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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mormons Who Came Back: Requesting Your Favorite Stories

I'm slowly working on a new website, Mormons Come Home (nothing there yet), aimed at helping people come back to the Church after they have left or simply drifted away. Part of it is also intended to help members be more patient, loving, and understanding toward those who have left. Anyway, I'm looking for material to add. If you can share or suggest published stories or other resources, your comments here or via email (jeff at jefflindsay d0t com) are welcome.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"Our Genealogy Work Is Done": A Faulty Attitude

Today one of our local genealogy enthusiasts pointed out some problems in thinking that one's genealogy work is done. Many LDS people with LDS ancestors think that the genealogy work for their line has been "done" by some ancestor who allegedly researched all the lines of the family tree as far as possible and ensured that temple work was done was done, etc. That may be accurate--or it may be hearsay. If you think that's true, here are a few questions that you might consider:
  • Do you and your family have a copy of the data, the stories, and the photographs from all that work?
  • Have new tools and updated data sets been applied to extend or correct the work?
  • Have you recorded and preserved information from your own family and from your own life? Are your stories recorded, are your photos archived and captioned, and do your family members have copies?
Her comments helped me to realize that just because some of us might have heard that our work is done, there is always more good to be achieved in the precious realm of family history work.

Have you updated your journal recently? Or written up a summary of key events in your life or for the past year? Now that they New Year has just started (according to the Chinese lunar calendar, of course), this would be a good time to take steps toward implementing those family history resolutions you may have made.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Everyday Church" in Hong Kong

While visiting Hong Kong recently, I learned about a remarkable example of flexibility in the LDS Church to better meet local needs. While attending church services in the beautiful multistory red-brick building on Hong Kong island where several wards meet, I learned that there are actually church services every day of the week to meet the needs of the large population of foreign housekeepers, mostly from the Philippines, who have only one day a week off, usually a day other than Sunday. Many of these hard-working Latter-day Saints would almost never be able to attend church were it not for this "every day church" approach in which one unusual ward arranges for sacrament meetings every day of the week to meet the various schedules of the members. I don't know if this is an unusual pilot program or if it has been done in other cities where the demographics justify it, but knowing a little about the strenuous demands on housekeepers in China ("a-yi" is the Mandarin term), I'm very grateful for this flexible approach.

Do any of you have more information about the program?

By the way, I was so happy to attend church in Hong Kong at the beginning of this month, even though I was late after crossing the border from China and missed sacrament meeting. When I introduced myself in priesthood meeting while sitting in the back of the room, someone toward the front jumped up and said, "That's my old high school friend!" It was one of my closest friends from high school who had just moved to Hong Kong, to my surprise. The audience chuckled in approval (I hope) as we ran toward each other, and my wife and I ended up spending much of the day with his wonderful family. How glad I am that we went the extra mile to attend church when we had to make a visit to the Hong Kong area.

Some of my best business travel and tourist travel experiences have been from attending church when possible, including making valuable new friendships, learning important things about an area, or having life-changing encounters with new heroes or unforgettable lessons and sermons. Plus I guess it's a good thing to worship the Lord, now that I think about it. I strongly recommending building that into your itinerary.

Today was an unfortunate exception. I traveled from South Korea to Indonesia. Making it a little more international in flavor were the Chinese and English Ensign magazines I brought along to study (though most of my reading time was dedicated to the English translation of the Chinese classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), and while reading, I was listening to a stunningly beautiful performance of The Quran, sung in Arabic of course, that just fascinated me with the rhythms and inflections of the beautiful language (no, I don't know any of it--was just listening because it was available on the audio track of my Indonesian flight and I was curious). But wasn't able to make church services, and don't have an everyday LDS church to attend here in Indonesia where I am tonight (it's evening as I write).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Three Chiseled Stones and the Increasing Evidence from the Arabian Peninsula for the Plausibility of the Book of Mormon

When it comes to evidences for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon text, the most exciting finds come from the Old World, where we have the significant advantage of knowing the precise starting point of Nephi's account and where we have far more archaeological work to draw upon than we do in the New World. As Latter-day Saints in upcoming Sunday School lessons review the stories of Nephi's journey out of Jerusalem and across the Arabian Peninsula to Bountiful, I hope some of them will learn that trek as described in First Nephi 16 and 17 is remarkably "interesting" in terms of its plausibility as an ancient record. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how some of the fine details in Nephi's account could have been written by anybody who didn't actually make the journey and experience the places he mentions.

These places include the Valley of Lemuel and River of Laman, places that until recently were mocked as impossibilities for "everyone knows" that there is no river that flows into the Red Sea as Nephi described. This Book of Mormon weakness has become a strength, a granite-walled stronghold, in fact, with the field work that discovered actual candidates for the valley.

