Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

How to Win an Argument with God: A Lesson Sponsored by the Corona Virus

Ever since I participated in debate competitions in high school and maybe before, I have relished the occasional thrill of winning an argument against a smart opponent. Forgive me for bragging, but I can rightfully boast some pretty impressive victories, especially my many victories against the smartest opponent of all: God. That sounds pretty amazing, I know, but I've discovered that it's relatively easy to win arguments against Him. In fact, I won several in a row in the past few weeks.

The key to winning the argument is first listening so you can know what to argue against. Prayer is a great way to get started. Pray and seek for guidance in some aspect of your life. Humbly sense that guidance. Feel free to write it down. And then, think carefully of all the reasons why it is ridiculous and doesn't apply to you. Strong logical skills are a plus here if you want a decisive victory. Provide your reasons, dismiss His suggestion, and voila, you are likely to win because I've found that He often doesn't do much of a rebuttal.

God, in fact, is a terrible debater. No offense, but it's true. In debate, after one side critiques your proposal, it's important to carefully respond to and rebut each argument they have raised. God, I'm sad to say, is rather weak in this regard. Although He's the Ultimate in intelligence, His mastery of debate techniques seems to pale in comparison with the skills most of us mortals have.

For example, two months ago, in praying for guidance on the things I needed to do, I had a distinct impression: go to the Shanghai office of Woori Bank (a Korean bank that was said to be a relatively safe place to park some money in a world where many banks are now close to insolvency) and take out the money I had there in an unusual US dollar account. It wasn't much, but wasn't trivial. I actually wrote that down on my to-do list for that week. I would write it down again for two or three more weeks after that. I came close to going right before our recent trip to Vietnam, but fortunately was able to come up with some very logical reasons about why there was no need to do that. It would be 6 months before I left China and had plenty of time, and the time I took to do that in January would be time I couldn't do some important things for my work, my callings, whatever. It just made no sense, and I provided persuasive reasons why I could delay that prompting. No rebuttal. God walked away. Bingo, I won! Such an easy victory. (I say that with all due respect.)

I had similar victories as I was packing and preparing for our short trip to Vietnam almost a month ago. I was repeatedly prompted to bring my journal, to bring a backup hard disk, to bring extra cash, to bring a an unnecessarily large supply of medication, and most strangely of all, to bring some of my collection of magic tricks that I use daily when I am around my grandchildren. My arguments were to the point and overwhelmingly persuasive: "There's no way I'm going to be doing magic tricks for Vietnamese kids. There's no need for extra cash in Vietnam and it could be stolen. I need to travel light, so my heavy journal will be a burden that I can deal with after my short trip. And bringing my backup disk puts me at risk of having it and my computer stolen while traveling -- a disaster." God just didn't have any reply to such persuasiveness. Victory, victory, victory! So sweet.

On the other hand, now that the Corona virus has swept across China and made it impossible or unwise to return home to Shanghai after my short trip to Vietnam,  causing my wife and I to flee to the US as "medical refugees," where we are now hanging out with family, I can somewhat admit that some of those illogical suggestions might have been slightly useful after all. Since I may not be able to return to China before my visa expires, I may not ever see that money at Woori Bank. I called them yesterday and they explained that for my protection, the only way they will ever let me access the US dollars in my account is to show up at their office in Shanghai with my passport (and visa, of course). The good news, though, is that if I die and my wife can provide proper documentation and evidence of death, she may have a chance of getting some of it if she also goes to China. The helpful employee I reached was chuckling over my situation and the impact of China's and the bank's regulations. Hilarious, I know! My other bank accounts have ATM cards that allow me to withdraw money here in the US, but not that special US dollar account with the appropriately named Woori Bank.

The journal, with some precious accounts, would have been nice. The medication would have been useful but I found some more in Vietnam. The hard disk would have been helpful, but I bought another. The magic tricks, well, surprisingly, they would really come in handy now that I am staying much of the time with a family of six grandchildren who are magic addicts and visiting another grandchild in Minnesota tonight who also loves magic. So, grudgingly, I can sort of see some point to some of my Opponent's suggestions, but that doesn't change the fact that I absolutely won the argument -- and lost some valuable resources and time, while gaining some unnecessary worries.

I guess winning arguments is not always the best policy when dealing with God. Yes, I'll acknowledge His awesome intelligence, but wish He were a more vigorous debater so it wouldn't always be so easy for me to win.

Mercifully, we may have found a way to retrieve the journal and some other much-needed items. I'll report on that story in a few days, which abounds in examples of the great kindness of some foreign and local friends in China who made that possible as an answer to prayer (it was also a rare example of me finally not arguing when there was a good argument to be made against an implausible suggestion). God may not be the best debater by human standards, but He often helps us find second chances or new paths forward after we make major blunders in our lives (sometimes as a result of a very persuasive win in our debates with God). Keep seeking Him and listening to His guidance, in whatever situation you are in. He may have some interesting things for your to-do list, whether it's something small that might help you to bless your neighbor, relieve someone in distress, solve major problems in your life, or prepare to flee your home on your own journey to somewhere unexpected.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

(Deja) View on the Corona Virus

Please keep China in your prayers. The unprecedented efforts to contain the Corona virus may bring rapid success, I hope, but also bring great hardship to millions for a time. The challenges for those living in fully locked-down cities like Wuhan, Huangguang, and Ezhou may be enormous. But even in areas where the virus is not raging, like the beautiful, modern metropolises of Shanghai and Hangzhou, life can be difficult. People coming home from travel, like two American friends of mine who just returned to Shanghai from Australia, or a European friend who just got back to Hangzhou from a visit in Shanghai, are finding that strict regulations make them prisoners in their own apartment as the government requires quarantine for travelers. That's if you are lucky enough to get home at all -- my friend in Hangzhou said that she got home just one day before a ban on travelers entering the city went into effect. I don't know how accurate that is, so I'm just reporting what she understands.

In Shanghai, people returning on Sunday and hoping to start work on Monday are in for disappointment and frustration. It may be one or two weeks before they can go back to work, depending on local rules. Once again, even while living temporarily overseas, the wisdom of having food storage and basic supplies in reserve is manifest, though quarantined residents may be able to go to the local market for essentials or have them delivered.

One man in Shanghai desperately needed to get his new passport that was sent by DHL to Shanghai, but had not been delivered to him for a number of days because DHL was largely shut down due to virus fears. It was only by going to DHL offices and "crying" for hours in front of the building that he finally got the attention of workers there who dug around in a pile of undelivered packages and found his passport, giving him time to get to the airport with just two hours to spare before his flight out of the country. Without that, he would have been in violation of Chinese law with an expired visa. You don't want to violate visa rules in any foreign country.

Such tales, though, may be nothing compared to the sorrows of those who are trapped in places they don't belong, without resources and friends, unable to leave. Or even local Wuhan residents struggling with the challenges of living life under a lockdown with so much uncertainty, in spite of valiant efforts now to provide support and services. An American trapped in Wuhan did manage to get a seat on a plane out organized by the US government, but the problem was getting to the airport, some 30 miles away from his home. A few weeks ago that would have been easy: just take a taxi. But taxis in Wuhan have been shut down except for a handful dedicated to taking patients to the hospitals, but this requires a complex process of getting approval from the local government committees for each region of town and there's no chance of getting a ride to the airport. With no feasible way to get to the airport, the man missed the flight and his seat was given to someone else. Fortunately, he had a second passport with Germany, and was able to get on the evacuation flight for Germany, a nation that kindly sent a bus to give German citizens rides to the airport. (Congratulation to those of you who recognize the many virtues of having a second passport. When things go crazy in your home country, it's nice to have another option.)

In spite of China now going all out to contain the virus, there seems to be widespread anger toward China and the Chinese people. There are accusations that China did not act quickly enough or still is not doing enough. But Chinese people are also experiencing blame and anger. Hotels, shops, and restaurants in some areas are turning away Chinese people. Rudeness and xenophobic hysteria abound in some hearts. As I left Asia a few days ago, after a two-week virus-free exile in Vietnam before I began a business trip to the US for an R&D project in Minneapolis (I just love the University of Minnesota, by the way!), I read a front-page article in the New York Times on my flight from Hanoi to Seoul and was pained to see further evidence of the worldwide anger toward China. Motoko Rich's Feb. 1-2, 2020 article, "Global Xenophobia Follows Virus." See also MarketWatch's "‘No Chinese allowed’: Racism and fear are now spreading along with the coronavirus" from Feb. 3.  This is a tough time to be Chinese. The video below from a Chinese man in Florence, Italy reminds us of the humanity of those facing prejudice because a virus originated in their country.




