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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Is that Porn?" Insight from Photographer Mark Mabry

In the preface to his beautiful book of photography, Reflections on Christ, LDS artist Mark Mabry discusses a year-long process he went through to find himself and his path in the world as he approached the age of 30 and became worried about his future. Looking for brilliant one-shot insights to find success, his path of introspection and prayer led instead to an unexpected, gradual path of "step-by-step life-changing promptings." The first was "change your music." That direction was clear, simple, and direct. His iPod was filled with wide variety of music, some of it rather questionable. He made some drastic changes. "Changing my music lifted my spirit. I could go in and out of mental prayer without so much white noise. I could love deeper and communicate better. My command of language improved."

His next step might seem even more drastic. He ended up throwing away his art books. He went to a meeting for men in the Church that dealt with the dangers of pornography. It hadn't been an issue for him, but he had two sons and worried for them. He then considered the issue of nudes in the art of photography:

I thought about how in art school, it was not uncommon for an instructor to use "artistic nude" photographs to illustrate the beauty of light and the human form. At first I was caught off-guard by the images, but soon I began to accept that it wasn't pornography, but art. As I sat in the meeting that day, my mind turned to my growing collection of books by legendary photographers. Most of them had "artistic nudes" that were beautifully lit and well-printed. I was envious of their technical prowess.

I asked in my mind, "Heavenly father, is that porn?" Instead of a warm, "yes, son," I felt the incredulous stare of a living Father. After the meeting, I drove straight to my studio, gathered my art collection, and dumped it in the recycle bin outside.

I felt liberated and closer to God. The experience made me pause to evaluate the power of my chosen medium. I had to ask the question again: How can I be righteous in a field where most of the legends are not?
Sometimes the things we spend years justifying, if considered honestly and taken before God, may well deserve an incredulous stare that should drive us to quick repentance. What one person may need to discard or change might not be the same as another, but I suppose that we all have a few incredulous stares waiting for us, and some clearing out of trash in our lives that really shouldn't wait any longer.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Did Joseph Smith Really Have Concerns about the Future of the US Constitution?

A Google news search for "Mormon" today revealed an interesting LDS-related controversy in Idaho. In the Idaho Statesman, "Mormon Church Distances Itself from Idaho Gubernatorial Candidate" offers this report:
The Mormon Church says it doesn’t back Rex Rammell’s candidacy and doesn’t endorse a prophecy Rammell believes in which church founder Joseph Smith supposedly said the U.S. Constitution "will hang ... by a single thread.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement this week after Rammell, a Mormon who is challenging Republican Gov. Butch Otter in the primary election next May, announced a series of meetings for Mormon elders on the so-called “White Horse Prophecy.” The prophecy is said to have been given by Smith and says church elders will save the Constitution.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is politically neutral and does not endorse or promote any candidate, party or platform,” spokeswoman Kim Farah’s statement said. “Accordingly, we hope that the campaign practices of political candidates would not suggest that their candidacy is supported by or connected to the church.

“The so-called ‘White Horse Prophecy’ is based on accounts that have not been substantiated by historical research and is not embraced as Church doctrine.”
I agree that the Church should not endorse political candidates, and also agree with Kim Farah in recognizing that the "White Horse Prophecy" is highly questionable, as an excellent article from FAIRLDS.org amply documents. At the same time, I think I should remind you that there is abundant evidence that Joseph Smith did express great concern about future threats to the Constitution of the United States. That point is made in the FAIRLDS article. Another good source comes from the “I Have a Question” feature in the June 1976 Ensign, where D. Michael Stewart of the Dept. of History at Brigham Young University, Department of History tackles the question, "What do we know about the purported statement of Joseph Smith that the Constitution would hang by a thread and that the elders would save it?":
The documents show that Joseph Smith did prophesy a number of times that the United States and the Constitution would be imperiled and that the elders would have a hand in saving them. The first known record of the prophecy dates to July 19, 1840, in Nauvoo, when the prophet spoke about the redemption of Zion. Using Doctrine & Covenants 101 as a text, he said, “Even this nation will be on the verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the Constitution is on the brink of ruin this people will be the staff upon which the nation shall lean and they shall bear the Constitution away from the very verge of destruction.” (Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church Historical Archives, Box 1, March 10, 1844.)

There are also other documents in Church History files that show that five different early Saints recorded some remarks by the Prophet Joseph Smith on this same prophecy, perhaps voiced by the Prophet a number of times in a number of ways after 1840. Parley P. Pratt wrote in 1841 that the prophet said, “The government is fallen and needs redeeming. It is guilty of Blood and cannot stand as it now is but will come so near desolation as to hang as it were by a single hair!!!!! Then the servants goes [sic] to the nations of the earth, and gathers the strength of the Lord’s house! A mighty army!!!!!! And this is the redemption of Zion when the saints shall have redeemed that government and reinstated it in all its purity and glory!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (George A. Smith Papers, Church Archives, Box 7, Folder 5, January 21, 1841.)

James Burgess related that the Prophet, while addressing the Nauvoo Legion several miles east of Nauvoo in May 1843, said that “the time would come when the constitution and government would hang by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the latter-day saints will step forth and save it.” (James Burgess Journal, 1818–1904, Church Archives, vol. 1—found among loose sermons.)

Orson Hyde recalled that the Prophet predicted that “the time would come that the Constitution and the country would be in danger of an overthrow and said he, if the constitution be saved at all, it will be by the Elders of this Church. I believe this is about the language as nearly as I can recollect it.” (JD, 6:150.)

In a Pioneer Day celebration in Ogden in 1871, Eliza R. Snow said, “I heard the prophet say, ‘The time will come when the government of these United States will be so nearly overthrown through its corruption, that the Constitution will hang as it were by a single hair, and the Latter-day Saints—the Elders of Israel—will step forward to its rescue and save it.” (Journal History, MSF 143 #28, July 24, 1871.)

Jedediah M. Grant, during the dark days of threatened invasion of Utah by a federal army, referred to the Prophet’s utterance as he addressed a Mormon Battalion gathering in Salt Lake City, February 6, 1855.

“What did the Prophet Joseph say? When the Constitution shall be tottering we shall be the people to save it from the hand of the foe.” (Deseret News Weekly, January 19, 1870.)

On various occasions, Joseph Smith referred to the Constitution, the country, and destiny of the nation; and there is clear evidence that he anticipated future peril. Furthermore, he pronounced the prophecy at various times and places. Perhaps he himself interchanged the simile “on the brink of ruin,” “hang by a brittle thread,” “hang by a single hair,” etc., to describe the anticipated crisis. It is also clear that the redeemers or rescuers of the Constitution were to be either the Saints generally or priesthood officers specifically.

Since no particular time was given for fulfilling this prophecy, members of the Church have often wondered about its timing. The prophecy clearly indicates a single, identifiable episode yet to come. However, it is helpful for us to constantly be on guard against threats to the central elements of the Constitution. It is not wise to sit by and think that the protection of the Constitution is the problem of someone else at some other time.

In support of this view of “constant vigilance,” it is most instructive to note that Church leaders have seen the Constitution imperiled a number of times. Brigham Young, reflecting on the prophecy of 1868, expressed: “It would not be many years before these words come to pass.” (JD, 12:204.) President John Taylor in 1884 declared: “It may be nearer … than some of us think.” (JD, 25:350.) President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., warned in 1942: “Whether it [the Constitution] shall live or die is now in the balance.” (Conference Report, October 1942, p. 58.)

Students of history and the Constitution know that the Constitution has been imperiled a number of times in its history and has been saved a number of times both by vigorous political action and by vocal public opinion.

Thus, rather than simply wait for the one time when the Constitution shall hang by a thread, Latter-day Saints must continually be vigilant. Our commission to save the Constitution is, like salvation, a continuing task, and Church leaders have pointed out the tools available: analysis of constitutional principles, personal study of the history of our nation, reading the Constitution to children at home and in schools, teaching them self-sacrifice—the principle that makes freedom possible—teaching them their obligations as mature citizens, recognizing and resisting ideologies that threaten constitutional principles, and developing loyalty to principle rather than to men or parties.

Politicians and statesmen must grapple with tough questions, painstakingly familiarize themselves with vital issues, and be decisive; but finally, an antidote to abusive government, to corruption, and to constitutional peril lies in private character. Humble people in prayerful homes will contribute immeasurably to a lasting constitutional government. And it should be apparent that consistent efforts in these areas will prepare us both to continually protect the Constitution and to prepare us for possibly a yet future rendezvous with our Constitution’s destiny.
Constant vigilance! That rings true to me, as does the prophecy at various times that the Constitution would be in great peril, as it most surely is today in an era where men in power ignore almost every restraint on what they can decree, spend, or seize. Maybe the Latter-day Saints can do something to help out. For starters, have you written your Congressman recently? Have you sought to understand what that document is and what our Founding Fathers sought to do?

