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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

First Nephi 1 and the Language of the Egyptians

The Book of Mormon, according to some critics, is little more than a dull regurgitation of Bible verses. Plagiarism from the Bible and other sources in Joseph's environment is offered as the source for the text. It's interesting though, how little of the text can be "explained" from such a process, and how many of the attacks against the Book of Mormon are based on claiming that the Book of Mormon departs from Bible facts and theology. The opening verses of the Book of Mormon provide an example of this. Nephi's reference to having been schooled in the "language of the Egyptians" shocks some of our critics, who claim that no self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with Egyptian language. The argument continues when we read the Book of Mormon plates were actually written in "reformed Egyptian" (Mormon 9:32-34), which again violates the deep-seated antipathy for all things Egyptian that the ancient Jews are alleged to have had, and also violates common sense and scholarship since there is not and never was any such thing as "reformed Egyptian."

These arguments are typified in the anti-Mormon book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Mormonism by "Dr." John Ankerberg and "Dr. Dr." John Weldon (neither one of which appears to have a legitimate Ph.D.):

"Mormonism has never explained how godly Jews [sic] of A.D. 400 allegedly knew Egyptian, nor why they would have written their sacred records entirely in the language of their pagan, idolatrous enemies" (p. 284). "How likely is it that the allegedly Jewish [sic] Nephites would have used the Egyptian language to write their sacred scriptures? Their strong antipathy to the Egyptians and their culture makes this difficult to accept. When modern Jews copy their scripture, they use Hebrew. They do not use Egyptian or Arabic, the language of their historic enemies" (pp. 294-95). "[N]o such language [as reformed Egyptian] exists and Egyptologists declare this unequivocally" (p. 294).

Today we know that there was a lot of healthy exchange between ancient Jews and Egypt. Jewish communities existed in Egypt, even a Jewish temple was built, and Jewish people in Egypt in Thebes about 2000 years ago may have even been part of the unfolding Book of Abraham story.

As for the common charges against "reformed Egyptian" in the passage cited above, Ankerberg and Weldon are wrong on several counts--grossly wrong, as shown by Daniel C. Peterson in a noteworthy book review in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5, 1993, pp. 43-45 (available online). Several modified or "reformed" Egyptian scripts are well known, including forms called Demotic and Hieratic. "Reformed Egyptian" is clearly an appropriate generic term for those writing systems. However, the "Reformed Egyptian" used by the Nephites is described as a language system unique to them (Mormon 9:32-34), having evolved with their culture over a 1,000-year period. It was apparently used for sacred writings, and should have been almost wholly lost with the destruction of Nephite civilization. How can we expect Egyptologists, with typically no training in Central American matters, to know whether such a language ever existed there? Daniel Paterson gives further analysis (Peterson, pp. 44-45):

[W]ho says that the Nephites wrote in Egyptian? That is certainly one possibility, but several scholars (e.g., Sidney Sperry, John Sorenson, and John Tvedtnes) suggest, rather, that the language of the Nephites was Hebrew, written in Egyptian characters. The practice of representing one language in a script commonly associated with another language is very common. Yiddish, for instance, which is basically a form of German, is routinely written in Hebrew characters. Swahili can be written in either Roman or Arabic scripts. Judeo-Arabic, as written for instance by Moses Maimonides, was medieval Hebrew written with Arabic letters. In fact, almost any textbook of colloquial Arabic or Chinese or Japanese aimed at Western learners will use the Latin alphabet to represent those languages. Language and script are essentially independent. Turkish, which used to be written in a modified Arabic script, has been written in Latin letters in the Republic of Turkey since the 1920s. However, in the areas of the old Soviet Union, it is now usually written in Cyrillic (Russian) characters. Likewise, perhaps the major difference between Hindi and Urdu may be the mere fact that the former uses a Devanagari writing system, while the latter uses a modified Arabo-Persian script. So this phenomenon of changing the script with which one writes a language is by no means unusual.

But we need not speak only in theoretical terms. We have, in fact, an ancient illustration that comes remarkably close to the Book of Mormon itself. Papyrus Amherst 63, a text from the second century B.C., seems to offer something very much like "reformed Egyptian." It is a papyrus scroll that contains Aramaic texts written in a demotic Egyptian script. (Aramaic is a language closely related to Hebrew. of the Old Testament book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, and it was the spoken language of Jesus and his apostles. Incidentally, however, a Christian form of the language, Syriac, came to use an alphabet related to Arabic--again illustrating the independence of script and tongue.) Interestingly, one of the items found on Papyrus Amherst 63 is a version of Psalm 20:2-6. Ankerberg and Weldon wonder why "godly Jews [sic] . . . would have written their sacred records entirely in the language of their pagan, idolatrous enemies." Perhaps they should ask them some day, for godly Jews most certainly did (see "Language and Script in the Book of Mormon," Insights: An Ancient Window, March 1992, p. 2).

