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

Friday, March 31, 2006

Is This Why We Should Pray for Our Enemies?

A new scientific study on the power of prayer offers new insight regarding why we should pray for our enemies.

Keep Osama in your prayers. And with General Conference coming up, pray for those street preachers who work so hard to reach out to Mormons near Temple Square. Pray for them frequently, and kindly let them know you are praying for them. Science is on your side.

One More Way to Help Missionaries Prepare: Cancel XBox Live and Other Accounts

Unfortunately, a lot of young people sign up for services like XBox Live that offer a free trial period, followed by endless annual charges. In the case of XBox Live from Microsoft, customer service insists that the only way to cancel is for the user to call - they won't accept a letter asking for cancellation. If someone goes on a mission and forgets to cancel first, they'll get a couple years of charges before they get back, and parents won't be able to cancel, unless they get a power of attorney document faxed in and make the call themselves, or unless the missionary calls directly (which may not always be possible).

I'm not saying that I know any parents who wasted time in vain trying to cancel this ridiculous and wasteful service that some current missionaries tried out before they went on missions, nor am I saying that there is anything wrong with making it difficult for people to get out of ridiculous and wasteful services, nor am I saying that XBox Live is a ridiculous, wasteful, and overpriced service that young people should flee from.

I'm just trying to say two things: Point #1: A good way to help young people be fully prepared for missions is to make sure that they don't have surprise charges that will show up on their credit cards while on missions. And Point #2: If you translate "XBox Live" into Sanskrit and add up the characters with numeric meaning, I'm confident that you'll get 666. Or at least something close to that or the square root. In any case, it's clearly evil. (Oh my goodness - I see it! Roman numerals! Look at the letters in "XBOX LIVE". There are 3 Roman 6's present: VI VI VI = 666! The first is the upper half of the first "X", followed by the straight line of "B". The next is the upper half of the second "X" followed by the vertical line of the "L". The last is the "V" itself followed by the straight line of the "E". Wow, and all this time I thought that 666 was Bill Gates. I owe him an apology.)

Back to reality: Make sure your kids clearly go over their finances and pending bills that might be difficult to clear up on a mission. In general, I think it's wise for all of us to avoid services that begin with a free trial followed by automatic renewals through billing to your credit card. It's easy to forget about some of these or to cancel too late.

Please, Get Out of Debt Now!

Folks, as I survey the economic terrain, the counsel of the prophets echoes loudly: get out of debt, live frugally, prepare for the future. There are serious reasons, in my view, why this is more important now than ever. As financial commentator Richard Wiegand puts it in an article on the impending disaster in stocks, "It will not hurt anybody to get out of debt, lower life style expectations and take steps to protect your future. If I am totally wrong what can you lose? If I am right and you stay with the status quo, what does your future look like?"

Our net savings rate as a nation has dipped into negative territory. As I recall, the last time that happened for a full year was during the Great Depression. We're spending ourselves silly, both as individuals and as a nation. The Federal Reserve Bank is now officially dropping M3, a key indicator about the growth of our fiat money supply, from the statistics it reports, saying it is too "burdensome" to track and report. It's actually too frightening, showing that we are destroying the value of our currency and selling out our future through creation of massive amounts of new money as a way to pay for our wreckless spending. And as for our jobs, well, I'm seeing a lot of US jobs being shipped to China, India, and Mexico. I'm happy for the people there, but Americans with lots of education who thought they had great careers are suddenly losing their jobs. You can't be too prepared. You can't save too much in this environment. We all need to be more frugal and wise.

Got food storage? Good. Got debt? Bad.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

OK - Half Price!

In 1990, I had the privilege of being in Jerusalem while giving a paper at an international conference on heat transfer. I had a marvelous time walking through the streets of Jerusalem and experiencing some of the good and the bad of the Middle East. In one shop, I saw a stack of round brass plates for sale that the vendor said were hand-made, authentic, and 2000 years old from ancient Jerusalem. I picked up one plate and on the underside was a miraculous little adhesive sticker that said "Made in Hong Kong." When I pointed that out to the vendor, he said, "OK - half price."

Sometimes in life we go for things that have no value, thinking we're getting a good deal. Don't settle for less than the Lord has in store for you. Don't settle for being less than you are meant to be. The Gospel calls us to be sons and daughters of God, to ultimately put on the divine nature as we truly follow Jesus. Don't settle for less, even if it is half price.

From Laos to the "Country Like Heaven" - The Spirit of Gratitude and Kindness

After pondering President Hinckley's recent General Conference remarks about the need for more gratitude and kindness, I received a thoughtful comment from a Hmong man living in the United States, sent in response to a blog post of mine about Hmong New Year celebration in Appleton, Wisconsin. After thanking me for the photos and my Hmong site, he offered this nugget:
I want to share this personal story to this American friend. I am 42 years old now. When I was about 9-10 years old, I remembered an American helicopter pilot came to our village in Samnuen, Laos. My dad and the rest of the men in the village got together and talked about how to take care of this American man. They agreed that each family had to donate a chicken to make food for the American friend because he was from a country like heaven. We (kids) followed him every where he went. He looked so strange but nice at the same time. The village treated him and respected him like a king. I have not seen any Hmong person who would not like this man. You know, I was never imagined that I would have a chance to see a heavenly country like this America. Thanks god that we poor Hmong people got to know American service men during the war and had always kept the strong relationship with the Americans until these days. I know that our people did a good job for American men during the war, but in return, America has provided freedom, opportunity, other legal, social and political assistance to the Hmong world wide. There isn't any country in the whole world that will listen to and help the Hmong like the U.S. Thanks, again.
I am so amazed at the spirit of gratitude this man shows. He could have been bitter about how the US dragged his people into war, about how we left them helpless against the Communists when we suddenly withdrew from the secret wars in Laos, about how so many Hmong people died and lost all they had and had to flee to a new, strange country. But the spirit of his father's example lives on, an example of treating the American strangers with respect and kindness, and now with gratitude. Really, if you know the suffering of the Hmong people, the tragedy of the wars on Laos, and the challenges of the Hmong in America, this comment touches me deeply. Whether he is Christian or not, there is a Christlike spirit in his words. Gratitude, kindness, and respect for one another - how this world needs more of that.