Update, Dec. 31, 2009: One commenter said that Rammel has not been using the questionable White Horse Prophecy, but simply the more attested statement from Joseph Smith about the Constitution one day hanging from a thread or being in peril. If that is correct, then Rammel may have been a victim of media misinformation. To quote Church leaders on future dangers to the Constitution is NOT the same as relying on a lengthy bogus prophecy. Are any of you close enough to Rammel to know the real story here?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Our Vulnerability to Fraud, Deception, and Questionable Religious Marketing

Fraud is a problem that those of any religious community, Mormons included, need to beware. In religious communities where there is a sense of trust and fellowship toward others who share the same faith, con artists can rarely resist the temptation to exploit the religion to gain the trust of others. Utah Valley, for example, has a painful track record of fraud, with many deceivers having sought to strip believing Mormons of their wealth, using religion to gain confidence of believers for their scam.

On my last trip to Utah, I had dinner on a Saturday night, where I heard from one of my favorite ex-Mormons about his experiences with Mormon fraud. In the real estate market in Utah, he has faced dishonest people too frequently and had developed some basic warning signs of fraud and deception. In his view of the world, there are two warning signs that he feels are red flags for fraud and deception by religious con men. These signs are (1) talking openly about having an LDS temple recommend, and (2) making a point of displaying Books of Mormon. When someone seeking to close a deal or gain someone’s confidence uses both of those elements for personal gain, they can’t be trusted, in his opinion. Use of religion for personal gain is the essence of what Nephi warns against in the Book of Mormon, and I suppose it makes sense that it would be associated with fraud.

What amazed me was that within hours of that conversation, I picked up the Salt Lake Tribune and read an article about a prominent LDS politician on the cover of one of its sections. This politician apparently (so I imagine) was trying to score some points with the Mormon community by (1) telling them that he had a temple recommend and (2) making a point about how he has Books of Mormon on display in his office. Update: As much as I have come to distrust this politician's motives in recent months, I am not saying that this article proves he is a fraud, though I did find it strangely ironic after the previous evening's conversation. I couldn't help but chuckle (tried to keep it a non-partisan chuckle, with equal air flow to both sides of my mouth).

The article in Utah's leading newspaper opens by noting that this particular man "keeps a copy of the Book of Mormon in his office just off the chamber floor. There's a second copy handy to give away to someone in need of spiritual guidance." It then assures us that he has a temple recommend and is very active in the Church. The article, in my view, looks like it is drawn from a clever PR piece from the Senator's office rather than being a real news story. Certainly slanted to assuage the LDS community.

While the only thing I have ever said about that politician on this blog was positive, I’m afraid that the LDS community needs to step back and look past his religion in evaluating whose side he really is on. It's OK to vote however you want, but I hope LDS voters in this case - and all cases - will consider the real track record and not the religion in making a decision. It is vital that we elect readers not based on appearances but on their core values and track record.

Yes, I recognize that calling attention to this will be viewed as a purely political attack, but it's not. I'm not a Republican, and am ashamed of that party's actions to erode the liberty and financial stability of this nation over the past couple of decades or so. Their insane spending and growth of government has only accelerated, however. I am not for either party, but for liberty and for the US Constitution, and am simply shocked at how Constitutional restraint has been eroded in favor of big government socialism that will make the rich and powerful rich and powerful beyond imagination, at the expense of all of us. The real fraud that threatens this nation is not from any one individual, but from the insane spending frenzy and power grabs of the past few years that will leave our children and grandchildren with much less freedom and unbearable debt. When a government becomes so big and corrupt that it claims the privilege to offer - or compel - cradle-to-grave care of its citizens (typically a sham whose real aim is seizing massive power and wealth), there will inevitably be fewer cradles and more graves.

Sadly, the US Constitution and the extremely limited form of government it gave us is not just hanging by a thread, but being devoured by a lion. If ever there was a time for good men and women from the Rockies and everywhere else to stand up and insist that we return to the principles therein, this is it. I hope Congressmen of both parties, both LDS members and non-LDS, will take up this cause and perhaps repair any mistakes or misdeeds they may have been part of.

Our religion teaches us that the principles of that Constitution were inspired by God and that it is right that we should defend it. By the same token, I am prepared to look completely past the religion of anyone who, in my opinion, brazenly violates it in supporting the quest for power over our lives. They may be sincere in their personal faith and may be active Christians in good standing in their churches or ours, but when their supporters make a show of their religion to garner confidence among the faithful, my suspicions can only grow, regardless of which party they are in. Skepticism in this and all cases with politicians can only be healthy.

Any of you read the Constitution recently? Any of you compared the principles of the Republic given to us by wise and inspired Founding Fathers with the principles we see in operation today? These are troubling times. The excesses of dictators of all kinds in the past century have often begun with a claim of helping the people - a claim based on fraud and misplaced confidence. This is not the right time for blind faith in mortals and any scheme that gives politicians even more control over our lives.

A good Mormon or good Christian in general can believe many different things when it comes to politics, but I think a good Mormon must in some way be deeply committed to the cause of personal liberty. If nothing else, we depend on that if our religion is going to survive in this crazy world. But it matters for many more reasons as well. Once liberty is lost, you don't just get it back by trying a different politician when the next election rolls around.

Dec. 30 update: I've changed the title for clarity.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Yes, One Can Be a Respected Scholar and LDS

MormonScholarsTestify.org is a new and growing website with statements from faithful LDS scholars in a variety of disciplines about their faith and why they accept the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those who think that the LDS faith is hopelessly untenable for intelligent, educated people, the site might offer some useful reminders about intellectually satisfying power that many respected thinkers in several fields have found in their faith.

Hope you all had a terrific Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Book of Mormon, If True, Means the Church May Be True, Not Must Be True

One person recently complained of his LDS father who wouldn't consider anti-LDS arguments because of his testimony of the Book of Mormon. His belief in the divine origins of the Book of Mormon gave him a mindset based on the "absolute assumption that the church is true." It's fair to recognize, however, that a true Book of Mormon does not necessarily mean that modern Church is 100% true, nor that all actions of the Church and its leaders are correct.

Indeed, our RLDS friends and several other groups derived from Mormonism, as well as the occasional non-LDS minister, have concluded that the Book of Mormon is true without recognizing the LDS Church is necessarily true. But a world in which a real Angel Moroni and real gold plates were translated miraculously by the power of God offers quite a different lens for interpreting the subsequent actions of Joseph Smith and the later journey of the Church than does a world in which Joseph was a con-man collaborating with other remarkably loyal con-men who were prepared to go to their graves loyal to their scheme. A true Book of Mormon does not mean that the Church must be true, but that it may be. A divinely inspired Book of Mormon opens the possibility that those who interpret apparent errors and even obvious shortcomings of Joseph Smith with the assumption that he was a fraud may be making an mistake and missing the possibility of other more gentle interpretations of events, witnesses, and records.

Just a simple thought to keep in mind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rejecting Prophets for Apparently Bad Behavior: What Tapestry Do You Look At?

I have often explained that prophets are fallible, like all mortals, and that making a mistake or doing something that strikes us as objectionable is not necessarily a reason for rejecting someone God has called. One ex-Mormon asked me how much bad behavior I am willing to accept before finally giving up on the Church altogether, for there are long lists of objections and complaints that can be crafted for Joseph Smith and other modern prophets. It's a fair question, but one that might be missing some important considerations. The discussion was in the context of the numerous anti-Mormon arguments against the Church that might be refutable or answerable on their own, but which together allegedly create a "tapestry" that weighs against the truthfulness of the Church.

In response, let me ask this question: If you currently accept the Bible as true, how much apparently bad behavior on the part of Abraham would it take to reject him as a prophet? How much would it take to reject the Old Testament? How much would it take to reject someone who taught as official doctrine that Abraham was a great prophet who should be considered the “friend of God” (which is what Christ called him)?

The record from the pro-Abraham writers in the Old Testament – those loony Abrahamic apologists – admits (warning: anti-Abrahamic spin follows) that he was guilty of polygamy and shacking up with concubines. It admits that he sent one of his women and his unwanted son out into the desert where they would have died were it not for miraculous help. It admits that he tried to kill his own son in a pagan human sacrifice. It admits that he was a bloody man of war and a greedy profiteer rolling in wealth and seeking more. Now what if we dug up additional evidence from his critics and victims? Can you imagine what a tapestry we’d have then? So at what point do you reject Abraham, the Old Testament, and even Christ because of the vast tapestry one can create by picking out the ugliest threads and discarding everything else?