By the way, Peterson gives a footnote on Ankerberg's claim about Jews exclusively using Hebrew:

The statement "When modern Jews copy their scripture, they use Hebrew. They do not use Egyptian or Arabic, the language of their historic enemies" is quite an astonishing display of ignorance. Since the Egyptian language has been dead for centuries, it is hardly remarkable that modern Jews do not read the Bible in Egyptian. On the other hand, "the first and most important rendering [of the Old Testament] from Hebrew [into Arabic] was made by Sa'adya the Ga'on, a learned Jew who was head of the rabbinic school at Sura in Babylon (died 942)" (George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible [hereafter IDB], 4 vols. and supplement [Nashville: Abingdon, 1962-1976], 4:758b). Thus, Jews have indeed translated the Bible into "Arabic, the language of their historic enemies." They also have translated it into the language of their "historic enemies" the Greeks (IDB 4:750b on the Septuagint) and Aramaeans (IDB 1:185-93; 4:749-50, on the Aramaic Targums).

More information and relevant examples are given in the article, "Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters" by John A. Tvedtnes and Stephen D. Ricks, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1996, and also the excellent FARMS article "Reformed Egyptian" by William Hamblin. And for fun, be sure to see the site, Ancient Scripts--a marvelous collection of information on scripts of the ancient world.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Of Crocodiles and Kings

In Lewis Carroll's delightful poem, "The Walrus and The Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass, the loquacious Walrus and Carpenter talk a group of foolish young oysters out of safe waters into their grasp. Though professing kindness toward the oysters, they end up all being eaten. Some have suggested that the poem was meant as a critique of Christianity, with the Carpenter representing Christ, the (apparent) son of a carpenter, but good evidence suggests this was not intended by Carroll (see Wikipedia on this poem). As for reading unintended meaning into the poem, I think a slightly better case can be made (bear with me now) for the Walrus being a loving anti-Mormon minister leading young and inexperienced Mormons away from safety as they speak of impressive sounding topics aimed at capturing prey.
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
But instead of cabbages and kings, today let us consider anti-Mormon objections to crocodiles and kings. More specifically, let us consider the charge made against Joseph Smith regarding the Book of Abraham and his interpretation of the crocodile figure in Facsimile 1 which Joseph identifies as the "idolatrous god of Pharaoh." One has merely to read Wikipedia's article on Sobek, the ancient Egyptian crocodile god, to realize that the crocodile could symbolize many things other than what Joseph said. So Joseph was wrong and we should leave the Church, right?

First, I hope that your relationship with God, Christ, and the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is deep enough that you won't fall apart in instances where you think or are sure that Joseph Smith or any other mortal made mistakes. I hope an apparent error, contradiction, or even major blunder will not obviate the majesty of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, nor wipe out the reality of the Priesthood, the power and beauty of the LDS Temple experience, and the monumental blessings we have in the restored knowledge about the plan of salvation, the nature of God, our relationship to God, the purpose of life, etc. But that said, it is fair to wonder if Joseph got things right in the Book of Abraham. The answer is that we can see that he produced some astonishing bulls eyes beyond what anyone could have produced in his day, while also giving us some real puzzles and question marks where we don't have a good answer. Yes, there are apparent problems, as I note in my LDSFAQ materials on the facsimiles (e.g., Part 2 of my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham). But regarding crocodiles and kings, we do have some information that may help you in understanding that the critics aren't completely right in their attacks regarding Facsimile 1. In fact, Facsimile 1 offers some valuable evidence in favor of Joseph's inspired insights into the ancient documents he used in producing the Book of Abraham.

For information on crocodiles and kings, Kerry Shirts has written a terrific article, "Powerful Egyptological Evidence for Book of Abraham facsimile 1, figure 9 Crocodile as 'Idolatrous god of Pharaoh'" over at The Backyard Professor. Enjoy. But if you prefer non-LDS sources, here is one (easy online reading, not a scholarly work): J. Hill, "Sobek," 2010, at AncientEgyptOnline.com. An excerpt follows:
Sobek first appeared in the Old Kingdom as the son of Neith with the epithet "The Rager". According to some myths his father was Set, the god of thunder and chaos, but he also had a close association with Horus. He was paired with a number of goddesses in different locations, most notably Hathor, Renenutet, Heqet and Taweret, and was sometimes referred to as the father of Khonsu, Horus or Khnum.

In some areas, a tame crocodile was worshiped as the earthly embodiment of Sobek himself, while in other places crocodiles were reviled, hunted and killed. It seems likely that Sobek began as a dark god who had to be appeased, but that his protective qualities and his strength were valued when they were used in defence of the Pharaoh and the people. He could protect the justified dead in the netherworld, restoring their sight and reviving their senses. Because of his ferocity, he was considered to be the patron of the army.

Sobek was sometimes considered to be an aspect of Horus because Horus took the form of a crocodile to retrieve the parts of Osiris' body which were lost in the Nile. Yet Sobek was also thought to have assisted Isis when she gave birth to Horus. He also rescued the four mummiform sons of Horus (Imsety the human headed protector of the liver, Hapy the baboon headed protector of the lungs, Duamutef the jackal headed protector of the stomach and Qebehsenuef the falcon headed protector of the intestines) by gathering them in a net when they rose from the waters in a lotus bloom. However, he was also associated with Set, the enemy of Osiris. He was also worshiped as the manifestation of Amun-Re and was often depicted wearing either the headdress of Amun or the sun disk of Ra.

