Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Is that Porn?" Insight from Photographer Mark Mabry

In the preface to his beautiful book of photography, Reflections on Christ, LDS artist Mark Mabry discusses a year-long process he went through to find himself and his path in the world as he approached the age of 30 and became worried about his future. Looking for brilliant one-shot insights to find success, his path of introspection and prayer led instead to an unexpected, gradual path of "step-by-step life-changing promptings." The first was "change your music." That direction was clear, simple, and direct. His iPod was filled with wide variety of music, some of it rather questionable. He made some drastic changes. "Changing my music lifted my spirit. I could go in and out of mental prayer without so much white noise. I could love deeper and communicate better. My command of language improved."

His next step might seem even more drastic. He ended up throwing away his art books. He went to a meeting for men in the Church that dealt with the dangers of pornography. It hadn't been an issue for him, but he had two sons and worried for them. He then considered the issue of nudes in the art of photography:

I thought about how in art school, it was not uncommon for an instructor to use "artistic nude" photographs to illustrate the beauty of light and the human form. At first I was caught off-guard by the images, but soon I began to accept that it wasn't pornography, but art. As I sat in the meeting that day, my mind turned to my growing collection of books by legendary photographers. Most of them had "artistic nudes" that were beautifully lit and well-printed. I was envious of their technical prowess.

I asked in my mind, "Heavenly father, is that porn?" Instead of a warm, "yes, son," I felt the incredulous stare of a living Father. After the meeting, I drove straight to my studio, gathered my art collection, and dumped it in the recycle bin outside.

I felt liberated and closer to God. The experience made me pause to evaluate the power of my chosen medium. I had to ask the question again: How can I be righteous in a field where most of the legends are not?
Sometimes the things we spend years justifying, if considered honestly and taken before God, may well deserve an incredulous stare that should drive us to quick repentance. What one person may need to discard or change might not be the same as another, but I suppose that we all have a few incredulous stares waiting for us, and some clearing out of trash in our lives that really shouldn't wait any longer.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Did Joseph Smith Really Have Concerns about the Future of the US Constitution?

A Google news search for "Mormon" today revealed an interesting LDS-related controversy in Idaho. In the Idaho Statesman, "Mormon Church Distances Itself from Idaho Gubernatorial Candidate" offers this report:
The Mormon Church says it doesn’t back Rex Rammell’s candidacy and doesn’t endorse a prophecy Rammell believes in which church founder Joseph Smith supposedly said the U.S. Constitution "will hang ... by a single thread.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement this week after Rammell, a Mormon who is challenging Republican Gov. Butch Otter in the primary election next May, announced a series of meetings for Mormon elders on the so-called “White Horse Prophecy.” The prophecy is said to have been given by Smith and says church elders will save the Constitution.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is politically neutral and does not endorse or promote any candidate, party or platform,” spokeswoman Kim Farah’s statement said. “Accordingly, we hope that the campaign practices of political candidates would not suggest that their candidacy is supported by or connected to the church.

“The so-called ‘White Horse Prophecy’ is based on accounts that have not been substantiated by historical research and is not embraced as Church doctrine.”
I agree that the Church should not endorse political candidates, and also agree with Kim Farah in recognizing that the "White Horse Prophecy" is highly questionable, as an excellent article from FAIRLDS.org amply documents. At the same time, I think I should remind you that there is abundant evidence that Joseph Smith did express great concern about future threats to the Constitution of the United States. That point is made in the FAIRLDS article. Another good source comes from the “I Have a Question” feature in the June 1976 Ensign, where D. Michael Stewart of the Dept. of History at Brigham Young University, Department of History tackles the question, "What do we know about the purported statement of Joseph Smith that the Constitution would hang by a thread and that the elders would save it?":
The documents show that Joseph Smith did prophesy a number of times that the United States and the Constitution would be imperiled and that the elders would have a hand in saving them. The first known record of the prophecy dates to July 19, 1840, in Nauvoo, when the prophet spoke about the redemption of Zion. Using Doctrine & Covenants 101 as a text, he said, “Even this nation will be on the verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the Constitution is on the brink of ruin this people will be the staff upon which the nation shall lean and they shall bear the Constitution away from the very verge of destruction.” (Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church Historical Archives, Box 1, March 10, 1844.)

There are also other documents in Church History files that show that five different early Saints recorded some remarks by the Prophet Joseph Smith on this same prophecy, perhaps voiced by the Prophet a number of times in a number of ways after 1840. Parley P. Pratt wrote in 1841 that the prophet said, “The government is fallen and needs redeeming. It is guilty of Blood and cannot stand as it now is but will come so near desolation as to hang as it were by a single hair!!!!! Then the servants goes [sic] to the nations of the earth, and gathers the strength of the Lord’s house! A mighty army!!!!!! And this is the redemption of Zion when the saints shall have redeemed that government and reinstated it in all its purity and glory!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (George A. Smith Papers, Church Archives, Box 7, Folder 5, January 21, 1841.)