That was early in the long journey of Lehi's group, a journey that, though described in brevity, is given numerous specific details such as the specific directions traveled: south-south east, followed by a sharp turn to nearly due east after Ishmael is buried in a place called Nahom. Following that eastward direction, the group eventually hits the coast and finds Bountiful--one of the biggest barriers to plausibility that the Book of Mormon suffers from. Or rather, suffered from, until people did field work and gave the Latter-day Saints at least one and perhaps two excellent candidates for that lush, green, abundant place that Nephi and his family found in that part of the world that "everyone knows" is nothing but barren sand dunes. If only Joseph had lived in the day of movies and had seen Lawrence of Arabia, he would have known what a ridiculous blunder his description of Bountiful was. Today, we have the luxury of knowing that it might be plausible after all. Now, of course, the argument of the critics must switch to arguing how obvious it was to come up with directions, descriptions, and even place names. Joseph the Blunderer who couldn't even get the birthplace of Christ right (per the standard anti-Mormon attack on Alma 7:10, now handily refuted with the help of modern discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls) has become Joseph the Erudite, apparently armed with his vast frontier library and an international network of scholars, carefully building detailed "evidences" of authenticity into the text that, uh, he and his fellow-conspirators didn't seem to know about. Chiasmus and other Semitic literary tools, ancient covenant formulas, the details of the Arabian Peninsula, civilization and its Mesoamerican discontents, and other evidences were carefully woven in so that future generations might be impressed. If only Joseph had bothered to trot out some of these evidences in his lifetime, it might have helped. Highly-publicized reports of ancient American civilization in Mesoamerica did come in the 1840s and created a positive stir among the Saints, over a decade after the Book of Mormon came out, but we would have to wait for over a century before the real fun would even begin.

Yes, I mentioned not just directions and descriptions, but placenames. Foremost on the list is Nahom. The argument here is missed by many critics, who seem to think that we are arguing that there is exciting new evidence that Nahom as an ancient Semitic name. No, of course we know it's a Semitic name since it is a book in the Bible. But as a place name, it is rare, exceedingly rare. More interestingly, it is a specific placename in the Book of Mormon associated with some very specific details: a) it is a specific place in the Arabian Peninsula where one can turn nearly due east after having traveled south-south east from Jerusalem; b) it is a place that was not named by Lehi but apparently was already called that name by others in the area; and c) it is a place where Ishmael was buried (he died somewhere, and then was buried at Nahom). Given those specific, how fascinating it is that we now know that these details are remarkably plausible. There is an ancient Arabic tribe in Yemen with the name Nihm, having the same Semitic root NHM as Nahom. We know that the location of that tribe fits extremely well with the one place where a survivable eastward turn to the sea can be made to depart from the ancient incense trails that were south-southeast from Jerusalem. And we now know, based on archaeological finds from Yemen, that the Nihm tribal name was in existence all the way back to the 7th century B.C. or so, making it possible that Lehi's group did in fact bury Ishmael in an ancient burial location called Nehhm, Nihm, or, as it may have sounded to Nephi, Nahom--a name that in Hebrew nicely fits the concept of mourning as described in the text.

The Nahom story is an important and exciting part of the growing body of evidence for plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. A key part of this story comes from the discovery of several ancient altars bearing the tribal name Nihm. Here are some links for those interested in learning more:

"Newly Found Altars from Nahom," Warren P. Aston, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 10, no. 2, pp. 56-61, 2001. (PDF)

"In Search of Lehi's Trail—30 Years Later," Lynn M. Hilton.

"New Light: 'The Place That Was Called Nahom': New Light from Ancient Yemen," S. Kent Brown.

Book of Mormon evidences (my page)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Nephi the Hebrew

Discussions of the Book of Mormon here have frequently included complaints from critics about the poor writing style, especially the annoying use of the phrase "and it came to pass." Critics say that Joseph was just imitating Bible language in his clumsy fraud, but it doesn't take much reading to realize that when it comes to awkward KJV language, the Book of Mormon definitely exceeds the Bible. "And it came to pass" occurs much more frequently. Laziness on Joseph's part? Perhaps. Or there could be another reason. Donald W. Parry, Donald W. Parry, an instructor in biblical Hebrew at Brigham Young University, addresses the common question about this phrase in the LDS publication, The Ensign, Dec. 1992, p. 29:
Why is the phrase “and it came to pass” so prevalent in the Book of Mormon?

Mark Twain once joked that if Joseph Smith had left out the many instances of “and it came to pass” from the Book of Mormon, the book would have been only a pamphlet. (Roughing It, Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1901, p. 133.) There are, however, some very good reasons behind the usage of the phrase—reasons that further attest the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The English translation of the Hebrew word wayehi (often used to connect two ideas or events), “and it came to pass,” appears some 727 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament. The expression is rarely found in Hebrew poetic, literary, or prophetic writings. Most often, it appears in the Old Testament narratives, such as the books by Moses recounting the history of the children of Israel.