Some say there's a deja vu sense to this virus, which is causing so much hysteria around the globe. But there's reason for the hysteria: the virus has left China, and now has killed people elsewhere in the world, including (as of Feb. 4) Hong Kong (1 death) and Philippines (1 death), etc., etc., etc., for a total of, well, two deaths so far outside of China. But in China, nearly 500 people have died, so the death toll is on its way to reaching that of the worldwide 2009 influenza pandemic with the H1N1 virus. Well, on its way to some degree, I suppose. The H1N1 virus that started in the Americas spread worldwide and ended up killing over 200,000 people (maybe as many as 500,000). Not 200, not 500, but over 200,000.

Do you recall the the draconian measures taken by the US government to contain that virus in 2009 and 2010? And do you remember the worldwide hostility toward North Americans for that North American virus? The shunning of all things American, the refusal to allow Americans to stay in hotels or enter restaurants, the locking down of New York, Miami, and LA? The martial law, the quarantines, the months of delayed school and the crushing of the US economy? The inability to fly, travel, or even leave your apartment? My memory must be fading, because I don't remember any of that. I remember encouragement to get flu shots then and warnings about the virus, but not the massive, painful disruption of travel, work, school, and normal life, nor escalation in anti-American sentiment. It's our bombs that stir that up, not our virus management policies.

China is responding to the crisis by locking down many cities, stranding over 50 million people, with martial-law measures in many other cities with tough regulations forcing many to be quarantined and hindering travel, work, and normal life. Perhaps too extreme, one can argue. There is also the cessation of much public transportation or blockades on roads in and out of many cities, the shutting down of thousands of tourist attractions, delayed operations for millions of employees, delayed school for millions, and so forth. Such extreme measures to contain this virus, and yet there is still international hysteria and blame. Outside of China, two have died, a few hundred are affected. It may get much worse, but right now, it's noting compared to seasonal bouts of influenza and nothing close to our own H1N1 pandemic that generated hardly any hysteria and resulted in a government response that was not exactly aggressive (I'm not saying it should have been -- I really don't know what should have been done). My point is, do we really need to shun China and be angry at the Chinese people for this one?

Yet the virus has unusually dangerous characteristics and may merit the extreme measures to control it. I'm not sure. But I hope we'll keep this in perspective relative to the thousands of deaths the US experiences every flu season from related though perhaps less severe viruses. And I pray that we'll remember China and recognize the great burdens the Chinese people are bearing, and not add to their burdens unnecessarily. Keep China and the Chinese people in your prayers, and thanks to those who are taking steps to help rather than to blame.


Update, Feb. 5 & 6, 2020: Mortality Rates
Regarding mortality rates, the official data from China suggests the mortality rate may be around 2%, though an early estimate from a small sample suggested it could be 11%. Hopefully mortality will decline as experience in gained and as treatments begin earlier for those at the most risk. However, current morality rates are based on total death relative to total cases, but many of the total cases are very recent, while the deaths are coming from infections that began perhaps a week or two ago when the number of cases were much lower, so the reported fatalities now during a rapidly escalating pandemic are surely severely underestimated, even if all the numbers being reported are accurate.

Here is some information on the mortality rate of the Wuhan Coronavirus relative to some other related viral infections, provided by ScienceAlert.com:
The 2002/03 SARS outbreak (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) started in Guangdong Province and killed 774 people out of a total 8,096 infected. The 2012 MERS outbreak (Middle East respiratory syndrome) killed 858 people out of the 2,494 infected.

The respective mortality rates for SARS and MERS patients was 9.5 and 34.5 percent, far higher that for the new coronavirus, which French health minister Agnes Buzyn put at "less than five percent".

That rate is likely to decline, experts say, as the ratio of deaths to reported cases continues to widen.

The coronavirus "is less deadly than SARS or MERS, but it is more contagious," Buzyn said in a press conference Tuesday.

The seasonal flu, by comparison, kills 290,000 to 650,000 people per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the United States, the mortality rate among people infected with influenza is about 0.13 percent, the Centers for Disease Control has calculated.


Sunday, February 02, 2020

Superbowl Culture Shock

Since leaving for China over 8 years ago, I occasionally experience some culture shock when I come back to the United States. A couple hours ago I felt so fortunate to finally be back in the US after having been caught outside of China when the Coronavirus scare became serious. Instead of returning to China as planned, we prolonged our stay in relatively healthy Vietnam, and then flew via Seoul, Korea to a major US airport in a city where I have a business trip this week.

After clearing customs, I went to a rental car desk and waited in line to get our car. Then I saw one of the more incongruous scenes I've encountered. A sweet, young Muslim girl wearing a hijab was at the desk helping people, and right behind her was a large TV screen showing what looked like a scene from a sordid "gentleman's club" a.k.a. "creepers club" with scantily clad women writhing to flashing lights. I looked away but was really shocked that this would be what a rental car agency would show to its customers. When I looked back, one of the women was now climbing a pole for what I feared would be a sketchy performance. I had gone off to the side of the line for a moment and could see a women at the front of the line looking shocked herself. What's going on?

I think in response to that woman's concern, the signal was cut and only later turned on again, revealing that this was the Superbowl and I had just seen a portion of the Superbowl's halftime show.  Welcome back to the States, Jeff! When we got to the front of the line, we were the only ones left and had plenty of time to chat with the Muslim girl there, who was probably the best example of great customer service I've had in renting a car. Kind, friendly, and professional, and with her manager's support, went the extra mile to solve a problem for us. It seems that they were just putting on the game as a service to customers and she had not seen the offensive performance (of the female performers, not the refs or the 49ers), but she could tell something was wrong from a reaction or two. She told me that so much has changed in the 8 years I've been away, and mentioned a couple of other offensive situations that school children are likely to be exposed to these days. "It's getting crazy," she said of the declining moral climate in the States.

OK, I only saw a few seconds of the show and may be taking things out of context, and undoubtedly am offending fans of the stars. Plus I am clearly out of touch with America’s vibrant pop culture. But for an old prude like me, I think it was not appropriate entertainment. This is a reminder to me of the harm to common sense and basic values that occurs when a nation and its elite influencers (Hollywood, the broadcast giants, the sports industry, etc.) lose their moral compass and become addicted to pornography or become insensitive to what used to be considered common family values.




Friday, January 31, 2020

What Vietnam Just Taught Me About Responding to Epidemics (Wuhan Coronavirus)

In China and many parts of the world, the price of face masks has jumped significantly. I tried buying some online to be shipped to my apartment when I get back to China eventually, and found prices were high and delivery would take nearly a month. I placed an order with two different suppliers. Hours later the orders were simply cancelled. I guess it's because they either decided to raise the price or couldn't guarantee supply. All over the world, prices are probably going up.

Here in Hanoi, Vietnam, where we were lucky to be when things started becoming difficult in China with the Coronavirus outbreak, we went to a local pharmacy first thing on a Monday morning to buy some masks (pharmacies had been closed for several days due to the Tet holiday here, related to the Chinese New Year). There were people ahead of us buying up a big chunk of their supplies. We bought some for the next few weeks as well, and then more people came in looking for masks. Prices have apparently gone up since then with significantly increased concern about the Wuhan Coronavirus, though Vietnam has been very fortunate to have just a few cases.

Early this Saturday morning as we went on a walk to a nearby lake in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I saw a small group of people on the sidewalk, the place where vendors of all kinds, especially little restaurants, set up shop, making sidewalks almost impossible to walk on sometimes. It looked like an opportunistic mom-and-pop operation with a big cardboard box of face masks, a cheap plastic table, and a makeshift sign.


Can you guess the price per mask from this operation in Hanoi, Vietnam?

"Hmm, I wonder how much they are charging now?" Curious, I approached them and asked how much for a face mask. The answer completely shocked me.

"No price. They are free. Here, take two."

What? What's the catch? My wife and I were stunned, so we asked some questions to figure out what was going on here. Three women were running this operation: a young woman, her mother, and her grandmother. Three generations of women from this family have bought a big supply of masks and are now giving them out for free because they are worried about the unfair vendors who have jacked up prices. They want to do their part to make Vietnam a safer, better place. This was so unexpected, especially after a few encounters with unscrupulous cabbies, who taught us that "Happy New Year" means "I am about to rip you off." But we will forget those cabbies in a couple of weeks. We will never forget the real people of Vietnam that we have met, the ones who value service and charity about their own finances.

We asked more questions. Is this for the government? For a church? A religion? Some organization? I wanted to know what the business model was. The business model, it turns out, is called love. No organizational agenda was behind this. It's just what this family likes to do. They also organize events where they go to hospitals and cook food to help the sick and needy, feeding about 500 people at  time. Wow, what a sweet family! We thanked them profusely not so much for the masks as for their love of others and the goodness that they radiate. Such beautiful people. Just like the local Vietnamese we met at Church last Sunday here in Hanoi and many others we have met as well. We have been touched by the good people of Vietnam.