The strength and speed of the crocodile was thought to be symbolic of the power of the Pharaoh, and the word "sovereign" was written with the hieroglyph of a crocodile. It was thought that Sobek could protect the Pharaoh from dark magic. During the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties, the cult of Sobek was given particular prominence and a number of rulers incorporated him in their coronation names.
If Sobek was actually a god in the religion of Pharaoh and associated with the protection of Pharaoh, could there be some merit in Joseph Smith's characterization of the crocodile as the idolatrous god of Pharaoh? Just musing here--I think it's always better to muse than to fall apart and leave the church, just my advice.

You might also be interested in the following news item (now old, from 1996) from the Maxwell Institute regarding archaeological evidence for the plausibility of Egyptian influence, indeed, for the worship of the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek, in ancient Mesopotamia in Abraham's time. Interesting, eh? More to muse upon.
The Crocodile God of Pharaoh in Mesopotamia
In the famous anti-Mormon crusade against the book of Abraham in 1912, one of the individuals involved asserted that the book of Abraham could not be true because "Chaldeans and Egyptians are hopelessly mixed together, although as dissimilar and remote in language, religion and locality as are American and Chinese."[1] This exaggerated opinion was seconded by the Reverend Samuel A. B. Mercer: "I challenge any intelligent person who knows Chaldean and Egyptian history to read the first chapter of said book [of Abraham] without experiencing the same feeling. Chaldea and Egypt are hopelessly mixed. . . . No one can believe that Abraham made such a blunder in his geography."[2]

Though in Mercer's day scholars studied both Mesopotamian and Egyptian disciplines, they knew nothing of the interactions between the two cultures. In 1971, however, the Egyptologist Georges Posener completed a lengthy and detailed survey of the available evidence and concluded that cultural interactions and interference of Egypt in the area of Syria and Palestine were extensive, even though the precise nature of the "domination by the pharaohs" during the Middle Kingdom "still eludes us; fifty years ago it was barely suspected."[3] Yet some critics who clearly should know better are still using the same arguments as Mercer and Peters.[4]

Confirmation of the connections that Posener discovered can be seen in recent archaeological evidence found at Ebla. The cult of the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek flourished during the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.), as is attested by royal and personal names during the twelfth (1991-1783 B.C.) and thirteenth dynasties (1783-1600? B.C.),[5] temple building,[6] and commemorative scarabs.[7]

In the archaeological site of Ebla in Syria, also known as Tell Mardikh, were found several images of Egyptian gods stylistically datable to the Middle Kingdom, and dated by the archaeologists to MB II (1750-1650 B.C.),[8] the time period to which most scholars who believe Abraham existed date him. Among these gods were Osiris, Hathor, Horus, and Sobek. This provides concrete archaeological evidence that Egyptian cults existed in Mesopotamia, Abraham's homeland. Thus the book of Abraham accurately describes an aspect of the ancient world about which Joseph Smith could have known little or nothing.

Notes

1. John Peters, letter to Franklin S. Spalding, in F. S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator (1912), 28.

2. Samuel A. B. Mercer, "Joseph Smith As an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian," Utah Survey 1/1 (1913): 33.

3. Georges Posener, "Syria and Palestine c. 2160-1780 B.C.," Cambridge Ancient History, 1.2:550, 549.

4. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham," Dialogue 28/1 (Spring 1995): 156-60.

5. Jürgen von Beckerath, Handbuch der ägyptischen Königsnamen (1984), 67-73, 159-61, 200-11, 220-2; William Kelly Simpson, Papyrus Reisner I (1963), 89-90; cf. Simpson, Papyrus Reisner II (1965), 59, and Papyrus Reisner IV (1986), 41-2; and William C. Hayes, A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum (1955), 23-4.

6. Dieter Arnold, Die Tempel Ägyptens (1992), 97-8, 186.

7. Bulletin de l'Insitut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 56 (1957): 81-95; and 63 (1965): 197-200.

8. Paolo Matthiae, Frances Pinnock, and Gabriella Scandone Matthiae, Ebla (1995), 458-60, 476-7.
So what does it all mean? Joseph's interpretation of the crocodile, long held to be ridiculous by critics, has a rather strong air of plausibility to it. That plausibility persists not only for the general idea that the crocodile was an ancient Egyptian god soometime, somewhere, but that it was a god associated with royal power and the protection of Pharaoh, and that this god was known and worshiped not only during Abraham's time, but also in the land where Abraham lived and where the Book of Abraham takes place. So, all told, I'd say this aspect of Facsimile 1 and the Book of Abraham is not a solid reason to reject Joseph Smith. It might have looked that way until a few years ago, though. Patience and faith---we're never going to lose the need for both of these attributes when it comes to religion.

Now as to whether pigs have wings or not, I'll save that discussion for some other day. Just be patient. But no, the Book of Mormon does not say pigs have wings, nor do BYU scholars insist that the horse of the Book of Mormon was a flying pig. Just to make that clear.