James Burgess related that the Prophet, while addressing the Nauvoo Legion several miles east of Nauvoo in May 1843, said that “the time would come when the constitution and government would hang by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the latter-day saints will step forth and save it.” (James Burgess Journal, 1818–1904, Church Archives, vol. 1—found among loose sermons.)

Orson Hyde recalled that the Prophet predicted that “the time would come that the Constitution and the country would be in danger of an overthrow and said he, if the constitution be saved at all, it will be by the Elders of this Church. I believe this is about the language as nearly as I can recollect it.” (JD, 6:150.)

In a Pioneer Day celebration in Ogden in 1871, Eliza R. Snow said, “I heard the prophet say, ‘The time will come when the government of these United States will be so nearly overthrown through its corruption, that the Constitution will hang as it were by a single hair, and the Latter-day Saints—the Elders of Israel—will step forward to its rescue and save it.” (Journal History, MSF 143 #28, July 24, 1871.)

Jedediah M. Grant, during the dark days of threatened invasion of Utah by a federal army, referred to the Prophet’s utterance as he addressed a Mormon Battalion gathering in Salt Lake City, February 6, 1855.

“What did the Prophet Joseph say? When the Constitution shall be tottering we shall be the people to save it from the hand of the foe.” (Deseret News Weekly, January 19, 1870.)

On various occasions, Joseph Smith referred to the Constitution, the country, and destiny of the nation; and there is clear evidence that he anticipated future peril. Furthermore, he pronounced the prophecy at various times and places. Perhaps he himself interchanged the simile “on the brink of ruin,” “hang by a brittle thread,” “hang by a single hair,” etc., to describe the anticipated crisis. It is also clear that the redeemers or rescuers of the Constitution were to be either the Saints generally or priesthood officers specifically.

Since no particular time was given for fulfilling this prophecy, members of the Church have often wondered about its timing. The prophecy clearly indicates a single, identifiable episode yet to come. However, it is helpful for us to constantly be on guard against threats to the central elements of the Constitution. It is not wise to sit by and think that the protection of the Constitution is the problem of someone else at some other time.

In support of this view of “constant vigilance,” it is most instructive to note that Church leaders have seen the Constitution imperiled a number of times. Brigham Young, reflecting on the prophecy of 1868, expressed: “It would not be many years before these words come to pass.” (JD, 12:204.) President John Taylor in 1884 declared: “It may be nearer … than some of us think.” (JD, 25:350.) President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., warned in 1942: “Whether it [the Constitution] shall live or die is now in the balance.” (Conference Report, October 1942, p. 58.)

Students of history and the Constitution know that the Constitution has been imperiled a number of times in its history and has been saved a number of times both by vigorous political action and by vocal public opinion.

Thus, rather than simply wait for the one time when the Constitution shall hang by a thread, Latter-day Saints must continually be vigilant. Our commission to save the Constitution is, like salvation, a continuing task, and Church leaders have pointed out the tools available: analysis of constitutional principles, personal study of the history of our nation, reading the Constitution to children at home and in schools, teaching them self-sacrifice—the principle that makes freedom possible—teaching them their obligations as mature citizens, recognizing and resisting ideologies that threaten constitutional principles, and developing loyalty to principle rather than to men or parties.

Politicians and statesmen must grapple with tough questions, painstakingly familiarize themselves with vital issues, and be decisive; but finally, an antidote to abusive government, to corruption, and to constitutional peril lies in private character. Humble people in prayerful homes will contribute immeasurably to a lasting constitutional government. And it should be apparent that consistent efforts in these areas will prepare us both to continually protect the Constitution and to prepare us for possibly a yet future rendezvous with our Constitution’s destiny.
Constant vigilance! That rings true to me, as does the prophecy at various times that the Constitution would be in great peril, as it most surely is today in an era where men in power ignore almost every restraint on what they can decree, spend, or seize. Maybe the Latter-day Saints can do something to help out. For starters, have you written your Congressman recently? Have you sought to understand what that document is and what our Founding Fathers sought to do?

Update, Dec. 31, 2009: One commenter said that Rammel has not been using the questionable White Horse Prophecy, but simply the more attested statement from Joseph Smith about the Constitution one day hanging from a thread or being in peril. If that is correct, then Rammel may have been a victim of media misinformation. To quote Church leaders on future dangers to the Constitution is NOT the same as relying on a lengthy bogus prophecy. Are any of you close enough to Rammel to know the real story here?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Our Vulnerability to Fraud, Deception, and Questionable Religious Marketing

Fraud is a problem that those of any religious community, Mormons included, need to beware. In religious communities where there is a sense of trust and fellowship toward others who share the same faith, con artists can rarely resist the temptation to exploit the religion to gain the trust of others. Utah Valley, for example, has a painful track record of fraud, with many deceivers having sought to strip believing Mormons of their wealth, using religion to gain confidence of believers for their scam.

