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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Black Cabs and Failed Taxis: We Survived Two Foreigner Feeding Frenzies on the Way to Church in Nanjing

I will admit that there have been times when I enjoyed being the center of attention, but not when I'm surrounded by angry people fighting over who gets to rip me off. We survived two such foreigner feeding frenzies (feeding frenzies in which foreigners were the main course) in one morning--it was quite an adventure getting to church last Sunday.

My wife and I began our day in historic Yangzhou, China, a beautiful small town (by Chinese standards) with only 4.5 million people and hardly any foreigners. 1,500 foreigners is the estimate, but we only saw two obvious foreigners among the crowds we encountered during our stay there, apart from the American woman whom we visited after my work activity there was finished.  Very few foreigners go there as tourists, which is a shame--it's worth a visit.

Our goal was to attend church with the Nanjing Branch in the southern part of Nanjing where I was speaking on assignment as a District Councilor in the Shanghai International District of the Church.  Nanjing is about 90 minutes away by car and about 20 minutes away by train, once you get to the train station across the Yangtze River in Zhenjiang, requiring a 45-minute cab ride. There are a few trains from Yangzhou, but none that would fit our schedule. So we asked the hotel to arrange a cab for us, and then we would pick up our LDS single adult friend and take her to g with us via train. 
The cab we got in was obviously in bad shape. It's motor sounded rough, like old cars I've had on the verge of drying. I worried that it might not get us across the river to Zhenjiang. Normally I might have said no thanks and asked for a cab that inspired a little more confidence, but I also felt sorry for the cabbie and thought that he could really use the big fare he would get (about $30 US, which is huge over here, though part of it would be for fees to use the bridge) in order to fix his car. Turns out this might not have been the most logical decision-making basis. But with a prayer in my heart that we'd be able to get safely to our destination and maybe even do a little good, away we went on another adventure. 

About 5 minutes after picking up our friend, his car stalled at an intersection. OK, now it was clear that he would not be able to get us across the river. Now what? I asked him to call for another taxi to come. He seemed a bit slow, I'm sad to say, and didn't seem to know how to do that. We tried waiving down another cab, but there were none in sight apart from one that already had passengers. Our friend explained that this part of town, while busy with lots of traffic, was not frequented by taxis. The cabbie, though, was able to get his car started again and said he would take us to a place with other taxis. He did so. I paid him a little too much, hoping to help with car repairs, and then started asking if someone could take us to Zhenjiang. But as I looked at the time, I realized we might not have time to catch our trains with all this delay, so we decided we should abandon the tickets we had already purchased and just take a can straight to Nanjing. In theory it should have cost just a little more more. 

A group of cabbies began competing for our services. It was a bit boisterous but not yet a feeding frenzy. We quickly selected the one who was closest to us, who offered to take us to Nanjing for 260 RMB (about $40 US) and then we began putting our bags in his trunk. He said no, don't do that, and that we would need to wait just a moment. He then hopped on a motorcycle and drive off. We were puzzled and asked others why he had left. We learned that he wasn't the driver for the closest vehicle after all, but was going to get a friend with a car to drive us. We had no idea how long that would take and who this friend was. We said that was unacceptable and then asked if someone else there was ready to take us. Now the first feeding frenzy began. A lot of people began clamoring for our business, while those in league with the man on the motorcycle began arguing and yelling to oppose the others and have us stick with him. Smelling blood from afar, another driver passing by drove up near us and got out of his car. He was the first one in this group who looked friendly and trustworthy. I would learn, as Joseph Smith did in Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants, that you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, and that a friendly face and "trustworthy" look doesn't necessarily count for much. 

I told the "trustworthy" man that we needed to go to Nanjing, and that we already had an offer for 260 RMB. Could he do it for that? Sure, no problem. I showed him the address of the hotel in south Nanjing where we needed to go and asked if he could get us there. Sure, he knew the place, he said, and would be no problem. 260 RMB. Sure thing, easy. The three of us got in and off we rode, but in a strange direction. He seemed to be going away from Nanjing back toward the center of town. Then he pulled into a gas station. I asked what was going on. "I need to get fuel and something to eat," he said. But instead of going to a gas pump, he pulled up to a group of people near the street at the gas station and began talking loudly with them. They were discussing money, and we made the wrong assumption that he was asking them for a loan to fill up his gas tank for the big trip to Nanjing and back. This was taking more time and we didn't want further delays, so I said, "Hey, if you need money for gas, I can help with that." "Sure, pay me the 260 RMB now." I was puzzled, but did so--stupidly. Never do that! 