If you know the story of the Hmong, you know that hundreds gave their lives to rescue American pilots show down near the Ho Chi Minh trail. In at least one case I have read about, nearly a hundred did die in a desperate and successful attempt to rescue a downed fighter pilot. Many may have died to rescue the helicopter pilot in the man's village. It is we who owe a debt of gratitude to the Hmong for their valiant fighting for American lives, a story that remains largely unknown because the US activities in Laos were kept secret throughout the Vietnam War. I am deeply moved to have this man and many other Hmong people express gratitude to America and to show us so much kindness, such as the wonderful kindness I have experienced in the Fox Cities Hmong Branch here in Wisconsin.

Mormon Trivia from Lamanai in Belize: "One of the Very Few Maya Sites for which the Ancient Name Is Recorded"

I just updated a previous post on the rather entertaining issue of the Comoros Islands and the Book of Mormon. It is possible for words and names from different languages to show similarities entirely by chance - something that both critics and defenders of the Book of Mormon need to keep in mind. A couple of apparent similarities does little to prove fraud or authenticity (though the heavy track record of Semitic parallels in Book of Mormon names may not be easy to explain away, especially when "laughable blunders" become verified, like the female name Alma later being shown to be an authentic Jewish man's name from the time of Lehi).

Well, as an aside on the post about Comoros, I pointed to the Mayan archaeological site of Lamanai in Belize as an example of an interesting parallel in Mesoamerican names with the Book of Mormon (perhaps just indicative of how the sword of chance can cut both ways). While it may have no real connection with the name Lamoni (or other names related to Laman) in the Book of Mormon, the interesting thing about Lamanai is that it is "one of the very few Maya sites for which the ancient name is recorded" according to a quotation I just received from the Journal of Field Archaeology:
Our choice of the site for intensive investigation was based on the presence there of a 16th-century secular Catholic church, the existence of which was first noted by Castells, who incorrectly identified the structure as Pre-Columbian. Castells' description of the church was, unhappily, the basis for Thompson's mention of a structure with round portal columns at the site, possibly reflecting Central Mexican influence in Western Belize. Though the church had been the source of some confusion, its presence demonstrated that Lamanai was inhabited in early historical times, and the possibility clearly existed that the occupation in that period represented the upper end of a continuum from the Classic (3rd to early 10th centuries A.C.) or earlier. There was ample evidence, in the form of obviously complex, large structural remains, to indicate that the site had probably been an important center during the Classic, so that excavation could be expected to provide insights into developments in the Central Maya Lowlands over a considerable period. Though the locale is generally known in Belize as Indian Church, a name apparently coined in the early 19th century, Lamanai is in fact one of the very few Maya sites for which the ancient name is recorded. It appears on a church list of 1582, and the site was visited and very sketchily described by Fathers Bartolome de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita in 1618. (David Pendergast, "Lamanai, Belize: Summary of Excavation Results, 1974-1980," Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 8 No. 1, [1981) pg. 29-30)
I'll credit Dennis, the sender of this information, if I get his OK to mention his full name.

While the connection between Lamanai/Lamoni may be interesting, I think an important point is the reminder about just how few ancient Mesoamerican place names have been preserved. A given site may have been occupied by several different cultures since Book of Mormon times. Many interesting sites are known today only by Spanish names or relatively recent native names. But what was the place called in 100 B.C. or 200 A.D.? How was it pronounced? In so many cases, we still don't know. So for those critics who expect us to point to sites with names like Zarahemla and Nephi if the Book of Mormon is to be taken seriously, I urge a little more patience.

Oh, let me spare the need for about 20 critical posts with a pre-emptive snarky comment: "Ha! You'll have to be patient all the way into eternity if you're waiting for evidence of the trashy piece of fiction! Might as well wait for evidence that the moon is made of chese." To which I say, "If you can't even spell cheese right, try commenting somewhere else." And do realize that there are actually a great deal of potential evidences for authenticity of the Book of Mormon that the sincere seeker of truth might wish to consider, though nothing compares to the witness of the Spirit as one reads, ponders, and prays to know if that book is from God or just a work of a corrupt man.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Joseph's Excessive Modesty

D.E. Neighbors has an interesting new article at FAIRLDS.org, "The Book of Mormon vs. the Critics: Nit-Picking for Fun and Profit." It deals with the issue of changes in the Book of Mormon, a topic I also address.

