored gospel was true. In the end, I had to know, and finally got my answer. And when I did, the answer was that “You know it is true. You’ve always known it’s true? Wherefore can you doubt?” I truly gained my own testimony that year, a desire to get my life in order so I could serve as a missionary, a testimony of the prophet at the time, Gordon B Hinkley, and a love for sacred music. Most of what I’ve become as an adult was a direct result of events that year, all of which were triggered by a simply offered invitation when I needed it most.

I’m pretty sure none of those sisters or brothers in that ward had any idea of what they did for me. They were just 18 year olds, doing what came naturally to them–reaching out in friendship to someone who needed it badly. But they made all the difference in the world to me.

I’ve since lost track of almost all of them. But I hope and pray wherever they are, that if they’re ever found in the lonely and depressing circumstances that I was in that day, that they too can have someone be there for them with the gentle hand of human kindness. I don’t know if any of them remember me anymore, but I hope I’ll never forget.

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YHABFT: Thoughts on the First 2016 GOP Presidential Debate

[Note, on my other blog, Selenian Boondocks, I started a category called YHABFT (You Have a Blog for That). I sometimes have thoughts that I could try cramming into a twitter stream of consciousness, but I did that one too many times and Ben Brockert and Will Pomerantz started reminding me that “You have a blog for that” when I got too carried away. I’m just trying to save them the hassle of reminding me.]

I was able to watch a bit of the GOP debate tonight (before Fox pulled the plug on the UK news site I was using to watch it), and figured I ought to mention my thoughts. I’m trying to keep electoral politics on Selenian Boondocks to a reasonable minimum, unless it intersects with space policy, so I decided to post this here.

A couple of points up front about my political leanings to set the tone:

  • I’ve never voted for a presidential candidate from either major party–I think I’ve voted Libertarian most of the last three times.
  • I have registered “for that party that let me vote for Ron Paul in the primaries” both of the past two elections.
  • I have voted for Democrats, Republicans, and third party candidates, so I’m not the kind of person the GOP can consider a safe vote.
  • A candidate doesn’t have to be perfect to get my vote, but I do have to feel that their pluses outweigh their minuses, not just that they’re not as bad as the other major party candidate.

With all that said, here’s a couple of thoughts on the part of the debate I saw (roughly the middle 60 minutes of the two hour debate):

  • I can’t stand Trump, and I don’t think he’d make a good leader, but I don’t think his performance lowered my opinion of him.
  • I’m really not a fan of Chris Christie and his stance on domestic spying, and there’s almost no chance I’d vote for him if he got the GOP nod, but I had to give him points for his answer on the need for entitlement reform. I’m libertarian enough that I’d like to see Social Security go the way of the dodo, but since it isn’t going away, at least making minor tweaks like he suggested to make it less likely to blow up on future generations is a good thing, and it was ballsy to make that argument, even at a GOP debate. I don’t like him, but my respect for him increased.
  • Ben Carson was a total disappointment. None of the answers I heard from him impressed me at all.
  • I didn’t like Ted Cruz to start with, and some of his answers tonight made me even less of a fan.
  • Rand Paul is one of the few on the GOP side I’d be likely to vote for, but he only did so-so. At one point I think he interrupted Trump incorrectly, which came off kind of amateur hour. I did like his defense of the 4th amendment though. And his nuanced answer on the Iran Deal was better than I had expected with his attempt at pretending to be a hawk lately. But overall not a home-run performance for him this time around.
  • Kasich impressed me with points he made in two of his answers. I liked him making the point that while growth is important, it’s also important for conservatives (and libertarians) to reach out to those “in the shadows” so that all Americans feel like the American Dream applies to them too (he said it better than I could). I wish he’d gone into more detail on that though, because while the platitude is definitely good, the details matter. I also liked his answer on the “what would you do if your daughter was gay” question. I’m also pretty old-fashioned when it comes to questions of sexual morality, but agree with the sentiment that we’re supposed to love people, even if we disagree with what they’re doing. Kasich overall left me with a higher impression of him than I started with.
  • Probably the most surprising one was that I agreed with a decent amount of what Jeb Bush said. I still doubt I’d vote for him, but his comments on the importance of leaving educational curriculum and standards to the state were good–I just wish he’d do a better job of explaining what he means by “supporting Common Core”, because the two opinions at least on the surface seem to differ a lot. I really couldn’t stand the mach swagger BS persona that the GOP built up around his brother during his 8 years as president, and shudder at the thought of a Bush vs. Clinton rematch (could someone talk one of Perot’s kids into jumping in to make things interesting?), but have to grudgingly admit that I thought he also managed to earn some extra respect from me. Especially when he got in an aside about making immigration easier as part of his answer to some question.
  • Walker did ok on several questions, but I really thought his answer on his immigration 180 was pathetic. It really came across as “I had a principled view, but know I couldn’t get elected if I defended it.”
  • I can’t really remember anything positive or negative about Rubio’s answers, and didn’t like Huckabee’s answers (except for once) but can’t remember details about what he said overall.
  • I’m also glad I’m Mormon, because otherwise, I’d probably be in the hospital from alcohol poisoning from doing a drinking game (one shot every time someone invokes Reagan, etc.)…