Then he got out of the car and continued shouting with the others. Turns out they were negotiating over who would take us to Nanjing and for how much. Finally we could see that they agreed on a price of 170 RMB which he paid to a driver. He was pocketing 90 RMB, equivalent to about 10 or local fares--pretty crooked. He told us we needed to get out of the car. We objected and said he was supposed to take us to Nanjing, not someone else. He said that he and all the other cabs here were not licensed to go to Nanjing, so they had to use someone's personal car. This is known as a "black cab." It's dangerous to use black cabs--sometimes they will charge you more than you agreed to or take you to dangerous places with thugs who will rob you, as happened to a Chinese friend of ours (something we just learned tonight). A private driver arranged through a hotel or a transportation company can be OK, but random black cabs on the street are dangerous. Yet that seemed to be the only option for us at the moment. (Actually, one of our Chinese teachers said that the cabs probably could have gone to Nanjing and that the guy was just lying. He was better off 

He pointed to a car that already had a passenger in it and told us to get in. No, there won't be room, we said, since our friend had a large suitcase that wouldn't fit in the trunk with the two bags we had. Now the second frenzy began in earnest. Multiple black cab drivers began yelling that they would take us. One man grabbed our bags to put them in his car, while another woman yelled and him and grabbed our bags, trying to yank them away from the first man. My precious computer was in the bag that had two or three people yanking at it. I had to shout to get them to stop and put our bags down. I told the cabbie to give us our money back but he wouldn't. All this contention and shouting and yanking was really distressing, and I could see that it was not exactly cheering up the others in my group of three. We then contemplated just starting over by waving down another cab or going back to the hotel (in retrospect, going to any nearby hotel and starting over should have been step 1 after the first taxi died). 

The cabbie then said that he could split the three of us up into two cars that each already had other passengers. No, that was ridiculous. Then the driver who had already taken the money quickly arranged the solution: he booted out the passenger in his car, a kindly looking elderly man with a sweet smile, and had someone else take him to his destination, making room for all of us to fit in his car. Without really understanding what was happening, presented with a nice vacant car that would now take us straight to church, we got in and were just grateful to get away from the shouting match and tug-of-war were had just experienced. 

The cabbie we had was not a shouter and seemed pretty nice. He actually drove safely and directly to where we needed to go, and we got to church on time. Not surprisingly, though, we learned that the price he had negotiated with our original cabbie was just the price to get to Nanjing, not all the way to south Nanjing where the Nanjing Branch meets in the Yu Hua Jingli Hotel in Xiaohang District. So we would have to pay yet another 50 RMB, making what should have been a 200 RMB fare reach a total of 310 RMB. But we did get to the church on time and had a good visit with the people of the Nanjing Branch, and then returned to Shanghai by train that afternoon. 

If you do travel in China, avoid using black cabs when possible. We were quite lucky. 

Tonight our Chinese teacher told us her story. A few years ago she and a friend were trying to get to a nearby city during a trip to northern China and couldn't get train tickets (10 RMB) because they were sold out. They tried to take the bus (30 RMB) but just missed it bus by seconds, and the next bus wouldn't come for an hour. A friendly black cab driver walked up and told them that he could help. He would take them to their city for just 40 RMB per person. That seemed better than waiting an hour, so they agreed to that. There were two other people in the car already, going to the same town. Our teacher was worried, but upon inquiring, decided that they were legitimate passengers (a father and son). She was right about that, or thinks she was. 

The driver began taking small back roads instead of the highway. Our teacher asked why, and the driver said the fares on the highway were too high. When they were halfway to the destination, he went into a small town and stopped. A group of seven big guys with large muscles came out and started knocking on the windows, telling everyone to get out. The driver said this was where they needed to change vehicles, and that that everyone now needed to lay 160 RMB per person. He said he had no choice. The father and son said they could see that the men outside had knives and decided not to resist. They caved and paid the money and got out. (I wonder if they were actually in on the scam.) Our teacher and her friend finally felt they had no choice but to pay, but said they only had 300 RMB and paid that. As they got out, the bus that they could have waited an hour for came down the road and stopped as some of the gang waived it down. They cheated passengers now had to pay the normal 30 RMB bus fare to get on. An interesting scam, possibly involving collaboration with the bus driver. But as always, things could have been worse. Avoid black cabs unless you are prepared for these kind of learning experiences. 

Here are some photos from our trip to Yangzhou:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Confirming a Small but Meaningful Miracle from President Monson's Life

In his October 2011 General Conference address, "Stand in Holy Places," President Thomas S. Monson shared an experience as a small part of his talk that I find instructive in several ways. The experience was actually a miracle, a small one but a meaningful one. It also demonstrates something that people who have observed and listen to Thomas S. Monson have long known: this is a man who seeks and listens to inspiration from God. But there are other lessons for us as we consider how he prepared to receive this inspiration, how he listened to it, and how he had the courage to act on it.

As you read the account below, also notice the many specific details that are provided that can be used to validate the story. People, places, dates. I hope all of you will take care to record your own spiritual experiences and small miracles with such useful detail for your own posterity (or even your own blog).

