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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ezra Taft Benson and Teachings of the Presidents for 2015: Some Things You Won't Be Learning This Year

I'm glad to see that the LDS manual for Teachings of the Presidents in 2015 will cover Ezra Taft Benson, the man who was President of the Church from 1985 to 1994 and served as an Apostle beginning in 1943. Though he was often controversial for his views on government, one thing you must remember about him is that he may have more experience with government and politics than any other LDS president or apostle, having served as serving as United States Secretary of Agriculture from 1953 to 1961 under US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also had more to say on government than almost any other Church leader, and throughout his tenure as an Apostle frequently addressed topics such as the proper role of government, the US Constitution, threats to freedom, the existence and goals of secret combinations, etc.

Much of what he said on these topics was said during the Cold War era, so his comments and rhetoric are often directed to communism and socialism, and surely will be offensive to many in our day, especially those who consider socialism as progress. The progress of the US government in size, power, and debt generation since his day surely has been impressive, and is quite in line with some of his warnings. His frequent statements on such topics, however, strike me as thoroughly downplayed in the new manual with his teachings, which may be entirely appropriate given the potential for political divisiveness and distraction from the goals. (The manual is intended for use during adult classes on the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of the month, and is used during the 3rd hour of our 3-hour block on Sundays.) But some may interpret the relative silence on such topics in the new manual as the result an official stance that such views are discredited and irrelevant today. I don't think that's a justified assumption. On the other hand, his controversial statements while an Apostle quickly became much more toned down once he was President of the Church, though he did not become completely silent or drop his stance, as you may see from a reference I mention below.

Personally, I think much of what he had to say is worth understanding in the context of where the world was then, and in terms of the basic principles of personal liberty. We don't discuss these issues in much depth any more, I fear, though I hope we will consider these issues in our studies and have a healthy discussion in appropriate forums. The world has changed a great deal since the Cold War, but the conflict of personal liberty versus concentrated power in the hands of conspiring men (or even well meaning men) is still relevant, in my opinion, just as it was when the Constitution was framed. He saw and experienced a great deal about how government works, and I think it is foolhardy to disregard what he learned and saw without seeking to understand him. Further, for those who take the Book of Mormons seriously, it may be a fruitful exercise, regardless of your political views, to compare Book of Mormon teachings with his interpretation of its content relevant to government and secret combinations.

For a little further background regarding his views, see his 1979 General Conference address, "A Witness and a Warning." Also see his October 1988 talk given as President of the Church, "I Testify," which makes an ominous reference to Ether 8 in the Book of Mormon and the complex topic of "secret combinations." If you want to more fully see what made him so controversial and so despised by some, dig up a copy of a book he wrote before he became President, An Enemy Hath Done This.

His tenure as President was a difficult one, touched with controversy not just from his previously expressed views on politics and government, but also with his tenure while ill and incapacitated. His last couple of years were sad and frustrating ones for his family and for the Church.

May the Priesthood and Relief Society lessons in 2015 be worthwhile and helpful, without painful controversy and political divisiveness. For those who didn't like President Benson or his more controversial views, my scanning of the new manual suggests it won't be too difficult of a year for you. There is wisdom in sticking to the basics in our classes, but also much wisdom in digging deeper on our own.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Winter of Miracles

The past few weeks have been a winter of miracles for me, and I wish to express my wonder and gratitude. One of the top blessings was the baptism of a friend of ours who experienced a series of small miracles as she was rescued from a life of disaster with the help of a sweet LDS family. There are so many aspects to the story that led them to reach out to her at just the right time. The family felt inspired to offer their help and take on the risk and burden of bringing her across the country into their home, where her life has radically, wonderfully changed. The LDS family did not push her to attend church and offered to take her to the local congregation of her former faith, but she experienced a series of small miracles once she exercised the faith to attend with them and again when she chose to meet with some great sister missionaries. Though I could not be there, her baptism is one of the highlights of the year for me, a story of miracles, of charity, and of the power of Atonement to reach and bless those who might seem beyond hope.

Other surprise blessings occurred with a surprise trip to Atlanta, Georgia at the request of my employer in order to attend an industry-related meeting. Being in Atlanta for that meeting allowed me to attend a technical conference during the same week that led to serendipitous encounters with important new technologies and companies that have already been of great importance in making my work more fruitful and productive. I can't go into the details, but so many valuable things on different fronts came out of those few brief days in Atlanta, where I was also able to meet many good friends, make many new friends, solve pressing gadget problems, and attend the Atlanta Temple. It was a week of miracles that continues to bless my life and career.