In case anyone cares.

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Thoughts on Answers to Prayers

I’ve had two recent events that got me thinking about prayers and answers to them. One of them was a conversation over lunch on my last day at Space Access. I can’t remember all at the table, but at one point someone brought up the concept of prayers and that he felt he had had some of his answered over the years. One of the other gentlemen at the table mentioned that as humans subject to confirmation bias, we tend to remember events which reinforce our beliefs, and forget those that don’t, and that if you pray for help in various situations that you’re more likely to remember the times when the thing you asked for happened, and forget the times when the thing you asked for didn’t happen. More recently, a recent twitter friend of mine, who is a fervent atheist made the claim that 90% of surveyed scientists do not believe that prayers get answered, as though that was an indication that faith was somehow unscientific. He also claimed that faith is belief in something without proof or evidence.

As for me, I have no doubt that I’ve received answers to my prayers–not just when I asked for something I wanted and got it, but literal answers sometimes. Some of the answered prayers were semi-miraculous, where I can’t think of a legitimate scientific explanation for what happened.

Like when we had our garden in Loveland protected from a hailstorm as a child after my mother had us pray for help. The prophet had told us we ought to plant gardens if we could. We had done so, and now a massive hail storm was coming, so my mom gathered us children around, and we said a prayer telling God that we had done what he had asked and that we needed his help to protect those crops. The hailstorm came, and while there was so much hail that it had looked like it snowed in our backyard, and while most of the trees in the neighborhood took severe damage, almost no hailstones fell on our garden plants. The walkways between the raised berms in the garden were deep with pebble-sized hailstones, but the plants weren’t harmed, and in fact we had the best harvest from that year’s garden that we ever had in my childhood memory. I don’t know of a realistic scientific explanation for how hail would fall inch deep in the paths and in the yard, but wouldn’t touch the four raised beds of the garden.

Or on my mission in the Philippines, I had several experiences (at least one in Bolinao and at least one in Binmaley) where we needed to find someone in a part of town I had never been to, and didn’t have a map for. We had prayed for help, and I saw a map in my mind, clearly marked showing where the person was. We’d go to that place, find roads exactly where I had seen them, and find the person there exactly where I had thought. In some cases, when I later found a map of the area, some of these roads weren’t even shown on the maps. How do you scientifically explain seeing a vision in your mind of a map of an area you’ve never been in, that accurately predicts exactly where the person was?

The weird thing though was that of these more tangible answers to prayer, where I can’t think of a legitimate scientific way to explain away the answer, most of these events weren’t actually that spiritually consequential. The 2-3 times I saw the map in my mind’s eye never led to teaching someone who accepted the gospel, in fact in both instances we met with the person and they weren’t interested and we never came back. The only one of these tangible answers to prayer that seemed to have any spiritual significance to me at all was the incident described above with the hailstorm in Loveland, and that’s probably because we were asking God in faith to protect something we felt he had asked us to do through the prophet.