On my last trip to Utah, I had dinner on a Saturday night, where I heard from one of my favorite ex-Mormons about his experiences with Mormon fraud. In the real estate market in Utah, he has faced dishonest people too frequently and had developed some basic warning signs of fraud and deception. In his view of the world, there are two warning signs that he feels are red flags for fraud and deception by religious con men. These signs are (1) talking openly about having an LDS temple recommend, and (2) making a point of displaying Books of Mormon. When someone seeking to close a deal or gain someone’s confidence uses both of those elements for personal gain, they can’t be trusted, in his opinion. Use of religion for personal gain is the essence of what Nephi warns against in the Book of Mormon, and I suppose it makes sense that it would be associated with fraud.

What amazed me was that within hours of that conversation, I picked up the Salt Lake Tribune and read an article about a prominent LDS politician on the cover of one of its sections. This politician apparently (so I imagine) was trying to score some points with the Mormon community by (1) telling them that he had a temple recommend and (2) making a point about how he has Books of Mormon on display in his office. Update: As much as I have come to distrust this politician's motives in recent months, I am not saying that this article proves he is a fraud, though I did find it strangely ironic after the previous evening's conversation. I couldn't help but chuckle (tried to keep it a non-partisan chuckle, with equal air flow to both sides of my mouth).

The article in Utah's leading newspaper opens by noting that this particular man "keeps a copy of the Book of Mormon in his office just off the chamber floor. There's a second copy handy to give away to someone in need of spiritual guidance." It then assures us that he has a temple recommend and is very active in the Church. The article, in my view, looks like it is drawn from a clever PR piece from the Senator's office rather than being a real news story. Certainly slanted to assuage the LDS community.

While the only thing I have ever said about that politician on this blog was positive, I’m afraid that the LDS community needs to step back and look past his religion in evaluating whose side he really is on. It's OK to vote however you want, but I hope LDS voters in this case - and all cases - will consider the real track record and not the religion in making a decision. It is vital that we elect readers not based on appearances but on their core values and track record.

Yes, I recognize that calling attention to this will be viewed as a purely political attack, but it's not. I'm not a Republican, and am ashamed of that party's actions to erode the liberty and financial stability of this nation over the past couple of decades or so. Their insane spending and growth of government has only accelerated, however. I am not for either party, but for liberty and for the US Constitution, and am simply shocked at how Constitutional restraint has been eroded in favor of big government socialism that will make the rich and powerful rich and powerful beyond imagination, at the expense of all of us. The real fraud that threatens this nation is not from any one individual, but from the insane spending frenzy and power grabs of the past few years that will leave our children and grandchildren with much less freedom and unbearable debt. When a government becomes so big and corrupt that it claims the privilege to offer - or compel - cradle-to-grave care of its citizens (typically a sham whose real aim is seizing massive power and wealth), there will inevitably be fewer cradles and more graves.

Sadly, the US Constitution and the extremely limited form of government it gave us is not just hanging by a thread, but being devoured by a lion. If ever there was a time for good men and women from the Rockies and everywhere else to stand up and insist that we return to the principles therein, this is it. I hope Congressmen of both parties, both LDS members and non-LDS, will take up this cause and perhaps repair any mistakes or misdeeds they may have been part of.

Our religion teaches us that the principles of that Constitution were inspired by God and that it is right that we should defend it. By the same token, I am prepared to look completely past the religion of anyone who, in my opinion, brazenly violates it in supporting the quest for power over our lives. They may be sincere in their personal faith and may be active Christians in good standing in their churches or ours, but when their supporters make a show of their religion to garner confidence among the faithful, my suspicions can only grow, regardless of which party they are in. Skepticism in this and all cases with politicians can only be healthy.

Any of you read the Constitution recently? Any of you compared the principles of the Republic given to us by wise and inspired Founding Fathers with the principles we see in operation today? These are troubling times. The excesses of dictators of all kinds in the past century have often begun with a claim of helping the people - a claim based on fraud and misplaced confidence. This is not the right time for blind faith in mortals and any scheme that gives politicians even more control over our lives.

A good Mormon or good Christian in general can believe many different things when it comes to politics, but I think a good Mormon must in some way be deeply committed to the cause of personal liberty. If nothing else, we depend on that if our religion is going to survive in this crazy world. But it matters for many more reasons as well. Once liberty is lost, you don't just get it back by trying a different politician when the next election rolls around.

Dec. 30 update: I've changed the title for clarity.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Yes, One Can Be a Respected Scholar and LDS

MormonScholarsTestify.org is a new and growing website with statements from faithful LDS scholars in a variety of disciplines about their faith and why they accept the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those who think that the LDS faith is hopelessly untenable for intelligent, educated people, the site might offer some useful reminders about intellectually satisfying power that many respected thinkers in several fields have found in their faith.