One can seek to understand the big picture, the real tapestry, or one can seek to craft objections and weave their own new tapestry to tell an ugly story from a flawed but, at many times, divinely inspired life.

For me, the tapestry that needs to be considered has a rich and repeating pattern of a divine gift, the Book of Mormon, with power and rich internal and external evidences for authenticity. It has repeating patterns in many other areas indicating divine authority and majesty in the revealed and restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are rich experiences, intellectually stimulating and fulfilling journeys involving the Temple, the scriptures, the Priesthood, the relation to ancient Christianity, and many other elements, that together form a joyous tapestry – with some ugly threads in there as well that come from mortal fallibility. When examined, the ugly threads do not destroy the value of the whole, though they do raise some problems and require examination of assumptions and, most often, more careful readings of texts and more complex interpretations of events.

So let me ask one illustrative question along these lines. If you know, really know, as I do, that the Book of Mormon is simply too powerful, beautiful, and authentic as an ancient text for Joseph Smith to have fabricated or any scholar in his day to have concocted, at what point does your trouble with polygamy or the Kirtland bank disaster or Brigham Young’s views on minorities lead you to conclude that the Book of Mormon is a fraud and all the witnesses who went to their graves affirming the reality of the gold plates must have been pathological liars? If the Book of Mormon is true, if the First Vision really happened, would that make a difference in how you approach a puzzling issue like polygamy or other problems later on?

Critics want us to see only some ugly threads and throw away the whole cloth, but there is much more the picture that needs to be considered.

Monday, December 14, 2009

One Man, a Cow, and a Temple: Unmentioned Lessons from the Story of John Rowe Moyle

The recently released film, "Only a Stonecutter," deals with the immense faith and sacrifice of John Rowe Moyle, a stonecutter who helped build the Salt Lake Temple. He lived over 20 miles away in Alpine, Utah, but once a week he would walk to Salt Lake to fulfill his calling there, staying with his son and daughter-in-law until Friday, then walk back again so he could do work for himself on his small farm on Saturday. That would be dramatic enough, but he kept doing this for years after one leg was amputated, walking on a cleverly constructed wooden leg that he made himself (but never patented or marketed to others - perhaps a missed opportunity?). His cow kicked him, shattering a leg and forcing amputation--but that did not stop him from doing his job. Amazing.

I've seen the film a couple of times. It's very popular and I expect to see it several more times in Church gatherings. This is a story that has legs. But every time I see it, part of me becomes angry. Not the part that gets angry when I hear bogus faith-promoting stories someone found in some LDS spam. (This is a true story about a real man, as far a I can tell, written by a witness, his son.) The part of me that gets angry is the same part that wants to scream when I see parents putting their kids in harm's way or neglecting serious problems like illiteracy, gang membership, or major health problems. That part of me wants to step into the movie and shake some of the locals and ask why they didn't give this man a ride. Surely there must have been some horsepool or buggypool that could have added a passenger? Couldn't his family have arranged for a ride for at least part of the way? And what about his home teacher or his bishop? Couldn't they find some way to help? Trade in the cow for a horse or something?

The movie seems to portray a world that was pretty much inhabited by one man, a cow, and a temple, with occasional cameo appearances of his wife, a surgeon who beams down to remove the leg, and his son and daughter-in-law in Salt Lake. But what about all the people that must have been traveling along that route? What about all the folks with horses in the Salt Lake Valley? Didn’t any of them try to help?

Actually, there may have been many rides and much help--or at least offers for help--that the author was not aware of in writing the story. On the other hand, John was clearly cut of different fabric than most people today. In addition to his almost supernatural commitment and sacrifice, there was a fierce independence that may have led him to shun offers for charity. He had a system that worked and was glad to be independent. So I’m willing to control my anger and will patiently watch the film again, when shown--it’s very well done and definitely worth watching. In fact, there are some apparently unspoken lessons I take away from the story that I’d like to share.

Applying the Story to Our Lives Today
The main lesson I take away from the story is NOT the need to be willing to do all sorts of painful things to achieve a goal, but the need to pay more attention to those around us who are making things unnecessarily hard on themselves. There are people facing painful struggles and overwhelming tasks on their own, like John walking 22 miles to Salt Lake on a wooden leg, when something small and simple like offering a ride or helping him find a good deal on a horse could save great pain and make them much more productive. Every hour John spent walking was an hour he wasn’t building the Temple or caring for his family. There are people in similar traps today. A bit of help that costs us little can save them much.

Home and visiting teachers, bishops, parents, friends–we all need to look around at those in our midst and notice when they are trapped in some painful predicament where simple solutions are possible if only they were given additional resources or advice. It’s the fiercely independent souls, those few, who can be the hardest to help, but sometimes an appeal to increasing their productivity and being able to better bless their families can shake them from their path and give them the humble courage to step up into your buggy and be spared hours of unnecessary pain.

I’ve missed some of these opportunities, often by not asking enough questions or challenging the assumptions that others presented. I’m finding that so many lives are lived with crazy burdens that many of us could help with, often with little inconvenience, if only we understood the need. (For example, there are still people, right here in my ward, still struggling with Microsoft Vista or even using Internet Explorer 6! Some have never even heard of Firefox.) Ask questions, probe prayerfully, and be creative. In a world with so much all around us, you may be surprised what can be done to help others, especially a few brave but lonely souls who are trying to do too much on their own, the hard way. This is not a world of one man, a cow, and a Temple, but an abundant world where there is enough for all, if only we reach out and give others a lift and spread the wealth around voluntarily.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Few Random Photos

Thought I'd share a couple random photos from recent events. Help me pick one to use in my next post. Yeah, just having fun here.

Two "Easy" Ways to Get Answers to Prayers

Back in my days at BYU, ahortly after gatting married, I was quite happy to be part of a local "city ward," the Provo Ninth Ward - Hugh Nibley's home ward, in fact. Soon I had a home teaching companion, a young man in his 20s who had grown up in the Church. After we visited a family and had a basic discussion of some Gospel topics, he turned to me and asked if I had ever received an answer to prayer. The question surprised me, for I assumed that any active LDS person would have answered this queston affirmatively, but an answer to prayer was outside his experience. I found this very sad, and tried to offer some suggestions--not sure I was of any help.

I've since found that there are plenty of long-time Latter-day Saints throughout the Church who are not so sure that they've had an answer to prayer, in spite of serios efforts to live the basic teachings of the Gospel. There are some who have said they prayed to know if the Church is true or not and didn't get what seemed like an answer. Others have prayed for other legitimate things without evidence of an answer. I admit that recognizing the Spirit and sensing answers to prayer can be difficult, and often requires persistence, fatience, and faith. But I think there are a couple of areas where answers to prayers are much more likely to occur rapidly and sometimes with dramatic testimony-building results.

In my experience, the "big" things that I've prayerd for often don't get the miraculous answer I was hoping for. Nations hostile to the Gospel are not opening their doors in response to my prayers. Corrupt politicians and big money men destroying the freedoms and finances of this nation remain in power. War still rages, often unnecessarily. Cancer victims are usually not miraculously healed because of my prayers. And even my hopes for global warming here in Wisconsin are being dashed even as I write.

There have been a couple of areas, though, where prayers seem to be answered easily and sometimes rather swiftly. Sometimes with amazing results. Nothing is "on demand" or "sure-fire" and patience and faith are always important, but some approaches seem more fruitful than others if you want to experience the results that prayer can bring. Easy-bake prayer recipe #1 is mentioned in the following excerpt from the last General Conference, in the talk "Repent ... That I May Heal You" by Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:
For most, repentance is more a journey than a one-time event. It is not easy. To change is difficult. It requires running into the wind, swimming upstream. Jesus said, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me."18 Repentance is turning away from some things, such as dishonesty, pride, anger, and impure thoughts, and turning toward other things, such as kindness, unselfishness, patience, and spirituality. It is "re-turning" toward God.

How do we decide where our repentance should be focused? When a loved one or friend suggests things we need to change, the natural man in us sometimes pops up his head and responds, "Oh, you think I should change? Well, let me tell you about some of your problems." A better approach is to humbly petition the Lord: "Father, what wouldst Thou have me do?" The answers come. We feel the changes we need to make. The Lord tells us in our mind and in our heart.