One interesting quote from that article comes from Joseph Smith:
"[A]s it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading writing and the ground of Arithmatic which const[it]tuted my whole literary acquirements."
I found this to be a great example of Joseph's excessive modesty. As so many anti-Mormon scholars have pointed out, Joseph Smith drew upon vast intellectual resources to fabricate the Book of Mormon, relying on many dozens of books, maps, and periodicals as well as his profound knowledge of Hebrew to craft the many "internal evidences" of Book of Mormon authenticity. It even appears that he may have used a primitive but version of Google Earth to identify fertile regions in the Arabian Peninsula and to identify a plausible route for Lehi's group to pass between two segments of the Empty Quarter and arrive safely in Bountiful in present day Oman. Joseph was a remarkably educated scholar using resources many decades ahead of his time, yet his excessive modesty compelled him to speak little of such attainments, dismissing his education as rough and rudimentary. Of course, critics will scream that this was all a lie, part of deception that convinced even those closest to him that he was poorly educated (and those misspellings in his writing - was this also part of an act?). But I prefer to give him a little credit and suggest that he was just incredibly modest. (This stands in contrast to some of our modern critics who have worked hard to inflate their academic credentials, even to the point of referring to degrees they didn't exactly earn.)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Is it just me, or are others concerned about the lack of religious liberty in the nations we "liberate"?

The news about Afghanistan's desires to execute a man for becoming a Christian came as something of a disappointment. Yes, like many Americans, I'm all a-twitter with the glorious dawn of democracy in that liberated land, but with all due respect, I personally disagree with the idea of executing people for religious differences. OK, I admit to a certain bias here, not wanting to be executed myself - but wouldn't it be more democratic to just, say, pillage and beat Christian converts rather than killing them?

I mean, didn't we liberate Afghanistan from the dreaded Taliban? Didn't we bring liberty and freedom to that land? Didn't Americans give their lives for the liberation of Afghanistan, which now has shown a certain fascination with eradication of Christianity and the killing of converts? Frankly, I think such policies could ultimately have a chilling effect on religious liberty.

I remember the media gushing over the fact that women didn't need to wear burkas now, telling us how much hope there was in this land of emerging freedom. I guess we need to overlook these little inconsistencies and stick with the dream.

And does anyone else care about the increased difficulty the Christians of Iraq are facing now that their land has also been liberated? I mean, after so many centuries in Iraq, it is tragic that now is the time they feel a need to flee that nation. (And does making Islam the official state religion in the provisional constitution we gave Iraq bother you?)

So where is the religious liberty that we have been hoping to see? Does it matter?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Question for Critics: What Happened to Prophets?

Much of the efforts of our critics focus on attacking the actions and character of our prophets. Sadly, like the prophets of the Bible, modern prophets have been fallible mortals who apparently have made some mistakes, in addition to leaving us with some puzzling statements and actions that we just don't understand well. Regarding such puzzlements, these men had the audacity to up and die before we had a chance to interrogate them as to what they meant or what really happened. So yes, there are a number of things subject to all sorts of contradictory opinions and interpretations, offering plenty of opportunities for the railing of critics.

But in spite of evidences of mortality among the prophets, we still maintained that they, like mortal and fallible Peter of old, were called of God, and that God does indeed speak in these days. This claim of a Restoration involving living prophets makes the Latter-day Saints stand out among Christian religions of our day. Our critics, on the other hand, almost universally insist that there is no need for prophets or a Restoration, that God has finished His work, that there was no Apostasy or loss of authority, that all we need is the Bible (mingled with their own diverse interpretations and extrapolations of its meaning to give us authoritative guidance from God), and that the Church of Jesus Christ has always been here on earth since New Testament times (just diffused in several thousand different forms, but most truly defined by that version that began in a corner of northern Europe during the sixteenth century).

So, for those critics who deny the need for a Restoration, here's a question I'd like to pose: If there was no apostasy in the Church of Jesus Christ, then what happened to prophets? They were a crucial part of the original Church. Why do we not have them today?

Some Christians claim that there was no need for prophets after the coming of Jesus Christ. This is a terribly misinformed belief, for the New Testament clearly and repeatedly reports that prophets and prophecy were integral parts of the original Church of Jesus Christ after Christ had ascended to heaven. For example, consider Acts 13:1-3:
1 Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.

3 And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
Using the gift of prophecy, leaders in the original Church received revelation through the gift of the Holy Ghost - praying and fasting to be in tune with the Spirit - and received guidance about which people to put into certain callings in the Church. Those who were called were "separated" or set apart (that's the modern LDS term) through the laying on of hands. This little episode is characteristic of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, as it was characteristic of the original Church, and points to the importance of prophets and prophecy in the operations of the Church. Why don't we have anything like this in the other churches of the world that claim to teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ? (Note: Some groups, such as Catholic and Orthodox churches, do have a form of laying on of hands for ordination, and a faithful Catholic writer explained to me that "prophets" in a sense still exist in that faith, though not as people who receive revelation from God, but as faithful people who "prophecy" by making statements of faith. I don't accept that definition as consistent with the Bible, but it is a factor to consider.)

Other Christians, being familiar with the obvious fact that prophets were present and active in the original Church, admit that they were needed then, but argue that we no longer need them nor new revelation of any kind now that the Bible is "complete" (see my Mormon Answers (LDSFAQ) page on the Bible for some tough questions on that issue). Observing that there churches no longer have prophets and apostles, or the gift of revelation, it's understandable that they would take this rather self-serving position. Any other position would imply that their form of Christianity was missing something -- that maybe there had been an apostasy or corruption of some kind in the past. But this is not a doctrine one can logically extract from the Bible, but a man-made doctrine to explain away an annoying problem.

Ironically, the belief that prophets and revelation aren't needed anymore now that we have the Bible is utterly unbiblical. Look at Ephesians 4:11-13:
11 And he gave some, apostles [i.e., some were ordained to be apostles]; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;

12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
Paul in Ephesians 4 explains that prophets and apostles are an integral part of the Church for the work of the ministry, and are needed until they succeed in bringing all the Church to a unity of the faith--something that clearly has not yet been achieved. Therefore, they are still needed, and in this day of lies and corruption and confusion, they are needed more than ever! (See also Amos 3:7.)

