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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Captivity: Or, Keep Your Knees Bent

The day my previous post appeared on deliverance and captivity, I experienced a little captivity and, fortunately, deliverance during an elevator ride in Shanghai. The basic story is that I and several others were trapped in an elevator and could not rescue ourselves. The way out involved making a call to plead for deliverance, and then we were kindly delivered and carefully brought up to safety. It's a nice little analogy to the way we are trapped here in mortality through death and sin, but if we turn to God with faith and patience, we can be delivered and brought back to Him.

Actually, the story is more complex than that and has further lessons about deliverance, about helping fellow travelers in mortality, and dealing with those who don't seem to recognize the problems they create for others. It's also about how a respected institution can lose the trust of its customers by not recognizing the problems they face, which is a lesson to all of us in any organization, the Church included, in listening and staying in touch with those we are responsible for.

First, though, my apologies to Otis, a respected company that is working to make sure our little problem doesn't happen again. Mechanical problems can happen with any machine, and that's what an elevator is. Likewise, misunderstanding about customers and their experiences can happen in any organization. My little misadventure could have happened with any manufacturer. The inconvenience was minor, but I hope some of the lessons from it will be useful to others.

Those stranded with me in a Shanghai elevator were mostly speakers at a United Nations-sponsored conference on intellectual property. They included the Consul General for Bulgaria, the European Union's IP Attaché serving in Beijing, a prominent European patent lawyer, and some Chinese business leaders and IP workers. This little adventure for 10 passengers was supposed to be a brief "three-story cruise" on our way from the lowest level to a five-star luncheon above, but shortly after our Otis elevator began its ascent, the elevator slipped downward a few inches, stopped, and then continued upward, only to slip again and then again. After the third slip, the elevator stopped completely just a few feet short of the second floor.

Being trapped in an elevator with cool people is actually not as fun as it looks.

Lots of joking, but I think we were all a bit nervous after the elevator
slipped several times on the way up before getting stuck.

We were in one of Shanghai's premiere locations, the World Expo Center in Pudong, where one would expect the highest quality in construction and maintenance. We were in an Otis elevator, probably the world's most trusted and famous elevator brand. But we were also in China, a land of many surprises, and a land where tragic elevator accidents are not unknown. A place where maintenance is sometimes an issue, along with shortcuts in construction. I'm not saying any of that applies to this setting, but there have been problems in the past with proper maintenance of elevators in Shanghai and some tragedies as well. Elevator safety is an issue the government here takes very seriously these days, and with good reason.

We rang the alarm button and expected to receive assistance right away. There was no response. We rang it again a few minutes later and it looked like some staff members were observing us (we could look down through some glass to see some staff gathered on the floor below us), so we expected help soon. After a few more minutes, though, there was no sign of real help. We needed help, help from outside. I then noticed that there was a small speaker next to another button and suggested we push that to reach someone. We were able to speak with someone to explain our situation. They told us to wait and I think they said help was on the way.

We chatted and exchanged business cards, but it was getting quite unpleasant inside with no circulation and fairly warm air. I got out a magazine and fanned it over a woman in the back who was having some trouble, and we pressed the alarm again, which now had been disabled so we wouldn't alarm others, I guess. We called again to ask for help and were told to just wait. After a few more minutes we called again and no one was answering now. The alarm was off. The phone was off as far as we could tell. I think we had become too annoying.

Then I noticed there were two phone numbers printed on the Otis nameplate. I called one and got a "number not working" notice. I called the other number and was able to reach the Otis company itself, I think in Beijing, and reported the problem. They told us help was on the way.

One of the last hotels I stayed at, a 2-star place near the Yangtze River in China, had a large helpful sign in its elevator. The sign gave directions on what to do if the elevator should slip and suddenly begin plummeting to earth--even though the place was only 4 stories tall. It said we should brace ourselves with our backs against a wall and bend our knees somewhat, apparently to reduce the risk of breaking legs on impact. I debated whether I should share this helpful information with my fellow sufferers, but in the interest of safety, with as much gentleness and optimism as I could muster, I casually mentioned having seen that sign and suggested we be ready, just in case. Then, suddenly, a cable snapped and we all screamed as we crashed toward the earth and--no, actually, nothing like that happened at all.