At a time when others in the world are exploiting every crisis that comes along, how refreshing to see people jump in to serve and sacrifice, giving masks away for free. The sidewalks may not be easy to walk on, but the people of Vietnam make even a crowded, chaotic city like Hanoi such a beautiful place.

I asked for the name of the family. Their daughter wrote Cơm Nhân Ái in her beautiful handwriting on the last page of a sci-fi novel I had with me (Jiang Bo's The Bookstore at the End of the Universe, FYI, which I've hardly touched on this busy trip), making the book all the more precious to me now.  The mother, the mastermind of this operation, also showed me the family name on a graphic she had on her phone. I believe "Com" is the surname that may also mean "rice," I think "Nhân" means "multiply" and while Google translate tells me "Ái" means craving, I prefer to apply the Chinese "ai"  that means love. "Multiply the love." OK, not accurate, but a nice way to remember the experience.



The Cơm Nhân Ái family made my day.

This mother is the mastermind
of this remarkable public service.

The daughter told us about this family's
regular service work. Wonderful!

Another view of the charitable project
early on a Saturday morning.

Here is the mother without the mask.
Truly an amazing woman.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Updates on the Wuhan Coronavirus

Concerns about the Wuhan Coronavirus may need to be adjusted upwards in light of the latest data. Many thanks to The Lancet for providing clinical data on this virus, for which reliable information has been hard to come by. The Lancet has now created a Coronavirus center at https://www.thelancet.com/coronavirus.

The latest study, "Epidemiological and clinical characteristics of 99 cases of 2019 novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan, China: a descriptive study,"  by N. Chen et al. in The Lancet, Jan. 29, 2019 (https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30211-7) provides some grim clinical information, including an 11% mortality rate for those who get pneumonia from the virus. For some reason this is much higher than is being reported in China generally, where mortality seems to be around 2-3%. The sample size in the study may be too small (99 patients) or they may have had unusually bad luck in their hospital, or elsewhere in China there may be some patients who were classified as deaths due to pneumonia, organ failure, or other causes without being recognized as Coronavirus cases. I am absolutely not suggesting, as some rumor mongers at questionable news sources like the Los Angeles Times or Zerohedge.com have suggested, that statistics are being doctored (so to speak), though I can certainly understand why individual communities and institutions might theoretically prefer to list as few fatalities as possible to avoid panic and maintain harmonious relations. And frankly, we are all hoping for as few fatalities as possible. Keep Wuhan and China in your prayers!

A Jan. 24 report from The Lancet provides even more troubling news about the possibility that children and young people may have the disease and be able to spread it without displaying symptoms, which could make the disease more difficult to contain by screening for fever or other symptoms. Ouch. I sincerely hope this is just another scurrilous Western rumor that needs to be censored ASAP, and it may be since the Lancet report is being discussed most loudly by the alarmist Bloomberg.com, a source which, mercifully, is blocked in China (as are several other well-known sources of rumors and fake news like Facebook, Twitter, Google, the New York Times, Wikipedia, and some "LOL Cat" sites, whatever they are). The original Lancet article is J.F.W. Chan et al., "A familial cluster of pneumonia associated with the 2019 novel coronavirus indicating person-to-person transmission: a study of a family cluster," The Lancet, Jan. 24, 2020 (https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30154-9). If it's all rumor, I apologize deeply and welcome your correction.

Finally, many thanks to President Nelson for having the Church send some much needed medical supplies to China. I'm grateful the Church has the resources to do that. Much greater assistance may be needed in the future. By the way, do you have a supply of good surgical face masks for members of your family should there be an outbreak of this or a similarly dangerous virus in your community? Face masks, hand sanitizers, soap, tissue paper, toilet paper, plastic bags to cold contaminated clothing, laundry soap, and other basics might be wise to include with your food supply in case of emergency. In many communities in Asia, masks and some other basics are now difficult to get. Better to be prepared than to be standing in a 1-kilometer line with other possibly ill people waiting to get a mask, as happened in Taiwan recently. Be prepared!


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Dealing with the Wuhan Coronavirus: Some Thoughts for Those Traveling or Living in Asia

What some people may have viewed as just a normal outbreak of flu is beginning to cause alarm on a global scale, especially here in Asia. For those who recall the SARS virus outbreak around 2003, the Wuhan version of the Coronavirus may be much more serious since it may be able to spread from an infected person before symptoms show.  But it may not be more serious in the end -- there is so much we don't know still, and some information has been rather hard to get. Not blaming any governments here, mind you, just noting that the uncertainty is intensifying fear and driving panic. Lots of panic and anguish in China. I worry for the locked down cities where they may be shortages not only of medical supplies but of food and water.

For members of the Church in China, an unfortunate issue is not being able to hold regular Sunday meetings until this storm calms down. But ministering can and must continue to occur. Some members don't have the face masks they now need, so that's one service opportunity for those who wisely had a good supply. Face masks capable of preventing transmission of airborne viruses ought to be part of your emergency supplies.

Sadly, this epidemic broke out right before the mass exodus of the Chinese New Year occurred, when over 1 billion trips take place in a short period of time, the most travel intense period in history. Infected people may have spread across the country and beyond,. While dramatic and unprecedented measures are being taken by the Chinese government to contain it, there may be many surprises and sorrows yet to come. Many people are blaming various entities, and some heads will roll, but the efforts now being taken in China and elsewhere to cope may do much to get things back to normal.

My sympathy to the 60 million or more who are stranded, unable to leave cities like Wuhan (twice the population of New York City!) that are now being locked down. Many Chinese people and some foreigners are unable to get home. Some needing medical help may not receive the care they wish they had. It's a very disturbing time for many in China.

As I write, I'm in Vietnam and was fortunate to arrive here with my wife, where we arrived before the start of the Chinese New Year holiday, well before the Corona virus became so alarming. Our flights back to Shanghai were cancelled yesterday, but fortunately, we had already decided it was too risky to return to China now, so I and my wife spent most of the day on Tuesday on the phone and online dealing with airlines, travel services, hotels, rental cars, etc., to avoid a return to China and instead to leave early to the US for my upcoming business travel there.

We were caught off guard by the rapid explosion of the virus and wish we had been better prepared for a possibly extended, unplanned stay away from our apartment in Shanghai, though we have been fortunate in having already been out of the country when the crisis occurred and even more fortunate to be able to go to the US with enough time out of China to not need a self-imposed (or government-imposed) quarantine to reduce the risk of bringing the virus back to the States.

Through this process and through observations of some of the dynamics of life in Asia, there are a few survival tips I wish to share for others in Asia or coming to Asia or traveling anywhere where significant outbreaks of the virus are occurring. One might also contemplate how an outbreak of war natural disasters, etc., might affect you as well.

First, some questions.

1. Are you prepared if the city you happen to be in while traveling or living in is struck with an epidemic?  Are you prepared with materials to reduce your risk of being infected and to reduce the risk of infecting others if you are able to leave the area?

2. Are you prepared to be stuck in a city with a lot of sick people for an extended and undesired long period of time?

3. If traveling away from home, are you prepared if you cannot return home for a period of time?

4. If you are an expat living in Asia and suddenly find you cannot return to your home or apartment while traveling, are you prepared?

With those questions in mind, rethink how you pack and travel when trouble is brewing. You may end up regretting the convenience of traveling light with a small bag rather than having a checked bag plus your carry on, for that checked bag you didn't bring could have contained vital materials in case you end up being stuck somewhere or having to return to your home country. You may wish to focus on vital things like precious documents, hard drives, clothing, journals, face masks, medicines, etc. Documents -- how often do you think about that when you travel? But now as I think what I would have packed if I knew I might be away from China for many weeks or months, documents like tax records, birth certificates, and our marriage license are on the list, along with a couple more books and some more clothing. (Having electronic scanned versions of tax records and other documents is always a good idea, and we are mostly OK there but still have some gaps.)

A rising pandemic can result in entire cities being locked down, as has happened to 60 million people in China in the past few days. All travel out of these cities, whether by planes, buses, trains, automobiles, etc., has been blocked. For how long? Nobody knows. You don't want to be caught in this situation. But if it happens, are you prepared? Do you want to be trapped in a city with lots of sick people if you don't have a face mask to reduce the risk of infection? I recommend you travel with face masks capable of stopping viruses carried by aerosol from sneezing and coughing people. Add some hand sanitizer. Don't think you can just buy them when you need them. A bar or two of soap might be helpful. Bring more cash than normal but pay attention to limits for carried cash when crossing borders. Visitors in some places may find that their ATM cards don't work, as I have seen happen to many expats from China when they visited Macau or other nations. One European I met on an airplane had to borrow cash from me just to get started with a taxi (he was able to pay me back electronically with WeChat, but he felt so awkward asking for the help, having been caught completely unprepared when it came to cash on hand). Bring plenty of cash, always.