Hope you all had a terrific Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Book of Mormon, If True, Means the Church May Be True, Not Must Be True

One person recently complained of his LDS father who wouldn't consider anti-LDS arguments because of his testimony of the Book of Mormon. His belief in the divine origins of the Book of Mormon gave him a mindset based on the "absolute assumption that the church is true." It's fair to recognize, however, that a true Book of Mormon does not necessarily mean that modern Church is 100% true, nor that all actions of the Church and its leaders are correct.

Indeed, our RLDS friends and several other groups derived from Mormonism, as well as the occasional non-LDS minister, have concluded that the Book of Mormon is true without recognizing the LDS Church is necessarily true. But a world in which a real Angel Moroni and real gold plates were translated miraculously by the power of God offers quite a different lens for interpreting the subsequent actions of Joseph Smith and the later journey of the Church than does a world in which Joseph was a con-man collaborating with other remarkably loyal con-men who were prepared to go to their graves loyal to their scheme. A true Book of Mormon does not mean that the Church must be true, but that it may be. A divinely inspired Book of Mormon opens the possibility that those who interpret apparent errors and even obvious shortcomings of Joseph Smith with the assumption that he was a fraud may be making an mistake and missing the possibility of other more gentle interpretations of events, witnesses, and records.

Just a simple thought to keep in mind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rejecting Prophets for Apparently Bad Behavior: What Tapestry Do You Look At?

I have often explained that prophets are fallible, like all mortals, and that making a mistake or doing something that strikes us as objectionable is not necessarily a reason for rejecting someone God has called. One ex-Mormon asked me how much bad behavior I am willing to accept before finally giving up on the Church altogether, for there are long lists of objections and complaints that can be crafted for Joseph Smith and other modern prophets. It's a fair question, but one that might be missing some important considerations. The discussion was in the context of the numerous anti-Mormon arguments against the Church that might be refutable or answerable on their own, but which together allegedly create a "tapestry" that weighs against the truthfulness of the Church.

In response, let me ask this question: If you currently accept the Bible as true, how much apparently bad behavior on the part of Abraham would it take to reject him as a prophet? How much would it take to reject the Old Testament? How much would it take to reject someone who taught as official doctrine that Abraham was a great prophet who should be considered the “friend of God” (which is what Christ called him)?

The record from the pro-Abraham writers in the Old Testament – those loony Abrahamic apologists – admits (warning: anti-Abrahamic spin follows) that he was guilty of polygamy and shacking up with concubines. It admits that he sent one of his women and his unwanted son out into the desert where they would have died were it not for miraculous help. It admits that he tried to kill his own son in a pagan human sacrifice. It admits that he was a bloody man of war and a greedy profiteer rolling in wealth and seeking more. Now what if we dug up additional evidence from his critics and victims? Can you imagine what a tapestry we’d have then? So at what point do you reject Abraham, the Old Testament, and even Christ because of the vast tapestry one can create by picking out the ugliest threads and discarding everything else?

One can seek to understand the big picture, the real tapestry, or one can seek to craft objections and weave their own new tapestry to tell an ugly story from a flawed but, at many times, divinely inspired life.

For me, the tapestry that needs to be considered has a rich and repeating pattern of a divine gift, the Book of Mormon, with power and rich internal and external evidences for authenticity. It has repeating patterns in many other areas indicating divine authority and majesty in the revealed and restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are rich experiences, intellectually stimulating and fulfilling journeys involving the Temple, the scriptures, the Priesthood, the relation to ancient Christianity, and many other elements, that together form a joyous tapestry – with some ugly threads in there as well that come from mortal fallibility. When examined, the ugly threads do not destroy the value of the whole, though they do raise some problems and require examination of assumptions and, most often, more careful readings of texts and more complex interpretations of events.

So let me ask one illustrative question along these lines. If you know, really know, as I do, that the Book of Mormon is simply too powerful, beautiful, and authentic as an ancient text for Joseph Smith to have fabricated or any scholar in his day to have concocted, at what point does your trouble with polygamy or the Kirtland bank disaster or Brigham Young’s views on minorities lead you to conclude that the Book of Mormon is a fraud and all the witnesses who went to their graves affirming the reality of the gold plates must have been pathological liars? If the Book of Mormon is true, if the First Vision really happened, would that make a difference in how you approach a puzzling issue like polygamy or other problems later on?

Critics want us to see only some ugly threads and throw away the whole cloth, but there is much more the picture that needs to be considered.

Monday, December 14, 2009

One Man, a Cow, and a Temple: Unmentioned Lessons from the Story of John Rowe Moyle

The recently released film, "Only a Stonecutter," deals with the immense faith and sacrifice of John Rowe Moyle, a stonecutter who helped build the Salt Lake Temple. He lived over 20 miles away in Alpine, Utah, but once a week he would walk to Salt Lake to fulfill his calling there, staying with his son and daughter-in-law until Friday, then walk back again so he could do work for himself on his small farm on Saturday. That would be dramatic enough, but he kept doing this for years after one leg was amputated, walking on a cleverly constructed wooden leg that he made himself (but never patented or marketed to others - perhaps a missed opportunity?). His cow kicked him, shattering a leg and forcing amputation--but that did not stop him from doing his job. Amazing.