We then are allowed to choose: will we repent, or will we pull the shades down over our open window into heaven?
As he said, the answers come when we turn to God and ask for guidance on our own personal repentance. "Lord, what am I doing wrong? Where can I do better? How can I improve? What sins do I need to remove from my life ASAP?" When I manage to humble myself enough to ask this question, sometimes with the help of others who help me see past my pride and recognize some glaring faults, a sincere prayer can open floodgates of personal revelation. Real revelation, not just fuzzy warm feelings. The Lord seems to have some very strong opinions about our behavior, and seems more than willing to chime in with guidance if only we'll open our hearts and minds for His answer. "Thank you for asking! Here are some priorities for now . . ." If we act on those promptings, it can begin a series of events where it will become increasingly clear how close the Lord is and how anxious He is to help guide us through the trials of mortality. Repentance always brings us closer to the Lord, and that process is one of the most dramatic ways for people to experience answers to prayer.

The second "easy-bake" route to receiving answers to prayer is to pray for guidance in how to help someone else. Not praying for their problems to miraculosly vanish (feel free to do that, though), but praying for guidance regarding the things within your scope of inflence. What can you do, make, give, or say to help another person, especially those you have a responsibility to help? Listen, ponder, study the scriptures, and pray sincerely, then act. You may be surprised at what can happen when you seek to be on the Lord's team and serve others. There are numerous small miracles waiting for you as you try to listen to the Lord and look for the right things you can do to help those around you. These can be true testimony-building experiences, even in painful settings.

Today in a talk in church, I shared an experience that happened shortly after we moved to a new city. I was assigned as a home teacher to a less active man who years later would become one of the people I respect most, one who would later do more to help me in the Church than almost anyone else. I had worked hard to get him to commit to a time when my companion, Tim, and I could visit. The appointment was set, and now I was supposed to meet up with Tim and go visit him. I called Tim, and there was no answer. Called a few more times, but no answer. I was worried. I felt that Tim needed a positive home teaching experience also for his benefit, and a key opportunity was about to be missed. The event seemed important enough to me that I felt a need to pray about it. I said a short prayer asking the Lord for help, explaining that I had done everything I could to help these two men with this experience today, and really felt that it needed to happen, but I couldn't reach Tim. I felt that I should simply call one more time. I went to the phone, dialed Tim's number, and soon heard his voice. "Tim? This is Jeff." "Jeff, how did you reach me? My phone is broken - I can call out, but I can't receive calls. Or at least the phone doesn't ring when people call me. I was just picking the phone up to call someone else, and you must have called then." Such a small little thing, a tiny coincidence, a matter of lucky timing - but to me, it was one of a multitude of small miracles we may experience when we turn to the Lord for guidance about what we can do. I'm not talking about changing His will about the timing of when we or someone we love dies, or changing huge currents of life and society. Wars still rage. Good people still suffer tragedy. But we can find the hand of the Lord in seeking to know what we can do in whatever setting we are in, whether it is something as small as helping a fellow member with a visit, or sometimes something much more dramatic. Stay open to the possibility that God can guide us in our daily events, in spite of seeming indifferent to many of our big requests, knowing that He cares and as His purposes. There are no guarantees - I've had numerous disappointments of all kinds when trying to help - but when we seek and watch for the help of the Lord regarding what we personally can do to help, this may be an area ripe for answers. But start with #1, seeking to know what we should be doing to repent. That's just abot the fastest way, in my opinion, to encounter the Divine.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thoughts From a Strange Abortion-Related Dream

I was working in my front yard during my latest dream, when I noticed a group of pro-abortion marchers coming down the street. They began coming onto my yard and were irritated by a large display that someone had put up behind my back while I was working. There was a banner mounted on pole with writing condemning Planned Parenthood and the greedy abortion industry. I had a few seconds to decide if I wanted to stand by the anti-abortion banner--I could easily have disavowed it and say it was a prank from someone else--or assume responsibility and defend my stance. I read it quickly and decided I agreed. I turned to the leader of the group, a smiling or perhaps smirking man with short hair, and tried to talk logically. I remember my words and halfway through realized how utterly ineffective they were. Here's what I said: "Look, I recognize that from your perspective, Planned Parenthood is an organization that has done a lot of good. But have you considered the perspective of women who regret the decision they made based on what Planned Parenthood told them?" Before I could explain what I was trying to say, he and several others walked away while others took photos of me and the sign to document things.

This made me reflect about some of the people I know who have lived with the pain and regret of getting an abortion. Through the Atonement of Christ, some have moved past that mistake and are living vibrant lives as inspiring Christians. Others have coped with the mistake in other ways. Not all women regret it, of course, but those who do often wish they had been given more complete information about what they were doing, about what would happen, and especially about how abortion could be avoided and how much help would be available. Some faced intense pressure from others to do something their heart told them was wrong. Some were victims themselves on multiple fronts, still in need of our compassion and help.

Of course, we must not forget the often-missing half of the problem, the men. Many don't care, sadly, but some who caused a pregnancy that was terminated with abortion also face deep regrets and sorrow. Some who participated in the decision did not fully understand what they were choosing. Some also faced pressure and misinformation.

The dream was undoubtedly triggered by a national story--or non-story, if you rely on mainstream news--from an abortion clinic right here in my town of Appleton, Wisconsin. A pregnant young woman with a hidden camera went in to the local Planned Parenthood outlet and recorded irresponsible misinformation being given by their staff, including a doctor who has been doing abortions for 30 years. "It's not a baby or anything like that," the woman was told about her developing baby. When she asked if the baby had a heartbeat, she was told that the thing in her only had "heart tones," not a heart beat. Information was twisted or withheld to help close the deal and score the sale of their services, rather than help the woman face the reality that abortion stops a beating heart of another human, and that there might be some very reasonable alternatives like adoption that could give her baby (and her) a chance.

Read more and see the video at the Rose Arcuna Project at LiveAction.org.

Not anything like a baby? Then what is it like, Planned Parenthood? A dolphin? No, wait, that's a protected species. A turtle? No, smash protected turtle eggs and you're going to do time. So what's it like? I am saddened that women right here in my town are being given misinformation from clever marketers raking in the bucks with their abortion business. As a result of that misinformation, some may make a decision that they may regret for the rest of their lives. That's ugly.

How I wish that none of our tax dollars went to support such an organization.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Got Cognitive Dissonance? Consider This Before You Abandon Faith

"Cognitive dissonance" is a popular term to describe the tension that occurs when various components of knowledge and belief seem to contradict. Recognizing and dealing with cognitive dissonance ought to be a normal part of an intelligently lived life because it is a natural result of having limited, imperfect knowledge, and points to areas where we may benefit from further exploration and learning.

Advances in science occur in the realms of cognitive dissonance as scientists try to make sense of data that doesn't seem to fit established views. Dissonance does not demand panic or complete abandonment of old paradigms or of science itself, but further study, an openness to revised understanding, and sometimes a little patience. A classic area for cognitive dissonance in science is the tension between the strange world of quantum mechanics at the atomic or subatomic level and the physical behavior of the macroscopic world we see and touch. Even Einstein struggled with it and found it too bizarre--and that was long before some of the really weird stuff was discovered. The apparent contradictions are being resolved, but it still demands a lot of patience and perhaps even faith to deal with the puzzles that are presented.

Sometimes the reason for cognitive dissonance is that a theory that once seemed to work no longer makes sense or needs major revisions. Facing the discrepancies can be healthy and lead to wiser actions (I am tempted to raise the issue of Climategate as an example, but that might cause too much cognitive dissonance for some). In science, cognitive dissonance is something to savor because it spells opportunity: opportunity to learn, to grow, to revise old assumptions, and to discover. Dealing with cognitive dissonance is the fuel for scientific advances (see Thomas Kuhn's classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

The term "cognitive dissonance" in some religious or formerly religious circles is used to justify leaving the Church. In these circles, it is shorthand for finding things that didn't make sense to someone. Yes, there are plenty of those in our faith, or any faith. However, many of those who leave or abandon faith because of cognitive dissonance may be missing the inherent opportunity to grow and learn.

Are you upset because modern LDS scholars are saying that the Book of Mormon took place in a small geographical area and that it does not describe the complete origins of all native Americans, when your Sunday School teacher thirty years ago said it did? Maybe there is soomething to be learned from a careful reading of the text and consideration of data regarding the ancient Americas.

Are you upset because a prophet made a mistake? Maybe it's time to update your understanding of prophets and recognize that they are fallible mortals like all of us, but with authority and the ability to occasionally receive revelation when God wills it, not superheroes who instantly become omniscient.