As in the Old Testament, the expression in the Book of Mormon (where it appears some 1,404 times) occurs in the narrative selections and is clearly missing in the more literary parts, such as the psalm of Nephi (see 2 Ne. 4:20–25); the direct speeches of King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Jesus Christ; and the several epistles.

But why does the phrase “and it came to pass” appear in the Book of Mormon so much more often, page for page, than it does in the Old Testament? The answer is twofold. First, the Book of Mormon contains much more narrative, chapter for chapter, than the Bible. Second, but equally important, the translators of the King James Version did not always render wayehi as “and it came to pass.” Instead, they were at liberty to draw from a multitude of similar expressions like “and it happened,” “and … became,” or “and … was.”

Wayehi is found about 1,204 times in the Hebrew Bible, but it was translated only 727 times as “and it came to pass” in the King James Version. Joseph Smith did not introduce such variety into the translation of the Book of Mormon. He retained the precision of “and it came to pass,” which better performs the transitional function of the Hebrew word.

The Prophet Joseph Smith may not have used the phrase at all—or at least not consistently—in the Book of Mormon had he created that record. The discriminating use of the Hebraic phrase in the Book of Mormon is further evidence that the record is what it says it is—a translation from a language (reformed Egyptian) with ties to the Hebrew language. (See Morm. 9:32–33.)
Yes, the Book of Mormon is filled with narrative where this phrase should be found and used heavly. A short word with a long translation contributes to the sense of poor writing and dryness in the text, but that comes from standard writing in Hebrew or other Semitic languages. But where the Book of Mormon gets poetics, as in 2 Nephi 4 and in some of the chiastic passages, there's a different feel. In future posts, we'll address the persistent nature of Hebraisms in the text, one of the many interesting evidences for authenticity as an ancient Hebrew text.

Since I just mentioned the opening chapters of First Nephi in recent posts, I'll point to one minor but interesting example. When Lehi declares that he had a vision in a dream, be uses terrible English but very good Hebrew when he says "I dreamed a dream." Check out FAIR Mormon's page on Hebraisms. More to come....

Sunday, January 08, 2012

DNA and the Book of Mormon: Rejecting an Absurd Oversimplication

Critics of the Book of Mormon want the world to think that it requires nothing but Jewish ancestry for all Native Americas. This is an "absurd simplification," per Nibley in a passage quoted below. In fact, the account of the Jaredites in the Book of Ether points to Asiatic origins for an ancient migration. Though Ether saw a great battle with few survivors as the Jaredite civilization collapsed, the Book of Mormon provides subtle hints that Jaredite influence remained in population groups that mixed with the Nephites and Lamanites.

As Hugh Nibley explained in 1952, in an article printed in the official publication of the Church at the time, the Book of Mormon identified Asia as a source for ancient Native Americans long before anthropologists did. The essay was "The World of the Jaredites," Improvement Era, Vol. 55, June 1952, from which I quote:

That account [the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon] tells us that at the very dawn of history, many thousands of years ago, a party of nomad hunters and stock raisers from west central Asia crossed the water--very probably the North Pacific--to the New World, where they preserved the ways of their ancestors, including certain savage and degenerate practices, and carried on a free and open type of steppe warfare with true Asiatic cruelty and ferocity; it tells us that these people moved about much in the wilderness, for all they built imposing cities, and that they produced a steady trickle of "outcasts" through the centuries. A careful study of the motions of the Jaredites, Mulekites, Nephites, and Lamanites should correct the absurd oversimplification by which the Book of Mormon as a history is always judged. It will show as plain as day that the Book of Mormon itself first suggests the Asiatic origin of some elements at least of the Indian race and culture long before the anthropologists got around to it. The scientists no longer hold that one migration and one route can explain everything about the Indians. The Book of Mormon never did propound a doctrine so naive. Though it comes to us as a digest and an abridgment, stripped and streamlined, it is still as intricate and complex a history as you can find; and in its involved and tragic pages nothing is more challenging than the sinister presence of those fierce and bloody-minded "Men out of Asia" known in their day as Jaredites....

I think by now it should be apparent that the Book of Mormon account is not as simple as it seems. Ether alone introduces a formidable list of possibilities, few of which have ever been seriously considered. Foremost among these is the probability, amounting almost to certainty, that numerous Jaredites survived in out-of-the-way places of the north to perpetuate a strong Asiatic element in the culture and blood of the American Indian.

