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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

My remarks below are made as an observer in China, distant from the Ferguson scene and the tensions in the US, so I apologize if I am missing important parts of the story. But the call for peacemakers is one that will apply in every land and era. May there be more of them, and may we all take steps to promote peace.

I was frustrated to see the violent outbreak in Ferguson. Everyone seemed to know that there was going to be mob violence when the decision came out, regardless of what it was. So where was the National Guard? They were needed and wanted, bu they came a day late, after the rampage. Why do we send our troops all over the world to interfere with other nations in the name of security, even making preemptive strikes in nations where we have no legal authority to act, but don't take obvious steps needed to protect our own nation from harm? If we really have to have a massive domestic spying infrastructure that can listen in on our conversations and read all our texts and emails, all massive violations of personal privacy done in the name of "protecting us," why not use that information to reduce predictable mob violence aimed at burning and looting a town?

How sad to see that many of the victims of the riots were black Americans (although I detest the looting of anyone, regardless of race). Terribly, a church was burned in the rioting--the church where Michael Brown's father was baptized. The black pastor is now a victim of the lawless anger that raged in Ferguson (though this may have come from white supremacists or outside anarchists who took advantage of the situation). If there is a fund we can donate to to rebuild his church, please let us know.

The Book of Mormon reminds us that stirring up people to anger is a classic tool of evil men seeking power. From King Noah to the dissenters and Gaddianton robbers in the midst of the Nephites, conspiring, power-hungry men according to that ancient text have long taken deliberate actions to stir up anger in order to manipulate people and gain power or wealth. Anger is not always just an accident or natural response, but sometimes is fanned and guided to achieve someone's aims. Who benefits from the anger being fanned now? It's worth a discussion at least.

Most importantly, in times like these, we need peacemakers, not instigators and provocateurs who stir up anger and rekindle old grievances.

I also had hoped that if the President was going to get involved, it would be in a way that vigorously urged peace and calmness. For me, the message he delivered fell short of that. While recognizing the need to respect the law, it implied that the accused officer may have acted out of racism, and reminded people of America's legacy of racism. He told angry people that they were "understandably angry." I don't think that's good peacemaking. I wish he had told people that if the grand jury found no reason to charge the officer, Americans had no reason to become angry about this case and that any violence was absolutely unjustified and definitely not understandable. Why not say this was an event between one cop and one apparent assailant in one town, not a national problem ("an issue for America")? OK, easy to criticize--I would have probably said something really stupid unintentionally. No matter what he said, though, violence was going to happen. Wish better steps had been taken to deal with it, including sending out the National Guard promptly when requested by the mayor. Again, easy for me to criticize!

We should learn from Ferguson and from the mob violence in LDS history. The ugliness of mob violence is something Latter-day Saints should understand and abhor from our roots in Missouri and Illinois. Sadly, in the 1838 "Mormon War" in Missouri, the Mormons weren't always the good guys and victims. In response to the mob actions they had faced, some Latter-day Saints returned an eye for an eye and then some by forming a mob or two of their own and burning down some homes. Ugly and terrible. War of any kind is that way. The line between self-defense and unjustified aggression can easily be blurred, and innocent victims may abound. One of the problems in the era was a terrible speech given by Sidney Rigdon stirring up Mormon anger toward their already angry neighbors. And then we had Sampson Avard secretly stirring up and organizing the "Danites" for his own power. This made the dangerous situation in Missouri far worse. We needed more effective peacemakers then and we need them today.

Pray for peace and seek for peacemakers.