A few minutes later came deliverance, but not exactly as expected. I thought we would be slowly lowered back down to safety. Instead, once the technician above had accessed the system to override or overcome whatever was halting out journey, the elevator began going slowly up, up, up to the third floor. Recognizing that something was wrong and that slippage was possible, the higher we went the more nervous I grew, knees slightly bent. But we made it. The door opened and we swiftly walked out.

There was an official Otis technician next to the elevator, with a panel open and some wires plugged into a box or something. We were relieved to be rescued. We were greeted by an apologetic hostess and escorted to the delicious lunch waiting us. But I wanted some information. I asked the Otis technician what had gone wrong. He said, "Too many people."

"Really? Then why didn't an alarm go off as happens normally when the load is too high?"

"You must have been near the limit but not quite over it. Not heavy enough to make the alarm ring." He thought that was a satisfactory explanation. I did not.

Our hostess came to take me over to the speakers luncheon. I followed her and saw the great food and would have liked some, but felt that there was a safety issue still there that I couldn’t just ignore. I went to the host, the kind man who had invited me to speak and attend the luncheon, and excused myself. I needed to go back and follow up. This is one of those character traits I have that sometimes makes me genuinely annoying, in addition to hungry.

I went back to the elevator to talk to the technician. Our hostess followed me. I asked what had been done to prevent this problem from happening again to another group of the same size. He gave me a puzzled look and kind of shrugged his shoulders. Our hostess got it and she very diplomatically rephrased my question to make it clear we weren't accusing him of any kind of shortcoming, but just wanted to make sure the problem was resolved for the welfare of others.

But it didn't appear that anything was being changed or repaired. I explained I felt a duty to report this to Otis, and could I please get his name and phone number so headquarters could communicate with him about our questions. The hostess gave this a nice diplomatic spin, and the man gave me that information. I called Otis, reported the problem in detail, and was told I would get a response soon. There was no time to eat now, but it was OK.

Otis called that night while my wife and I were at delicious banquet for speakers and staff. An English speaker this time talked to me and asked what I wanted. I explained I wanted the problem fixed. I explained why it is a serious problem to be trapped in an elevator for 20 minutes or so. Her response really surprised me: "Well, sir, we can fully understand how even a single minute in an elevator can seem like 20 minutes to a passenger." I was bothered by their apparent failure to understand just how long their elevator had trapped its passengers. Fortunately, another passenger was nearby. I asked him to explain how long we had been trapped. He was clear: 20 minutes, at least. Maybe Otis was only timing the response from the time I called them and the time the technician showed up, I don't know. Then the woman said that their contract requires them to respond in 30 minutes, which they had (congratulations!). I reminded her that we trapped passengers don't really care what your contract says. We don't want to be trapped. So what are you doing to fix the problem? I was assured that they would investigate and get back to me Monday.

Monday I got a call from a fast-speaking Chinese technician. He was talking about technical details that I couldn't follow, so I had a friend chat and translate for me. The technician explained that the load cell had not been properly calibrated to detect an overload condition, but now it had been adjusted and all was well. Hurray, I've done my job.

But now that I look at the light-hearted photos I took in the elevator to commemorate the event, I can see the Otis panel indicates it is rated for 1000 kg and 13 persons. There were 10 or 11 of us (my best estimate) and I think I was the heaviest, well under 100 kg, so the total should have been well under 1000 kg. The problem was a mechanical failure, possibly from underrated equipment that couldn't handle maybe 900 kg when it should have been able to handle over 1000 kg. That's not a load cell calibration problem. The cheap fix, of course, is to adjust the load cell so the alarm will go off when there is a 900 kg load, but the elevator is rated for 1000 kg. Come on, guys, fix your elevator! I hope Otis understands that they have a problem. Organizations need to listen carefully to those whose lives they affect. I think the Church is striving to do this, but all of us at every level in the Church need to do this with those we affect and work with.

So tonight, with the help of a friend, I called Otis again and got into the technical details and insisted that they have a mechanical issue they need to address. Let's see where this goes. Deliverance, I hope, for some future group embarking on a three-story cruise. I hope they are listening.