Interestingly, after I shared this story in a talk in Nanjing yesterday, I had two different people from the audience approach me to validate the account. One person, Bryce F. from Altamont, Utah, met the Dutch man in this story, Peter Mourik, during a sealing session at the Provo Temple a couple of weeks after President Monson shared the story. He asked if the story as related by President Monson happened as described, and received confirmation that the story was correct. He also learned other details from Brother Mourik, who related that at the time the powerful impression came prompting him to rush to the Temple, he had been in a meeting with LDS servicemen.  Another person in the congregation also approached me and told me that they had met a family member of Peter Mourik and asked about the story, and also received confirmation (update: more specifically, he was a roommate with a son son-in-law of Brother Mourik--corrected nature of the family relationship Dec. 8, 2013).

Here is the account from President Monson:
Since that time of long ago, I have had countless prayers answered. Not a day has gone by that I have not communicated with my Father in Heaven through prayer....

I am always humbled and grateful when my Heavenly Father communicates with me through His inspiration. I have learned to recognize it, to trust it, and to follow it. Time and time again I have been the recipient of such inspiration. One rather dramatic experience took place in August of 1987 during the dedication of the Frankfurt Germany Temple. President Ezra Taft Benson had been with us for the first day or two of the dedication but had returned home, and so it became my opportunity to conduct the remaining sessions.

On Saturday we had a session for our Dutch members who were in the Frankfurt Temple district. I was well acquainted with one of our outstanding leaders from the Netherlands, Brother Peter Mourik. Just prior to the session, I had the distinct impression that Brother Mourik should be called upon to speak to his fellow Dutch members during the session and that, in fact, he should be the first speaker. Not having seen him in the temple that morning, I passed a note to Elder Carlos E. Asay, our Area President, asking whether Peter Mourik was in attendance at the session. Just prior to standing up to begin the session, I received a note back from Elder Asay indicating that Brother Mourik was actually not in attendance, that he was involved elsewhere, and that he was planning to attend the dedicatory session in the temple the following day with the servicemen stakes.

As I stood at the pulpit to welcome the people and to outline the program, I received unmistakable inspiration once again that I was to announce Peter Mourik as the first speaker. This was counter to all my instincts, for I had just heard from Elder Asay that Brother Mourik was definitely not in the temple. Trusting in the inspiration, however, I announced the choir presentation and the prayer and then indicated that our first speaker would be Brother Peter Mourik.

As I returned to my seat, I glanced toward Elder Asay; I saw on his face a look of alarm. He later told me that when I had announced Brother Mourik as the first speaker, he couldn’t believe his ears. He said he knew that I had received his note and that I indeed had read it, and he couldn’t fathom why I would then announce Brother Mourik as a speaker, knowing he wasn’t anywhere in the temple.

During the time all of this was taking place, Peter Mourik was in a meeting at the area offices in Porthstrasse. As his meeting was going forward, he suddenly turned to Elder Thomas A. Hawkes Jr., who was then the regional representative, and asked, “How fast can you get me to the temple?”

Elder Hawkes, who was known to drive rather rapidly in his small sports car, answered, “I can have you there in 10 minutes! But why do you need to go to the temple?”

Brother Mourik admitted he did not know why he needed to go to the temple but that he knew he had to get there. The two of them set out for the temple immediately.

During the magnificent choir number, I glanced around, thinking that at any moment I would see Peter Mourik. I did not. Remarkably, however, I felt no alarm. I had a sweet, undeniable assurance that all would be well.

Brother Mourik entered the front door of the temple just as the opening prayer was concluding, still not knowing why he was there. As he hurried down the hall, he saw my image on the monitor and heard me announce, “We will now hear from Brother Peter Mourik.”

To the astonishment of Elder Asay, Peter Mourik immediately walked into the room and took his place at the podium.

Following the session, Brother Mourik and I discussed that which had taken place prior to his opportunity to speak. I have pondered the inspiration which came that day not only to me but also to Peter Mourik. That remarkable experience has provided an undeniable witness to me of the importance of being worthy to receive such inspiration and then trusting it—and following it—when it comes. I know without question that the Lord intended for those who were present at that session of the Frankfurt Temple dedication to hear the powerful, touching testimony of His servant Brother Peter Mourik.
We don't know why, but for some reason the Lord wanted Brother Mourik to speak at this event, and provided guidance to two people willing to listen to make it happen. This does not mean that the Lord endorses every decision, action, or attitude of either of those imperfect men. It does not mean that this event was more important than all the other big issues going on in the world. It does not mean that the Lord endorses fast driving in sports cars. But it does remind us that miracles do happen. It also reminds us that we do have leaders who seek and listen to the promptings of the Spirit in their lives, however imperfect some of them may be.