[emphasis mine]

Thus, given that the apparently Asiatic Jaredites were on the continent long before the Nephites, and given that other migrations from Asia are permitted by the Book of Mormon, finding evidence of mostly Asiatic genes in the Americas does not necessarily pose a problem for the Book of Mormon. This understanding of the Book of Mormon (the Jaredites as an Asiatic migration, and the possibility of other migrations from Asia being allowed by the Book of Mormon) is not one just recently concocted to deal with recent DNA evidence--it was printed in the official Church periodical decades before critics used DNA evidence to attack a common misreading of the Book of Mormon. In fact, even if we were to erroneously conclude that the ONLY ancient migrations to the New World are those described in the Book of Mormon, the heavy presence of Asian genes in Native Americans could still be compatible with the apparently Asian origins of the ancient Jaredites, whose descendants may have spread across the continent and obviously were present in Book of Mormon lands in Mesoamerica even after Ether saw their central groups wiped out in a bloody civil war.

See my LDSFAQ page on the issue of DNA and the Book of Mormon for further details.

In Bob Bennet's surprisingly good and highly readable book about the Book of Mormon, Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, he quotes the above passage from Nibley and further argues that the Book of Mormon should be given credit for pointing to an ancient Asian link in the gene pool of the Americas long before science established that connection. Interesting.

Bennet also makes the point that while the story of the Jaredites plays an important and pervasive background role in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Ether itself makes little sense from the perspective of a forger trying to craft something that will sell. All risk and difficulty with little to gain--would have been much better and more logical for a forger to just leave that out and stick with more familiar topics and themes. It's boring, dry, highly condensed, sketchy, and utterly different from the rest of the text in terms of culture and behaviors. For careful readers of the Book of Mormon, though, it plays a vital role and adds subtlety and dimensions of meaning that pervade the rest of the text. One example is the recently noticed relationship between ancient Jaredite names and later rebels within the Nephite people, suggesting that indigenous remnants of Jaredite culture brought in under Nephite rule were important sources for political and religious rebels like Corianton. Again, interesting. One of those subtleties that make sense if the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record that is, after all, "smarter" than Joseph Smith.

Oops, I diverged from the topic again. OK, back to DNA. If you've got some, be grateful. And if you or anyone else like, say, a Native American friend, has some Asian DNA, again, be grateful. It's great stuff and is no reason to let your faith be shaken up.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Two Paths in a Complex Book

In my last post, I discussed the issue of war in the Book of Mormon and the diverse experiences it covers. One reader commented that the Book of Mormon doesn't deal with diversity, but with a shallow dichotomy. I'd like to respond a little more fully, or rather, let Hugh Nibley do most of the responding for me.

The Book of Mormon emphasizes an ancient doctrine, the doctrine of the Two Ways, which Hugh Nibley discussed in several of his writings. Yes, the complexity of life still involves an ultimate choice between opposing forces: do we choose God and life, or something else? The ancient perspective on the Two Ways, though, is not necessarily superficial, nor is the extensive treatment of the Book of Mormon on war simple, predictable, or merely two-dimensional.

Let me first introduce Nibley's comments on the Two Ways. In his famous essay, "The Expanding Gospel," Nibley writes:

The main idea of "the plan which God laid down . . . in the presence of the First Angels for an eternal universal law," according to the Clementine Recognitions, is that "there shall be two kingdoms placed upon the earth to stay there until judgment day, . . . and when the world was prepared for man it was so devised that . . . he would be free to exercise his own will, to turn to good things if he wanted them, or if not to turn to bad things."102 In the Dead Sea Scrolls and the earliest Christian writings this is expressly designated as "the ancient Law of Liberty."103

The Didache, one of the oldest (discovered in 1873) Christian writings known, begins with the words, "There are two roads, one of life and the other of death, and there is a great difference between the two," which difference it then proceeds to describe.104 All the other so-called apostolic fathers are concerned with this doctrine, but one of the most striking expositions is in the newly found Gospel of Philip, a strongly anti-Gnostic work: "Light and Darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers to one another. It is not possible to separate them from one another," in this world, that is, though in the next world where only the good is eternal this will not be so.105 This is the doctrine of "the Wintertime of the Just," i.e., that while we are in this world men cannot really distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous, since in the wintertime all trees are bare and look equally dead, "but when the Summertime of the Just shall come, then the righteous shall bear their leaves and fruit while the dead limbs of evil trees shall be cast into the fire."106 It is another aspect of the plan. "We believe that God organized all things in the beginning out of unformed matter," says Justin Martyr, "for the sake of the human race, that they, if they prove themselves by their works to be worthy of his plan, having been judged worthy to return to his presence [so we believe], shall reign with him, having been made immortal and incorruptible. At the creation they themselves made the choice . . . and so were deemed worthy to live with him in immortality."107

There are many other areas of doctrine and important rites and ordinances set forth in the newly found writings and in the longer known texts which must now be reread and reconsidered in the light of recent discoveries....