If you are at home when a crisis strikes, be prepared there especially. Food storage is always a smart idea. When pandemic fears strike, grocery stores are quickly wiped out. Drivers might not be willing to risk bringing food in. If there were a crisis and no food could be bought for, say, two or three weeks, will you be able to survive? Will you be able to help others? Do you have reserves of food, water, and sanitation supplies. Toilet paper, paper towels, disposable gloves, plastic bags, cleaning supplies, rags or towels, etc., can be precious in times of disease.

When making travel plans in crazy times, I have a few more suggestions. I'm surprised at the quality control problems I've encountered in customer service. On Delta Airlines, an agent we spent a lot of time with said we were all set after she took our credit card number and said my tickets were good to go. Only later that day when I had to call again to make more changes did I learn that that first agent had only entered the itinerary but had not completed the purchase and we had nothing. I had received an update from Delta by email with my new itinerary, but it was not a receipt. That email made me think all was good, even though it said it was not a receipt and if I had not yet paid, please do so. But I had paid, so I thought, and I figured all was well. Had I not made that second call (with roughly a 30 minute wait time), I would have gone to the airport later to take my flight and been shocked to learn I had nothing, and may have been stranded in Vietnam for a while longer.

With modern airlines, don't trust, don't assume anything, don't believe what they tell you. I received wrong information from two different agents and it was only when I suspected that they didn't know what they were talking about and asked to speak with a supervisor that I was able to resolve problems. Be polite, but assume the person you are speaking with may make mistakes, so ask lots of questions, ask how you can know the purchase when through, ask for names and confirmation numbers and so forth. Annoying, I know.

While living in hotels in Vietnam and worrying about the virus, I've been paying much more attention to possible routes of transmission. When a delightful smoothie was prepared by and then brought to me by a waiter who then sneezed a few seconds after he put it on our table, I was ready to just pay and walk out without eating anything. But the hot food was made by and brought to us by someone else, so we ate that but skipped the smoothies, so we ate that.

Beware Buffets: A Weak Link in Public Safety
I think one of the weak links for public safety while traveling are buffet meals, such as the ubiquitous breakfast buffet and certainly dinner buffets. Two friends of our from Taiwan met up with us in Hanoi and invited us to join them for dinner at a lovely buffet in a 5-star hotel. We don't like buffets because the food often tends to be substandard or cold and our goal is not to eat a lot, but maybe just a small amount of something tasty. But we went and enjoyed our time, though I couldn't help but notice some troubling details. One small boy in trying to get some fruit salad spilled some on the counter top. He used his hands to scoop it up and put it back in the bowl. Then he coughed on the food. This kind of thing happens in every country and every buffet if you watch closely. For a small breakfast buffet, this can be managed by going early before the families with small children arrive. That's what we did this morning. Moments after we arrived, an English-speaking family came in. The child didn't run around touching food -- he was fine, but the father had a bad cold. When my toast popped up while I was away for a moment, the father picked it up with his hands and set the bread back in the bread tray so he could put two slices of bread in the toaster. He kindly told me what he had done to help out. I smiled, said thanks, took my tainted toast and, of course, did not eat it.

Bring Face Masks
We'll be wearing surgical face masks on our flights from Hanoi to the US to reduce risks. Bringing face masks is a good idea, though they can be annoying to use.  But when there's an epidemic, they can be essential.

There are a variety of other tips. For example, National Geographic points out that window seats may be safer than aisle seats (bad news for me, good news for my wife), offering reduced exposure to other passengers. But wearing a face mask in any case makes sense at this time. Just keeping your immune system strong with adequate rest and good nutrition is also smart.

Any other tips for travel and survival in times of crisis that you wish to share?

Update: Troubling new clinical information on the Wuhan Coronavirus is discussed on a later post, "Updates on the Wuhan Coronavirus."

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Three Days to the Valley of Lemuel -- But From Where?

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is having readers with diverse perspectives who aren't afraid to point out flaws in my views. This forces me to either hide my face in shame for a few days or to reconsider what I said. The latter happened this week while discussing part of the evidence for Lehi's Trail, the discovery that a perennially flowing stream in Wadi Tayyib al-Ism appears to be an excellent candidate for the River Laman in 1 Nephi 2 of the Book of Mormon. My blog post specifically looked at the peripheral issue of the "river of filthy water" that can occur when the stream Lehi may have encountered becomes a flash flood, as it did a few weeks ago with video evidence provided at Google Maps.

Some readers wondered what was so special about Joseph guessing that some river or stream somewhere has to flow into the Red Sea, even and holding up the Erie Canal as proposed inspiration for the River Laman. In response, I explained that the "wow" factor of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism isn't the unsurprising encounter with some random river or steam as one moves from inland toward and along the coast of the sea. The "wow" factor involves details such as the correspondence between directions given in the text and the specific location of the candidate stream and valley in an unexpected, arid place. As I consider the response of some readers, it's almost as if our critics have already forgotten that the River Laman for decades was touted as one of the more ridiculous things about the Book of Mormon (up there with the verdant site of  "imaginary" Bountiful, also now confirmed in a plausible place with many supporting details) since "everyone knows" that there are no rivers in the Arabian Peninsula.

Once mocked for being absurd and impossible, Wadi Tayyib al-Ism as apparent Book of Mormon evidence is now mocked for being trivial, an inevitable feature that most farm boys could have guessed with just a moment of thought. But could they have guessed that there would be an almost never-seen perennial stream in such an arid place, adequate to support fruit trees (dates) and grain, in spite of its flow having been significantly diminished in recent years by government wells pumping water out of the region? Could they have guessed that the river/stream would be in a highly impressive valley that would provide shade and could inspire Lehi to wax poetic about the firm walls of the steep cliffs surrounding the River Laman, cliffs that come near the mouth of the "river" but stop before the Red Sea, as Nephi describes? Could they have guessed that this once-said-to-be-impossible Book of Mormon location would be within a plausible radius of three days of travel (presumably with camels) from the beginning of the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aqaba for Lehi and family), as we read in 1 Nephi 2:5-6? And that's where I made a mistake that needs to be corrected today [update: Spoiler alert: I was wrong in thinking that Nephi's statement was ambiguous, not that the candidate for the River Laman is plausible].

Some readers replied that the Book of Mormon says it's three days of cumulative travel since leaving Jerusalem -- not leaving anywhere near enough time to even reach the Red Sea from Jerusalem.  Following George Potter and Warren Aston, I suggested in my comments that 1 Nephi 2:5-6 plausibly refers to a three-day count after the Red Sea is first encountered, and while that reading is plausible, I added my opinion that Nephi's statement is ambiguous and admittedly could be read to imply that the three days began with the departure from Jerusalem:
1 Nephi 2:5-6 tell us that after Lehi left Jerusalem to travel in the wilderness, he then "came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family... And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water."

There is ambiguity here in his meaning (is he counting the travel in the wilderness in vs. 6 relative to the immediately mentioned travel in the wilderness near the Red Sea, or back to the earlier departure from Jerusalem into the wilderness? Taking it as a three-day count from the encounter with the Red Sea mentioned just before his three day reference, as Potter did, and using conventional camel speed with full days, then we have a roughly 75-mile journey distance to reach the Valley of Lemuel from the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, which works out quite well. I suppose it would be even easier (requiring a slower pace) if the three day count began when they began traveling in the borders/mountains "nearer" the Red Sea. In any case, three days from Jerusalem would be too far. Potter's plausible reading of Nephi's record allows Lehi to reach the River of Laman. 
Thanks to the challenge from some readers, I reconsidered my views as I looked at what George Potter and Warren Aston had said and reflected on what the text really tells us.  Potter is the explorer who initially found this candidate and reported that it was in a plausible location that could comply with the text. See George Potter, "A New Candidate in Arabia for the Valley of Lemuel," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1999): 54–63, 79; available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/vol8/iss1/11. Regarding the location, Potter interprets the text to say, "the valley was located within three-day’s walk or camel ride beyond the northeast tip of the Red Sea (see 1 Nephi 2:5–6)" (p. 57). Why the text requires that view is not explained. Warren Aston, an expert on Lehi's Trail who did the original field work for the most plausible candidate for Bountiful at Khor Karfot in Oman and has some brilliant insights to share from there and also from the Nahom area, says a bit more about the three days journey of 1 Nephi 2:5-6 in his excellent and detailed work on Lehi's Trail, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015). Though his treatment of the Valley of Lemuel is relatively brief and ultimately calls for more field work to confirm the merits of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism and to consider other potential candidates that have proposed (fieldwork that he recently conducted, as I discussed in "A Feast of Knowledge Awaits"), Aston does say this regarding the location in the chapter "Base Camp in the Valley of Lemuel" in Part 2 (Kindle edition):
A careful reading of [1 Nephi] 2:5-6 makes it clear that it was not from Jerusalem, but rather from the head of the Red Sea, where the twin cities of Eilat and Aqaba now lie, that the Lehites traveled another three days “in the wilderness.” Reaching the Red Sea had already required as much as ten days’ travel from Jerusalem, so the “three days” travel further into the wilderness began at this point. This allows us to identify the general area where this significant campsite must have been as three days’ travel with loaded camels must be in the order of 50 to 70 miles distant from the Aqaba area.