The point of President Monson's story, however, is not about how inspired he is, but about how each of us has the privilege, if we will seek it, of receiving personal revelation and guidance to help us throughout our lives. May be pursue that privilege and live so that we can stay close enough to the Lord that we can hear and respond when He wishes to guide.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Spirit, the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

"The Spirit has left the Church." "Miracles and gifts of the Spirit are gone in the Church." "Members are no longer seek and follow the Spirit, but just blindly obey human leaders in a business disguised as a church." These are favorite charges of apostates seeking to seeking to tear down the Church or even to draw and lead their own followers from the ranks of the Church. If those charges resonate with you, may I suggest you examine the past few years of talks from the President of the Church and note the number of spiritual experiences, gifts of the Spirit, and touching miracles that have been shared? The life of President Thomas S. Monson, for example, is one rich in spiritual experiences and miracles encountered in Christlike service. This is a man who listens to the Spirit and note merely a businessman pushing for better key performance indicators in the coming quarter. 
Those who are in the Church and actually live its teachings in faith have, in my opinion, abundant evidences of the gifts of the Spirit and are taught in many ways the importance of following the Spirit. Miracles do happen, sometimes abundantly, as we have experienced here in China, though plenty of human stuff happens every day, more frequently and more predictably than our encounters with the hand of God. I've described a few here in this blog and over at the Nauvoo Times as well. 

In his 1993 LDS Conference talk, "Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge," Richard G. Scott had a quote from a past President of the Church:
President Joseph Fielding Smith gave this admonition:

“Today we are troubled by evil-designing persons who [endeavor] … to destroy the testimonies of members of the Church, and many … are in danger because of lack of understanding and because they have not sought the guidance of the Spirit. … It is a commandment from the Lord that members … be diligent … and study … the fundamental truths of the gospel. … Every baptized person [can] have an abiding testimony. … but [it] … will grow dim and eventually disappear [without] … study, obedience, and diligent seeking to know and understand the truth” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1963, p. 22).
Don't be deceived by those teaching rebellion, claiming that the Church now lacks the Spirit. Pay more attention in your sacrament meetings, in your scripture study, in reading Preach My Gospel (the guide for missionary work), and in your listening to LDS Conference. Pay more experience to your own experiences as you obey the commandments and do your duty in serving others and praying for their welfare. We live in an age of miracles--don't miss the excitement.

Here are some resources from recent LDS Conferences to consider:
As a final tip, experiencing the guidance of the Spirit can be enhanced when we follow this advice from President Eyring and prepare diligently for such gifts. This comes from his talk "Bind Up Their Wounds" in the October 2013 Priesthood Session:
As a quorum member, as a home teacher, and as a missionary, you cannot help people repair spiritual damage unless your own faith is vibrant. That means far more than reading the scriptures regularly and praying over them. The prayer in the moment and quick glances in the scriptures are not preparation enough. The reassurance of what you will need comes with this counsel from the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants: “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.”

That promise can be claimed only if we “treasure up” the words of life and do it continually.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Priesthood Restored or Snuffed Out? John the Baptist Had It Right, I Think

In Utah especially and some other areas, a few Mormons are being influenced by an eloquent lawyer who claims to have received a special visit from Christ. Some of them show up to his lectures in the Mountain West. He has gained some sympathizers and followers--or rather, just "readers," as he insists--starting with his previous book about seeing God, where he seemed genuinely pro-LDS and supportive of basic LDS claims. However, he is now claiming that the Church has failed and was predicted to fail. He claims it has departed from the fundamental old ways of Joseph Smith and complains that the Church long ago lost authority, alleging that Joseph did not give the keys of the priesthood to the Apostles. The leaders of the Church since Joseph's day, he argues, have been misguided and have led the Church astray. Perhaps we need different leaders now, perhaps--I'm just guessing here--more humble, inspired men who have, say, actually seen Christ in a majestic divine theophany?

The bold claims that the author now makes can reasonably be taken as hostile to the Church and the subject of old-fashioned apostasy, though he claims he is just helping to bring disaffected Mormons back to the fold with his more enlightened understanding of the failed Church. Apparently his local leaders asked him to retract these apostate teachings and he refused to reconsider and repent. It's hardly surprising that he was then excommunicated. Now he teaches audiences of "readers" as he criticizes the Church, following a path that other apostates have trod in various forms as they try to steady the ark--with a torch.

Did the Church actually lose the Priesthood due to its failure? That is, as Snuffer alleges, failure to pass on the keys, failure to complete the Nauvoo Temple fast enough, failure among the leaders in seeing Christ as frequently as Mr. Snuffer wishes, and failure to stick to his preferred old fundamentals instead of all the stuff we Luddites view as "progress" in a Church led by continuing revelation where growth and change are inherent, as they have always been. So what happened to the once-restored Priesthood?