The great thing about anger, from Satan's perspective I suppose, is that it makes it so easy to manipulate a human being. What is the balance between righteous indignation and the anger in the hearts of men that comes from the Adversary? Sometimes people think their indignation is righteous when it's just good old fashioned anger and hate, the kind that lets someone else use you for their gain. I've written enough for today, so I leave that as a question for your input. How do we tell the difference between the two? Please stay calm as you respond.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Upgrading My Gadgetary Life in China: More Blessings from Frustrating Failures

Over at the Nauvoo Times, I just shared a story involving the frustrating failure of two Samsung devices that happened within the same week. Wonderfully, the failure of the camera led to new information from a Samsung technician about known trouble with Samsung's USB cables. While that was irrelevant in resolving the camera problem (that had to be shipped to a US repair center for a major overhaul), it made me wonder if the firmware upgrade disaster I had experienced with my Samsung tablet might have been due to a cable problem. When I tried the upgrade again with a 3rd party cable, the problem was overcome, allowing me to keep my main Chinese translation tool in my hands instead of losing it for a couple of months. The failure of the camera (which I don't really need anyway) was a blessing that helped me regain the use of something I really needed at the time.

Here's an update: One week ago, my 3rd Samsung device, my most important one, also failed. I was in Atlanta, Georgia for a couple of important meetings, including the AIChE Annual Meeting, when my old but essential cell phone, a Samsung Galaxy, died. The touch screen wouldn't work at all, so I couldn't send or receive calls or texts. Suddenly I was a bit isolated and vulnerable. How did Primitive Man ever survive without these things?

This phone was 3 years old and had some other problems already, like a memory issue that made it impossible to add applications. I had lost so much time fighting problems with my Samsung tablet that I resolved to buy a better device next time, even if the cost was painful.

In fact, I had been trying for a few weeks to buy an iPhone 6 Plus in China, a device that could be both a phone a replacement for my tablet, but the demand here is so high and the supply so small that it is just about impossible to buy one. You have to sort of win an online lottery held each morning around 8 AM to reserve a phone, and my efforts so far had all been in vain. Now on my last day in Atlanta, as I was wrapping up my conference and about to head back to my hotel after a little shopping, my cell phone died. I had been told by an Apple employee in China that it would be best to buy my phone in China since a US phone would be locked and might be difficult to get it working on the Chinese network. But when I went to the mall near my hotel in Atlanta, to my surprise there was an Apple store there, so I thought I should at least inquire.

In the Apple store, I learned that a Verizon-version of the iPhone had been reported to work OK in China. It might work, but they couldn't guarantee it. But they had the phone I wanted in stock, the 64 Gig 6 Plus--and in gold, the color of choice in China. Do I dare risk buying it, knowing that it might not work at all? Foolishly perhaps, it just seemed like the thing to do, and having done all I could to make this decision, chose to risk it. The full story is shared on my "Shake Well" blog about life in China, but basically it ended up being the perfect choice and the 4G SIM card from China Mobile ended up working fine, even though a China Mobile technician explained that the model Apple sold me could not possibly work in China. In fact, I have now heard that had I bought the phone in China, it would only work with a China Telecom contract and the card my company provides wouldn't fly. Not sure if that's the case, but I certainly have to be grateful for the perfect timing of another Samsung failure that helped me upgrade my gadgetary life.

The wonderfully timed failure of the Samsung cell phone gave me the impetus and courage to respond to the surprise encounter with an Apple store to get the phone I felt I needed for roles and activities that really require having a good gadget with me (Chinese translation, communication, and many other tasks). I was able to get it at just the right time, leaving me just enough time to also visit the nearby Atlanta Temple that night before taking an early flight back to Shanghai the next morning.

Sometimes failures are blessings in disguise, though the disguise was thinly veiled in this case.

Your bad luck, your trials, your pains, can sometimes lead to good that might not have been realized otherwise. So don't be overly frustrated when things around you fail, or when you look back at your own failures. Look forward to the good that come next and be grateful for each new blessing that comes your way. And for all I know, there's probably even an app for that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

President Henry B. Eyring's Visit to the Vatican: A Gentle Call to Strengthen Marriage

President Henry B. Eyring just did something that my wife and did earlier this year: visited the Vatican. OK, our visit wasn't newsworthy. We stood in line with lots of other tourists as we explored a little of the endless art at the Vatican Museums and admired its surroundings. President Eyring was doing something more noteworthy than sightseeing. He was sharing a message from the Church about the importance of the family at an international summit at the Vatican that was opened by Pope Francis.