Lest you mistake the simplicity of the Two Ways with superficial, shallow thinking, read Lehi's treatise on the topic in 2 Nephi 2, where concepts of free agency and our mortal journey are thoughtfully intertwined with the concept of opposition, all rooted in the Two Ways. Nibley has shown at length that Lehi's teachings fit beautifully in the world of Lehi in the 6th century B.C. 2 Nephi 2 deserves carefull reading and contemplatin: it's cool, deep, and ancient. Sure, with your eyes tightly shut you won't see much, but there is a lot of beauty to ponder and depth to contemplate.

In "The Prophetic Book of Mormon," Nibley again mentions the Two Ways but also raises the issue of war, which ties well into my previous post:

When the early church began to grow in power and influence and worldliness, the ancient doctrine of the Two Ways was quickly replaced by that of the Two Parties. The former specified that there lies before every mortal, at every moment of his life, a choice between the Way of Light and the Way of Darkness; but the latter doctrine taught that righteousness consisted in belonging to one party (ours), and wickedness in belonging to the other (theirs).

The doctrine of probation is the inescapable choice between Two Ways, everyone having a perfect knowledge of the way he should go. None may commit his decision to the judgement of a faction, a party, a leader, or a nation; none can delegate his free agency to another. "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Exodus 23:2). We cannot protest innocence on the grounds of having been given bad advice, doing what we did for the best interests of a country, doing only what others were doing, or being forced to do it by the need to check and frustrate a nefarious enemy. Those who make those pleas, which have become popular in our day, dismiss any thought of repentance for themselves. Has even one of the many convicted of great crimes in high places of recent years ever admitted moral wrongdoing? Has any ever even hinted at a need for repentance?

It is easy to imagine absolutes, and to think and argue in terms of absolutes, as the theologians have always done: Good and evil, light and darkness, hot and cold, black and white—we know exactly what they are; but in the real world we have rarely experienced the pure thing—our own experience lies between. Yet standing in the middle ground, we are faced with absolute decisions. It is not where we stand, says Ezekiel, that makes us good or evil in God's eyes—no one has reached the top or bottom in this short life—but the direction in which we are facing. There we have only two choices. The road up and the road down are the same, says Heracleitus.50 It all depends on the way you are facing. You are taking either the up-road or the down-road; there is no third way, for if you try to compromise and go off at an angle, you will never reach either goal. You are either repenting or not repenting, and that is, according to the scriptures, the whole difference between being righteous or being wicked.

So it is indeed the Way of Light or the Way of Darkness, but when two ways were identified by the churchmen with the two parties by the churchmen—ours and yours—the doctrine was exploited with inexorable logic: Since there are only two sides, one totally evil and the other absolutely good, and I am not totally evil, I must be on God's side, and that puts you on the other side. This doctrine has been worked for many years in Utah as a political ploy. With withering contempt, Isaiah denounces the comfortable logic: It is not for you to say who is on the Lord's side, says the Lord; that is for me to say, and those who most loudly offer their support and cry "Lord! Lord!" are those of whom I must disapprove (Matthew 7:21). "See the foe in countless numbers, marshalled in the ranks of sin," we sing, as if we have already chosen sides and know who the bad people are, because we are on the Lord's side. "Fight for Zion, down with error, flash the sword above the foe, every stroke disarms a foeman," and so on. No error on our side? The point of all such hymns is that it is sin and error that we are fighting, not people guilty of sin and error—for we are all such people, and each one can only confront and overcome sin and error in himself. You cannot tell the righteous from the wicked, the Lord told Joseph Smith, you cannot tell your friends from your enemies. Be still and let me decide the issue! (D&C 10:37).

In his last letter to his son, Mormon considers the battle already lost (Moroni 9:20); sometime before, he had decided that his people had passed the point of no return: "I saw that the day of grace was passed with them, both temporally and spiritually" (Mormon 2:15). Yet he insists that he must go right on struggling as long as he is alive: "For if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God" (Moroni 9:6). Only after this life are we safe in home. And what was the "labor" he had to perform? Who was this "enemy of all righteousness"? Not the Lamanites! "Notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people" (Moroni 9:9). No, the call was to "labor diligently" with his own people, "notwithstanding their hardness" (Moroni 9:6), even though '[he] fear[s] lest the Spirit of the Lord hath ceased striving with them. For . . . they have lost their love, one towards another; and they thirst after blood and revenge continually" (Moroni 9:4—5). Earlier, though, the leader of the army, Mormon, had laid down his arms and "utterly refused" to march against the Lamanitesbecause his own people were going to battle seeking revenge for the blood of their brethren. And what was wrong with the "Green Beret" scenario? The Lord had strictly forbidden it. And now, in the letter, he tells Moroni that he is actually praying for the "utter destruction" of the Nephites "except the repent" (Moroni 9:22). And they had not repented, and he had given up hope. And yet Mormon died fighting the Lamanites, who were not as wicked as his own people!