Are you upset because past practices of polygamy, priesthood limitations, or whatever don't agree with your view of how things should be? I'm bothered as well, but if Christ refused to condemn ancient prophets like the poygamist Abraham, and even called him the "friend of God," maybe we, too, should learn to be cautious in how we judge, and maybe we have more to learn someday on these controversial topics. Living with cognitive dissoance can be healthy when we recognize that we are missing information and that there are reasons to at least for now withhold judgment in faith.

There are many good reasons to leave the Church, if you are looking for them, just as there are many good reasons to abandon science, especially medical science, where the views and decrees of its leaders in some areas shift and change over time. For example, when I was a teenager, I struggled with bad acne. I wondered if something in my diet, like lots of dairy products, might be related. A leading dermatologist told me absolutely not, that there was no relation, and instead I should just load up on tetracycline. After doing that for several years with little benefit, I finally realized through trial and error that acne was directly tied to my diet. In fact, to this day, if I eat too much ice cream, I will break out.

Today, medical science realizes there is a link between diet and acne. It is not necessarily the animal fat that I assumed and still suspect is part of the problem. Science today points to the bovine growth hormones that are often used in cows. These hormones can exacerbate acne. So my dermatologist was completely wrong about the role of diet, and was also wrong in giving me so much tetracycline. One medical practioner told me that heavy tetracycline for acne would be considered medical malpractice today because of the side effects it can have. That's medical science for you. In fact, that's science: it's forever tentative and always subject to revision. Shouldn't our religious understanding be equally open to updates and progress? Before we abandon faith, consider if there is a need for revision in our assumptions, or if others have resolved the conflict successfully, or if the problem is limited knowledge that may take time and a little faith to keep us on course. Don't let our limited understanding stand in the way of worshipping and following the One Being who is the source of all truth. That's not President Thomas S. Monson or Joseph Smith or any other mortal, but God the Father.

Suggested resource: Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt by Michael Ash.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Intellectual Retreat - Or Updating Our Understanding?

In an enjoyable conversation recently, I was asked if I was comfortable with the Church's intellectual "retreat" regarding the Book of Mormon in light of scientific evidence from DNA about the origins of Native Americans. The argument, I believe, was that we have retreated from the doctrinal position of believing that the Book of Mormon describes the origins of all Native Americans, and now have concocted a more acceptable position in saying that the Book of Mormon only describes some of the peoples of the ancient Americas. Such a revision smacks of intellectual dishonesty, I was told. I don't think I did a good job in responding to that question, so here's another try.

I don't see it that way at all. Nothing in the canonized text is being abandoned. Our understanding of the text, especially views based on sloppy reading and unsupported assumptions, may need to be revised. While evidence of other ancient migrations to the Americas may not fit what many LDS people assumed and taught about the text, it is not ruled out by the text. Updating our understanding in light of new evidence is not intellectually dishonest, but is the sensible way to grow with new information.

Recognizing the limited scope of the Book of Mormon and the possibility that others were in the Americas besides just those brought by Nephi is not a new, desperate tactic forced by new evidence, but a position that some careful readers of the text were advocating many decades before the DNA controvery arose. I summarize some evidence for this on my LDSFAQ page on DNA and Book of Mormon issues. Here is one excerpt to keep in mind, which is actually quoting Matthew Roper's excellent article, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations":
Thus, the sentiments of B. H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy, expressed in 1909, were not entirely unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints: "It cannot possibly be in conflict with the Book of Mormon to concede that the northeastern coast of America may have been visited by Norsemen in the tenth century; or that Celtic adventurers even at an earlier date, but subsequent to the close of the Nephite period, may have found their way to America. It might even be possible that migrations came by way of the Pacific Islands to the western shores of America." He also thought it "indisputable" that there have been at least some migrations from northeast Asia to North America over the Bering Strait. [B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1909), 2:356.] He continued, "It is possible that Phoenician vessels might have visited some parts of the extended coasts of the western world, and such events receive no mention in the Jaredite or Nephite records known to us." While the Book of Mormon text does not specifically mention such migrations, Roberts conceded that "the records now in hand, especially that of the Jaredites, are but very limited histories of these people." Transoceanic contacts may in fact have gone both ways: "It is not impossible that between the close of the Nephite period and the discovery of the western world by Columbus, American craft made their way to European shores." [Ibid., 2:357.] Thus, "even in Jaredite and Nephite times voyages could have been made from America to the shores of Europe, and yet no mention of it be made in Nephite and Jaredite records now known." [Ibid., 2:359.]
Yes, others could have come to this continent besides those in Nephi's group--others from Asia, for example, and not just Asiatic Jaredites. The Book of Mormon does not require that modern Native Americans have "Jewish DNA"--if one could define what that was. Our understanding of the details of the Book of Mormon may need to be updated when we have made unwarranted assumptions. That's intellectual progress, not dishonesty.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Bright Side of the American Music Awards: Years of Jihadist Propaganda Now Irrelevant

I've often been overly critical of Hollywood and the debauchery of our pop-culture stars, so it's time I look for the positive in what they do. Take the recent American Music Awards, broadcast by ABC television, which shocked many viewers with raunchy performances by lewd women and men. I won't rehash what you've probably already read or seen (over and over, inescapably - even got bombarded with lewd clips on TV in a waiting room while trying to take my son to the doctor - for those of you in the "just turn it off" crowd), but performers such as Rihanna and Adam Lambert seemed to go out of their way to push the limits of broadcastable vulgarity in their performances, and several others seemed eager to add a gutter aroma to their art.

So yes, I could sit here and once again whine about the degrading state of our media and the icons of the anything-for-a-buck entertainment industry. But today I'm taking the high road and reporting on a positive aspect of the American Music Awards, based on recent intelligence from a questionable source. It appears that the AMA broadcast was a major setback for at least one Al-Qaeda jihadist group that had been spending millions of dollars over the past two years in preparing a propaganda film to stir up hate against the U.S. Just as they were making the final edits and preparing the global release of their ultimate shock-and-awe propaganda film, "American Idolaters: The Great Satan's Biggest Musical Hits," the American Music Awards came out and rendered all their work irrelevant, and suddenly far too mild to have any effect.

Take that, Al-Qaeda.

On the other hand, I miss the good ol' days of yore when at least some folks in the mainstream media were patriotic enough to try to make American look good in times of war rather than further undermine our global image. What are the Muslim people of the world to think when we honor such shameless people as our celebrities on national television? May they have the good sense to recognize that what ABC considers normal and acceptable is not only reprehensible to Muslims, but to many Americans also, and not just Christians. If you are in a distant part of the globe feeling outraged at American values, rest assured that women here in Wisconsin rarely go out in public dressed in nothing but a few strands of adhesive tape. Women in Alaska are said to be even more modest. Many women and men choose modesty and decency even in places where debauchery won't give you frostbite.

In the end, though, the "just turn it off" crowd has a valid point. Do your part for the war on terror. Turn off ABC and their collaborators in offensive media. It's the patriotic thing to do. If they go under, maybe America's image can rise once again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pondering "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness": A Tribute to a Brave Missionary to China, Gladys Aylward

This week my wife and I watched a marvelous old movie from 1958, "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" starring Ingrid Bergman. The movie about a female missionary's amazing adventures and heroism in China in the 1930s was trashed by one major media source for not having a believable plot--the critic being unaware that it depicted the true story of a feisty English woman, Gladys Aylward.

The movie has its corny elements, too much poorly spoken Chinese, and a love story that is greatly exaggerated. In fact, it horrified the very virtuous Gladys to learn that the movie about her life included some "love scenes" (consisting primarily of violin music and some shy romantic glances gradually leading to a profession of love). But the movie depicts numerous events from her life and, in spite of errors that bothered its subject, seems to be much more realistic than most movies based on true stories. It was also a very strange and foreign movie, in terms of modern standards, for the lead role was a zealous, faithful Christian who was not a con artist, child abuser, or oppressive villain. She was sincere, devout, honest, faithful, and loving. Yes, this film actually came from Hollywood--obviously from a completely different and long-lost generation of movie makers.

Like Latter-day Saint pioneers, Gladys was part of a dangerous trek across hostile territory to lead a people to safety. It was in 1938 as her region was being invaded by Japan that she led 94 children to safety over the mountains to Xian, traveling a distance of about 100 miles. These were orphans that she cared for in her inn, the Inn of the Eighth Happiness (inexplicably demoted to the "Sixth Happiness" by Hollywood for the movie). She was driven by her faith and the desire to bless others and give hope to the next generation.
She had become a citizen of China in 1936 and her activities in support of the local populace, including a bit of spying on the Japanese made it unsafe to remain in Yangchen. Being warned of a bounty for her capture, dead or alive, by Colonel Linnan a member of the local Chinese resistance, she gathered up the children and narrowly escaped the city.