The Unintended Consequences of Giving Money

Money is one of the most welcome gifts and one of the most useful things to give people, especially those who need it. But giving money sometimes fails to help and can make things worse, a problem that requires givers ultimately to seek inspiration in knowing how to really help. I learned this lesson (once again) when my wife and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan to help a Chinese woman that we respect and like. She works here in Shanghai while her teenage son is in her home province, a common and sad situation for Chinese people trying to provide for their families. (There are rules here that often make it hard for a migrant worker to bring one's family to where the jobs are.) We learned her son was coming to town for a weekend, and we wanted to help her spend some memorable, quality time with him. Our idea was to buy tickets to the Shanghai circus for both of them so they could have a positive mother-son experience enjoying something they probably could not normally afford. My wife, worried about how things might go wrong, was smart enough to ask if her son was bringing any friends, and when she learned that he was probably coming with a friend, she bought 3 tickets so all three could go together. She added a little extra for transportation and snacks.

After buying three good tickets for her, we looked forward to hearing her report of the circus visit when we had them over to visit the following day. Unfortunately, we learned that her son went to the circus with his two friends while mom selflessly stayed home that night. The money we contributed resulted in separating mother and son during a major part of the brief time he was in town--exactly the opposite of what we intended. That's what often happens when we rely on money as a simple solution to the complex problems people have.

Sometimes a little money can work wonders. But don't expect it to help without care, planning, and inspiration--and even then it may disappoint. Unintended consequences are far too common.

Of course, there is more to this story and more that we still don't understand. Maybe things worked out optimally after all. Perhaps the mom, who was somewhat ill that weekend, really needed the break and was happy to just be the heroine who helped her son and friends enjoy the circus while she got some rest. Maybe the circus tickets resulted in more important ends than our unrealized intended consequences. Or maybe it was just a foolish waste of money and time. Maybe I'll have more insight after I take my wife to Shanghai's Circus World later this week as I plan to (if things work out). But the boys really enjoyed it.

Things never turn out just the way we imagine them, and sometimes the unintended consequences aren't so bad. But money per se is usually not the answer. The fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to most of the challenges and pains of life. But its scope includes helping one another here and now with temporal matters, and sometimes that takes money. Thank God for the inspired and inspiring LDS welfare program and the humanitarian programs the Church runs, and thanks to all of you who have learned to carefully and prayerfully consider the best way to use your resources to help those around you. Keep it up, even if the results are disappointing sometimes.

May we all seek to make our efforts bring about more lasting good with the Lord's help.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Don't Begrudge Other Folks Their Miracles

"Do Big Tragedies Negate Small Miracles?" was a post from 2009 that I'd like to mention again today. It deals with the discrepancy between some people testifying of small miracles when, for example, trying to find lost car keys or a stray cat, while tragedy and death sweeps the earth. For someone whose car was just stolen or wrecked while engaged in Church service, hearing someone else bear testimony of God's mercy in finding lost car keys can easily raise all sorts of questions. For the parent whose child has died, hearing others testify of miraculous healing of a child can cause the heart to cry out, "Why not my child?"

Sadly, we live in a mortal world filled with pain and death. Occasionally, though, there is relief, even miraculous relief. The miracles are the exceptions. Normally, when believers are thrown into the fire, they burn and die (as Alma and Amulek witnessed to their horror in the Book of Mormon, and as the history of Christianity also testifies). But sometimes, so rarely, we have cases like Shadrach and company in the Book of Daniel who miraculously survive the furnace. Be glad for them and their posterity, not angry at the apparent unfairness of God's miracles. Small or large, miracles are not normal and are not meant to be distributed uniformly, on demand, according to our sense of fairness. When they occur, let us not feel grief that we were not the rare recipients. Let us not belittle those who received the miracle nor condemn ourselves for not receiving it.

While it's easy to grow weary of people testifying of God's power in finding little things, there can be divine purposes achieved in those little events. My own testimony of God's reality began with a 6-year-old child's prayer seeking God's help to find the precious plastic magnifying glass that Dad had loaned to me. I had looked everywhere without success and needed it. My Dad needed that 5-cent toy for his work, I thought, and I had lost it. After praying as my mother had taught me, I got up off my knees and made a beeline for a middle drawer in my dresser. I moved something and there it was. That child felt that God has answered a prayer miraculously, and was the beginning of many personal experiences in prayer. It was also the beginning of many personal experiences with lost objects where things far more precious and more worthy of prayer were not recovered, including a tragic loss last week with severe and profound implications that I can't get into here. But it would be easy for me, suffering from the loss of something desperately needed, to wonder how God could not help me find something much more important when a worthless magnifying glass is "miraculously" restored for a kid.

I'm going to have to trust God on this one, and remember the basic rules of mortality here: this is a tough place where we are all going to face pain, loss, and death. Some sooner, some later. And among these basic rules is the corollary that when something cannot be found, it's lost and probably isn't coming back. If someone does get an exception to that, be glad for them. But don't get bitter or upset that it wasn't you.

Don't begrudge folks their miracles. Even if it involves lost car keys or cats.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"No Justice, No Faith"? The Danger of Misunderstanding God's Justice

Today I was at Orlando's most wonderful and magical attraction, the Orlando Temple. In many ways much better than that other Magic Kingdom place out here where the lines are just far too long. While at the Temple, I was contemplating the issue of justice as I considered the concerns of a very intelligent new former-Mormon friend that I met recently. He raised some fair points in describing the logical concerns he had developed about the existence of God and the man-made nature of religion and scripture. Among the many points he made in our conversation, he raised the issue that God is supposed to be just and "no respecter of persons," yet there is such an obvious lack of justice in the world and such disparity in how God appears to answer prayers, if at all. He cited the commonly raised objection about LDS testimonies thanking God for help in finding their car keys, an apparently trivial application of divine power, while good people suffer abuse and death at the hands of evildoers or suffer painful disease and trauma in spite of seemingly unanswered prayers they and others offer. It all seems so unfair and random. Yes, I have to agree: this mortal world is filled with injustice, unfairness, and randomness. But there is a God who not only exists but who loves us. However, nowhere is it written that we will find fairness and equality in this life.