In Matthew 23:34, Christ also prophesied that he would send prophets to the people, but that these prophets would be rejected and killed (something all too familiar in LDS history):
Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city...
To clarify the time frame over which prophets would be on the earth, Revelation 11:10 also prophesies of two prophets in particular who, in the last days, will be killed in Jerusalem and be revived miraculously. If there are yet to be two prophets who will be killed in Jerusalem before the Second Coming of the Lord, who can anyone maintain that God would not have prophets on the earth after the time of Christ or after the "completion" of the Bible? How can anyone say that Latter-day Saints are unbiblical for believing that God would have prophets on the earth in these last days, when that's perfectly consistent with prophecy in the Book of Revelation?

One of the earliest Christian documents after the New Testament, The Didache, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (available in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989, pp. 149-158), shows that early Christians after the time of the New Testament still understood the significance of apostles and prophets. This document tells its readers to deal with "the apostles and prophets . . . in accordance with the rule of the gospel" (11:3, p. 155). It also speaks of prophets as "high priests" (13:3, p. 157), and contains other LDS concepts such as striving to become perfect (1:4; 6:2), reviewing basic doctrines with those about to be baptized (7:1), bishops and deacons who carry out the ministry of prophets of teachers (15:1), and enduring in faith to be saved (15:5). Apostles and prophets were a real influence in the original Church of Jesus Christ. Why should it not be the same today? Does any other Church offer this great blessing from the original Church, now restored on earth?

For more information, see my LDSFAQ page on prophets and prophecy. Also see my page on the Restoration.

Here are a couple of related bonus questions:

  • Just where in the Bible does it say that there would be no more prophets after the Bible was complete?

  • Just where in the Bible does it say that the Bible was complete? (And if you do point to a verse about the goodness and power of the scriptures, hoping to make it mean that the Bible was complete, why did God's servants keep writing additional verses, chapters, and books after writing a verse allegedly implying that the text was complete?)

  • Where in the Bible does it say that God would cease following His ancient and well established pattern of speaking to man through His chosen prophets?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Food Storage Yes, Wealth Preservation No: A Mormon Enigma in Preparing for Hard Times?

Summary: Many Mormons do a great job of preparing for hard times with aggressive food storage, but often do little to preserve wealth should there be severe economic disaster. Those who are diligent savers and investors tend to put their wealth in stocks, bonds, and cash, leaving themselves unprotected for many potential economic problems in the future (inflation, recession, weakening of the dollar, etc.). Why is it, for example, that so few Mormons have considered precious metals as an element of wealth preservation?

Latter-day Saints are well known for their "quirky" food storage habits, based on wise and inspired council from Church leaders over much of the past century calling on us to store food to be prepared for whatever the future holds. My own family was greatly blessed by this form of preparation during an especially difficult year or so when I was on a mission. But the Church teaches us to do much more than just store food. Among other things, we are counseled to live frugally and to save money to be prepared for financial hardships. So how are we doing? Frankly, I think more of us are storing food than are saving aggressively. This must change.

Now if you aren't LDS, you might think that diligent Mormons who are stockpiling food and saving money would have some kind of doomsday mentality, anticipating apocalyptic disasters. Frankly, I see very little of that - which is my complaint of the day. Not that I advocate hiding in a bomb shelter or living in wretched nervousness, but being prepared for the future, in my opinion, must include being prepared for the very kind of hard times that make food storage such a wise insurance policy. That means some degree of financial preparation for economic disaster.

Those that are saving and investing are developing reserves of cash and, quite often, stocks, that are ultimately based on the assumption of a continued healthy economy and a strong dollar. I am surprised by how few people have taken steps to hedge against a weakened dollar. In particular, I am disappointed at how few LDS people I know have invested anything in precious metals, an investment area that not only can preserve wealth in times of economic chaos, but which has also offered outstanding returns in recent years. Very few Americans in general know how and where to invest in precious metals. But you would think that the people who pursue food storage with religious zeal would also have some of their savings in something that will still have value in an economic collapse. Well, yes, they do: food could become a precious commodity - but it's a bulky and perishable investment that really isn't suited for protecting wealth but simply surviving. Of course, as several wars have shown, there is an agricultural commodity that can serve as money and be a valuable investment in times of hardship, but I don't think Latter-day Saints should stockpile tobacco.

Well, I apologize for making this post touch upon such a secular issue as investment strategies. But I do think it's interesting that the food storage mentality that is alive and well in the Church (to its credit) has not translated into a widespread acceptance of precious metals as part of one's diversified portfolio. I think those who add some now will not regret it. (And for what it's worth, I think silver is where the greatest action is going to be over the next few years. Still remarkably cheap, yet growing rapidly in value. Do your own due diligence.)

Just my two cents' worth.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Greetings from the Land of Promise

I just got back to the United States after a few memorable days deep within the Land of Promise, Mexico. I've written before about how China is the future, but don't overloook our neighbor to the south. This land is booming, and I'm more impressed than ever with what I've seen the past couple of days. I have spent some time with some extremely talented, hard-working, innovative, successful people and realize that not much can stop their success - except perhaps their own government (I'm especially worried about the upcoming presidential elections, but that's another story).

The escalation of educational and leadership opportunities in Mexico is great news for the Church, and I think we will see an increasingly large number of highly capable administrators and inspiring leaders drawn from the growing ranks of faithful members in Mexico.