Here, in a valley beside a “river of water,” they set up camp, for what may have been a considerable period. Nephi tells us that their camp was “in the borders nearer the Red Sea” beside a river that “emptied into the Red Sea” (2:5, 8). Lehi used the appearance of the valley, “firm and steadfast, and immovable” (2:10) as an object lesson when exhorting Lemuel, and so the place came to be known as the “Valley of Lemuel” (2:14).

Of their eight years in the wilderness, the majority may have been spent here, in Dedan, ancient Midian, safely distant from Jerusalem. The valley was a base camp for them to more properly prepare for the long desert journey that lay ahead and the epic sea voyage that would then follow. Indeed, most of the Old World account takes place while they were living here. From here, Nephi and his three older brothers would return twice to Jerusalem, firstly to obtain the brass records from Laban (resulting also in the unplanned addition of Laban’s servant Zoram), and the second time to bring additional manpower in the form of Ishmael’s family. Their arrival back at the camp would more than double the size of the group, and the need for adequate food supplies. Nephi’s statement that they “gathered together all manner of seeds” (8:1), apparently to augment those brought from Jerusalem, suggests that their stay in the valley was both preparatory and long enough to include at least one growing season. [emphasis added]
While I also felt that Nephi's wording appears to be referring to the time from the previously mentioned encounter with the Red Sea, neither of the statements from Potter and Aston seem to remove the ambiguity that I could see after consider the views from readers who disagreed with this interpretation. So I went back to the text and reconsidered -- and that's when I discovered I had made a mistake, or been hasty in my conclusion, for Nephi's wording might not be as ambiguous as it seems at first glance.

Here's the text of 1 Nephi 2:1-6:
[1] For behold, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream, and said unto him: Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life.
[2] And it came to pass that the Lord commanded my father, even in a dream, that he should take his family and depart into the wilderness.
[3] And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him.
[4] And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.
[5] And he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family, which consisted of my mother, Sariah, and my elder brothers, who were Laman, Lemuel, and Sam.
[6] And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water.
Here I can see why others might think the three days refer to time since leaving Jerusalem, for chapter begins with Lehi being commanded to "depart into the wilderness" (2), and so "he departed into the wilderness" (3), and thus left all his goods except provisions and tents, "and departed into the wilderness." Three times we have this phrase, "depart/departed into the wilderness," and it refers to leaving Jerusalem to begin his long journey. So later in verse 6, after Lehi "had traveled three days in the wilderness" and discovered "a river of water," it is certainly plausible that Nephi means three days since they "departed into the wilderness." One could say that not only is there ambiguity, but the "three days since Jerusalem" reading is more faithful to the text.

As with many things in the Book of Mormon and especially in Nephi's writings, there are interesting rhetorical or literary tools employed that often shed added meaning or help reveal the intent from the author.

Looking again at verses 5 and 6, two things hit me that I should have noticed before. First, Nephi is employing an interesting and common literary tool variously called "repetitive resumption," "resumptive repetition," epanalepsis, and Wideraufnahme (taking up again), wherein a parenthetical remark or departure from the main story line is flagged by a repeated phrase or word before and after the inserted remark. For some background and examples, I recommend these resources:
Now consider repetitive resumption in verses 5 and 6 of 2 Nephi 2. Lehi "came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family," after which we have an aside or parenthetical remark telling us who was in that family, followed by the flag that is meant to pick up and continue the story from immediately before the aside: "And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water."  The three days of travel is a continuation of this episode of traveling in the wilderness in the borders near or nearer the Red Sea. This period of travel is using different language than the phase of departing from Jerusalem. Interestingly, just as "depart/departed into the wilderness" was used three times in the initial departure stage," after they "came" to the Red Sea, we then have three occurrences of a related but different phrase: "travel/traveled in the wilderness." The tool of repetitive resumption flags this action, taking place in the borders near or nearer to the Red Sea, and tells us that it continued for three days.

In light of the literary devices used here, I suggest that I was wrong in my prior statement about the ambiguity of Nephi's statement. I don't think it's actually ambiguous. I think his language requires looking at the three days journey as limited to the "travel" phase that began after meeting the Red Sea. The River Laman and the Valley of Lemuel aren't required to be in an impossible location just south of Jerusalem, where no river can possibly flow into the Red Sea, but south of the Gulf of Aqaba in the borders/mountains near the Red Sea, where it is not only theoretically possible to locate something like the River Laman, but where an excellent candidate has now been found that actually is within a three-day journey by camel from Aqaba (or regions thereabout) to the amazing Wadi Tayyib al-Ism.

Second, Nephi uses "travel in the wilderness" three times, just as he did with "depart into the wilderness," possibly as if this section of travel is parallel with the initial departure scene. One episode begins in Jerusalem with divine revelation and seeing a book in vision, and the next phase of the adventure begins after the encounter with the Red Sea, a phase abounding in miracles, trials, and revelation, along with obtaining a divine book (the brass plates), with both stages rich in Exodus themes.

The significance of this latter phase of travel being associated with "the border near the Red Sea" is again picked up many chapters later in 1 Nephi 16:14, after having left the Valley of Lemuel that was in the borders "nearer the Red Sea," where, after hunting animals in the place called Shazer, they "did go forth again in the wilderness, following the same direction [roughly south-southeast], keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea." So it seems that after the time in the Valley of Lemuel, they had gone from the borders "nearer" the Red Sea back to the borders "near" the Red Sea, meaning they weren't right next to the Red Sea as they were while in the Valley of Lemuel, but had moved somewhat away from the Red Sea, as seems to be required for the journey to Nahom via the general direction of the Incense Trail. That is consistent with the route proposed by Potter, in which they went away from the Red Sea back to the main trails that connected to the Incense Trail, putting some space and mountains between them and the Red Sea. It's a subtlety in the text I had not noticed before. Something Joseph must have picked up from Joseph's Technicolor Dream Map of Arabia that he used, I suppose. Seriously, there are many delightful details in Nephi's account that correspond with details from antiquity and the Near East. Much to ponder there.

Resuming where I left off, I believe I was wrong in my comments about the three days issue, for I don't think that Nephi was truly ambiguous about where the three days' journey began. Based on his structure and his use of repetitive resumption, the time assigned is surely intended as the time in that second phase, the phase that began after reaching the Red Sea, the time since traveling in the borders near the Red Sea (or nearer the Red Sea -- perhaps there's a touch of ambiguity there after all). Aston and Potter instinctively understood that this was Nephi's message, and I think considering the literary devices involved shows that Nephi was not being sloppy in his wording, but relatively clear. As with all texts and translations especially, there's room for misunderstanding, but the case for dismissing the "wow" of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism because of the impossibility of reaching the Red Sea in three days relies on a weak reading that strives to miss misses the plain significance of some very interesting evidence.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The River of Filthy Water in Lehi's Dream, and Perhaps in His Personal Experience

In Lehi's dream in 1 Nephi 8, he saw a river of water flowing by the great and spacious building, and saw that many drowned in it as they left the straight and narrow path and wandered into forbidden paths. Nephi later sees a version of this dream in 1 Nephi 11 and 12, where he shares a detail in 1 Nephi 12:16 that he did not record in 1 Nephi 8:  "And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell."

This vision with a deadly river of filthy water occurred while Lehi and his family dwelt in the Valley of Lemuel (1 Nephi 9:1), a place with a river of pure water that Lehi named the River Laman, a miraculous place for which a fabulous candidate has been discovered in Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, a site first discovered by George Potter and buttressed as a candidate with further exploration of Warren Aston, as I discussed in a recent post.