When people we can help or should help are trapped, may we respond quickly in delivering them, and may we take steps to make the way more safe for those who come after. That's what a lot of our work in the Church is all about, delivering others and making pathways better for those coming after us. First, though, we each need our own personal deliverance through the Atonement of Christ.

If you are facing some form of captivity, it is probably much more serious than my little misadventure, but the principles of turning to an outside source for help and deliverance still applies. One call, one prayer, may not be enough. Be persistent, hang in there, brace yourself, and keep your knees bent.

Update: Otis called again today to report the good news that there was no mechanical problem, just a load cell issue. That's a relief! The Otis person told me that load cell failed to detect that we were way overweight since we had 17 people in there.  Huh? 17? We were around 10 by my count, maybe as many as 12, and looking at the photos, taken from near the right front of the elevator, I really don't see how 17 people could be there. There were a couple at the front and one or two at the side by me that don't show up in the photo, but it doesn't add up to 17 by my count. I asked where they got that number and suggested they go verify the video footage to see how many came in and out of the elevator. They are going to check and get back to me. As is so common in elevator entrapment stories, I remain in suspense.

Hmm, a report of 17--that sounds like the kind of data manipulation that happens occasionally to make inconvenient facts fit the desired narrative. If it can happen to temperatures and inflation data, it can happen to passenger counts, too. Seventeen passengers = load cell problem and easy fix. Ten passengers and elevator failure (in a unit rated for 13 people and 1000 kg) = something more troubling or at least more expensive.

I told this to my wife, shook my head, and said that I must be so annoying. "You enjoy this so much!" was her response. Where do women get these ideas?

Update, May 6, 2015: Got a very polite call from Shanghai's general manager of Otis as he was traveling in the U.S. He apologized for the trouble and explained interesting details. There were 12 people in the elevator, as I saw on the surveillance recording he sent me. Not 17. That was a mistake on their part. He also explained that the system was installed by a US team and does have the right motor, but the problem is that the torque delivered by the motor is based on the signal from the load cell, and that's what was wrong. Interesting. I suggested that once there is slippage because torque is too low, the system ought to automatically increase the torque. But what happened is that the system kept slipping and so, recognizing that something was wrong, it shut down completely. OK.

They are going to use this incident as a case study for ongoing training of their staff to help them understand how to respond better. There are many details that they can learn from, and he was very grateful for the documentation and customer feedback I provided. Looks like I'll even get an invitation to come visit their headquarters. Could be fun--but I wonder if it's on the ground floor.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Deliverance and Captivity

A few weeks after moving to Wisconsin long ago, Canadian geese flew over my home and woke me up in time to get our family up and off to Church on a Sunday morning when I had failed to set my alarm properly. It was our first Stake Conference in Wisconsin. We arrived about 10 minutes early. As I walked in the door, I was greeted and given a program for the meeting. I tossed out a little joke to a nearby Stake leader (I think it was the Stake President) as I took the program: "I always like to check these to see if I'm speaking." As I opened the program, I saw my name printed as one of the speakers. Surprised but not flustered, I checked on the recommended theme with the Stake President.

I was grateful for each of the extra 10 minutes I had to prepare. I was also grateful for the geese! Showing up 10 minutes late, as might have happened without their unusual assistance, could have been unpleasantly embarrassing and may have left me unnecessarily irritated at my some wonderful leaders who somehow forgot to call me about the talk. I felt like the talk turned out O.K. and was grateful for the experience.

I've learned to enjoy giving talks on the fly and don't mind filling in, though I'm usually happier with my talks when I've got a few days to think them over. But sometimes the on-the-fly talks come with some pleasant surprises of their own, as I experienced on a recent Sunday when I reflected upon that distant Wisconsin experience as I scrambled to prepare something.

I was sitting on the stand as a visitor from the District in a local branch's sacrament meeting, when the Branch President asked me to fill in for a speaker. The recommended theme was Easter. As I pondered the role of Christ and the meaning of Easter, I chose to focus on deliverance from captivity. For this theme, I love how the Book of Mormon emphasizes the deliverance that Christ brings, so I picked a couple of passages from that volume.