The scriptures speak of God's justice in terms of how he judges us in the end. Romans 2 tells us He is "no respecter of persons" in how he judges us according to our works and brings His children back into His presence--that's the final act, not the current scene here in this world of death and sin where we are all going to suffer and die as part of His great plan. His fairness is manifest not in being born into equal circumstances here, but in how He, in the end, ensures that all who will hear the Gospel message will have that chance, regardless of when and where they were born in mortality. His goodness is not immediately evident when we suffer, but in His victory over death and pain, leading to that moment when Christ will wipe away all our tears.

Here in mortality, our immediate temporal concerns are HUGE. They are all we know. How can God accept our suffering and loss while still claiming to be just and to love us? Losing our sight, for example, is a traumatic personal loss that will limit us for the rest of our lives. How could God let this happen to us, or to an innocent young child born to prayerful parents pleading for the child's health? From our vantage point, it is so unkind. Is there a purpose in it? Sometimes, at least, yes.

As I pondered justice in the Orlando Temple this morning, I opened the Bible to John 9 and read of a beautiful case of injustice. Jesus and His disciples walked past a man who was born blind. His disciples, understanding that there was a premortal existence before this life, wondered if the man had sinned there and was thus born blind, or, instead, if his parents had sinned to deserve that impairment in their son. Neither guess was correct. Christ explained that the man was born blind that the works of God might be made manifest. Christ then made some mud and placed it on the mans' eyes and instructed him to go to a pool of water to wash it off, whereupon his eyes were healed. (People sometimes wonder why Christ used such a strange method to perform the miracle instead of simply causing the eyes to be instantly healed. I see the application and removal of mud as symbolic of how Christ wipes away the mortal mire that limits our vision.)

Consider the man's lot before Christ worked the miracle. After he was healed, we read in John 9:8: "The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged?" The blindness that this man suffered, apparently as a direct result of God's will for him, reduced him to a life of poverty. He "sat and begged." Though he was apparently a good man raised in a family of believers, he suffered from an affliction since birth that reduced him to begging for a living, a state that persisted year after year. Others could see and earn money. He could not. Ir wasn't his fault, but there was nothing he could do about it. It seemed to be a senseless, unnecessary burden that destroyed his potential in mortality.

His difficult situation changed suddenly, and he quickly had a chance to show us what kind of man he was. This poor beggar turns out to have been a man of courage and integrity with a quick wit. I love his use of sarcasm when the bitter and powerful leaders of his religious community are repeatedly inquiring about their enemy, Jesus, who had performed this miracle. "He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples?" He turns the knife. Hilarious. And he boldly stands before those bitter, nasty souls who soon cast him out from their community because he dares stand as a witness for Christ.

What characteristic tenderness Christ shows after the miracle as he comes to visit the man:
35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God?

36 He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him?

37 And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee.

38 And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him.
Since birth, that good man suffered from blindness--an unfair affliction. He had to beg for a living. Blindness and many other physical and mental afflictions burden millions of souls around the today. There may be many noble souls, perhaps far greater and closer to God than any of us, whose magnificent character is hidden by the guise of a beggar. In the beggar, the homeless person, the outcast, the prisoner, or the victim, can we see the son or daughter of God waiting for the touch of Christ's power to help reveal who they really are? The power that heals and reveals may not dramatically touch them in this life, but we are assured that Christ will wipe away all the tears of those who follow Him. Most wonderfully most expressive of God's true justice and fairness, He will wipe away all the tears even of those who never heard of Christ in this life but, when finally given the chance to hear the Gospel message it, accept it and Jesus as their Savior. God's justice comes in the end, when all will recognize that they have been treated and judged fairly, though out individual circumstances in mortality vary wildly. It's a rough world, sometimes savage and brutal due to the workings of human agency, Satan's assaults, the workings of chance, and the very nature of mortality where pain and death are essential parts of our journey. Not to mention the custom-engineered trials and afflictions that God may plan for us to achieve higher ends, eventually, as He did with the blind man in John 9.

Nobody could see any justice or fairness in the sorry lot of that blind man, but what a sacred purpose was behind it all. For all of us, if we will not abandon God, we will find that the new vision He gives us with one gentle touch after we have endured will wash away all doubt of His goodness and love for us and help us see and discover things we had never imagined, including new insights into who we actually are and who we can become. What greatness He revealed in the blind man's soul, and how kindly He lead that good man back to Him.

There may often be little or no justice here in mortality, but this does not weaken the need for faith. God is real and He does answer prayers. Not often the way we want it, but He does answer and still works miracles today as in days of old.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Greetings From China: Photo Essay, Part 18

Here are some mostly recent photos from China, mostly Shanghai and mostly walking distance from my home. This collection is part 18 of 18. I'm starting at the end. Part 17 will come later. Then Part 16, and so forth. Sort of a first shall be last and last shall be first scriptural kind of thing.