On the other hand, many of the most meaningful answers to prayers that I’ve received have been ones that a scoffer or skeptic could easily brush off as some sort of delusion or wishful thinking–times when I felt that God had literally answered my question I had been trying to get an answer for. I remember my freshman year at BYU praying to know if the Book of Mormon was true. I had been raised in the Church, but had plenty of doubts, and many of my internet friends I had made that year were also agnostic or atheistic. It would’ve been rather convenient at the time had I not received an answer. But if you’re ever with me on BYU campus, I can show you where I got my answer. It wasn’t some glorious vision or tangible miracle–I just felt a voice tell me “You know it’s true. You’ve always known it’s true. Wherefore can you doubt?” This happened in a busy hallway in the Eyring Science Center in between classes. There was no audible voice that anyone else heard, but I knew my prayers had been answered, and I had no excuse for further doubt. And really there’s never been any going back for me. But a skeptic could easily claim that I had dreamed this up or imagined it.

Why is it that my experiences that a skeptic who had experienced them would have the hardest time brushing off weren’t usually that meaningful to me, while the ones that could be easily brushed-off were the most life-changing ones? I don’t know. But I know my prayers have on many occasions been answered. I know it, and I’d be dishonest to myself and the evidences I’ve seen to claim otherwise.

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Service and the Atonement

If you ask an LDS church member to name a scripture related to serving others, one of the ones you’ll likely here the most is from the Book of Mormon, specifically Mosiah 2:17, which states:

And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.

In some ways this parallels the Savior’s teaching in the New Testament, in Matthew 25:31-46 (specifically verse 40), which in the KJV states:

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I think it’s easy for us to take these verses metaphorically. That serving our fellow beings is furthering God’s goals. Or that doing something (good or ill) unto “the least of these our brethren” is like we’re doing it unto Christ. But what if these verses are less metaphorical than we think?

Isaiah, when he testified of the Messiah in Isaiah 53:4 (repeated by the prophet Abinadi in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 14:4) stated:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.

And the Book of Mormon prophet, Alma, testified about Christ (in Alma 7:11-12), saying:

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 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.

Basically, a lot of times we forget that in addition to the paying “for our sins”, and the “dieing and being resurrected so that we can live again” parts of the Atonement, Christ also somehow willingly experienced all of our pains, sorrows, frustrations, loneliness, guilt, shame, feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and in short all of the injustices and challenges we face in life. Not just those brought upon ourselves by our own poor decisions, but those that come as a result of living in mortality with imperfect bodies, and those caused by the carelessness or willful malice of others. Christ is able to understand us and empathize with us, not because he also had a rough life and bore griefs that were somewhat analogous to our own, but because he experienced the whole of human suffering as part of his Atoning sacrifice.

On the flip side, did he also experience all the small acts of kindness, and service, where people went out of their way to “lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees”? Did he experience the joy that the lonely feel when one reaches out to them to let them know they matter and are cared about? Did he feel the hope restored when we visit someone who is sick or in prison and cheered their hearts? Did he feel the relief of the overwhelmed when someone paused to share their burden with them? Did he feel the relief we feel when someone forgives us of our screwups and mistakes, or when someone shows us undeserved mercy?

I’m not sure how profound this really is, but it was an insight I had this morning that I felt was worth sharing. It definitely put the concept of service in a new light for me.

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One of my Favorite Joseph Smith Quotes

From “The Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” (p. 246-47):

But while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feeling that influence the children of men, causes “His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” He holds the reins of judgment in His hands; He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, “according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil,” or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey, or India. He will judge them, “not according to what they have not, but according to what they have,” those who have lived without law, will be judged without law, and those who have a law, will be judged by that law. We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right.

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