I love the people here and so much about this country (and the food is so amazing - don't ever equate Taco Bell with the rich diversity of sophisticated Mexican cuisine!). I have thought many times that I would enjoy living here, at least for a while, but in reality it would be difficult. For one thing, I think it would be very challenging to raise a family here. I particular, I am pained by the rising immorality of this land, at least the immorality that is glorified on the media and on a huge fraction of the billboards. It is hard to go more than a couple hundred yards along the major highways around Mexico City without encountering images that I find highly offensive. Almost laughable incongruity is encountered as sexually-charged images are used to sell so things like cell phone services and shoes (but really, I was trying not to notice). Sadly, the US is not that far behind, but my little town of Appleton, Wisconsin is still pretty tame and a great place to raise a family. Drop by sometime and see why.

For you returned missionaries who served in Mexico recently, I'd like to here your perceptions on the growth of the Church here, the quality of life for families, and the moral challenges in this land. If any of you are from Mexico, I'd love to hear your views on this land. Likewise if any of you moved from the US to work in Mexico.

Oh, and I managed to get a few interesting photos that I'll share later, one or two of possible interest to Book of Mormon studies.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Wealth from Worship? And Only 10% Return? Hah!

You may have heard of a recent study by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber linking church attendance to increased wealth. As the news story from Economist.com reports:
Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that regular religious participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower chance of divorce. His results (based on data covering non-Hispanic white Americans of several Christian denominations, other faiths and none) imply that doubling church attendance raises someone's income by almost 10%.
Many people look at this news and think of the 10% gain for church attendance - but isn't it a 10% for each doubling of attendance? Compared to the average, Mormons not only go to church on many more Sundays, but also for much longer thanks to the 3-hour block. That's double double double double . . . so are you all rich yet?

I hope the Gruber study, as interesting as it may be, doesn't become part of our missionary pitch: "We offer you the highest return on your tithing of any Church."

I find the possible reasons for the correlation to be especially interesting. I wonder if a similar study should be done to also include the effect of tithing coupled with active attendance. Most of us are familiar with a number of practical reasons why these two can correlate with temporal success - all of which is only of minor importance in the eternal scheme of things, but still interesting.

An Informed Perspective on Polygamy

Gregory L. Smith, M.D., offers a helpful and highly informed perspective on the controversial 19th-century practice of polygamy among Latter-day Saints in his article, "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" at FAIRLDS.org. If you've struggled with the issue of polygamy (struggled with it philosophically, not in practicing it, I hope!), this article helps clarify why it was kept secret for so long, why it was not about personal gratification, and why many of the anti-Mormon charges based on it are weak or even absurd. As for the charge that it was just an excuse to allow Church leaders to gain physical gratification, I find that particularly absurd. There are plenty of ways to gain the "benefits" of immorality without the insane burden of marrying one's conquests. Polygamy in the early LDS Church was a good way to get yourself killed or jailed or in all sorts of other hot water and distress (hint: how many in-laws did Brigham Young have to deal with??), and in general just doesn't make sense as merely an excuse for men having fun. To look at the lives and writings of the men and women involved, it's much more plausible to see polygamy as a painful sacrifice, even something of an Abrahamic test for the virtuous Puritanical stock that dominated Church membership rather than a moral loophole for the personal pleasure of perverts.

Yes, there were problems and mistakes and even disasters for some, and I think we're nearly all relieved to be over a century away from that practice. But it was not the sensational, demonic practice that its critics made it out to be, or that HBO will make it out to be in their "Big Love" travesty (a hideous series that will associate modern immorality with the Church, confusing people into thinking that Mormons still practice polygamy and even do it Hollywood style).

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Widow's Mite: A Lesson for the Chronologically Impoverished?

Tonight part of my family read Mark chapter 12 together, and the story of the widow's mite at the end really came alive in my mind as I thought of the impoverished woman who humbly cast in her tiny donation that proved to be more, in the Lord's eyes, than the many heavy coins of the wealthy. From a pragmatic point of view, perhaps her donation made no real difference, making it essentially wasted money that could have been better spent buying the staples of life. But her attitude of faithful, humble sacrifice was what made her efforts so important to the Lord. It was a precious and worthy offering that did not go unnoticed by Him.

We have many poor among us still who show this same remarkable faith. Can the same principle apply to those who suffer from other forms of poverty such as poverty of time rather than lack of wealth? I know of men and women who have enough money, but have so many demands on their time from family, work, and other commitments, that it can sometimes be an act of great faith to give up the time required to attend Church or to go home teaching or visiting teaching. For example, some of the young mothers I have known come to mind, especially single mothers, but there are many other men and women in their own trying circumstances. They may feel frustrated at all the demands they face and feel bad for not serving more actively in the Church, but they may be like the widow giving up as much time as they could possibly scrape together, though it may be only a few minutes here and there compared to the hours that some have available.
"This poor widow has cast more in than all they . . .for all they did cast in of their abundance, but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."
There are many in the Church and in other religions who humbly give all they can of their available time and energy to serve the Lord and to love their neighbors. The hours they have for formal church service and callings may be few, but let us ponder that the magnitude of their offering may be great in the eyes of the Lord.

On the other hand, there are those of us - myself included - who make serious mistakes in time management and become chronologically challenged through our own lack of wisdom and discipline. We may overcommit or take on too many unnecessary projects or foolishly strive to accomplish demanding goals beyond what is wise or just waste their time in a thousand selfish ways, just as so many people become poor through foolish pending and unnecessary debt. I guess we need to make sure that we do not actively rob the Lord of the time that we should make available for Him. The attitude behind the story of the widow's mite is one of not just giving whatever scraps we have left, but of having the faith, discipline, and self-sacrifice to humbly give the Lord a large portion of what we have, be it little or much.

