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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Ignore Complexity: A Broad Look at a Basic Book of Mormon Issue

The more complex a machine is, the more beautiful and awe-inspiring it can be. Great Swiss watches, though far beyond my budget, inspire me with their craft and brilliance. In my mission in Switzerland, I often enjoyed looking at them through shop windows. How can so much be so reliably and accurately executed in so little space? They are modern marvels.

The machinery of a cell is even more inspiring, with the endless array of machines within the machine that build, transport, repair, verify, and disassemble to keep the intricate gears of life rolling in mind-numbing order. Then the products of the numerous differentiated cells of the human body leave me simply overwhelmed. Just looking at any of the minute mechanisms within, such as the complex of about 25 proteins in the plasma of our blood that can self-assemble on demand to form blood clots. Cooler and more practical than the Transformer robots of modern movies.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon is something else to consider. It is complex in much the same way that the Bible is, for it reveals many different sources and authors that have been brought together to tell a grand story. We should respect the complexity of Bible origins clarified through the scholarship related to the Documentary Hypothesis, regardless of how accurate the specific conclusions and dating of the individual sources may be. If the Bible as we have it today had been lost for centuries and were to be regenerated by a single man stepping forward with what he claimed was a legitimate Bible text, the complexity of that document would be difficult to explain as a modern fraud. Even if all we had to work with were an English translation such as the KJV text, we could see the evidence of many different source documents and different voices that gave us a complex text.

A great overview of the issue of complexity in the Book of Mormon comes from this recent video at Book of Mormon Central:

The Book of Mormon is much like the Bible in this regard. It has complex origins with many writers from across a broad period of time, documents from multiple sets of plates, with many different genres and styles of writing, and distinct voices in spite of a unifying English language style. The deep intertextuality, the consistent geography, the stories within stories that remain consistent, the clean and consistent details about sources, the abundant Hebraisms and ancient poetical elements, all demand much more respect than it has received from the world.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon would demand respect if it had been a lifelong project with many careful revisions over a period of years, but what can we say when we consider that this massive and complex book was dictated over about 70 days by an unschooled farm boy not reading from some scholar's manuscript, but dictating words orally at a breakneck pace while staring in a hat? This is a miracle that remains unexplained in spite of all the efforts of critics to find potential sources, maps, scholars, anything that could help. Yet it was created in an information vacuum far from a library and, again, simply dictated to scribes by a man without a manuscript or even a Bible to quote from when dealing with Bible-relevant passages.

How does such clock-like precision in the text arise from chance mutterings from a hat unless what was happening is what Joseph and his witnesses said: a marvelous work and a wonder from God, divinely aiding Joseph in delivering the translation of an ancient text almost as complex as the Bible?

Sunday, April 08, 2018

When Engineers Err: My Favorite Story from General Conference

Listening to General Conference has been a profound pleasure for us over here in China, where this weekend one week after conference is designated as Conference Sunday to solve the time zone problem as we play the recorded sessions. This has been one of my favorite Conferences ever with so much to learn and rejoice over. So positive, so encouraging, so international, so inspiring. I'd like to share a story that I especially enjoyed, one that made me wish it had been published more widely years ago. It involves the terrible time of the Korean War which took away too much from my own father, yet was a time of numerous miracles that helped him develop his own testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in spite of the repeated horror and trauma he faced.

Ensign Frank Blair
The story also involves engineers, in this case the engineer of a ship, and reminds us that even highly trained experts make severe mistakes (even some of us chemical engineers are fallible, I've been told). It further teaches the power of meek leadership, in this case a ship's captain who would humbly ask the young temporary chaplain of his ship to pray in a time of emergency, and then later had the daring meekness to accept the prayerful recommendation that his LDS chaplain offered. It made the difference of life and death for the many men on board.

The story is shared by Elder Larry Y. Wilson of the Seventy in "Take the Holy Spirit as Your Guide" given Sunday afternoon. The story was told with the permission of Ensign Frank Blair, who was present at the Conference session as it was told.
Brothers and sisters, it is an extraordinary privilege to “have … the Holy Spirit for [our] guide,” as demonstrated by the following experience.