Personally, I'm sticking with what John the Baptist said when he, as an angelic minister, began the process of restoring priesthood authority on the earth. From Doctrine and Covenants 13:
Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
No, I don't think the Priesthood (Aaronic or Melchizedek) has been lost since the Restoration and don't think it will be, in spite of weaknesses and, yes, mistakes of various leaders. The authority has been preserved and passed on in properly constituted quorums, with authorized leaders selected, sustained, and ordained following the principles of common consent and divine authority as taught by Joseph Smith. If someone stands up claiming to have authority from a secret ordination or that Christ has told them that the Church has gone astray and they need to fix it, I think there is no reason to take such a person seriously. Even if they claim that Christ and angels have visited them or even ordained them. It's imperative to distrust such claims and the motives behind them, no matter how much they say "it's not about me, I'm a nobody, just a humble guy who merited a visit from God to fix the Church."

I had this man and others in mind when I wrote my recent post on condemning the Church. If you've been following the controversy, you may be interested in a detailed response over at the Mormon Interpreter: "Passing Up The Heavenly Gift (Part One of Two)"by Gregory L. Smith. It's well done and has some key material to refute basic claims from Snuffer. There is some rich additional content by the first poster ("iamse7en") in the comments that you should read also.

Yes, it's easy to look at the modern international Church and feel that it's not the same simple, intimate, spirit-filled club as we might imagine it was in Joseph's day. To a critical eye, it can look like just a giant business with its great website tools, international broadcasts, buildings, financial management tools, lawyers, and other elements useful or essential for growth and survival in the modern area. But to those who participate in it fully with faith and sacrifice, the spiritual gifts are still there, miracles are abundant, the blessings of genuine priesthood power are real and sometimes remarkable, and the restored Temple truly is a house of God. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, and its leaders are men seeking His face and His will. Those who condemn them and claim they have lost authority should think carefully not just about why they are fighting, but also whom.  'Snuff said.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Homes Rented By Non-Owners: A Scam That Blessed One Woman in Chicago

There's a rotten scam that is preying upon many needy Americans looking for places to rent. In one variation of this scam, a con artist gets detailed information about a home that is up for sale and then goes to Craigslist or other sources and publishing a rental listing as if that person were the owner. The price is often surprisingly low. When a would-be renter responds, the owner claims to be in another state or country and asks for a deposit to be sent electronically and then they will mail the keys or arrange for someone locally to give them the keys. The renter loses the deposit. Some of the variations of this scan are even more convincing and troublesome. If you are renting a home from a stranger, know what to do and what to look for. Here are some good resources:
I just spoke with a woman in the Midwest who was nearly taken by one of these scams, and surprisingly blessed by it, sort of. It's a woman with special needs kids who has been abandoned by her doctor husband who has been able to hide his income in order to avoid child support (apparently he gets almost nothing as salary, but his assistant gets paid a lot, and she happens to be his new wife). The abandoned woman just received notice that her home has been foreclosed and she has to be out by Christmas eve. Due to bankruptcy, finding a place that will take her has been difficult, but her hopes were high with a low-cost place she found listed online. It seemed perfect and the "owner" in distant Texas was ready to give it to her once she wired a deposit to him. 

When she drove by to check it out, she noticed that the home was for sale, which raised some doubts. When she called a real estate agent to ask if that meant trouble, this common scam was explained to her. The bonus blessing came when the agent also explained that the requirement to move out by Dec. 24 was not absolute, and that she did not have to move until there was a formal eviction notice, and that many times even in a foreclosed home in that State people are able to continue living in their homes for many months. Of course,  there are some other factors to consider (see Nolo's Foreclosure Timeline). For example, if you overstay and force the owner to sue to evict you, that will become part of your public record and may be far more harmful than bankruptcy in making future landlords unwilling to rent to you. But the woman feels blessed to have learned that she may have a few more months, thanks to the events triggered by the scam. Interesting. 

The situation, though, is a mess and very sad. Divorce causes so much pain and poverty in this world. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Church Under Condemnation: Tips for Those Tempted to Condemn Church Leaders

Apostasy often begins with attacking Church leaders. This is easy to do, and frankly, there are plenty of targets to go after and many reasons one can find to be offended. It's not just members on the fringe with weak testimonies who are offended and troubled by the occasional behavior or attitudes of mortal Church leaders. Maybe we can be more sympathetic with their irritation when we see that some very credible, trustworthy, and righteous people stand in the ranks of the offended, chief of whom is ... the Lord Himself. No kidding. This is not empty rhetoric. The Lord Himself has been troubled with the behavior of Church leaders, as He plainly explains in LDS scripture, namely, Doctrine and Covenants 64:8:
My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened.
They were chastened and afflicted for the evil in their hearts. This brought them under condemnation and implicitly limited their ability to lead the Church in unity, through revelation. Shame, shame, shame!

The Lord's offense at some of his early leaders was not first expressed in Joseph Smith's days, but way back in New Testament times. For example, in what can hardly be taken as a ringing endorsement of the great Chief Apostle, the Lord said (Matthew 16:23):
Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
Peter would continue to offend the Lord when he cut off a man's ear as the soldiers came to take Christ away, only to be followed hours later with his tragic triple denial of Christ. Like Joseph Smith and all mortals who seek to serve and follow the Lord, Peter the Chief Apostle was a "rough stone rolling" with plenty of flaws for critics and apostates to reject.