As I write, I am in the Midwest, spending time with family and having a marvelous Christmas time. Among the many small miracles I've experienced here has been the miracle of education as I rejoice in the advances I see in my grandchildren, thanks to the diligence of their parents in teaching them. Whatever you think you might know about home schooling could well be challenged if you were to observe the teaching done by a daughter-in-law of mine. Simply amazing what children can learn and do with sound techniques and good tutelage.

I was especially impressed with the language abilities of my 8-year-old granddaughter, who surprised me by not only being able to anticipate a pun I was setting up in one of the silly stories I like to tell, but, unlike most adults, showed remarkable intelligence and sophistication by actually laughing at my jokes.

To help you appreciate this little wonder, I'll explain that the story I was telling involves Yog the Caveman, an ancient man from roughly 100,000 years ago who now lives in Wisconsin and tries his best to cope with the modern world. In this story, my granddaughter had kindly been helping him with English, and had explained the meaning of "ex" as in ex-friend, ex-wife, and ex-employer. Something that used to be but isn't now. Then, in the story, she also helps Yog make progress with personal hygiene, and congratulates him on not being so stinky anymore. Then Yog, realizing that he used to be stinky but now isn't, suddenly quits smiling and begins to sob. As I told the story, my granddaughter started laughing vigorously at this point, and said, "Oh, he's crying because he thinks he's gone extinct. Ex-stinky, extinct." Based on a lifetime of experience telling bad puns, I was flabbergasted. She saw it coming too quickly. Most of my adult victims don't get the jokes that early, and some never do. But to go beyond just getting the joke and to actually laugh heartily, while not exactly a first, was still quite a surprise. Someone anticipated my joke and then laughed at it. Yes, this has been a month of miracles.

May you all see the occasional hand of the Lord in the small blessings and sometimes miracles that we receive from Him, even in the midst of trouble and pain. His greatest miracles began with what may seem to some to have been among the smallest and humblest of gifts, the birth of a baby in a manger 2,000 years ago. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Beautiful and Record-Breaking Nativity Scene

Even if you have seen this already, it's worth a view. Also look at the sister video promoted the end that shows the making of this spectacular production. With beautiful music from the Piano Guys and vocalists Peter Hollens and David Archileta, a cast of over 1,000 assembles to create a brilliant nativity scene. I watched this before going to bed and had some really interesting dreams plagiarizing a few parts of the video. Might work for you, too. And unlike other dreams I've had recently, this one was completely free of commercials and blatant product placement. Are you guys getting a lot of dream spam recently or is it just me?

I love the humble, understated simplicity that is the background for the grand miracle of Christ's birth, that all-important event that brought the Creator to our mortal realm as a man to rescue all of us, if we will let Him. Ponder His birth and life as you watch this video, and be sure to pay attention to the surprise in the final seconds where the light of hundreds of angels gives added meaning. Very cool.

Merry Christmas the land of miracles, China.

Friday, December 05, 2014

More to LDS Garments Than Meets the Eye

A few days ago I discussed the new video from the Church discussing basics of the LDS garment. Today I'd like to mention some interesting connections it has to ancient religion. Our critics assume that Joseph Smith just plagiarized the concept of the Temple from pieces of Free Masonry mingled with scripture or other influences from Joseph's environment. There is no question that there are some common elements with Masonry, as I discuss on my LDSFAQ page on temples and Masonry. But for those wondering if the Temple is a modern invention, there I raise several issues there that point to  ancient roots for key aspects of the Temple.

One issue that I am adding to my previous comments on the Temple is the antiquity of the LDS concept of temple garments, including the use of some simple marks on the garments to remind us of covenants to follow God. For those interested in better understanding the ancient nature of the LDS temple and its practices, there are some outstanding and thought-provoking resources you may wish to consider.

I suggest beginning with Blake Ostler's article "Clothed Upon" in BYU Studies, 1982. Brother Ostler explains the numerous connections between the endowment and sacred garments in the ancient world. There is a reasonable case to be made that the LDS temple and LDS temple garments can be viewed as a restoration of ancient concepts that are not easily explained as elements from Joseph's environment. There are some intriguing surprises in that article for LDS people familiar with the Temple.

After reading Ostler, take a look at a later article from John W. Welch and Claire Foley, "Gammadia on Early Jewish and Christian Garments," BYU Studies, vol. 36:3 (1996–97). There you will find more interesting connections with the ancient world of Christianity and Judaism. Of course, some symbols of note such as the compass and square go back long before modern Masonry and can even be seen in the ancient Egyptian document we have in the Book of Abraham, known as Facsimile 2.

Many minor details in the LDS temple and in temple clothing can change with time, but core elements are unchanged and speak not of modern copying but very ancient roots, in ways that can enhance our respect for the temple. There is more to it (and to temple garments) than meets the eye.