During the Korean War, Ensign Frank Blair served on a troop transport ship stationed in Japan. The ship wasn’t large enough to have a formal chaplain, so the captain asked Brother Blair to be the ship’s informal chaplain, having observed that the young man was a person of faith and principle, highly respected by the whole crew.
Ensign Blair

Ensign Blair wrote: “Our ship was caught in a huge typhoon. The waves were about 45 feet [14 m] high. I was on watch … during which time one of our three engines stopped working and a crack in the centerline of the ship was reported. We had two remaining engines, one of which was only functioning at half power. We were in serious trouble.”

Ensign Blair finished his watch and was getting into bed when the captain knocked on his door. He asked, “Would you please pray for this ship?” Of course, Ensign Blair agreed to do so.

At that point, Ensign Blair could have simply prayed, “Heavenly Father, please bless our ship and keep us safe,” and then gone to bed. Instead, he prayed to know if there was something he could do to help ensure the safety of the ship. In response to Brother Blair’s prayer, the Holy Ghost prompted him to go to the bridge, speak with the captain, and learn more. He found that the captain was trying to determine how fast to run the ship’s remaining engines. Ensign Blair returned to his cabin to pray again.

He prayed, “What can I do to help address the problem with the engines?”

In response, the Holy Ghost whispered that he needed to walk around the ship and observe to gather more information. He again returned to the captain and asked for permission to walk around the deck. Then, with a lifeline tied around his waist, he went out into the storm.

Standing on the stern, he observed the giant propellers as they came out of the water when the ship crested a wave. Only one was working fully, and it was spinning very fast. After these observations, Ensign Blair once again prayed. The clear answer he received was that the remaining good engine was under too much strain and needed to be slowed down. So he returned to the captain and made that recommendation. The captain was surprised, telling him that the ship’s engineer had just suggested the opposite—that they increase the speed of the good engine in order to outrun the storm. Nevertheless, the captain chose to follow Ensign Blair’s suggestion and slowed the engine down. By dawn the ship was safely in calm waters.

Only two hours later, the good engine stopped working altogether. With half power in the remaining engine, the ship was able to limp into port.

The captain said to Ensign Blair, “If we had not slowed that engine when we did, we would have lost it in the middle of the storm.”

Without that engine, there would have been no way to steer. The ship would have overturned and been sunk. The captain thanked the young LDS officer and said he believed that following Ensign Blair’s spiritual impressions had saved the ship and its crew.

Now, this story is quite dramatic. While we may be unlikely to face such dire circumstances, this story contains important guidelines about how we can receive the Spirit’s guidance more frequently.

First, when it comes to revelation, we must properly tune our receiver to heaven’s frequency. Ensign Blair was living a clean and faithful life. Had he not been obedient, he would not have had the spiritual confidence necessary to pray as he did for the safety of his ship and to receive such specific guidance. We must each be making the effort to align our lives with God’s commandments in order to be directed by Him.

Sometimes we can’t hear heaven’s signal because we are not worthy. Repentance and obedience are the way to achieve clear communication again. The Old Testament word for repent means “to turn” or “turn around.” When you feel far from God, you need only make the decision to turn from sin and face the Savior, where you will find Him waiting for you, His arms outstretched. He is eager to guide you, and you are just one prayer away from receiving that guidance again.

Second, Ensign Blair did not just ask the Lord to solve his problem. He asked what he could do to be part of the solution. Likewise we might ask, “Lord, what do I need to do to be part of the solution?” Instead of just listing our problems in prayer and asking the Lord to solve them, we ought to be seeking more proactive ways of receiving the Lord’s help and committing to act according to the Spirit’s guidance.

There is a third important lesson in Ensign Blair’s story. Could he have prayed with such calm assurance if he had not received guidance from the Spirit on previous occasions? The arrival of a typhoon is no time to dust off the gift of the Holy Ghost and figure out how to use it. This young man was clearly following a pattern he had used many times before, including as a full-time missionary. We need the Holy Spirit as our guide in calm waters so His voice will be unmistakable to us in the fiercest storm.
Prayers followed by action, seeking to do what we can and striving to learn what we can do, can be vastly more likely to bring results, even miraculous results, than merely uttering a wish. This will be increasingly important for all of us in the Church's new emphasis of ministering rather than the old and often ineffective home teaching and visiting teaching programs. May we be more anxious to seek revelation on what we can do, how we can help, and who we can help, in our quest to live a Christian life rich in personal revelation.