Now Warren Aston has kindly pointed out that the Google Maps page for user-provided content on that location shows an interesting video recently posted in Dec. 2019 showing what can happen to the small stream/river that flows continually in the great Valley of Lemuel candidate after there has been rain elsewhere. If that link doesn't show a video, try this. At the moment, I don't see a way to display the video directly here, but it's impressive. A terrifying flood of filthy water clearly rich in dirt and sand is sweeping through the peaceful wadi and carrying everything in its path straight into the Red Sea. Lehi, who may have spent many months if not years in this incredible and habitable place that is still uninhabited to this day as it was in his, may have experienced first hand just how deadly a river of filthy water can be.

Here's a thumbnail of one frame of the video:

Portion of a video recording a Dec 2019 flood at Wadi Tayyib al-Ism,
a solid candidate for the Valley of Lemuel in the Book of Mormon.

Here's a view from a few seconds later, pretty much the same:

Another screen shot.


Many thanks to Warren Aston for sharing this interesting find.



Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Kindness of Two Chinese Strangers Turned Our Christmas Eve from Frustration to Joy

Sorry for the delay in posting this note which I wrote during the Christmas holidays and already shared on Facebook

Christmas Eve was marvelous for us thanks to the surprising help of two kind Chinese people in Macao, total strangers, who showed us the goodness that I have found so many times among Chinese people all over the world (and people in general, to be fair). We were trying to attend a Catholic event to enjoy some beautiful religious Christmas music, but we weren't paying enough attention as the cabbie dropped us off at the wrong church, an isolated, dark one far from roads where we could hope to find a new taxi. He drove off before we realized his mistake.

There was nobody within sight except a security guard sequestered in a little guard post unable to speak much Mandarin and a young couple, I think married, apparently there to enjoy the beautiful view from that hill. The guard told us nothing useful, but as we wandered past the couple, we asked where to go to find a taxi and got the discouraging news that we'd have to walk a long ways down the hill and beyond. We were just starting our journey down the long dark road, realizing we might miss the service we wanted to attend, when they came over to us and said they were going to drive us to the right place. So kind!

We were total strangers, but they volunteered their time and their car to help us get to our destination. As they neared the cathedral, we saw and heard the musical celebration that had just begun in a bright, crowded plaza, but with an ideal spot for us to watch. We experienced many beautiful hymns tonight. We were so touched with gratitude for the kindness that rescued us from being lost and wandering on a gloomy, remote path and instead took us to a bright and joyous place ringing with sacred hymns.

Interestingly, the square was about 200 meters away from the cathedral, but right next to an aptly named building: "Santa Casa da Misericordia" -- the Holy House of Mercy. We felt blessed with undeserved mercy in being able to partake of that musical celebration after our own inattention (and a cabbie's sloppiness) got us so far from our destination.

In a tiny way, what happened to us has parallels to the Christmas message itself and the way Christ seeks to rescue each of us from our lost state and our own dark journeys to bring us back into light and joy, to the destination He wants us to find. I hope I will never forget the sweet impact of the kindness of these strangers, and hope I can find ways to help strangers in need as well.






Background: Having just spent a lot of time with family in the US recently and since we are going back in a few months when it will be easier to get together, this year we stayed in greater China for Christmas. An often overlooked part of China is the tiny region of Macao, known to many Americans only for its gambling. We hate gambling (though I do have some money in the stock market), but I love the charm, beauty, and food of Macao. Since it's now very cheap to visit due to concerns over disturbances next door in Hong Kong, I wanted to bring my wife and show her what I found here on a business trip in the past where I was invited to speak at a conference on intellectual property strategy.

For Christmas Eve, our plan was to take a taxi to the main island of Macao and attend a mass at a Catholic cathedral or an event in the plaza nearby in order to experience beautiful religious Christmas music. It worked out so well, through the miracle of selfless service from two Chinese strangers, and the love of so many good Catholic people sharing their musical gifts with us and a large crowd tonight. I especially appreciated the woman who hosted the program and gave little spiritual thoughts about Christ between many of the musical performances. Some beautiful preaching from a faithful and enthusiastic Christian woman.

Please accept this belated "Merry Christmas" from China and Macao!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Feast of Knowledge Awaits: New Field Work in the Arabian Peninsula Tells Us More About the Stunning Candidate Location for the River Laman and Valley of Lemuel

Prologue: Thoughts on Feasting
When one eats a delicious meal prepared by a competent cook, there is a spectrum of approaches one can take. At one extreme is caveman-on-the-run style: eat fast, get the chore over with while worrying about predators or other things, and move on quickly. The plate of pasta is a pile of needed carbs. Wolf it down.

Near the other end of the spectrum is the "joyous, informed feast" where each dish and each bite is contemplated, savored, and even explored intellectually. The plate of pasta is not just relished, but is the subject of inquiry. This cheese, what kind is it? Tallegio? My favorite! With four-year-old Parmesan from southern Italy? Why four years? How do the two cheeses interact? Are they combined at once or in stages? And this is handmade pasta? What's special about the flour it was made from? That texture, it's so different, so perfect -- how is it achieved? Tell me about this olive oil. Why is it so golden? And these peppers and tomatoes, there's something different. Can you tell me more?

Learning about the artistry behind each ingredient and the painstaking work it took to create the whole can add greatly to the enjoyment. One person may see a plate of carbs to be washed down the gullet in seconds, while another sees the hand of a master craftsman and rejoices with every bite and every discovery during the feast.

Our approach to the scriptures, in my opinion, should be closer to the joyous, informed feast approach, an exploration filled with inquiry, discovery, delight, and admiration for the many craftsmen who made our feast possible. This requires, of course, gaining outside information. Staring at the plate of food or staring at a page of scripture is not likely to unlock most of the mysteries begging to be unlocked and enjoyed. But many outside resources can help us do that. They can tell us about word plays and poetical devices built into the text, or guide us regarding symbolism, relationships to other passages of scriptures, give us historical context, show us details of meaning related to the physical setting, point out the significance of a word we may have overlooked, and so forth. In all this there is discovery and joy.

With that thought, you may enjoy a podcast from LDS Perspectives with Dr. Bradley Kremer, "A New Approach to Studying the Book of Mormon with Bradley J. Kramer." Kremer is the author of the new book, Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014). In this well-done podcast with host Laura Hales, Kremer discusses his experience in studying the Torah with a Jewish group using a rabbinical approach where much time is taken on each passage, sometimes each word, to understand the deep meanings and connections that occur in the scriptures.

This approach, supported by knowledge of Hebrew and tapping the brains and writings of others, helps one to not just understand the microscopic details, but to grasp the overarching whole, not just a few memorable snippets, that we have in the Word of God. He recommends that we take this approach to our study of the Book of Mormon and the rest of the scriptures. A wise recommendation!

There is so much more to the Book of Mormon than meets the eye, and so much worthy of studying and contemplating in light of additional knowledge we can obtain from outside works. For example, a recent publication by Clifford Jones in The Interpreter points out that we may have frequently misjudged the status of the minor writers in the Book of Omni. One of Jones' contributions is thoroughly exploring a tiny, easily overlooked phrase in Omni 2, "of myself" in Omni's confession, "I of myself am a wicked man." This phrase, more commonly used in the Early Modern English era than in our era, is often used in the Book of Mormon to express what happens when people act on their own, without the guidance of the Lord, and can indicate that the user of that phrase has repented and is seeking the Lord's will. Jones argues convincingly that Omni's expression is that of a penitent man, much like Joseph Smith's recognition of his past follies in his History. His exposition also shows that the message of grace in the Book of Mormon is even more extensive than we may have recognized. Such "outside" knowledge helps us see more of the meaning and beauty that is deeply woven into the Book of Mormon.

There are so many other valuable works of scholarship on the Book of Mormon and other aspects of the LDS scriptures that members can use to strengthen their ability to feast with gusto on the Word. This includes those who have done field work in exploring possible Book of Mormon sites in the Arabian Peninsula (e.g., Warren Aston and George Potter), and the investigations of scholars into the text and its meaning, scholars such as Royal Skousen, John L. Sorenson, Daniel Peterson, Don Bradley, Jack Welch, and many others. Unfortunately, I am continually surprised at how many faithful Latter-day Saints study the Book of Mormon without caring to examine the abundant outside resources that directly help us understand the reality, plausibility, and deeper significance of the text. I hope you will resolve to learn more and read more from some of the outstanding LDS scholars who are helping to bring the Book of Mormon to life. 