I've seen the film a couple of times. It's very popular and I expect to see it several more times in Church gatherings. This is a story that has legs. But every time I see it, part of me becomes angry. Not the part that gets angry when I hear bogus faith-promoting stories someone found in some LDS spam. (This is a true story about a real man, as far a I can tell, written by a witness, his son.) The part of me that gets angry is the same part that wants to scream when I see parents putting their kids in harm's way or neglecting serious problems like illiteracy, gang membership, or major health problems. That part of me wants to step into the movie and shake some of the locals and ask why they didn't give this man a ride. Surely there must have been some horsepool or buggypool that could have added a passenger? Couldn't his family have arranged for a ride for at least part of the way? And what about his home teacher or his bishop? Couldn't they find some way to help? Trade in the cow for a horse or something?

The movie seems to portray a world that was pretty much inhabited by one man, a cow, and a temple, with occasional cameo appearances of his wife, a surgeon who beams down to remove the leg, and his son and daughter-in-law in Salt Lake. But what about all the people that must have been traveling along that route? What about all the folks with horses in the Salt Lake Valley? Didn’t any of them try to help?

Actually, there may have been many rides and much help--or at least offers for help--that the author was not aware of in writing the story. On the other hand, John was clearly cut of different fabric than most people today. In addition to his almost supernatural commitment and sacrifice, there was a fierce independence that may have led him to shun offers for charity. He had a system that worked and was glad to be independent. So I’m willing to control my anger and will patiently watch the film again, when shown--it’s very well done and definitely worth watching. In fact, there are some apparently unspoken lessons I take away from the story that I’d like to share.

Applying the Story to Our Lives Today
The main lesson I take away from the story is NOT the need to be willing to do all sorts of painful things to achieve a goal, but the need to pay more attention to those around us who are making things unnecessarily hard on themselves. There are people facing painful struggles and overwhelming tasks on their own, like John walking 22 miles to Salt Lake on a wooden leg, when something small and simple like offering a ride or helping him find a good deal on a horse could save great pain and make them much more productive. Every hour John spent walking was an hour he wasn’t building the Temple or caring for his family. There are people in similar traps today. A bit of help that costs us little can save them much.

Home and visiting teachers, bishops, parents, friends–we all need to look around at those in our midst and notice when they are trapped in some painful predicament where simple solutions are possible if only they were given additional resources or advice. It’s the fiercely independent souls, those few, who can be the hardest to help, but sometimes an appeal to increasing their productivity and being able to better bless their families can shake them from their path and give them the humble courage to step up into your buggy and be spared hours of unnecessary pain.

I’ve missed some of these opportunities, often by not asking enough questions or challenging the assumptions that others presented. I’m finding that so many lives are lived with crazy burdens that many of us could help with, often with little inconvenience, if only we understood the need. (For example, there are still people, right here in my ward, still struggling with Microsoft Vista or even using Internet Explorer 6! Some have never even heard of Firefox.) Ask questions, probe prayerfully, and be creative. In a world with so much all around us, you may be surprised what can be done to help others, especially a few brave but lonely souls who are trying to do too much on their own, the hard way. This is not a world of one man, a cow, and a Temple, but an abundant world where there is enough for all, if only we reach out and give others a lift and spread the wealth around voluntarily.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Few Random Photos

Thought I'd share a couple random photos from recent events. Help me pick one to use in my next post. Yeah, just having fun here.









Two "Easy" Ways to Get Answers to Prayers

Back in my days at BYU, ahortly after gatting married, I was quite happy to be part of a local "city ward," the Provo Ninth Ward - Hugh Nibley's home ward, in fact. Soon I had a home teaching companion, a young man in his 20s who had grown up in the Church. After we visited a family and had a basic discussion of some Gospel topics, he turned to me and asked if I had ever received an answer to prayer. The question surprised me, for I assumed that any active LDS person would have answered this queston affirmatively, but an answer to prayer was outside his experience. I found this very sad, and tried to offer some suggestions--not sure I was of any help.

I've since found that there are plenty of long-time Latter-day Saints throughout the Church who are not so sure that they've had an answer to prayer, in spite of serios efforts to live the basic teachings of the Gospel. There are some who have said they prayed to know if the Church is true or not and didn't get what seemed like an answer. Others have prayed for other legitimate things without evidence of an answer. I admit that recognizing the Spirit and sensing answers to prayer can be difficult, and often requires persistence, fatience, and faith. But I think there are a couple of areas where answers to prayers are much more likely to occur rapidly and sometimes with dramatic testimony-building results.

In my experience, the "big" things that I've prayerd for often don't get the miraculous answer I was hoping for. Nations hostile to the Gospel are not opening their doors in response to my prayers. Corrupt politicians and big money men destroying the freedoms and finances of this nation remain in power. War still rages, often unnecessarily. Cancer victims are usually not miraculously healed because of my prayers. And even my hopes for global warming here in Wisconsin are being dashed even as I write.