Unable to use roads or transportation, she was forced to lead her children, on foot, over the mountains to the safer province of Sian some 100 miles distant. The trek took twenty seven days in which they had to endure the elements and many hardships. She herself had become ill en route and when they finally arrived safely, she collapsed. The doctors were amazed by the feat as she was suffering from typhus, pneumonia, a relapsing fever, malnutrition, and supreme exhaustion.

She regained some strength but never recovered totally from her illness yet this didn't stop her from continuing her ministry, now located in Sian. She started a church and once more she was sharing the Gospel in the villages, prisons and among the sick and helpless. (Source: TLogical.net.)
After Mao took over China, she fled to England, seeking to bring the Gospel to the nation where she sensed great spiritual needs. She wanted to return to China later but was denied entry, so she settled in Taiwan in 1953.

She died in 1970 is buried in Taipei County, Taiwan. She refused honor and recognition and simply did all she could to serve God.

You can listen to some of her sermons late in life at SermonIndex.net. I like the way she teaches!

Still Pondering the Complexity of Transgender Issues

In a previous post from July 2009, I discussed some of the new things I was learning and pondering regarding transgender issues. I have learned much from a new friend, a transgender Christian, whose personal journey has opened my eyes to some of the complexities and challenges that can occur in mortality.

Since then, I've heard from a transgender Latter-day Saint who kindly gave me permission to share a little of her story, as follows:
I recently read your article on transgender issues. I am what many consider trans and I am also a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I am a Male to Female member.

No, I don't have an axe to grind. I thank you for your article! Well written and sensitive. I figured I might be able to shed more light on things.

The true transsexual is not a sexual deviant. I have kept my baptismal covenants and refuse to have sexual relations until I am married. And yes I can legally get married as a female. What happened to me was not a twist of fate...or an act of nature. It happened because my mother took a drug called DES. A drug marketed in the 60s to prevent miscarriage.

That drug was later classified as a mutagen...a teratogen. Translation? It screws with a developing baby to the extent it can alter gender attributes.

We do the best with what we are handed and we are at the whim of the evil designs of man. God did not make this happen to me...but as we both know this world is not a perfect world. If it were perfect...it would not be that good of a test.

Despite the hell I have endured I have chosen to keep the Lord and the church near me. What and who I am is not a contradiction in the terms of the church unless I make it so. For example flaunting it...making a big deal about it or acting immorally. That is why I am sending this to you privately because it is a private matter. My ward does not know about my past except for the RS president...Bishop and Stake pres.

Any way...there you go. If you have questions feel free to ask.

Thank you, Sarah, for an example of handling an incredibly complicated and unfair situation in life with courage and faith. I cannot comprehend what you've gone through and truly don't understand these issues, but increasingly recognize that there can be genuine exceptions to my conception of how things should be. Yes, I believe that gender is a divine attribute and existed before we were born. But it also seems that mortality makes it possible for all manner of challenges and exceptions to arise with these mortal shells we carry, just as can happen with other aspects of the human experience, so I suggest we need to be extremely cautious and reticent regarding our superficial assumptions about the transgendered. Your example of holding on to your religion and living the moral standards of the Church, even in a situation where most others are surely prone to misunderstand, may be among the truly choice stories of faith that future generations should know.

2012 Update: An insightful post on some of these complex issues is "Jim's View" on the LDS Gender Blog.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Blessing the Lives of War-Torn Children with Music: The Shropshire Music Foundation

One of the best services for on-demand television comes from BYU, where BYU.tv offers an elegant system to watch either live broadcasts or previously played programming. This morning I watched the BYU-Hawaii devotional under live programming for Saturday, Nov. 14 at 3:00 a.m. The speaker is Dr. Susan Shropshire, the amazing LDS woman whose compassion for the victims of war in Kosovo expanded from a short vacation trip meant to help a few people with a little physical help, into a massive effort over the past decade to bless thousands of lives by bringing music into the lives of displaced children.

In the devotional broadcast, she tells her story and the story of some of the people she has worked with. It is inspiring, informative, and deeply moving. You will also learn more about what it means to be a child in a refugee camp--something that so many of my friends have been through right here in Wisconsin, among the Hmong people.

The Shropshire Music Foundation provides free musical instruments and instruction to former child soldiers and refugees in some of the world’s most war-torn places: Uganda, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland. Since 1999, more than 10,000 young people have been taught, and they are finding that through music they can bring healing, hope, and peace to their communities. God bless them! You can help, too.

You can also become a fan on the Facebook page for the Shropshire Music Foundation.

A great example of creative use of one's talents to bless others. Thanks, Sister Shropshire!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Laban's Sword of Precious Steel: Increasingly Plausible

I've had a number of people complain about the steel sword that Laban had in 600 B.C., allegedly long before steel would be invented. It's a topic I address in my LDSFAQ page on metals and the Book of Mormon. Today I found one more interesting tidbit in a scholarly book an ancient iron and steel.

At Google Books, you can preview Iron and Steel in Ancient Times by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald (Volume 29 of Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2005) to find interesting information on ancient steel. For example, on page 72, I found this:
In the Homerian epic the Odyssey we have an exceptional hint at the blacksmith's cunning treatment of steel, when Odysseus with his men blinded the one-eyed Cyclops Polythemus. "And as when a smith dips a great adze in cold water amid loud hissing to temper it--for therefrom comes the strength of iron--even so did his eye his around the stake of olive-wood" (Odyssey, 9. song: 391. translated by A.T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library).

The archaic period described in the Odyssean narrative is difficult to fit in time, since the Odyssey is a conglomerate of tales, first edited and issues as a total of 24 songs in the 4th century B.C. However, the general scarcity of iron and the common references to weapons of bronze point to the 8th or 7th centuries. No doubt, quench-hardening of steel as described in the epic had been well known for centuries before the poem was conceived. Hardening was, however, restricted to tools, particularly to knives, files, and chisels, only occasionally including a dagger, a sword or an axe.
Thus, the ancient book, The Odyssey, apparently refers to steel manufacturing that was known in the Mediterranean region well before the time of Lehi. Hardened steel was not common, though, and was used for only a few objects, including an occasional sword. A steel sword in Jerusalem in Nephi's day may indeed have been rare, but known, and thus it is entirely plausible for the Book of Mormon to mention a sword of a significant and wealthy military leader that was made of "the most precious steel" (1 Nephi 4:9). Not the whole sword, but the blade, where hard steel would be especially desirable.

The ancients in Nephi's day had the ability to carburize iron, but that does not mean that iron or steel was commonly available. The steel of Laban's sword was "most precious," clearly not a commodity item. In fact, subsequent appearances of iron in the Book of Mormon rate it with precious metals and riches rather than treating it as an ordinary material, as if metallurgical skills were largely lost in Nephite culture sometime after Nephi's era.

Incidentally, a photo of a gold-hilted sword with a blade made of meteoric iron is available in Volume 3 of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under the article, "Sword of Laban." The sword comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who died in 1325 B.C., over 700 years before Nephi saw the sword of Laban. For more information on the ancient use of iron and steel prior to Nephi's time, see Oleg D. Sherby and Jeffrey Wadsworth, "Damascus Steels," Scientific American 252 (February 1985): 112-20; J. P. Lepre, The Egyptian Pyramids: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990), 245; Immanuel Velikovsky, Ramses II and His Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 222-37.

Another useful paper on ancient steel is "Steel in Ancient Greece and Rome" by E.A. Ginzel, 1995. Ginzel argues that early forms of steel were known and made by the ancients, though not well understood.

While most ancient works of iron or steel are not likely to survive because of corrosion, one recent well-preserved find of an ancient iron sword from the Middle East is reported by Avraham Eitan, "BAR Interviews Avraham Eitan: Antiquities Director Confronts Problems and Controversies," interview by Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 (1986): 30-38, as discussed in the new book, Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999. A large iron sword, three feet long and about three inches wide was excavated at Vered Jericho (a place near Jericho in Israel). It has a bronze haft with a wooden grip. The strata from which the sword was excavated dates to the late seventh century BC. This sword is unlike the shorter daggers that are normally depicted in art from this part of the world. It provides evidence that iron (steel?) swords of large size were known in Nephi's day. (See also William J. Adams Jr., Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1993, pp. 194-195.)