Did I ever tell you that I really love China? That it's an incredible privilege to be here, to work here, to make friends here, and to relish the culture, the people, the food, the beauty and the increasing freedom that is found here? China also includes Hong Kong, sort of, where there is wide-open religious freedom and a Temple of the Lord. Wonderful! But it's surprising how much religious freedom there is in mainland China also, though with restraints that we respect. It's Christmas season here and guess what? They play real Christmas music, religious Christmas music honoring Jesus, in stores and elevators I have been in recently. Try doing that in the United States without being sued to death! Greetings from the surprisingly free and beautiful nation of China. (Click to enlarge.)



I love the markets of China and the people who make them possible. Here is the famous little antiques market of Dong Tai street in Shanghai, just barely a block from where I live. What wonderful friends we've made there.




















This is a painting we just bought for our home from an artist friend on the Dong Tai antiques market street. He does custom work if you'd like to have yourself or a loved on painted. Very gifted artist, surprisingly affordable. And such a sweet family. We have four of his paintings in our home.

The Role of Obedience and Endurance: Peter's Perspective

It's almost an article of faith in anti-Mormon literature that the LDS Articles of Faith rule us out as Christians. After all, they call for that most unchristian, unbiblical attribute, a dirty word in some religious lexicons: obedience. I'm always puzzled over the instant rejection, though, since I think that virtually every time "obedience" (or forms thereof) is used in the Bible, it's a clean word, almost always in the context of urging us to obey God and keep His commandments.

Obedience is part of how we follow Jesus and most fully access, not earn, the grace Christ offers us through the conditions of the covenant of mercy His Atonement provides. But today, lingo like "keep the commandments" (search here) and "obey" (search here) is the stuff of non-Christian cults in the new-fangled post-biblical framework that self-styled cult-bashers call "historic Christianity." Yes, of course you've heard me discuss this before, citing things like the oft-neglected words of Christ on the topic (as in "if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" in Matt. 19:17). But today I want to offer a further perspective from Peter regarding the purpose of obedience and the role that it plays in God's work with us.

Why obedience? And why endure in obedience unto the end? This makes the most sense when we realize that God is interested not just in declaring us to be saved, but in shaping us and nurturing us to more fully become His sons and daughters, beings who, as Peter describes in 2 Peter 1:4-10, eventually put on the "divine nature" as they pursue step after step in the progression of faith that eventually leads to having one's "calling and election made sure."

In the opening lines of his first book (1 Peter), Peter provides information about obedience and endurance that help set the tone for much of his writings. 1 Peter 1 is what I'd like to emphasize today. Read it with the issue of grace, obedience, and enduring to the end in mind. Excerpts follow with my emphasis added:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

4 To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,

5 Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

6 Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:

7 That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:

8 Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:

9 Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls....

13 Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ;

14 As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance:

15 But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation;

16 Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.

17 And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear....

22 Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently:

23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
Peter calls for us to be faithful and obedient, enduring to the end, even through difficult trials of our faith, in our hope for salvation. Why? Not just because will be judged by our works (of course, the works don't save us and it's Christ who gives us strength to follow Him and obey), but more importantly, I think, because of who God wants us to become. He want us not just to say and believe, but to become. Become what? Holy. Holy like God. That is the ultimate journey, and it requires the steady growth and transformations that come, through God's power, when we endure trials of faith, when we choose to repent and obey Him, when we keep the commandments with faithful obedience. This is the journey that brings us to the destination God has in store. This why why Peter writes, "ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth." Obedience refines and purifies and helps us become more like our Father in Heaven. It's not a dirty word after all. It's a holy word. Wish more folks would recognize that basic biblical truth and not fall for all those new-fangled philosophies.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lessons from Fleas

In sacrament meeting recently, we heard a talk on gratitude that quoted from the inspiring story of Corrie Ten Boom in her book, The Hiding Place. The story involves Christian women learning to find gratitude in their hearts in the midst of great trials. Corrie and her sister Betsie were suffering in a Nazi prison camp for the crime of saving the lives of Jews by hiding them in their home in Holland. For help in shortening the story, I'll quote a handy summary from KHouse.org:
Corrie writes:

"Barracks 8 was in the quarantine compound. Next to us--perhaps as a deliberate warning to newcomers--were located the punishment barracks. From there, all day long and often into the night, came the sounds of hell itself. They were not the sounds of anger, or of any human emotion, but of a cruelty altogether detached: blows landing in regular rhythm, screams keeping pace. We would stand in our ten-deep ranks with our hands trembling at our sides, longing to jam them against our ears, to make the sounds stop.

"It grew harder and harder. Even within these four walls there was too much misery, too much seemingly pointless suffering. Every day something else failed to make sense, something else grew too heavy."

Yet, in the midst of the suffering, the women prisoners around Corrie and Betsie found comfort in the little Bible studies they held in the barracks. Corrie writes they gathered around the Bible "like waifs clustered around a blazing fire…The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the Word of God."

When they were moved to Barracks 28, Corrie was horrified by the fact that their reeking, straw-bed platforms swarmed with fleas. How could they live in such a place?