Let Us Feast on Knowledge Regarding Lehi's Trail and the Nephite Exodus
One of the most  tangible and impressive results of LDS scholarship in the Book of Mormon involves the remarkable finds regarding the Arabian Peninsula, including the astonishing evidence for previously deemed "impossible" and "absurd" places like the continually flowing River Laman ("there are no rivers in Arabia -- everyone knows that!") and Bountiful ("a green haven with trees, fruit, and water not only doesn't exist but if it did, could not possibly be uninhabited as the Book of Mormon implies!"). We've discussed such things here many times as well as on my Book of Mormon Evidences page, and I've provided some detailed rebuttals to some inadequate complaints of learned scholars in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 1 of 2" and "Part 2" at The Interpreter, while strongly recommending Warren Aston's recent book, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia. And I've also recommended the book by George Potter and Richard Wellington,  Lehi in the Wilderness, that introduces us to their incredible discovery of an ideal candidate for the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel. Some parts of that work may now be dated; in particular, I think their proposed route out of Jerusalem is unlikely and their proposed candidate for Bountiful is inadequate, with Aston's nearby candidate being much preferred -- but how amazing it is that we can even discuss which of two candidates for a green place is the best choice for a place that shouldn't exist based on what most people still think they know about the Arabian Peninsula. Understanding these locations helps us better grasp the meaning of elements in the story and the gritty realities of their journey, in spite of the tremendously abbreviated account. How I yearn for a restoration of the missing 116 pages (actually more like 300 or so pages, according to the fascinating discoveries and proposal of Don Bradley in his recent book that I review here).

As for the remarkable candidate for the River Laman, the case for its plausibility has been further strengthened with newly reported field work from Warren Aston, following up on the groundbreaking work of George Potter. See Warren P. Aston, "Into Arabia: Lehi and Sariah’s Escape from Jerusalem, Perspectives Suggested by New Fieldwork," BYU Studies, 58/4 (2019): 99-126, with this abstract and a great deal of meat:
Based on his explorations of the terrain from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, the author proposes a likely route Lehi and his family took as they fled Jerusalem. He also proposes a location for the Book of Mormon’s valley of Lemuel. Using clues embedded in Nephi’s account of the family’s journey in the wilderness, Aston discusses the pros and cons of various routes that have been proposed over the years and expresses his preference for a route through the Negev Wilderness. He similarly comes to the conclusion that Wadi Tayyib al-Ism in the southern end of the Mazhafah ranges is the likeliest location for the valley of Lemuel.
Book of Mormon Central has a short video (under two minutes) summarizing the discovery of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism in 1995:



Here's another briefly summarizing some evidences across the entire journey through the Arabian Peninsula, though many interesting issues cannot be covered in the brief 8 minutes of this video:



In the past, there have been some complaints or arguments against the specific proposed site, Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, about 3 days by camel south of the beginning of the Red Sea (relative to voyagers coming from Jerusalem).  For example, BYU archaeologist Jeffrey Chadwick disputed it because the river seemed to lack a mouth flowing directly into the Red Sea (the stream sinks into the rocks and sand before it reaches the Red Sea) and for other reasons. Aston digs in and explores those charges -- or rather, explodes them.

Before turning to Aston's new observations, let's consider the problem of the "River Laman" candidate flowing into a gravel bed before reaching the Red Sea. It may be, as Potter argues, that in Lehi's day the flow was much stronger and could have reached the Red Sea directly with a nice river mouth into the Red Sea, in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map, Part 1," I suggested that even if the river still disappeared beneath the gravel then, the water would obviously not be disappearing completely, but would still be recognized as flowing into the Red Sea, joining the underground springs or waters that connect with and feed the Red Sea. In other words, the River Laman is now, and possibly was in Nephi’s day, literally flowing into the subterranean “fountain of the Red Sea.” Perhaps this explains Nephi’s repeated use of the verb “empty” rather than “flow.” The river “emptied into the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:8), and again Lehi “saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:9). Waters disappearing, descending into the earth, could well be described this way. Perhaps Potter’s candidate for the River Laman fits the details of Nephi’s description even better than he realized, although it is difficult to know if the behavior of the river around 600 BC would be similar to its behavior today.

Another objection to the leading candidate for the River Laman is that it lacks a mouth flowing into the Red Sea, apparently contrary to 1 Nephi 2:8, which states that the river “emptied into the Red Sea; and the valley was in the borders near the mouth thereof.” Chadwick emphasizes this repeatedly in his critique, claiming that without a mouth, we can rule this candidate out and be certain that Potter has been looking in the wrong place. See Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” The FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 197–215; see especially 209, 212–214. One definition of “mouth” is:
something that resembles a mouth especially in affording entrance or exit: as
a: the place where a stream enters a larger body of water,
b: the surface opening of an underground cavity. …
Another dictionary gives one definition for mouth as “the outfall at the lower end of a river or stream, where flowing water is discharged, as into a larger body of water.” If Nephi understood that the River Laman, as it sank into the ground, was flowing into the subterranean waters that feed the Red Sea, or the fountain of the Red Sea, then the place where that stream disappeared and entered a larger body of water (the subterranean fountain) would appropriately be called a mouth. The Book of Mormon does not say that the mouth directly contacted the Red Sea. It had a mouth and flowed into a fountain, the fountain of (meaning “belonging to” or “associated with,” I would argue) the Red Sea, and thus “emptied into the Red Sea,” via the fountain. This understanding resolves the primary argument Chadwick offers against this candidate and is consistent with the ancient concept of interconnected subterranean waters that feed rivers and oceans.

Now here's the exciting news from Aston's recent field work. His discussion begins with the observation that Nephi's record describes obtaining seeds and fruit while in the Valley of Lemuel, suggesting that this was not merely a normal dry wadi that had seen a bit of temporary rain. It is more reasonable to expect it to be a place where trees and plants could grow.

Then Aston describes the need for his added field work:
The Mazhafah ranges assume the highest importance in any discussion about locating the valley of Lemuel. Based on the simple parameters of three days’ travel from the head of the Red Sea at the speed at which loaded camels can travel (about 32–40 kilometers or 20–25 miles per day), the valley of Lemuel must lie somewhere in, or at least very close to, these mountains.

Also in 1995, a new possibility for the valley emerged, this time with the quite accidental discovery of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism (approximately “Valley of the Good Name”) in the southern end of the Mazhafah ranges and thus plausibly three days’ travel from the top of the Red Sea (fig. 1). This candidate was not reported until 1999, and based on the reports and images published, it was immediately seen by most researchers as a promising, even probable, candidate.

But while some Church members working in the region have visited Wadi Tayyib al-Ism over recent years to see it for themselves, no one—including the original discoverers—had completed the systematic exploration of the area needed to determine if viable alternatives ­existed. The mountainous terrain here is such that satellite imaging has proved inadequate in providing definitive answers. This remained the situation until 2018 when I undertook a new exploratory effort.
 He then describes his significant explorations of the region -- something I believe he has done, as he did for his search for Bountiful and his investigation of the regions around Nahom -- at his own expense. This has been a labor of love for which we should all be tremendously grateful. Some of his observations follow:

A “Valley, Firm and Steadfast, and Immovable” (1 Ne. 2:10)

As I examined Wadi Tayyib al-Ism alongside the other possibilities proposed over the years, the differences were very evident. In particular, no other location has a flow of water running continually anywhere, much less into the Red Sea. No other place evokes Lehi’s emotive language in wishing that his two eldest sons had the qualities of character suggested by the granite mountains, over two thousand feet high, towering over both sides of the wadi near the coast, and the constantly flowing stream within it (fig. 8). The wadi is not only fully accessible but also sits within the correct three days’ travel distance from the head of the Red Sea. It would have provided Lehi and Sariah’s group what it still does today: a sheltered haven with all the resources of a fertile oasis. The easy, unforced convergence of the details outlined here established it firmly for me as the place described by Nephi.

A “River, Continually Running” (1 Ne. 2:9)

Unsurprisingly, the novelty (and apparent anomaly) of a river in Arabia being claimed in the Book of Mormon account has been given much attention by commentators. Many Latter-day Saint researchers have accepted the scholarly consensus that Arabia contains no perennial rivers, therefore assuming that Nephi’s reference must refer only to a seasonal flow of water. In asserting this, it has become common to minimize the text’s plain wording by describing the river as a mere “stream” (a term that nowhere appears in the Book of Mormon, except in a quote from Isaiah, recorded in 2 Ne. 21:15).
He goes on to explain the flaws in the mistreatment of the evidence for the River Laman by too many other scholars who have not been there.