Ancient iron often had carbon levels around 0.05% to 1%, especially when it was in contact with charcoal during manufacturing. That is consistent with typical definitions of carbon steel (an iron-carbon alloy with about 0.05 to 2% carbon), so it may be appropriate to call such iron "steel"--especially if it has been carburized or otherwise treated to increase its strength. But iron or low-carbon steel rusts easily and is rarely preserved for archeologists to find. And for a long time, it was known but rare or precious, and thus unlikely to be left lying around for easy discovery centuries later. This contributes to the many gaps in our understanding of metals in the ancient world. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence now of steel making before Laban's time that his ownership of a sword with a blade of "the most precious steel" should no longer be a sticking point for those exploring the Book of Mormon. In light of what we know now, it's a subtle statement of great plausibility--the kind of thing that now has to be discounted as just a lucky guess.

The reference to steel "smelted" from a hill by the very ancient Jaredites in the Book of Mormon is probably a reference to meteoric iron, which was known and prized by the Olemcs in the Americas. Meteoric iron is an alloy typically high in nickel content that some experts classify as "steel." Iron elsewhere in the Book of Mormon appears to be a precious metal whose knowledge presumably was brought to the Americas by the early Nephites but became a lost technology--something that happens far more frequently in history than you might think. We would be glad to encounter Mesoamerican finds of iron artifacts someday, but since they were rare and since Mesoamerica has the kind of climate where precious ancient iron wouldn't last long, the chances of such a find cannot be high if, in fact, the Book of Mormon describes real people and real events on a small part of this continent.

Off Topic: Reviewers Needed

Warning: uninspiring secular content! Reader discretion advised.

I know at least some of you are interested in the area of business growth, innovation, new product development, and entrepreneurship, because you've called me or emailed me for tips and advice, or in some cases have brought very interesting opportunities to my attention. I'm hoping some of you might do me a favor now. With the recent release of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, the book I've been working on for the past 3 years, one of our needs is to get further reviews posted at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

If you'd like to review but don't have a copy, I'll send out a copy to the first, say, three or four people who express a willingness and ability to write a review. Tell me a little about yourself, and if you've done other reviews at Amazon already, that's a real plus. Contact me at jeff at jefflindsay.com, with "REVIEW" in the subject line.

You can get some of the content by previewing it at Amazon (use http://tinyurl.com/nofatigue, and there are some free chapters over at InnovationFatigue.com. Naturally, I'm hoping for fair reviews, like the ones that several innovation experts have already posted at Amazon (mostly 5 stars, gratefully), but please be honest rather than merely kind.

Meanwhile, you should know that the book is a perfect gift for the innovators, leaders, researchers and government officials in your life. Great for birthdays, Christmas, weddings, and, yes, even divorces. For divorce gifts, buy two--his and hers. But if it brings the couple back together and saves yet another marriage, let me know and I'll buy a redundant book back from them.

On a more serious note, LDS folks might be interested to see the two-sides of the Philo Farnsworth story I explore regarding his own painful journey in facing, conquering, and possibly succumbing to innovation fatigue. Was this Mormon man the true inventor of television? It's a complex question--and much can be learned in exploring that.

Please forgive this largely "off topic" post. But rest assured that it was inspired by very sincere pride and selfishness.

Basic info on the book is given at JeffLindsay.com and at InnovationFatigue.com, which also has the supporting blog.

Update: The original version of this post offered a second copy of the book or another perk to those who bought a copy to review. The previous offer still stands for those who chose to act on it--please let me know--but to avoid the appearance of compensating people based on the content of the review, I've modified the offer so that I'll send out copies to some potential reviewers who are then free to say whatever they want, which was my intention all along. Unfortunately, the ratio of received reviews to sent out copies has been disappointingly low, so I'm hoping that if you accept a book, that you'll take the time post a sincere review, preferably both at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Meanwhile, if you have suggestions for book promotion, let me know. Even though I'm thrilled that what I consider to be the world's leading publisher in this area has taken on our book, the bulk of the marketing is up to the authors, and, as usual, I'm out of my league here and could use some help.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Do Big Tragedies Negate Small Miracles?

In a previous post (currently on hold while I consult with the source on what details I should share), I referred to the many small miracles that have blessed people I know and love. In one recent example, a mother I know was staying at a friend's home when she heard a voice say "Run!" That helped her recognize her bold little toddler was not at her side but in danger, and she ran to find a stairway door had been opened by someone else and her wobbly little son, a boy with no respect for gravity, was standing at the top, toes over the edge, ready to plunge forward toward bare wooden stairs leading to a concrete basement floor. She snatched him in time, courtesy of a small little miracle. I mentioned that we don’t know when and why these small miracles come, and recognized that life is often filled with pain and sorrow even for the best parents, but when the little miracles come, we should rejoice for those who receive them. When I wrote that, I expected to get the response that I have often received when referring to a miracle that someone experiences. Skeptics will point to some of the tragedies that occur and insinuate that that miracles can’t be real, otherwise why would God help someone with something minor when such great sorrows and pains exist in the world? But the response was more painful or bitter than I expected. I should have anticipated some of the pain that might have been stirred up:
..and yet my son died. Am I to assume that I didn't listen to the Spirit in some way to save him? Or that Heavenly Father just didn't care enough to send any guidance?

Good to know Heavenly Father was more concerned about the possible broken arm [that child] than about my son getting the organ transplant that would have saved his life. . . .

Stories like these are equivalent to a slap in the face for all of us who have [unhappy] endings to our fairytales. It's great that [one child] wasn't hurt...but surely you can see that what the flipside of it implies???
Ouch. I’m so sorry about this. The loss of a child is one of the great tragedies of mortality. There are no easy answers, except for the far-off answer that comes through Christ and the hope of resurrection and reunion. Another great tragedy is the spiritual loss that comes when a child ultimately rejects God and the blessings of the Gospel. Again, only patience and love can be offered with hope that there might be a return one day.

Do these tragedies, though, negate the reality of small or even large miracles? Can God help someone by answering a prayer, healing an illness, or helping a car to start, when many are about to die from accidents, disease, or even terrorism in Texas? Is God unjust or unfair because He sometimes reaches down and lets the current course of mortality be stayed in an obvious way for some purpose we cannot understand but can only gratefully accept?

Thousands across the earth were blind or going blind 2,000 years ago when Christ touched the eyes of one blind man to give him sight. Did God love the others less than the one rare man who was healed? Thousands, maybe millions, across the earth were hungry or thirsty as He attended a wedding feast in Cana and turned water into wine. Does God love the hungry and destitute less because they were not given miraculous drink? If not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without God’s awareness (Matt. 10:29), we must understand that we, His children, are known, noticed, and loved, regardless of what trials we must endure. Shall we be skeptical of God’s love or His miracles because their more outward manifestations are not commonly and uniformly distributed according to our sensibilites?

Mortality will leave all of us bitter and scarred if we cannot accept the diversity of gifts, blessings, trials, lifespans, ancestries, and genes that God lets us have.

Miracles, large or small, stand out. They punctuate the normal course of the painful mundane world to occasionally, even rarely, teach us or remind us of God’s reality or serve some other purpose. We cannot expect them in all cases, every day, for all of us. We have no basis to demand them by right. Remember, His love is no less, His presence no more remote, for the child that dies than for the one that is spared, for His work is not about keeping us wrapped up in our mortal shells and the little things of earth life, but in our ultimate destiny in His endless presence. His timetable and plans for each of us take us through wildly different routes in our journeys. Some routes are tragic and seem senselessly painful, especially when the cruelty of man is involved, men who have abused the cruel gift of free agency to hurt others, for a terrible consequence of the merciful freedom He gives us to choose Him is also the freedom to reject Him and crucify His son anew by abusing His other children also created in His image. But we are also promised that the Atonement of Christ is sufficient and in the end, as we come into His presence, all tears can be wiped away.
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it.

And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the LORD; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25: 7-9)
I rejoiced that one mother was miraculously aided: a voice spoke to her, “Run!”–how obvious can you get? But as I wrote of that miracle, I recognized that other outcomes are possible. Equally deserving and loving parents with equally wonderful children have suffered tragedy under similar circumstances. Indeed, I left out one detail in the story I related. It was especially poignant for me because my wife and I faced a similar danger years ago at the home of some wonderful devout Christians. During a Christmas party there that we attended while striving to be good friends and missionaries, a door to their basement was left open and our little fearless toddler son waddled over to the top of the stairs. He was about the same age as the toddler that was the subject of my last post. My wife spotted him just in the nick of time – well, almost. As she rushed toward him and reached out to snatch him, she missed by inches, a fraction of a second, and watched in horror as he stepped forward and fell head-first down the hard wooden stairs and crashed against the concrete floor at the bottom. We were horrified. We felt like the worst parents ever. We wondered how this could happen, especially when we were there trying to do good and help others, and then this. We were so worried, afraid he might have broken bones, a damaged brain, or even face death. He survived and was soon well, and perhaps that was miracle enough. But we heard no voice to get us there in time, saw no miraculous delay in our son’s trajectory, no hidden angel’s hand to hold him back. He was hurt, but our pain may have been even greater.