There have been a couple of areas, though, where prayers seem to be answered easily and sometimes rather swiftly. Sometimes with amazing results. Nothing is "on demand" or "sure-fire" and patience and faith are always important, but some approaches seem more fruitful than others if you want to experience the results that prayer can bring. Easy-bake prayer recipe #1 is mentioned in the following excerpt from the last General Conference, in the talk "Repent ... That I May Heal You" by Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:
For most, repentance is more a journey than a one-time event. It is not easy. To change is difficult. It requires running into the wind, swimming upstream. Jesus said, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me."18 Repentance is turning away from some things, such as dishonesty, pride, anger, and impure thoughts, and turning toward other things, such as kindness, unselfishness, patience, and spirituality. It is "re-turning" toward God.

How do we decide where our repentance should be focused? When a loved one or friend suggests things we need to change, the natural man in us sometimes pops up his head and responds, "Oh, you think I should change? Well, let me tell you about some of your problems." A better approach is to humbly petition the Lord: "Father, what wouldst Thou have me do?" The answers come. We feel the changes we need to make. The Lord tells us in our mind and in our heart.

We then are allowed to choose: will we repent, or will we pull the shades down over our open window into heaven?
As he said, the answers come when we turn to God and ask for guidance on our own personal repentance. "Lord, what am I doing wrong? Where can I do better? How can I improve? What sins do I need to remove from my life ASAP?" When I manage to humble myself enough to ask this question, sometimes with the help of others who help me see past my pride and recognize some glaring faults, a sincere prayer can open floodgates of personal revelation. Real revelation, not just fuzzy warm feelings. The Lord seems to have some very strong opinions about our behavior, and seems more than willing to chime in with guidance if only we'll open our hearts and minds for His answer. "Thank you for asking! Here are some priorities for now . . ." If we act on those promptings, it can begin a series of events where it will become increasingly clear how close the Lord is and how anxious He is to help guide us through the trials of mortality. Repentance always brings us closer to the Lord, and that process is one of the most dramatic ways for people to experience answers to prayer.

The second "easy-bake" route to receiving answers to prayer is to pray for guidance in how to help someone else. Not praying for their problems to miraculosly vanish (feel free to do that, though), but praying for guidance regarding the things within your scope of inflence. What can you do, make, give, or say to help another person, especially those you have a responsibility to help? Listen, ponder, study the scriptures, and pray sincerely, then act. You may be surprised at what can happen when you seek to be on the Lord's team and serve others. There are numerous small miracles waiting for you as you try to listen to the Lord and look for the right things you can do to help those around you. These can be true testimony-building experiences, even in painful settings.

Today in a talk in church, I shared an experience that happened shortly after we moved to a new city. I was assigned as a home teacher to a less active man who years later would become one of the people I respect most, one who would later do more to help me in the Church than almost anyone else. I had worked hard to get him to commit to a time when my companion, Tim, and I could visit. The appointment was set, and now I was supposed to meet up with Tim and go visit him. I called Tim, and there was no answer. Called a few more times, but no answer. I was worried. I felt that Tim needed a positive home teaching experience also for his benefit, and a key opportunity was about to be missed. The event seemed important enough to me that I felt a need to pray about it. I said a short prayer asking the Lord for help, explaining that I had done everything I could to help these two men with this experience today, and really felt that it needed to happen, but I couldn't reach Tim. I felt that I should simply call one more time. I went to the phone, dialed Tim's number, and soon heard his voice. "Tim? This is Jeff." "Jeff, how did you reach me? My phone is broken - I can call out, but I can't receive calls. Or at least the phone doesn't ring when people call me. I was just picking the phone up to call someone else, and you must have called then." Such a small little thing, a tiny coincidence, a matter of lucky timing - but to me, it was one of a multitude of small miracles we may experience when we turn to the Lord for guidance about what we can do. I'm not talking about changing His will about the timing of when we or someone we love dies, or changing huge currents of life and society. Wars still rage. Good people still suffer tragedy. But we can find the hand of the Lord in seeking to know what we can do in whatever setting we are in, whether it is something as small as helping a fellow member with a visit, or sometimes something much more dramatic. Stay open to the possibility that God can guide us in our daily events, in spite of seeming indifferent to many of our big requests, knowing that He cares and as His purposes. There are no guarantees - I've had numerous disappointments of all kinds when trying to help - but when we seek and watch for the help of the Lord regarding what we personally can do to help, this may be an area ripe for answers. But start with #1, seeking to know what we should be doing to repent. That's just abot the fastest way, in my opinion, to encounter the Divine.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thoughts From a Strange Abortion-Related Dream

I was working in my front yard during my latest dream, when I noticed a group of pro-abortion marchers coming down the street. They began coming onto my yard and were irritated by a large display that someone had put up behind my back while I was working. There was a banner mounted on pole with writing condemning Planned Parenthood and the greedy abortion industry. I had a few seconds to decide if I wanted to stand by the anti-abortion banner--I could easily have disavowed it and say it was a prank from someone else--or assume responsibility and defend my stance. I read it quickly and decided I agreed. I turned to the leader of the group, a smiling or perhaps smirking man with short hair, and tried to talk logically. I remember my words and halfway through realized how utterly ineffective they were. Here's what I said: "Look, I recognize that from your perspective, Planned Parenthood is an organization that has done a lot of good. But have you considered the perspective of women who regret the decision they made based on what Planned Parenthood told them?" Before I could explain what I was trying to say, he and several others walked away while others took photos of me and the sign to document things.