Peter was not the lone fallible sinner among the Apostles. For example, that great Apostle, Paul, described himself not as chief among the godly but as chief among sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Fortunately, he was a penitent sinner on the path of following the Lord. But in his strong-headed contentions with other apostles, he may well have been one of those whom the Lord referred to in the previous quote from Doctrine and Covenants 64.

In our day, the Lord has also expressed his displeasure with the Church and even stated that it is under condemnation for some of its faults. See, for example, Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-58, where we learn that the Lord is offended with how lightly we have taken (and probably continue to take) the miraculous gift of the Book of Mormon:
54 And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—

55 Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.

56 And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.

57 And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—

58 That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.
This leads us to a critically important question: In a Church founded by the Lord but discovered to have fallible leaders that have been known to offend God with serious gaps in their behavior, in a Church that stands under condemnation for its lack of faith and failure to do some of the things the Lord yearns for, what is the proper response for early and modern Christians? For Saints in the Church of Jesus Christ in both Peter's day and ours, here are three options that come to mind:

1) Speak out against their leaders, criticizing and condemning them, while trying to remain in the Church in order to correct it;

2) Leave the Church and perhaps even fight against it; or

3) Cope with and even forgive the errors of leaders while recognizing that they are among the authorized servants of the Lord whom we should patiently respect as we work to build up the Church, in spite of human flaws.

I'm for option #3. But that may not be the preferred option for some, especially if they want to force change on their own terms or perhaps gain attention, draw crowds, or sell books. Further, option #3 is a tough one to defend because we mortals tend to expect prophets and apostles to be, well, sort of infallible, right?--even though we ought to know that they aren't. Those who want to stand out as progressives and intellectuals as they fight against the Church have a much easier time because they can draw upon all the flaws of the past and cast all the barbs that critics have honed with piercing sharpness, leaving the robes of faith rather tattered to those unprepared for the assault.

The mistakes of the Church that Elder Uchtdorf referred to in the October 2013 General Conference need not be limited to those of the present dispensation. Moses angered the Lord and had to be rebuffed several times. Jonah had related issues. In addition to Peter's personal shortcomings, contention raged among the early apostles, and disunity also occurred among the modern apostles in Joseph's day and occasionally afterwards. Joseph Smith himself stood condemned before the Lord for serious sin that resulted in losing 116 pages of precious scripture. It was a dark and depressing time, and even his gift of translating the Book of Mormon was taken away during the period. There were other steps he took later in life that may have been too harsh or unfair to others--numerous actions can be criticized and some are difficult to defend. Mistakes. Gaps. Puzzles.

Some of the things that offend us today may be due to limitations in the historical record and our lack of understanding, but some things from modern Church history may be genuine offenses to the Lord as well. But if the Lord did not abandon the Church and give the keys of authority to someone else, then those errors, if real, are for the individual leaders to deal with and are not an excuse for us to condemn and abandon the Church. Condemnation and judgement is the Lord's role, and He's got that under control. Accusation, of course, seems to be Satan's role, and he excels at it. Beware those who steadily point accusing fingers at those whom the Lord has asked to serve. (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:16-19).

Yes, the Church is imperfect and has been far from perfect. It may be under condemnation from the Lord for it's failures, today as in times of old. We need to do our part to lift that condemnation by paying more attention to the Book of Mormon, by helping the Church move forward, and by raising the level of our own righteousness.

And so, you fans of modern critics of the Church leaders, consider your ways. That includes fans of seemingly sincere and nice Mormons or former Mormons, such as one man who claims to have been visited by Christ and claims to be a supporter of the Church while vocally and publicly condemning its leaders. I don't buy his story. I don't buy the idea that publishing an anti-Mormon book can be a sincere effort to help Mormons be stronger in the Church that it condemns. This seems to fall into an old "fundamentalist" pattern of unauthorized people rising up and claiming special revelation and privilege in leading people back to the earlier ways, to the pure ways of Joseph, but ultimately away from the blessings of the Restoration and the blessings of the Temple that some of these apostates mock.

Change happens in Zion and always causes discomfort for some. The old ways of animal sacrifice and the Law of Moses looked like they were supposed to be in force "for all generations," until Christ came and began changing things. The priesthood was supposed to limited to certain men in the House of Israel only, until Peter received a revelation that changed things dramatically. A revelation in 1978 through Spencer W. Kimball further opened the ranks of the priesthood--and, as with most modern revelation, offended a few who felt the old ways were better. Beware Fundamentalists who claim they are just bringing us back to the pure old ways in their attacks on the modern Church and its leaders.

The Restoration is real and the authority restored by the Lord in these modern days, is real, though the vessels that bear it are flawed in many ways. Even the inspiring and devoutly Christian servant who leads the Church today, Thomas S. Monson, is fallible and can be criticized by anyone out to find reasons to accuse. But those who do so may find that they are actually the ones who are offending the Lord and fighting against His work. A painful and bitter irony.