The fact that one child was spared a similar fate was not meant as condemnation to those of us who have faced and suffered the normal course of gravity and dare-devil toddlers. It was a miracle, an unusual departure from the normal course. How else can you account for the vocal command to run, a command which appears to have been perfectly timed for maximum drama and gratitude. To me, it does not mean that one child is more precious than another, or one parent necessarily better or more righteous than another, or that God is unjust in allowing danger to be ever present without omnipresent angels imposing a record of perfect safety. What happened to one mother was rare, unusual, and a cause for rejoicing, not guilt trips, pain, and bitterness. It does not mean that one person or family was more righteous or more loved than another. We do not understand why, but can only be grateful. We could speculate, of course, and even wonder if part of its purpose was to help some of us consider the implications of small miracles in the face of large tragedies, especially when I had a contrasting event under such similar circumstances.

Referring to some Galilaeans who had been slaughtered by Pilate while seeking to worship God, Jesus said, “Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 1-3). And regarding 18 people who died in his area when a tower in Siloam fell, he said, “Think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 4-5). Towers fall, children fall, and people die, regardless of who is righteous and who is not. It is not death but rebellion against God that is the real tragedy.

If we only understood more and saw more clearly, we might recognize the hand of God in numerous things around us and rejoice more fully in the miracles of life, of love, of beauty, and of families. We might recognize small or even great miracles even in the painful trials he allows us to experience, some of which may have been tailored for us in His grace. We may be blind to most of the miracles that make our lives, but that should not makes us doubt or even be bitter when His kindness is more obvious to some.

Praise God for each child spared and for each parent given miraculous guidance. Weep for the larger number who are not spared. Do our best to keep doors to danger closed and children close enough to us that we will not need an angel’s voice to best fulfill our duties. And may we never judge or condemn those who are not the recipients of yearned-for miracles, or begrudge those who are.

Meanwhile, we must not lose our bearings and sail away from God because we journey in a world where oceans of trouble and islands of miracles coexist on a map wildly unlike what we would draw if we were the cartographer.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Miracle of the Pamphlet

My missionary son and his companion recently experienced one of the many tiny miracles that occur when we seek to share the Gospel with others. Here's a condensed version of his story from a while ago, minus some identifying information:

A few weeks ago, the elders in a neighboring area . . . contacted a girl. They set up a time for her to come to the chapel and start meeting with them. After they parted ways, [she] decided she'd probably just forget about them and stand them up.

A day or so later, [my companion] and I went out in the afternoon to go contacting while holding a big sign we made to advertise for the free English class we have on Wednesday. The mission office makes tons of pamphlets with information about the English class, so we took a big stack and walked up and down the street passing the pamphlets out like crazy. Dinner time came so we started contacting our way back to our apartment building, where we would hang our sign back up in the lobby. By the time we got back to the little patio outside our apartment building, we had exactly one English pamphlet left. We wanted to eat food but we decided we had to get rid of the last pamphlet before we hung up the sign and ate some dinner. That's usually not a very hard thing--people usually take pamphlets pretty easily. So we started going around to the people sitting at tables on the patio and telling them about the English class. Strangely, every single person in that area refused to take the pamphlet. We looked around a little harder and finally saw a girl . . . . We went over and tried to give her the pamphlet. She wouldn't take it either. She said she already had one. She told us she'd met the [other] elders a few days ago and showed us the restoration booklet they left her. We talked to her a little about what they shared and encouraged her to keep meeting with them. . . . Because we ran into us after she decided to stand the other elders up, she realized this is a message God wants her to hear and changed her mind and went to meet with them. She met with the [other] elders for a while until they found out she lives in [our area]. Now we're meeting with her and . . . she's getting baptized next week! Isn't it amazing what God can do with one pamphlet?

I think the effort of "hoeing to the end of the row"--working to the end, even when hungry--often brings unusual blessings. Many great stories seem to have the element.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Facing Loss and Pain without Complaint: Richard G. Scott's Personal Perspective

While visiting my parents in Salt Lake City today, we had a beautiful Priesthood lesson based on Elder Richard G. Scott's General Conference sermon from April 2009, "Temple Worship: The Source of Strength and Power in Times of Need." I was touched by the deeply personal thoughts Elder Scott conveyed as he contemplated the passing away of his wife and also of two of his young children. These closing words from his talk touched me deeply in our class today.
Now I would like to speak of the special meaning the temple has for me. Part of this message is going to be sensitive, so I will appreciate your prayers as I give it so that I do not become too emotional.

Fourteen years ago the Lord took my wife beyond the veil. I love her with all my heart, but I have never complained because I know it was His will. I have never asked why but rather what is it that He wants me to learn from this experience. I believe that is a good way to face the unpleasant things in our lives, not complaining but thanking the Lord for the trust He places in us when He gives us the opportunity to overcome difficulties.

We had the blessing of having children. A daughter, the first child, continues to be an enormous blessing in our lives. A couple of years later a son we named Richard was born. A few years later a daughter was born. She died after living only a few minutes.

Our son, Richard, was born with a heart defect. We were told that unless that could be cured, there was little probability that he would live more than two or three years. This was so long ago that techniques now used to repair such defects were unknown. We had the blessing of having a place where doctors agreed to attempt to perform the needed surgery. The surgery had to be done while his little heart was beating.

The surgery was performed just six weeks after the birth and death of our baby daughter. When the operation finished, the principal surgeon came in and said it was a success. And we thought, “How wonderful! Our son will have a strong body, be able to run and walk and grow!” We expressed deep gratitude to the Lord. Then about 10 minutes later, the same doctor came in with an ashen face and told us, “Your son has died.” Apparently the shock of the operation was more than his little body could endure.

Later, during the night, I embraced my wife and said to her, “We do not need to worry, because our children were born in the covenant. We have the assurance that we will have them with us in the future. Now we have a reason to live extremely well. We have a son and a daughter who have qualified to go to the celestial kingdom because they died before the age of eight.” That knowledge has given us great comfort. We rejoice in the knowledge that all seven of our children are sealed to us for time and all eternity.

That trial has not been a problem for either of us because, when we live righteously and have received the ordinances of the temple, everything else is in the hands of the Lord. We can do the best we can, but the final outcome is up to Him. We should never complain, when we are living worthily, about what happens in our lives.

Fourteen years ago the Lord decided it was not necessary for my wife to live any longer on the earth, and He took her to the other side of the veil. I confess that there are times when it is difficult not to be able to turn and talk to her, but I do not complain. The Lord has allowed me, at important moments in my life, to feel her influence through the veil.

What I am trying to teach is that when we keep the temple covenants we have made and when we live righteously in order to maintain the blessings promised by those ordinances, then come what may, we have no reason to worry or to feel despondent.

I know that I will have the privilege of being with that beautiful wife, whom I love with all my heart, and with those children who are with her on the other side of the veil because of the ordinances that are performed in the temple. What a blessing to have once again on the earth the sealing authority, not only for this mortal life but for the eternities. I am grateful that the Lord has restored His gospel in its fulness, including the ordinances that are required for us to be happy in the world and to live everlastingly happy lives in the hereafter.

This is the work of the Lord. Jesus Christ lives. This is His Church. I am a witness of Him and of His Atonement, which is the foundation that makes effective and lasting every ordinance performed in the temples. I so testify with every capacity I possess, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

His attitude is remarkable. I can imagine myself complaining with much bitterness if I were to face such a trial. But he did this without complaining, trusting in the Lord and turning to Him for guidance. "I believe that is a good way to face the unpleasant things in our lives, not complaining but thanking the Lord for the trust He places in us when He gives us the opportunity to overcome difficulties." I find that profound, and hope that I can grow to have this kind of attitude. Not that we shouldn't share our emotions and our feelings, but that we should retain the eternal perspective and accept the grief life brings us with patience and humility, seeking to understand what we should do and what we should learn from these experiences, with gratitude for what the Lord has given us--especially for the blessings of the Temple that can bind families together forever.