This made me reflect about some of the people I know who have lived with the pain and regret of getting an abortion. Through the Atonement of Christ, some have moved past that mistake and are living vibrant lives as inspiring Christians. Others have coped with the mistake in other ways. Not all women regret it, of course, but those who do often wish they had been given more complete information about what they were doing, about what would happen, and especially about how abortion could be avoided and how much help would be available. Some faced intense pressure from others to do something their heart told them was wrong. Some were victims themselves on multiple fronts, still in need of our compassion and help.

Of course, we must not forget the often-missing half of the problem, the men. Many don't care, sadly, but some who caused a pregnancy that was terminated with abortion also face deep regrets and sorrow. Some who participated in the decision did not fully understand what they were choosing. Some also faced pressure and misinformation.

The dream was undoubtedly triggered by a national story--or non-story, if you rely on mainstream news--from an abortion clinic right here in my town of Appleton, Wisconsin. A pregnant young woman with a hidden camera went in to the local Planned Parenthood outlet and recorded irresponsible misinformation being given by their staff, including a doctor who has been doing abortions for 30 years. "It's not a baby or anything like that," the woman was told about her developing baby. When she asked if the baby had a heartbeat, she was told that the thing in her only had "heart tones," not a heart beat. Information was twisted or withheld to help close the deal and score the sale of their services, rather than help the woman face the reality that abortion stops a beating heart of another human, and that there might be some very reasonable alternatives like adoption that could give her baby (and her) a chance.

Read more and see the video at the Rose Arcuna Project at LiveAction.org.

Not anything like a baby? Then what is it like, Planned Parenthood? A dolphin? No, wait, that's a protected species. A turtle? No, smash protected turtle eggs and you're going to do time. So what's it like? I am saddened that women right here in my town are being given misinformation from clever marketers raking in the bucks with their abortion business. As a result of that misinformation, some may make a decision that they may regret for the rest of their lives. That's ugly.

How I wish that none of our tax dollars went to support such an organization.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Got Cognitive Dissonance? Consider This Before You Abandon Faith

"Cognitive dissonance" is a popular term to describe the tension that occurs when various components of knowledge and belief seem to contradict. Recognizing and dealing with cognitive dissonance ought to be a normal part of an intelligently lived life because it is a natural result of having limited, imperfect knowledge, and points to areas where we may benefit from further exploration and learning.

Advances in science occur in the realms of cognitive dissonance as scientists try to make sense of data that doesn't seem to fit established views. Dissonance does not demand panic or complete abandonment of old paradigms or of science itself, but further study, an openness to revised understanding, and sometimes a little patience. A classic area for cognitive dissonance in science is the tension between the strange world of quantum mechanics at the atomic or subatomic level and the physical behavior of the macroscopic world we see and touch. Even Einstein struggled with it and found it too bizarre--and that was long before some of the really weird stuff was discovered. The apparent contradictions are being resolved, but it still demands a lot of patience and perhaps even faith to deal with the puzzles that are presented.

Sometimes the reason for cognitive dissonance is that a theory that once seemed to work no longer makes sense or needs major revisions. Facing the discrepancies can be healthy and lead to wiser actions (I am tempted to raise the issue of Climategate as an example, but that might cause too much cognitive dissonance for some). In science, cognitive dissonance is something to savor because it spells opportunity: opportunity to learn, to grow, to revise old assumptions, and to discover. Dealing with cognitive dissonance is the fuel for scientific advances (see Thomas Kuhn's classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

The term "cognitive dissonance" in some religious or formerly religious circles is used to justify leaving the Church. In these circles, it is shorthand for finding things that didn't make sense to someone. Yes, there are plenty of those in our faith, or any faith. However, many of those who leave or abandon faith because of cognitive dissonance may be missing the inherent opportunity to grow and learn.

Are you upset because modern LDS scholars are saying that the Book of Mormon took place in a small geographical area and that it does not describe the complete origins of all native Americans, when your Sunday School teacher thirty years ago said it did? Maybe there is soomething to be learned from a careful reading of the text and consideration of data regarding the ancient Americas.

Are you upset because a prophet made a mistake? Maybe it's time to update your understanding of prophets and recognize that they are fallible mortals like all of us, but with authority and the ability to occasionally receive revelation when God wills it, not superheroes who instantly become omniscient.