Update, Oct. 10, 2013: I just read a marvelous essay by Ardis Parshall over at Keepa. In "A Living Faith: What You Know that Harold Bloom Doesn’t," Ardis reminds us that those who find fault with constant change in the Church misunderstand the basic nature of our religion:
When a people’s religion and faith have as the foundational premise that God continues to speak to prophets, revealing new truth and inspiring guidance for changing times, evolution is inevitable. The surest sign of the death of such a faith would be a static, stubborn refusal to receive new direction. While Bloom – or more properly, someone who believes in continuing revelation – might legitimately debate whether any specific change is the will of God, the expectation of change within such a faith is undebatable: it lies at the heart of the faith. Mormonism2011 wouldn’t be any kind of Mormonism if it were a fossilized Mormonism1830.

What too many observers don’t understand is that they are looking on the outward forms only, generally missing the point of those forms. A man like Bloom looks at polygamy, and gathering, and missionaries traveling without purse or scrip, and the communal life of the United Order, and building the Kingdom — or whatever his particular bugbears are — and sees only abandonment, betrayal of the vision of Joseph Smith, a “dwindling … into just one more Protestant sect.” What we see, though – what you respond to when you read a post on Keepa – is the reason Latter-day Saints of the past lived as they did. That internal motivation carries on in our lives in real ways, even as the outward forms of marriage and missionary work and interactions with our fellow Saints develops under the guidance of leaders we sustain as being as inspired as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and John Taylor, or whoever was leading the Church at whatever date an observer considers to be that vanished perfect past.

Keepa’ninnies [readers of his Keepa blog] – and Mormon readers of Mormon history in other packages – have no trouble in recognizing a common commitment with the Saints of the past, living the commandments, building eternal families, sharing the gospel, caring for our fellow Saints and others – even while the visible manifestations of those commitments change. It’s why you enjoy reading about history: the forms have changed, which attracts our eyes and ears and imaginations; the spirit is the same, which engages our affections and sustains our hopes and resonates in our souls.
Beautifully said. Yes, we are a different Church today in many ways, but the vision, the eternal purposes, the Spirit, and even the spiritual gifts and miracles we experience in living the Gospel, are the same, and unite us with our predecessors among the pioneers and the early Saints of Joseph's day, not to mention the Saints of New Testament times, the Saints of Enoch's day, and the Saints throughout history as well as those who will serve God day and night in the Temple during the future Millennium. The forms will differ, but the core is the same, and we are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Thoughts from Cambodia

Cambodia, where we've been the past 4 days, is far more beautiful and hospitable than we imagined. It also has many lessons that people in the West would do well to learn. But first, a travel tip: If you come to Siem Reap, the rich historical area with breathtaking archeological sites like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei, Ba Kong, etc., I recommend that you arrange for an English-speaking tour guide with a car to take you around. Our extremely knowledgeable tour guide gave us 3.5 days of service and insight for just $160 (though we also bought meals for him and added a tip). I can give you our guide's contact information if you are planning a trip (email me at jeff at jefflindsay dot com). He was able to explain much more of the art and the history than we were able to absorb, but anytime we had a question, we could get great information. It added so much to the visit. Otherwise we would have just been dazzled by all the buildings without appreciating the cosmological symbolism and the meaning of the many mythological scenes we encountered, including interesting parallels to other temple paradigms of interest to Latter-day Saints. 
What I especially appreciated was hearing his stories of life during the dark years of the Khmer Rouge, the big government forces that used unlimited force to solve all of society's problems and make everybody happy, like it or not. His stories fit well with the accounts in a book that I read while here in Cambodia, Cambodia: Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud, a Frenchman and Jesuit priest who was in Phnom Penh when the city was "liberated" by the Khmer Rouge armies and gradually lost his socialist optimism for the revolution as the evidence of brutality and mass murder mounted.  He tried to warn the West of the genocide that was erupting, and his book was one of the first records published documenting the horror unfolding in Cambodia. Somebody left the book in my hotel room here are the wonderful Skyway Hotel ($26 a night, with a great breakfast included, and such friendly service and remarkably clean and spacious--wow!), so I took the opportunity to read it during occasional down time. Sobering. But also a frustrating, meandering book. 