Is there no solution to the cruel dilemma? There is, and the Book of Mormon gives it to us in a number of powerful examples. Perhaps the foremost is Ammon, the mightiest man in battle of all the Nephites. He became wholly convinced that there was a better way of handling even the most vicious and determined enemy than by killing them. The Nephites laughed at him, but he went right ahead: he would go on a mission and preach to the Lamanites. You are crazy, they said, there is only one sermon those wretches understand: "Now ye do remember, my brethren, that we said unto our brethren in the land of Zarahemla, we go up to the land of Nephi, to preach unto our brethren, the Lamanites, and they laughed us to scorn? For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth, . . . as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning? Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language" (Alma 26:23—24). And what could be more sensible? There is only one possible solution. "And moreover they did say: Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us" (Alma 26:25). But not for Ammon: "We came . . . not with the intent to destroy our brethren, but with the intent that perhaps we might save some few of their souls" (Alma 26:26). Nothing guaranteed, you understand, but anything was better than the other solution. So Ammon recalls how he and his friends went "forth amongst [the people], . . . patient in our sufferings," going "from house to house . . . . We have entered into their houses and taught them . . . in their streets, . . . and we have been cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks, . . . stoned, . . . bound, . . . and cast into prison" (Alma 26:28—29). What could have been worth paying such a price in inconvenience and humiliation? "We have suffered . . . all this, that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul" (Alma 26:30). This alone could break the vicious circle of provocation and revenge that was destroying both people.

And Ammon brought thousands to his way of thinking. A whole nation of great warriors laid down their arms and refused to take them up again even at the cost of their lives. When they were moved by great compassion to come to the aid of Helaman and Alma, who had given them protection and who were being desperately sore-pressed by their enemies, those two heroes intervened with powerful preaching that persuaded them not to change their wise decision. The Ammonites became the most righteous, the most saintly people in the Book of Mormon, after a period of agonizing repentance, in which they refer to their former deeds of valor on the battlefield as pure murder, and wonder whether God will ever forgive them. They utterly rejected taking up arms under any circumstances and turned the tide of affairs of both Nephites and Lamanites.

Alma learned the same lesson. After holding the highest and most influential positions in the land, which enabled him to bring pressure to bear on all decisive issues—commander of the armies, chief judge, head of the church—he laid aside all his high offices and did "go forth among his people, . . . that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way," after all his experience, "that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony" (Alma 4:19). With all his vast experience Alma was convinced that he could do more good and actually have more influence as a simple missionary than as head of the state, head of the army, or head of the church! And so he takes his leave, disappearing all alone over the horizon into the midst of hostile and unbelieving people, never to be heard of again. Once the people saw that the great man had lost his official clout, they treated him almost as badly as they did Ammon.

The treatment of war challenges lazy stereotypes and simple assumptions. Good guys? There aren't many. Really, it's just the Lord, and that's Whom we must choose and not fight against any more, because we, like the people of Ammon, have probably been fighting against Him much more than we knew. Our enemies may be more righteous than us. What we call patriotism may be treason. There are few easy answers and simple characterizations except that we must seek the Lord and the One Way that leads to Him, and with His help, bring many of our brethren and apparent enemies to love and serve Him as well.

The Book of Mormon is a deep, sophisticated, and beautiful book, not a shallow fraud. Read it, ponder it, and break past the limiting assumptions you may have made. It's worth study, contemplation, and prayer. It's why I'm a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Horrors of War and the Lack of Divine Intervention: Can You Be So Sure?

The Book of Mormon, from my Latter-day Saint perspective, was written for our day. Ancient prophets who anticipated the challenges of our day edited its contents, selected from the large archives at their disposal, to be of use to us. This may be why so much of the Book of Mormon deals with times of war and conflict, and gives very little attention to the 200 golden years of peace that followed the ministry of the Resurrected Lord in the ancient Americas. Why don't need to know how to cope with peace. Not yet, anyway.

The Book of Mormon also teaches the diversity of human response to the perils and hardships of war. Alma 62:41 tells us of the differing impact of prolonged wars on the Nephite people:
But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.
For some, it draws them closer to God. Others lose their faith and their hope.