One part of the story not emphasized in the talk deserves further attention. The real hero here may well have been the non-LDS captain. He first cared enough about the things of God to appoint a temporary chaplain when none was provided or seemingly needed. He then had the faith to turn to a young LDS man who knew how to pray and humbly ask for his prayers as the ship faced potential disaster. And then he had the courage, the faith, the daring meekness and undoubtedly the sensitivity to the Spirit to respect what his young chaplain told him, which was exactly the opposite of what his trained engineer was recommending. Wow. How many leaders of any faith would be able to make that call.

If any of you know the name of the man who was the captain, I'd love to share his name to publicly praise a leader for such courage and meekness. There are two heroes and many lessons in this powerful story.

Friday, April 06, 2018

The Hope of the Resurrection: Renewed Awareness from Two Painful Experiences in One Day

On the Wednesday before Easter (March 28), two shocking events gave me renewed reason to ponder the power and reality of Christ's victory over death. That day was perhaps my most painful day in China. After so many years of calm, safety, and peace in the haven of Shanghai, I had a double jolt of the sorrow that happens even in happy places.

That morning, I got to the beautiful office building where I work about 15 minutes earlier than needed, so I stood in the sunshine and began reading my favorite book on a spectacular spring day. What a great day to be alive and to delve into the text of my favorite sci-fi writer, Jiang Bo and his Heart of the Milky Way trilogy. 

Almost as soon as I began reading, there was a loud bang at about 8:20 that sounded like something big and heavy had crashed into a window. Then a woman screamed and ran right in front of me. Was she hurt? She seemed fine and soon stopped running to take out her cell phone and make a call. What was the problem? There was some commotion among some of the staff at the entrance to the building, so something was up.

I took a few steps and saw something horrific: A man had jumped from our very tall office building, apparently out of a window he had managed to open on the 23rd floor, a corner office that probably was an executive office. I think this might have been an executive from a hot high-tech startup that I know is on that floor.

The man was obviously dead. He had first hit the outwardly sloping glass of the lobby at the ground floor and a glancing angle, but from what I could see was probably in bad shape before ever hitting the pavement just milliseconds later. I'll spare the details. So troubling -- mostly because of the sorrow to know that a relatively young man was in such pain that he gave up completely. I wish I could have helped, or that someone could have helped him have the courage to go on. But obviously not easy. I am so sorry for him and his family and friends.

A few hours later while I was still coping with that tragedy, one of our dear friends, a family of farmers in a tiny village of Jiangxi Province whose lives are interconnected with ours, sent me an even more horrific image of their dear son, their eldest of two (the younger son is the one I know best and may have mentioned here before, the one we have tried to help with some surgical needs). He had been murdered in Guangzhou and his bloated body had been dragged out of a river or canal. Such anguish. The mother is devastated and can hardly move. The father arrived there today to work with local police. We will go visit the mother and younger son in distant Jiangxi Province on Saturday. So overwhelming, so painful. We feel helpless but will try to comfort.

Some of you have already provided help for that family with the PayPal donation button at the left. They have serious needs again (not just because of the father's recently operated brain cancer), so donations will be focused on them for a while.

The unnecessary death of a stranger caused pain enough, but the murder of a young man we spent time with last year was just heartbreaking. Both tragedies encountered on the same day. There are things I need to learn and to do in response to this double jolt. But what? Your ideas are welcome.

The story took an even more painful twist  few days later when the father told me that the police in Guangzhou told him that it was not a murder, but a suicide. The father said that his son had been unable to earn enough to survive but did not want to disappoint his parents by asking for help, and so had given up. Believing that the death was a suicide (I'm not convinced the police know that for sure) seems to have further magnified the pain of the family. Devastating. The natural tendency for loved ones to blame themselves in the wake of a suicide is in full swing, I'm afraid.

(Much of this experience was previously shared on my Facebook page. Thanks to the many people who have given me inspired counsel and support in coping with these issues. There is much that I need to learn from this.)