While some might have expected direct arguments against same-sex marriage in President Eyring's talk, he took a more indirect and gentle approach, calling for a "renaissance of happy marriages and productive families" while also reminding us of the need to strengthen (traditional) marriage through greater unselfishness. I respect what he said and how he said it, though it naturally leaves open the argument that unselfishness and growth through family relationships can happen between any two individuals regardless of gender. 

In fact, whether or not we agree with the trend of changing law and traditional institutions to recognize same-sex marriage or other non-traditional relationships, I think it's fair for us to recognize the growth, the selfless service, and the happiness that people in non-traditional relationships can experience. And yes, I also recognize that argument can also be applied to relationships that I'm especially uneasy with, such polygamous relationships or adultery dressed up in robes of love and service. So opportunities for service or feelings of growth and happiness are not the standard in determining what the law should be nor what what divine standards are, but I think in our diverse society we need to be open to what others experience and why it is so important to them, even when we disagree with their position. That said, those who believe in traditional marriage or the wisdom of having a father and a mother in the lives of children need not retreat from their principles. President Eyring's talk illustrates a reasonable effort to stand for those principles, rooted not in legal argument or statistics, but on a foundation of faith. Accepting the Proclamation on the Family is definitely a matter of faith, though one can make a variety of secular arguments for some of its points.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of his remarks:
We must find ways to lead people to a faith that they can replace their natural self-interest with deep and lasting feelings of charity and benevolence. With that change, and only then, will people be able to make the hourly unselfish sacrifices necessary for a happy marriage and family life—and to do it with a smile.

The change that is needed is in people’s hearts more than in their minds. The most persuasive logic will not be enough unless it helps soften hearts. For instance, it is important for men and women to be faithful to a spouse and a family. But in the heat of temptation to betray their trust, only powerful feelings of love and loyalty will be enough.

That is why the following guidelines are in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued in 1995 by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

“Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. ‘Children are an heritage of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.

“The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities. By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed.”

Those are things people must do for us to have a renaissance of happy marriages and productive families. Such a renaissance will require people to try for the ideal—and to keep trying even when the happy result is slow to come and when loud voices mock the effort.

We can and must stand up and defend the institution of marriage between a man and a woman. Professor Lynn Wardle has said, “The task we face is not for summer soldiers or weekend warriors who are willing to work for a season and then quit.” A past president of our Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, offered similar counsel, as well as encouragement, saying, “We cannot effect a turnaround in a day or a month or a year. But with enough effort, we can begin a turnaround within a generation, and accomplish wonders within two generations."
What would you have said if you had a chance to speak at the Vatican on this topic?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

LDS Newsroom Releases Helpful Video on Temple Garments

The LDS Newsroom at LDS.org surprised me with the new announcement and video on the LDS temple garment. It includes views of LDS temple robes and LDS garments, the simple clothing items that our foes love to call "magic underwear" or other offensive terms. The LDS Newsroom resource should help thoughtful people better understand this aspect of our faith, and might help LDS members know how to better answer some common temple-related questions. Nicely done, IMHO.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Turning Flaws Into Art: Recognizing the Hand of Lord in Our Lives

During a trip to Taiwan in September, my wife and I visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei and saw one of the world's great works of art, the Jadeite Cabbage. An unknown Chinese artist apparently in the nineteenth century took a highly flawed piece of jade with uneven color, blotches, cracks and veins, and used those flaws as part of the design. The white stone became the stalk of a cabbage and the darker green regions became the leaves and a couple of magnificent insects. Cracks became delicate veins on the stalks. In the end, the work was far more beautiful and lifelike than if it had been made from flawless uniform jade. It was almost as if the jade had been designed to be a cabbage, but this was really the result of the hand of the master making the most of imperfect raw materials. What a fitting analogy for how the Lord deals with our flaws, if we'll let Him sculpt us. I was pleased to see that the Oct. 2014 Ensign has a brief article making this point (Ellen C. Jensen, "The Jadeite Cabbage").