My growing testimony of God as a child was partially rooted in the personal experiences of my father in the midst of the horrors of war. He went into the Korean War as a rebellious non-believer, rejecting and ignoring the faith of his LDS farmer parents. Time after time his life was spared when he knew that he should have been killed. Once while eating lunch he had a prompting that he needed to move. He got up and left, and moments later a shell fell where he had been sitting. Terribly, several good men that had been with him were killed. Why was he spared? He did not know, but that prompting was real. He came out of the endless trauma on the front lines with post traumatic stress disorder, and with faith in the God he had previously ignored. He would change his life and go on a mission, and later share his testimony of God and miracles, even in the midst of horror, with me.

I know of good and intelligent people who cannot accept God because of the horrors of war and the alleged lack of divine intervention. If there was a God, why did He not intervene as millions of Jews were being killed in World War II? But are you sure that there was no intervention? Not from God? What about from those seeking to follow God? Did NOBODY intervene? What about the faithful Dutch sisters who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazi? Were they not intervening, and seeking to follow God in so doing? What of the faithful Swedes and others who risked their lives to help Jews escape from the Nazis? Were they not intervening and rescuing many?

Mortality, again, is a messy and terrible place where nature and sin takes its toll. God's work and glory is not in sparing us from sufferings here, but in helping us return to Him. But His tender mercies can be found in many cases, even in the midst of horror, of war, of terminal illness, and the depths of grief. He is there and does not leave us alone, though we may spend months in the darkest abyss. Our response must be to turn closer to Him and listen to His promptings more intently, that we may be able to rescue more and spare them from some of the pains of this difficult life. God's intervention depends, in part, on our willingness to follow.

Update, Jan. 4, 2012: The experiences of Latter-day Saints in war provide an interesting counterpoint to the ancient lessons in the Book of Mormon, where good guys don't always win and the hand of God, however evident, doesn't simply prevent suffering as we would wish. Consider, for example, the gripping personal account of Joseph Banks in one of my favorite books, A Distant Prayer by Joseph Banks and Jerry Borrowman (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2001). Below is a brief passage describing his miraculous survival after his plane was accidentally blown up by a fellow B-17 that dropped its bombs on his plane. He was knocked unconscious for a while after the first bomb struck. Then when he came to,

[I]t took me a few moments to figure out what was going on. . . . I found myself in a tubular section of the fuselage that was open on both ends, spinning in the air as we fell towards the ground four miles below. . . .

I was relieved to feel that my parachute was in place, but I couldn't use it because I was stuck against the wall of the fuselage, held there by the centrifugal force. . . . I couldn't get out. I'd try to get up only to be forced back against the wall. In desperation I looked down and saw one of my crewmates lying next to me. I reached out and touched him, but he didn't move. Apparently the explosion had killed him. I knew that I had to muster every ounce of energy I had or I would go down to my death in that section of the aircraft. I tried several times, but to no avail. I was just too weak to pull free, and so the only thing I could do was pray. I asked the Lord to please help me get out somehow. I said it out loud, the words choking in my throat, but He heard me anyway.

Suddenly, as clear and as clam as if she was standing right next to me in the living room of our home, I heard the voice of my wife Afton say, "Joe, look down at your legs and you'll see that there's cable holding them. Pull the cable!" That's all she said. I looked around, but couldn't see anyone. Even though I was stunned, I looked down and sure enough there was a cable lying across my legs. I reached down and pulled it with all my might. At first nothing happened, but then I was suddenly sucked out of the fuselage and started freefalling. I later learned that the cable was attached to two pins that held an escape hatch door. When I pulled them loose, the door separated from the fuselage. Talk about incredible. It probably took a second or two for me to get over the shock of being hit by the wind, but then I realized that I was falling backwards through space.
His survival was miraculous. The tender mercies of God reached out and helped him, just enough, but enough, and he survived. As a result of this miracle, he would be spared from instant death and instead face, uh, months of hell as prisoner in Nazi Germany. Wouldn't a merciful God have just let him die, or spared him from the final fateful mission in the first place, or kept him and the rest of the world out of war? Sure, we can doubt everything and question all the rules of mortality, but he and many others have found the tender mercies of God even in the deepest suffering.

Even in the midst of Satan's ragings on the field of war, one can, if one will, find the occasional but real hand of God, whether it is in the courage of a Dutch woman hiding Jews, or in the miraculous whisper the helped Brother Banks pull the cable that saved his life (the first of many rescuings), or in the voice that told a friend of mine to "Run!" at just the right moment after months of seemingly hopeless prayer when suffering as a prisoner of war, or in the miraculous jamming of a helicopter gun as an LDS serviceman tried to shoot down a fleeing enemy soldier that turned out to be a North Vietnamese woman running with her baby. Is there truly no divine intervention in war?