Are you upset because past practices of polygamy, priesthood limitations, or whatever don't agree with your view of how things should be? I'm bothered as well, but if Christ refused to condemn ancient prophets like the poygamist Abraham, and even called him the "friend of God," maybe we, too, should learn to be cautious in how we judge, and maybe we have more to learn someday on these controversial topics. Living with cognitive dissoance can be healthy when we recognize that we are missing information and that there are reasons to at least for now withhold judgment in faith.

There are many good reasons to leave the Church, if you are looking for them, just as there are many good reasons to abandon science, especially medical science, where the views and decrees of its leaders in some areas shift and change over time. For example, when I was a teenager, I struggled with bad acne. I wondered if something in my diet, like lots of dairy products, might be related. A leading dermatologist told me absolutely not, that there was no relation, and instead I should just load up on tetracycline. After doing that for several years with little benefit, I finally realized through trial and error that acne was directly tied to my diet. In fact, to this day, if I eat too much ice cream, I will break out.

Today, medical science realizes there is a link between diet and acne. It is not necessarily the animal fat that I assumed and still suspect is part of the problem. Science today points to the bovine growth hormones that are often used in cows. These hormones can exacerbate acne. So my dermatologist was completely wrong about the role of diet, and was also wrong in giving me so much tetracycline. One medical practioner told me that heavy tetracycline for acne would be considered medical malpractice today because of the side effects it can have. That's medical science for you. In fact, that's science: it's forever tentative and always subject to revision. Shouldn't our religious understanding be equally open to updates and progress? Before we abandon faith, consider if there is a need for revision in our assumptions, or if others have resolved the conflict successfully, or if the problem is limited knowledge that may take time and a little faith to keep us on course. Don't let our limited understanding stand in the way of worshipping and following the One Being who is the source of all truth. That's not President Thomas S. Monson or Joseph Smith or any other mortal, but God the Father.

Suggested resource: Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt by Michael Ash.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Intellectual Retreat - Or Updating Our Understanding?

In an enjoyable conversation recently, I was asked if I was comfortable with the Church's intellectual "retreat" regarding the Book of Mormon in light of scientific evidence from DNA about the origins of Native Americans. The argument, I believe, was that we have retreated from the doctrinal position of believing that the Book of Mormon describes the origins of all Native Americans, and now have concocted a more acceptable position in saying that the Book of Mormon only describes some of the peoples of the ancient Americas. Such a revision smacks of intellectual dishonesty, I was told. I don't think I did a good job in responding to that question, so here's another try.

I don't see it that way at all. Nothing in the canonized text is being abandoned. Our understanding of the text, especially views based on sloppy reading and unsupported assumptions, may need to be revised. While evidence of other ancient migrations to the Americas may not fit what many LDS people assumed and taught about the text, it is not ruled out by the text. Updating our understanding in light of new evidence is not intellectually dishonest, but is the sensible way to grow with new information.

Recognizing the limited scope of the Book of Mormon and the possibility that others were in the Americas besides just those brought by Nephi is not a new, desperate tactic forced by new evidence, but a position that some careful readers of the text were advocating many decades before the DNA controvery arose. I summarize some evidence for this on my LDSFAQ page on DNA and Book of Mormon issues. Here is one excerpt to keep in mind, which is actually quoting Matthew Roper's excellent article, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations":
Thus, the sentiments of B. H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy, expressed in 1909, were not entirely unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints: "It cannot possibly be in conflict with the Book of Mormon to concede that the northeastern coast of America may have been visited by Norsemen in the tenth century; or that Celtic adventurers even at an earlier date, but subsequent to the close of the Nephite period, may have found their way to America. It might even be possible that migrations came by way of the Pacific Islands to the western shores of America." He also thought it "indisputable" that there have been at least some migrations from northeast Asia to North America over the Bering Strait. [B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1909), 2:356.] He continued, "It is possible that Phoenician vessels might have visited some parts of the extended coasts of the western world, and such events receive no mention in the Jaredite or Nephite records known to us." While the Book of Mormon text does not specifically mention such migrations, Roberts conceded that "the records now in hand, especially that of the Jaredites, are but very limited histories of these people." Transoceanic contacts may in fact have gone both ways: "It is not impossible that between the close of the Nephite period and the discovery of the western world by Columbus, American craft made their way to European shores." [Ibid., 2:357.] Thus, "even in Jaredite and Nephite times voyages could have been made from America to the shores of Europe, and yet no mention of it be made in Nephite and Jaredite records now known." [Ibid., 2:359.]
Yes, others could have come to this continent besides those in Nephi's group--others from Asia, for example, and not just Asiatic Jaredites. The Book of Mormon does not require that modern Native Americans have "Jewish DNA"--if one could define what that was. Our understanding of the details of the Book of Mormon may need to be updated when we have made unwarranted assumptions. That's intellectual progress, not dishonesty.