Monday, March 13, 2006

On Marrying Outside the Church: Asenath and Other Lessons

Temple marriage is wonderful, one of the greatest blessings of the restored Gospel, but we Latter-day Saints need to remember that many of our members are in happy and wonderful marriages with spouses outside the Church, some of whom are tremendously supportive of their LDS mate and are even helping to raise their children in the Church. I hope we can do more to express our support and appreciation of such people and avoid offending them needlessly by making comments that imply it's a tragedy to marry outside the Church. Some of the non-LDS spouses in our midst have a lot to teach us about faith and diligence and especially patience, though they may not be interested in official membership in the Church.

In dealing with this issue, I think that Asenath, the wife of the great patriarch and prophet, Joseph, is someone we should keep in mind. Genesis 41:45 tells us that "Pharaoh . . . gave him [Joseph] to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On." She was not a sweet Hebrew girl picked by Joseph's father, but a foreigner picked by the Pharaoh. She was raised in a different culture, with a different language and a different religion (even had a pagan priest for a father). There is no record of her conversion, but surely she was at least supportive of Joseph's faith, and I presume that she helped raise her boys in her husband's faith.

In verse 50, we read that "unto Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, which Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On bare unto him." Today, the tribe of Ephraim plays a major role in the restored Gospel. Most members of the Church are, at least by adoption, gathered into that tribe. And at the head of that tribe stands one of the greatest prophets of all times, who accepted a non-member wife. If your real or adopted roots go to Ephraim, they go to Joseph and Asenath. Perhaps she joined after their marriage or converted for the marriage - but as far as I can tell, it appears that Joseph married outside the faith.

The eternal status of Joseph's marriage to Asenath is between them and the Lord, and I hope they have been or will be sealed for eternity. But Joseph's story reminds us that the Lord can smile upon exceptions to the rule, and that we should be tremendously grateful to the non-LDS spouses among us who support their spouse in their faith and even go so far as to help raise their children LDS.

When the patriarchs of old warned against marrying outside the faith, I think the main concern was marrying someone who would lead the spouse or the children away from the Lord. When we have non-member spouses who support their spouse and teach their children faith in Christ, we should rejoice and admire their kindness and support, and be awfully cautious of what we say when we discuss the importance of Temple marriage. Let us speak of it as a blessing, but acknowledge the blessings of the Lord in other wholesome marriages and the success that such marriages can be.

Of course, I agree that Temple marriage is best, and that in most cases it will be best to marry within the Church. I hope our young people will prefer to date other LDS young people and plan on Temple marriage. But none of us mortals got to where we are today by officially recognized perfect pathways at every step of our lives. But let us support and nurture every marriage among us and help our members and their non-member spouses, if such be the case, find joy and fellowship in our midst.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Can Iceland Help You Chill Out Over the DNA Controversy?

For those of you who have become heated up over the issue of DNA evidence and the Book of Mormon, I suggest you turn to Iceland for a cool splash on reality about exploring the past with genetic science.

I refer to a study published in 2003 about Icelandic ancestry using DNA tools and genealogical data. The reference is A. Helgason, B. Hrafnkelsson, J.R. Gulcher, R. Ward, and K. Stefansson, "A Population-Wide Coalescent Analysis of Icelandic Matrilineal and Patrilineal Genealogies: Evidence for a Faster Evolutionary Rate of mtDNA Lineages than Y Chromosomes," American Journal of Human Genetics, 72: 1370-1388 (2003). The link is to the HTML version of the full text online; a PDF version is also available.

I learned of this interesting study while reading John M. Butler's Feb. 2006 FARMS article, "Addressing Questions Surrounding The Book of Mormon and DNA Research," prepared in response to a "news" story on DNA and the Book of Mormon in the LA Times. Dr. Butler's perspectives merit careful attention. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Butler on the Icelandic results:
An interesting study reported in the June 2003 issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics leads me to believe that it is possible for Book of Mormon peoples to be ancestors of modern Native Americans and yet not be easily detected using traditional Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests. This study, conducted by a group of scientists from a company called deCODE Genetics, used the extensive genealogies of people from Iceland combined with probably the most massive population study ever performed. They traced the matrilineal and patrilineal ancestry of all 131,060 Icelanders born after 1972 back to two cohorts of ancestors, one born between 1848 and 1892 and the other between 1798 and 1742.

Examining the same Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA markers used in other genetic studies, these 131,060 Icelanders revealed highly skewed distributions of descendants to ancestors, with the vast majority of potential ancestors contributing one or no descendants and a minority of ancestors contributing large numbers of descendants. In other words, the majority of people living today in Iceland had ancestors living only 150 years ago that could not be detected based on the Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests being performed yet the genealogical records exist showing that these people lived and were real ancestors. To the point at hand, if many documented ancestors of 150 years ago cannot be seen with Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests from modern Iceland, then the possibility can exist for people that are reported in the Book of Mormon to have migrated to the Americas over 2600 years ago and yet not have detectable genetic signatures today. [italics in the original]
If genetic evidence for many known ancestors of Icelandic people does not show up in DNA testing after just two hundred years, all traces of Lehi and Sariah could easily have vanished among modern Native Americans based on Y-Chromosome and mtDNA testing, respectively.