The Khmer Rouge gained power during the course of their armed uprising and civil war with the promise of equality and prosperity for the common people. But as we learn in Orwell's Animal Farm, some people are more equal than others. During their regime, the common people had a form of equality: equally poor, equally forced to go and do whatever their elites wanted, even if that meant being separated from their family for years, equally subject to seizure of all their goods, and equally subject to murder on the spot if they showed any signs of critical thinking or overt criticism of their liberators. And they had a generous version of government-provided healthcare which for many meant being free to dig up whatever roots they wanted to make their own medications. The elites, the Khmer Rouge and their families and cronies, had good health care available, plus rich bounties of food, their pick of the best places to live, etc., while hundreds of thousands in that small nation, once the breadbasket of Asia (a major exporter or rice),  would starve as a result of their disastrous policies. The story of the many victims of the Khmer Rouge should remind us that when government becomes powerful enough to solve all your problems and "take care" of all aspects of your life, it can readily become a fearful master that cares nothing for your life at all. Power is the insatiable desire of megalomaniacs and madmen, and woe unto any nation that allows its government to have unrestrained power, for the madmen are always there, hungering, and will find their way to power one way or another. How wise our Founding Fathers were to recognize that danger and give us a government meant to be shackled permanently with checks, balances, and iron-clad restraints in what it could do. How I wish more of those original restraints were still there. 

One lesson from the days of starvation in Cambodia is this: the power to tax is the power to destroy. In their case, the rice produced by the common people was taxed at such a high rate (nearly 100% in many cases), that many starved. The government, always there to take care of every need, provided food for the people in return for their forced labor--or rather, for their enthusiastic volunteer service to happily push the revolution forward--but the food provided was not enough. For those who didn't work hard due to illness, age, or other factors, the food rations were cut. Health care in effect meant working no matter how ill you were because your rations would be cut and you'd die for sure. Of course, much of the illness was caused by the government as it marched people out of their homes in the cities to live in unsanitary conditions and in the deep forest where malaria was abundant, forced to use water in polluted areas where cholera was spreading. Some of the illness was caused by the inadequate nutrition and excessive fatigue caused by government-imposed conditions. Health care was certainly not enhanced by the government's failure to bury or incinerate the corpses of the hundreds of thousands of victims of government anger and paranoia. The smell was horrific in many parts of the land. 

Our tour guide came close to starving during the 5 years of Khmer Rouge terror. He is amazed that he lived and knows he was fortunate to have survived. After 5 years of being separated from his family, he was fortunate to find most of them again. But not his sister and her family. She had been a teacher, an educated person, and was therefore a threat to the regime. For the crime of having an education, she was targeted and killed. Actually, in line with standard operating procedures for the thugs known as the Khmer Rouge, they didn't just kill her, but also her husband and her children. Everyone.

Teachers, merchants, lawyers, engineers, etc., were all targeted and killed as threats. The government initially asked them to come forward to help work together to rebuilt the country, and once they were identified, they were taken away to "rebuild" and never seen again. One possible weak spot in the government's generous healthcare program for the common people is that anyone who was known to be a doctor would be killed. I guess contrarians could nitpick about Khmercare on this point and say that killing all the doctors was not the most efficient way to strengthen healthcare, but I guess there will always be a few glitches to overcome in any government program, right? I think doctors providing care for government officials were spared, however. 

Francoise Ponchaud's eyewitness account of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over revealed that one of the first visible acts of the new regime directly involved the hospitals. It was as if the first official big action they took in the capital city started in the hospitals, where all the patients were driven out and into the countryside. It was a pathetic scene, watching ill patients limping away from the hospital, some being carried by family with their IV still attached, others barely able to move being forced out to the countryside to learn how to be real Cambodians, free from the reactionary influences of the big city. One man, a double amputee, was crawling away from the hospital, dragging his little daughter on a cloth behind him. He asked the author if he could stay with him in his French hotel, but the author had to decline, one of the hardest things he ever did, he said. He already had 3 boys he was caring for and I guess had no more room or means to care for more. Those young boys would soon be sent away to the north into the country side by the Khmer Rouge, crying, knowing that their mother was being sent away to the south, and that they might never see her again. 

After the hospitals were emptied at gunpoint, the rest of the city was next. Everyone was told they had to evacuate for just a few days since the Americans were going to bomb the city. No need to take all your stuff, the army will protect everything and it will be fine until you come back. Of course, the whole city was looted then. The people would not be able to come back until after the regime fell 5 years later. The elites, of course, would have their pick of everything and live in the nicest homes, while enjoying the best healthcare available. When government officials aren't willing to abide by the systems and taxation they force on the rest of the nation, you can start to wonder if they are really all about serving and representing the people. Just a thought from Cambodia's past. 

Comparing the many promises of the big government folks in Cambodia's past with the results they achieved, I think it's fair for me to continue my innate skepticism of politicians and their promises. The less they can do to help me and take care of my every need, the better I sleep and the brighter our future. 

Cambodia's tragedy may seem remote, but the kind of people who would wreck the lives of others for their own personal and political gain are never in short supply, in every party and every state. Vigilance and constant restraint on government power are essential for liberty. May we keep that liberty that we still have, and may we regain some of what we have lost. 

Here are some photos from the Siem Reap area. Hope you'll come to visit and to learn. Cambodia has many lessons for us. It also now has enough religious freedom that there are missionaries here. We saw some while driving through town. Cool!