It was Betsie who discovered God's answer:

"'"Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus." That's it, Corrie! That's His answer. "Give thanks in all circumstances!" That's what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!'

"I stared at her; then around me at the dark, foul-aired room…"

They thanked God for the fact they were together. They thanked God they had a Bible. They even thanked God for the horrible crowds of prisoners, that more people would be able to hear God's Word. And then, Betsie thanked God for the fleas.

"The fleas! This was too much. 'Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.'

"'"Give thanks in all circumstances,"' she quoted. 'It doesn't say, "in pleasant circumstances." Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.'

"And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong."

It turned out that Betsie was not wrong; the fleas were a nuisance, but a blessing after all. The women were able to have Bible studies in the barracks with a great deal of freedom, never bothered by supervisors coming in and harassing them. They finally discovered that it was the fleas that kept those supervisors out.

Through those fleas, God protected the women from abuse and harassment. Dozens of desperate women were free to hear the comforting, hope-giving Word of God. Through those fleas, God protected the women from much worse things and made sure they had their deepest, truest needs met.
This life is a journey in which God wishes to refine us and transform us through that which we experience, even that which we must suffer. If we recognize that God's love can be found even in the darkest trials and that there is a purpose in enduring whatever trials we have, we can find hope and even gratitude in the darkest moments. That is easy for me to say, but thank God for those Christian women who showed us with their lives what it means to love God and follow Him in faith to the end, no matter what, in gratitude and strength.

Friday, December 09, 2011

America's Surrender?

Did any of you notice what your elected representatives just did to the future of freedom in America? Giving up the 6th Amendment is kissing freedom good-bye in the long run. Under this new and outrageous law, all it will take is some government official to declare that a person or group is suspected of terrorism, and they can then be snatched and held without trial--forever. Both Republicans and Democrats ganged up to deprive Americans of these rights. Everything is justified by the fear of terrorism, right?

Friends and critics, all of you who care about religious liberty and liberty of all kinds, this is not the time to continue your silence. This is not the time to trust a government that is out of control. This is the time to say something, do something, and especially to let your elected officials know that they have violated your trust.

(A lawyer's perspective comes from the Lowering the Bar blog.)

In China, where I live, personal freedoms seem to be expanding. There are serious efforts to follow the rule of law. In many ways, China is more free or about to become more free than the United States. The people in the US don't see what's happening to their liberty. The debate is focused on how soft the shackles should be. But slashing the 6th Amendment should be a clue that big changes are needed. (I finally figured out what the "C" stands for in Bernie Madoff's WWCD ring: "Congress.")

I hope the President will recognize the horrific foolishness of what Congress has done and veto this bill. He's asking for the worst part to be removed. Fingers crossed. But how insane that we have elected officials who would risk doing this to us! What dangerous times these are.

Update: Speaking of freedom, I'm going to try to purchase the new book, Latter-day Liberty by that young but bold champion of freedom, Connor Boyack. Have any of you seen it? Interested in your feedback.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Lessons from a Dropped iPad

There have been so many unusual blessings and small miracles in my adventures in China that frankly, I have become a bit spoiled. It started to seem like everything I need will just turn out to be there when I need it and that we'll be protected from all the things that can go wrong. What a foolish sentiment in a world of danger.

The other day I was out for a lunchtime adventure on the streets of Shanghai carrying the two possessions I rely on most, a cell phone and an iPad. The iPad was a gift that I first felt was just a toy, but it was one of those things that I urgently need that was just given to me when I needed it, shortly before I came to China (now a much appreciated gift from my kind former boss). The Pleco app on it is a lifesaver in China. I can study Chinese, look up and translate words, and even draw strange new characters to find out what they mean. I use it everyday. But after looking up somoe terms on a Shanghai menu, I forgot to zip up the case I use to protect my iPad. While walking back to work, I tried to be a good husband by calling my wife to report on my exciting new culinary find. And then I tried to be a good Christian when I saw a beggar on the street and determined to do something to help. I stuck my iPad case under one arm while continuing to talk to free up a hand to get some money out. I bent over to leave something for the beggar, and that's when my now upside-down unzipped iPad case gently released its cargo, allowing my iPad to respond to the Law of Gravity, which somehow was not suspended as a reward for trying to do something good. The iPad then accelerated toward the cement tiles below, which somehow maintained there physical properties and did not suddenly become soft and flexible for my benefit. The aluminum casing of the iPad then rapidly deformed and damaged the most important part of the iPad casing, making three buttons suddenly inoperable: volume, mute, and the sleep/off button, which is also used to turn the iPad on.

Initially it seemed that my iPad was toast. Actually, it still does what I need and I'm fine, though it's less than it was through my carelessness. The fall of the iPad was a good reminder that we are still subject to all manner of afflictions and disappointments, including those we engineer ourselves.