On the other hand, since we don't know anything substantial about Lehi's DNA and certainly not Sariah's, it seems difficult to be sure that genetic traces aren't present. But that's OK. If you want to leave the Church because a lot of Asians came to the Americas anciently (possibly including the Jaredites) as well as Lehi's little boatload of people, that's as good a reason as any, I'm sure. Ditto for those who want out because many Church leaders have made overly simplistic comments regarding the origins of Native Americans, not appreciating the significance of non-Book of Mormon migrations or the geographical limitations present in the text. Make sure your next church fills its leadership positions with professional anthropologists. I also think that LDS leadership is weak in quantum mechanics and astrophysics, but that's a complaint for a future post on this blog.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

LDS Seminary Videos

Richard K. Miller's LDS blog, "Mormonism and the Mormon Church," has a helpful post about LDS seminary videos at Google Video. I watched some of the one on Captain Moroni. Much better than the old resources when I was in seminary. There were even a couple Mesoamerican-style weapons in the battle scenes, though still plenty of European-style swords. Thanks, Richard!

Friday, March 10, 2006

What About John 1:1?

I just received email from a Latter-day Saint asking for help regarding John 1:1. That verse is commonly used by some people to justify the notion that God and Christ are not separate Beings. According to the inquirer, he frequently hears statements like, "You think Jesus is just the Son of God? Well, Jesus is God -- read John 1:1!" First, Jesus certainly is God. The Book of Mormon and other scriptures make this clear. And He is the Son of God. They are one God - but the issue is HOW are they one? The Bible teaches that man and wife should be one flesh, and the Christians should be one. Again, the question is what is meant by being "one"? I think we get at least some clue about that from John 17:11,20-23 where Christ prays that Christians might be one in the same way that He and the Father are one.

As for John 1:1, I include it in some of my discussion on my Mormon Answers page on relationships between God the Father, Christ, and man. An interesting insight is given by Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, p. 139):
In John 1:1-2 we read, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." ... [T]he first and third "God" in this passage comes from Greek Ho Theos - the God - while the second occurrence was simply Theos. So this could be rendered, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with The God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with The God."
In my opinion, John 1:1 actually supports the notion that Christ and the Father are not the same Being. That's why, for example, Stephen could see Christ standing at the right hand of the Father (Acts 7:55-56). That's why Christ could say that His Father is greater than him (John 14:28). But they are one.

For further information, see my page, "What Mormons Believe About the Oneness and Unity of God."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Why Not Call the North Carolina Assault Terrorism? Excessive Religious Sensitivity?

Chances are most of you haven't heard about the terrorist assault at the University of North Carolina, where a Muslim graduate, Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, injured nine people as he deliberately drove a jeep into a popular part of campus called The Pit. He claimed he did this to punish the US and to avenge Muslims. In his initial court appearance Monday, he said he was "thankful for the opportunity to spread the will of Allah."

This was a deliberate act to hurt or even kill multiple people for political reasons. Sounds like an act of terrorism to me, but university officials, Federal officials, and the media refuse to call it terrorism. Some groups are playing the "racist" card to criticize some of those who are denouncing this act crime.

Look, I respect the Muslim faith, and know that many good Muslim people reject violence and are disgusted with those who abuse their religion to express hate or obtain raw power. But the refusal to recognize this crime as a terroristic act or at least as a hate crime due to politically correct sensitivity is irresponsible. We do have people in this nation who hate Americans, and we need to face that. We can respect Muslims while also recognizing that there is a risk among a small minority of them, just as we can face the fact that there are some crazy alleged Mormons who defy their faith and the law by having multiple wives and sometimes engaging in dangerous fights among themselves. Let's deal with the real problems without insulting or punishing an entire faith. Let's take off the PC blinders when it comes to terrorism and crime of any kind. (Of course, Mormonism has never been a recipient of much PC sensitivity.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Mexico City, Anyone?

Any of you in Mexico City or familiar with it? I have to be there for a few days soon and would appreciate any tips on favorite archaeological sites (have seen Teotihuacan already), LDS activities, great places for photography, etc.

General Conference Tickets, Anyone?

If any of you have two extra General Conference tickets for any session this April, two LDS friends of mine from Wisconsin would be interested in attending. Please let me know.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

AskGramps.org - An Exciting New LDS Resource

I've just run into AskGramps.org, and feel like I need to give it two thumbs up as a great LDS resource. This site provides numerous thoughtful answers to common questions on many topics, giving what I consider to be sensitive, faith-based answers that tend to be consistent with my interpretation of LDS religion -- so it must be true, right? I'm not sure who Gramps is - perhaps a group of people, for all I know - but I like what I've read so far. I'd appreciate your thoughts.

I'm So Offended...

Frankly, I'm offended by the former policies on polygamy in both the 1800s and in Old Testament times. I'm offended by the former restrictions on the Priesthood in the modern era and in ancient times. I'm offended by some things Brigham Young and others have said. I'm especially offended by the actions and writings of Moses. Half of the Old Testament offends me. I'm offended by some Nephite attitudes about Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. And then I find myself bristling even at some of the words of the New Testament and some of the events therein. For example, did God really have to kill Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 for donating a little less than they could have?? Would not a gentle lecture been sufficient? Or perhaps one of the less desirable callings?

There are long lists of things that offend me. Some of the things that offend me may be due to human error (prophets are fallible, all men are fallible) and certainly, in at least several cases, some of these things are due to God's perplexing failure to do things my way.

Unfortunately, if we are looking for a religion that doesn't offend us, a Judeo-Christian faith is not going to cut it. Certainly not what I consider as Restored Christianity.

How often the scriptures teach that God's ways are offensive! In Matthew 11:6 and Luke 7:23, Christ gently tells good people that "blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me." In the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Christ warns of those who don't develop deep Gospel roots: "Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended."

Christ offended the religious leaders of His day. From Matthew 5:21: "Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?" He offended those who knew of His seemingly ordinary roots: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him" (Mark 6:3). In the last days, Christ warned that "then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another" (Matthew 24:10). Even His own disciples were offended by Him (John 6:61; Matthew 26: 31-33).