A fascinating observation is that contrary to what Potter and Wellington reported, the stream does not disappear several hundred meters before reaching the Red Sea, but at least when he was there at the end of the dry season, it was only about 40 meters away before "emptying"  into the "fountains" below (my words, and Nephi's).   He also saw, as did Potter, clear evidence that the stream was stronger in the past:
While the present steam goes underground just before reaching the Red Sea, the base and the sides of the wadi, including just before it reaches the shore, preserve the unmistakable signs of long-term erosion in its hard granite (figs. 12, 13). A scientist who specializes in the erosion of rock surfaces described the erosion in Wadi Tayyib al-Ism as follows: “Granite breaks down by weathering to a mixture of clay, sand and gravel; when carried by water this sediment is abrasive and smooths the floor of the wadi and there is much evidence of sand and gravel in the valley floor . . . derived from the bedrock. The smoothing of the rock surface along the lower sides of the valley indicates that there have been higher volumes of water flowing through the valley probably in the past but also, perhaps, associated with flash floods in the present day.” The erosion is broad in places and up to about one meter or about three feet high on the sides of the wadi. A very substantial flow of water—a river—once ran through this valley over a very long period.
 His conclusion also merits consideration:
As for the valley of Lemuel and the river of Laman, there no longer remain any issues regarding Wadi Tayyib al-Ism lacking simple, ready solutions. The valley has a permanent year-round flow of water to the Red Sea with geological evidence indicating that the flow was much larger over a very long period in times past. The question of how the sheltered fertile pocket in its interior can be accessed in a way that matches Nephi’s account has been answered, as presented earlier.

The truly stark contrast between it and any other possibilities means that the time has come, I believe, for Wadi Tayyib al Ism to move from being judged the “most secure candidate for the Valley of Lemuel” to at least being accepted as the candidate that most plausibly matches Nephi’s account.

It cannot be mere coincidence that the Arabian segment of the Lehite journey began and ended precisely at remarkable locations that provided for the group’s specific needs at the time. The most plausible candidates for both locations—for the valley of Lemuel at the beginning and the land Bountiful at its end—were, and still are, sources of that rarest of commodities in Arabia, year-round fresh water, and remain uninhabited, even today.
Read his article, look at the fascinating photos he provides, and contemplate what this valley and river must have meant to a family wandering into danger on a crazy mission from a visionary man and his Liahona. The hand of God can be seen in this account, and the physical reality of the long-mocked place should give all of us pause as we confront the sacred record of the Book of Mormon with new insights that help us to have a more joyous, more informed feast.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

The "Hoarding" Church

Hordes of critics are wringing their hands, often gleefully, about the uncharitable "hoarding" of the Church, based on shocking claims that the Church has been saving some of the money that members donate to it.

"Hoarding" is one of those emotion-laden terms often used to win an argument without the need for logic and evidence. A Church is "hoarding" its money -- the shame! Such misers! That word is sometimes used to advantage when politicians, mobs, or other criminals want to take something that somebody has diligently saved.

"Hoarding" was the key term used for a remarkable episode of looting in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt discovered that the President somehow had power, much to the shock of the Founding Fathers on the other side of the veil, I suppose, to take away the gold that citizens had earned and saved. He declared that those vile citizens were "hoarding" gold and thus would be required to sell it to the government at the low price of $20.67 an ounce, after which the official price was $35. See Wikipedia's article on Executive Order 6102. They were not only deprived of the right to hold and pass on to prosperity their own legally acquired property, but were forced to sell it in effect at nearly a 50% discount to its value. "Hoarding" gold became a crime with a 5-10 year prison sentence. It was a dark day for property rights, especially in a land where the Constitution, still routinely ignored these days, specifically declares gold and silver to be legal currency (Article 1, Section 10). For further background on hoarding and the Great Depression, see "The Virtue of Hoarding" by George Ford Smith, 2009. (To be fair to both parties, note that FDR's predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had also done the work of the banking interests by denouncing savers holding their money at home in 1932 as "hoarders," even "traitorous" hoarders, who were hurting the economy by not putting their money into dangerously fragile US banks.)

Shameful as hoarding may be, I hope our anti-hoarding critics will have the wisdom to do a little hoarding in their own lives. May they hoard a little cash, some food, some clothing, some drinking water, some flashlights and batteries, and some sustainable ink-jet paper to be prepared for trouble ahead, whether it's a blizzard, a power outage, economic collapse, or violent retribution from nations who don't think that one lone Very Powerful Man in the US has the legal right to arbitrarily kill their political or military leaders (and anyone standing nearby) at will anywhere in the world without any kind of trial if those leaders have done or are said to have done very bad things. (e.g., terrorism, killing people with drones or other means, bombing or invading foreign countries, and perhaps even hoarding for all we know). There are many reasons individuals should recognize that there might be trouble in the future. Smart folks prepare now -- or "hoard," if you insist.

A whistleblower claims the Church has been saving about 1 dollar of every 7 received, and investing it rather than spending it. With successful investments over many years, the savings have accumulated into a sizable stash that can support the Church's charitable work in the future even if grave economic trouble again strikes us and the Church. But since that stash is not being spent rapidly now to keep the Church as close to insolvency as possible, we are "hoarding" and should be ashamed (frankly, our most vocal critics would certainly prefer that we spent $10 for every $7 received, ensuring eventual economic disaster, contrary to the  entrenched Keynesian views of our government leaders who think that explosive debt will never be a real problem). Think of all the good that money could do if it were handed over to, say, random people on the street or to our critics and the whistleblower (who hopes to get 10% of some huge amount) or to the Clinton Foundation or if it were used to buy carbon credits or to save the earth by investing in green energy scams companies like Solyndra. Better yet, we could work a real miracle by giving it to Congress, whose financial wizardry can turn $1 billion of revenue into $2 billion or more of spending on noble causes that help solve global problems by supporting brilliant initiatives from our politicians that are only occasionally linked to their friends and relatives.

Giving out lots of money in ways that don't line the pockets of drug dealers, warlords, corrupt politicians, gangsters, scams, and the like is not as simple as it sounds. Major charities can easily spend 30% of their income on finding appropriate places to spend and in managing the spending. It's hard work and requires lots of professionals. I can only imagine the outrage if the Church started adding hundreds of millions in overhead to do find ways to more rapidly spend down its surplus.

For an organization that had all of its assets seized a little over a century ago, was having severe financial challenges in the late 1950s as I understand,  has had its assets seized in recent years for a while in Ghana (thanks to agitations from some thoughtful anti-Mormons), faces constant threats of costly lawsuits, and faces greatly expanded costs as it expands in poor nations that will require significant investments, one of the most prudent things the Church can do in this time of relative prosperity is to prepare for the future by setting aside a small amount of its income to sustain its ongoing charitable mission. Spending it all now and then being one lawsuit or one recession away from disaster would be foolhardy.

The Church should be held up as an example of frugality, of prudent investment, and financial responsibility. The money saved and the funds donated are not being used to enrich its leaders or buy them mansions to live in. Those funds are used frugally, yet at the same time, the Church is able to be generous in aiding the poor and in helping the needy in many lands. The criticism from those who think they know better is misguided.

As for the shaming of those who encourage the poor to give voluntarily to a charity that doesn't really need their money, how would you have reacted when Christ, the true Owner of the treasures of the earth and beyond, looked on passively, even approvingly, and utterly failed to prevent a poor widow from casting in her last bit of cash into the donations box (or "hoarding" box) at the Temple in Jerusalem? What would you have shouted in response when He dared to hold her up as an example of faithfulness? The Creator of the Cosmos did not need her money. The hoarders at the Jewish Temple and its charitable branches did not need her money. How dare Christ allow her to make such a huge sacrifice and encourage others in poverty to do the same?! But many Latter-day Saints know the answer. The prime purpose of the principle of sacrifice and tithe paying is not about giving God or the Church more money to "hoard," but about changing our lives and priorities to more fully follow the Savior. It's not about taking money from us, but giving us a chance to better follow Him and, indeed, to gladly take even more from Him.

In their criticism of the Church's teachings on tithing and the experiences shared by so many members, some critics mock the idea that a community, family, or individual might be better off in some way by giving charitably to the Church, in spite of the frequent experience of those who tithe faithfully that they don't miss the money and feel blessed and helped, even if it is only by learning how to be frugal and spend less. While they mock the idea that voluntary sacrifice might bring benefits, I note that many of our critics tend to wholeheartedly endorse compulsory sacrifice, i.e., raising taxes on others, as the way to economic prosperity. If voluntary giving does not help, why is compulsory sacrifice so magically beneficial? Greatly increased compulsory extraction of wealth from those capable of creating it and putting into the hands of politicians so they can redistribute it their way is touted as the miraculous but ever-failing panacea to poverty and social ills. Yet it's nonsense to think that there could be any benefit to voluntarily giving to a charitable organization that helps people strengthen their lives, families, and communities? As always, I guess I'm missing something.

Daniel Peterson has given us some wise guidance on these issues in his series, "LDS, Inc." See, for example, his recent "LDS, Inc., Part 21." For a solid overview of the non-scandal with some wise legal and financial observations, see Aaron Miller's "The $100 Billion ‘Mormon Church’ story: A Contextual Analysis."