We must not demand miraculous protection even when doing good. Traffic accidents, injuries of all kind, and even death may strike those who are serving missions, doing home teaching, going to church, helping the poor, or serving God in man ways. There is no guarantee of miraculous protection and never any grounds for relaxing our guard and being casual in how we protect ourselves and our loved ones. It's a dangerous world and the ground is hard. We must walk in faith, and wear our helmets, keep our insurance policies active, floss daily, and keep our iPads firmly in hand with the case carefully zipped up.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Getting Scripture Completely Backwards: The Tragic Abuse of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is often quoted to "prove" that there can be no further scripture. That famous passage about not adding or subtracting to the word of God in Rev. 22 is cited as if it means that there can be no more scripture, when, in fact, John is plainly speaking about his own book, the Book of Revelation, and urging the world not to tinker with the text. In no way is he saying that God can't keep speaking and revealing truth. In fact, John's text clearly teaches that revelation HAS NOT ENDED. It teaches that there will yet be words of God spoken by future prophets (Rev. 11), future angels (Rev. 14, etc.), and by Christ. How dare we presume that these words can't be written down and used by future generations of scripture? Revelation, if anything, points to an open canon, not a closed one. How tragic that so many ministers get this completely backwards.

Dealing with Rev. 22:18-19 itself is quite easy, yet it continues to be cited as if it were a legitimate slam-dunk against the Book of Mormon. The prohibition against adding or subtracting from the word of God actually goes all the back to the time of Moses, who wrote the following in Deuteronomy 4:2:
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it....
In Rev. 22:18-19, John echoed the words of Moses as he concluded writing the Book of Revelation:
For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
Moses and John were absolutely correct: no man has authority to add or subtract from the word of God. But Deut. 4:2 did not keep Moses from writing additional chapters, nor did it prohibit Isaiah, Malachi, Matthew, Mark, Paul, and even John from writing later scripture as directed by God. It did not mean that God could give no more revelation or scripture, but that the inspired words of God given to his apostles and prophets should not be altered by men.

Read the text carefully of Revelation 22:18-19 and ponder what John is talking about. At the time, there was no Bible as we know it. The new Christians had the Septuagint (which included the Apocrypha) and scattered writings of some of the apostles, but there had not yet been any known attempt to establish a New Testament canon or to bring the Gospels and epistles into a single volume. John, who was in exile on the Isle of Patmos, is obviously referring to the newly written text before him when he speaks of "this book," the Book of Revelation. He refers to the unique contents of his book: its prophecies, its descriptions of plagues, its discussion of the holy city, and urges that no one change what he has written. Even though the Book of Revelation has been placed last in our Bible, it was not necessarily the last book written, but may have preceded other writings of John himself by a couple of years. In fact, many Christian canons over the centuries did not include the Book of Revelation at all, and even Martin Luther questioned its status. The first church council that listed most of the canonical books in our present Old and New Testaments, the Council of Laodicea that met in A.D. 363, still did not include the Apocalypse of Saint John [Bernstein, p.5]. The common idea that this was the last book added to an existing canon of New Testament scripture by John is erroneous, as is the idea that John meant that there could never be any more scripture.

Latter-day Saints fully agree with John: no man should change what God has spoken. However, God has the authority to speak what and when He wants. God spoke to other prophets after Moses and many of their divinely commissioned writings have been preserved in the Bible. God also speaks today to living apostles and prophets in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we should be willing to accept those whom God has sent and hear their inspired words.

When God speaks to prophets, they write words that become scripture. Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, Luke, John, and many others all added scripture. One of the surest signs that the Church of Jesus Christ has really been restored is that new scripture has been added! The Jews at the time of Christ claimed to revere dead prophets but rejected living ones and rejected newly added scripture. They were in apostasy. Those who reject new prophets and new scripture from God in our day are likewise in apostasy and need to repent and come unto Christ more fully.

Now back to Revelation. Can you read it without seeing that God will yet do and speak many things in the future? Two prophets of the last days will prophecy in the streets of Jerusalem and be killed (Rev. 11). Angels will declare messages (Rev. 14:6 could even be a reference to the angelic ministry of Moroni and others that helped bring forth the Restoration). Christ and God will speak. Amazing works of God will take place. And saints (members of God's church) will not only work day and night in the restored Temple during the great Millennium (Rev. 7:15), but they will surely study and ponder the records of God's great dealings with man in the past. How dare we presume that God won't allow His obviously ongoing words and deeds to be recorded and studied as sacred writings?

The idea that the current Bible is the end of God's record, that the canon is closed, and that prophets can no longer speak, is a MOST UNBIBLICAL heresy. That doesn't prove that the LDS Church has authority and true revelation, but after a careful reading of Revelation, there should be no question that those who claim there can be no more revelation have Revelation completely backwards. Tragically so, IMHO.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

That Strange Mormon Book: Revelation

In Sunday School yesterday as we studied the Book of Revelation, I marveled at the density of LDS themes it contains. The call to overcome, abundant temple imagery and symbolism, references to prophets and ongoing divine revelation in the last days, a Jesus with a physical body, a lofty role for humans in the next life, and so on. There is also the LDS approach to grace and works resolved in Rev. 22 where we learn that the grace of God manifest in the tree of life is made available through (or rather, that that the right to access that supreme gift is conditional upon) keeping the commandments. Overcome, endure to the end, keep the commandments, prepare for the temple, listen to God's prophets--it's a great book for LDS folks to dig into and enjoy.

But what would happen if the Book of Revelation hadn't made it into the canon of the New Testament? What if it had been hidden, buried, and preserved for our day? If Joseph Smith had been the source through which it came into the modern era, how would the Christian world react to this new text allegedly written by John? Can you imagine the howls and the outrage over the blatantly non-Christian doctrine?