This sculpture is the highlight of Taiwan's National Palace Museum, which contains much of the most precious art that once was in the Forbidden City in Beijing, brought to Taiwan by Chiang Kai Shek. For most visitors it is the leading attraction of that splendid museum.

There are many ways the Lord can turn our flaws into something better and even help us find good or do good in the midst of the chaos we create, when we repent and turn to Him. Sometimes the craftsmanship is so fine that we might mistake our flaws for virtues or even our sins for things there were somehow "meant to be."

On my mission, there was an outstanding elder who broke a bone while playing basketball. Our mission had a specific rule against basketball, probably because there had been so many injuries like the one that put this enthusiastic elder in the hospital for a number of weeks. While there, though, he didn't cease from sharing the Gospel, and gave some Books of Mormon to the staff, including one nurse who seemed interested in the message. Later, in a testimony meeting, that Elder shared his belief that his whole experience there in the hospital might have been divinely arranged in order to reach that nurse and maybe some others. I can understand the feeling, and in a sense, he's right--but had he kept the mission rules a little more strictly, he would not have had that injury. So was it God's will that he break a mission rule in order to reach the nurse? That might not be the right way to look at his situation. Rather, wherever we end up, there is always good to be done, and as we seek the Lord, the experiences, even our failures, will seem tailored and meaningful.

Just don't confuse a good tailor for a great physique. God is a master tailor and can craft things to fit us perfectly, even when we are in pretty bad shape.

Frankly, we are all off course, somewhere other than where we would have been had we lived perfect lives. Yet wherever we are, the Gospel tends to help us experience miracles, blessings, comfort, and meaning that makes it seems like this error-ridden path was designed and tailored for us, even intended for us all along. Alma the Younger's story would have been much different and perhaps much less interesting and less helpful to us today had he not been a rebel. The good that he was able to do after repenting does not justify the harm he did before, and surely as a mature prophet he wished that he had never departed from God in the first place, but we can praise God that such a flawed rebel was able to become such a powerful tool for good. Do not doubt the good that God can do with you now and the mess you may have already created in your life. Follow Alma's example and do all you can to let God guide you with His hand, and you will find beauty and surprise in the end.

We must repent and move forward with hope rather than beat ourselves up over the permanent departure from the imaginary state of what would have been ideal. The unwed mother, the divorced couple, the missionary sent home for some foolish error, the driver whose mistake creates tragedy--all these may be painful departures from the ideal, and yet the Lord can be there for each of these parties and bring them through the pain to find new meaning and blessings that are uniquely crafted for who and where they are.

I think there is a better way to understand what happened to the missionary brought down by basketball and what happens to all of us when we fall in some way but seek God's guidance. It's not that all our departures from God's paths were actually secret shortcuts that we were destined to follow according to God's will. Rather, God's hand guides us to experience growth, do good, and  find paths forward no matter what ditch we've driven into, no matter how deep in the mud of some no-man's land we managed to wander into. Like the GPS that continually revises the suggested route after our errors in driving, God keeps working with us to bring us forward, if we'll accept guidance from His hand.

The journey we take and the destinations we encounter may be much different that they might have been, but He is there to guide again and again and again, and along the way, we will have miracles. As we work our way back to the main road, there may be stragglers we can use a lift. Miracles, love, service, healing--these things never cease if we are willing to let God work with us. Yes, they may be designed and tailored for us, allowing us to be in the right place at the right time, even after we've wandered leagues from where we were really "supposed" to be all along.

In one sense, to recognize the hand of the Lord in all things (Doctrine & Covenants 59:21) might be to see that His hand is always there in our lives, pointing, beckoning, holding, helping, pulling, lifting, blessing, and crafting beauty out of the flawed raw material that we are. When we see the beauty and the good that come from such flaws, let us not admire the flaws, but the Craftsman.