In yet other scenes of despair, the tender mercies of the Lord can still be found when we are willing to listen to Him and be His instruments, as evidenced by the ministry of Mother Teresa. The more we listen, the more we love, the more we seek to follow Him, the more frequently we will encounter or participate in His tender mercies, though it be in captivity, in the midst of a terminal illness, or surrounded by sorrow unrelieved. We have a work to do now with many souls whose lives and happiness may yet depend on our service and preparation. For what is ahead, we need more faith than ever in that God who gives us life and just enough light to find Him, even in the midst of pain, if we will exercise a particle of faith and offer a touch of gratitude for the blessings we have already received. Ah, yes, gratitude - that is one of the secrets to seeing the hand of God. A topic for another post.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

My Latest Teaching Nightmare

I just experienced one of the worst examples of teaching ever, a total teaching nightmare from an experienced and educated teacher who somehow considers himself intelligent and capable. But the teaching was so bad that many class members just walked out and a huge opportunity to feed the Lord’s sheep was completely wasted. In this teaching nightmare, we learn that experience and knowledge is less important than preparation, humility, and sound teaching practices such as using the instructor’s manual. What made this teaching nightmare especially painful and poignant for me was the identity of the teacher: yep, it was me. Jeff Lindsay.

This was a literal nightmare, one that awoke me with pain and introspection just 10 minutes ago. It was exquisitely detailed and realistic, and filled with mistakes that I have made or am entirely capable of making. It wasn’t like some weird alter ego taking over. It was me.

In this nightmare, I was teaching a large group in Gospel Doctrine class. It was in the chapel, and the chapel was packed. Cool--a nice time to enjoy the limelight and shower a group with impressive facts and details. I had just been asked to take over from the regular teacher, so I had little opportunity to prepare (not no, but little). I had not even tried, though. I hadn’t looked at the manual and just assumed that since it was day 1 of the new year, that the lesson would be on First Nephi 1 rather than the real topic in the manual, which I think was an Introduction to the Book of Mormon. No sweat, I could spout off plenty of stuff on the cool literary techniques used in that chapter, including the majestic foreshadowing of the Restoration and the rise of the Book of Mormon that is contained in Lehi’s visions. I could talk about the Egyptian language connection that Nephi makes in verse 2. I could share my wit and wisdom ad nauseum and was happy to do it with such a delightfully large group of eager listeners, ready to be fed from the loquacious Jeff Lindsay.

The class began with some ongoing chaos as the back of the chapel was wide open and people all the way back in the cultural hall behind the chapel could be seen and heard. (Need to pay attention to setting next time.) One of them chimed in, but I couldn’t hear, so I walked to the back of the class and begin shouting down to the gym, recognizing a friend and saying hi, etc., all the while leaving the class behind. The friend made an off-topic comment and I responded with comments as I slowly walked back to the front of the class, my back toward the class while talking. Then I stalled for time as I wondered what to teach, asking some trite questions to get conversation started without having much purpose or plan. The conversation got pretty vigorous as I gathered my thoughts and realized it was time to dig into the text.

At this point, I cut off conversation rather abruptly and explained that now I was going to elucidate on the text, that we had a lot to cover, and so I would be going at high speed. Prepare, dear listeners, for data download from your local sage on the stage. Ah, the scriptures. I didn’t have them with me, but I did have my iPad in my pile of junk at the back of the room, so walked back there to get it,, again causing disruption. As I returned to the front of the class, I noticed that my shirt was still untucked from the activity right before class where I was helping with some service. There was a good excuse for not being neatly dressed, of course. Expecting the class to patiently bear with the great teacher before them, I said, “Well, I need to look more like a teacher so I’ll just work on that a second while you talk. Will someone please explain the 116 pages story and why First Nephi might not have been the first book written in the Book of Mormon?” Then I turned my back to the class while I tucked in my shift and put on my belt, not paying much attention to what else was happening.

OK, now I was set. Class was half over, but I was dressed, had my text, and was finally ready to roll. At this point, half the class got up and left. Probably because they had a plane to catch, I reasoned. I began my data download for the remainder, and noticed that they just weren’t interested, and they soon began walking out. Then it was quickly down to just me and my wife.

At this point the guilt started kicking in. I hadn’t even tried to prepare. I hadn’t prayed for guidance on what to teach and how to teach it to help bless anybody in the class. I was focused on showing off, sadly, rather than serving. I had failed to manage the class, the setting, the discussion, and utterly failed to invite the spirit. There was also no opening prayer. At this point, adding to the excruciating plausibility of the nightmare, I began the process of self-justification. I had very good excuses for each of the mistakes that were made. I was just doing the best I could under difficult circumstances. It wasn’t my fault. Not at all. It never is. And then I woke up. Ouch.

I hope my teaching nightmare might help some of you teachers to avoid your own nightmare–especially the real kind where you don’t find merciful relief by just waking up.