Shall we be offended? I certainly have been. It may be necessary to recognized that some of the causes of offense are from human error, but there are things from God that will offend us to the core. The story of Abraham and Isaac - it offends me deeply. And yet it is a cause of great inspiration, one of the most powerful teaching moments in the scriptures.

May we be less offended and more open to the ways of God, and less dependent on human perfection.

Darron Smith of Black and Mormon Fame

I have previously given a very positive review of the recent book Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages). This morning I was pleased to find that Darron Smith now has his own Website, DarronSmith.com.

Darron is a black convert who served a mission in the Church and, according to information in the book, was a lecturer at Utah Valley State College and an adjunct faculty member at BYU. Now, according to his Website, he teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City while completing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Utah (he also has a M.Ed. in Higher Education from Brigham Young University -- see his curriculum vita).

I consider Darron among the more interesting famous Mormons in the Church, and after reading of his challenges in dealing with a mostly white church, respect him greatly for maintaining his faith in spite of the racial tensions he has experienced. I hope his book will continue to help the rest of us be aware of the pains that our black brothers and sisters have felt so that we all may better shed our blinders and hidden bigotries. Many people trying their best to fully live the Gospel may unconsciously have racist attitudes, and books like Black and Mormon can do much to open our eyes and help us see more fairly. I suspect that nearly all of us have plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to the subtle issues that we just can't see without help from the outside.

Update: Apparently there has been some recent controversy with Darron, as a commenter notes. I'm sorry about that. As I've noted before, I think Darron has gone too far on some points. I think we all need to give each other a lot of slack and not be too quick to condemn, or too quick to find fault, whether it's with individuals or the Church.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Practical Applications of the Scriptures: Help for Your Career

One day I went to work prepared to make a Big Mistake. I was planning to speak out to my boss about some growing dissatisfaction and was going to point out how I was much more valuable than management had realized, and how I needed more power and money and so forth. In retrospect, I was about to do this at a particularly unwise moment and certainly would have done damage in several ways. I probably would have antagonized some very good people and left the meeting ready to quit or perhaps even without a job, and I think that leaving would have been the wrong choice. Even if I had prevailed and they had honored my greatness and my glory, I think it all would have been a Big Mistake. I can see that plainly now, but I was quite blinded my selfish preoccupation with my desires on that morning, the morning of an annual performance review.

When I pulled into the parking lot at work, I realized that I really needed just a little more guidance before I attempted something as risky as what I was planning to do. I had prayed about things the night before and earlier that morning, but was still determined to do things my way. (If there are any other weak and fallible mortals like myself out there, please take this as a warning: it is entirely possible to make a ridiculous and idiotic decision after praying, especially if we are focused on selfish interests rather than truly seeking counsel from the Lord, or if we have refused to think carefully.) I had felt like bringing my Book of Mormon along that morning, recognizing I was behind in scripture study. So while in the parking lot, with only about 2 minutes to spare before I had to rush into the building to make my early meeting with my boss, I said a brief prayer and then randomly flipped open the Book of Mormon just in case there might be any useful advice there.

I do not mean to advocate the use of the scriptures as a printed version of an ouija board, but it is amazing how many times I have been able to "randomly" open them up in a time of true need to find something that helped me. Maybe there is help on most pages, if we read seeking to learn and understand the Father's will. With only seconds separating me from a serious self-inflicted injury to my career, my eyes turned to the lower half of a column on the open pages before me and began reading some verses marked in red at the end of Moroni chapter 7:
45 And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

46 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—

47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
OK, I can take a hint. This was a big one. It hit me strongly: my whole attitude was selfish. I had a great job, an excellent boss, I was paid well and treated well, and needed to be more grateful for this. While I had worked hard and made some significant contributions, so had many others. I had no right to get puffed up over my contributions and become demanding.

I did my best to repent and change my outlook as I rushed to the appointment, and felt a huge burden lifted. Selfishness is such a burden. It makes life harder, more onerous.

I went into the performance review with a more positive, accepting, and grateful attitude - and what a difference that made. Communication was much more effective, and I left almost elated at understanding where I could make a bigger impact and how I could achieve more. I was more grateful than ever for my job and more optimistic than ever about my future. And the things I learned in that meeting also showed me how poor my timing would have been if I had persisted in my selfishness and whining.

Two minutes of prayer, pondering, and SCRIPTURE STUDY changed so much for me that morning. How grateful I am to the Lord for the scriptures and the marvelous way than can become alive for our present needs when we turn to them prayerfully. And I'm also grateful to have a job that I really love - at last!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dealing with Religious Hate

To add some perspective to the discussion around my last post about dealing with religious bigotry, I'd like to cite the example we see around Temple Square during recent General Conferences. There we have street preachers deliberately trying to provoke faith LDS people as they go to their religious service. One can encounter shouting, taunting, the occasional waving of LDS garments, and other forms of mockery. The response of most LDS people was exemplary: ignoring it, walking away, or polite discourse. Some gathered around to sing hymns to compensate for the unsettling hostility of the street preachers. But there were no riots and, as far as I know, no physical assaults on the agitators. I think that's how most religious people are, including my Muslim friends who are pained by the mockery of their religion but appalled at the agitators who have stirred others up into committing hateful acts of their own.

I'm against hateful speech and hateful expressions meant to offend, but feel it is best to not overreact and not impose laws that could limit all unpopular discourse some day.

My thanks to the good example of LDS people who refuse to be riled by snarling buffoons claiming to be ministers of God. (Oops - better find me a lawyer quick.)