I also recalled a book I had read about an LDS man who became a prisoner of war in World War II, A Distant Prayer, but couldn't remember the name of the author. I wanted to say something more specific about it, so, recalling that I had mentioned it in a blog post on Mormanity, I had just enough time to access my ExpressVPN service on my cell phone to pull up Mormanity and find the post. Ah, it even had an excerpt. I read it quickly and had it ready to use in my talk, if time permitted.

After introducing the theme of captivity, I discussed the many forms of captivity people can face. Even in the midst of apparent freedom, as we enjoy to a surprisingly high degree in China, there are people in deep captivity. It may be the captivity that comes through an addiction or through the sense of being trapped in an unhealthy and harmful relationship. Financial burdens and debt can create captivity. Sometimes physical challenges and other barriers can make people feel trapped. There are many forces and pressures around us and within us which can threaten our liberty. For all of us, in various degrees of captivity, there is hope through the Atonement of Christ.

I mentioned how deliverance from captivity is a major Book of Mormon theme. I mentioned the Book of Mosiah, which is filled with stories of captivity and deliverance. I pointed out that even the name Mosiah is a perfect name to use for that book because it appears to be the Hebrew word mosiach which can mean deliverer (see John Welch, "What Was a 'Mosiah'?").

But for my favorite Book of Mormon passage on deliverance, I discussed Alma 36. I began with verses 1 and 2 which refer to "remembering the captivity of our fathers" who were in bondage, and none could deliver them except God. Then I jumped to end of the chapter, to verses 28-30, where we read of how God delivered their fathers out of Egypt and bondage, and had delivered them from bondage and captivity from time to time, where we again are told to retain in remembrance the captivity of our fathers, mirroring the admonishment at the beginning. In fact, I pointed out how the whole chapter is arranged in a mirror image, with concepts at the beginning reflected in reverse order at the end, with a complex and poetic structure known in ancient Hebraic poetry, which we call chiasmus, after the Greek letter chi, which is shaped like an X showing a top and bottom sections that are mirror images of each other, reflected about a central point that is often given special emphasis in a Hebraic chiasm. This chapter, this poem, in Alma 36 tells the story of Alma's captivity. Not captivity in prison, but captivity to sin and the pains of hell. As he faced his guilt and recognized the horror of his sin in having fought against God, he fell into three days of anguish where he experienced "the pains of a damned soul." But his description of his pain mirror the description of his joy once he finds deliverance and forgiveness, which occurs at the central pivot point of this chapter. In verses 17 and 18, as he suffers, he recalls having heard of "one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world," and he then turns to Christ, crying in his heart: "O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me…" and swiftly finds deliverance, remembering his sins no more and instead of pain, anguish, and terror at the thought of facing God, he finds joy and yearns for His presence. He found deliverance from sin and death through Christ, as can we, no matter how much despair our current captivity brings, no matter how challenging our current situation seems.

At this point, I felt like I needed to add the story of Joseph Banks and his deliverance detailed in A Distant Prayer. I mentioned that this gives his actual story of years of captivity, painful and difficult, but filled with blessings and even miracles to help him survive and cope, and ultimately find freedom. There is much we can learn from his lesson.

At the beginning of his story, he miraculously survives being shot down over Germany. Actually, he wasn't shot down--his plane was accidentally blown up by a fellow B-17 that dropped its bombs on his plane after that other plane took a hit on an engine that slowed it down as it started to release its bombs. Brother Banks was knocked unconscious for a while after the first bomb struck his plane. He describes what happens as he regained consciousness:

[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.
At this point I realized his story was more appropriate for my talk than I had realized. Suddenly I was deeply touched by the image of an airman being pinned by powerful forces in a wrecked plane as it was spinning wildly out of control, plummeting toward the earth. He wanted to move, to escape, to get out and jump for freedom and use his parachute, but he was pinned, unable to move. I realized at that moment that the same can happen in our lives in situations where we feel we are spinning out of control and unable to escape. Sometimes the forces pinning us down are simply too great for us to overcome--one our own. For Joseph Banks and for us, there is still one source of deliverance. He turned to God, as we must. And God heard his prayer for help. He explains what happened next:
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.
Yes, his parachute worked, allowing him to land in enemy territory. where angry villagers surrounded him and probably would have killed him if a couple of German guards - also not especially nice - had not taken him away for interrogation. This was just the beginning of his troubles and the beginning of the miracles he would experience before finding deliverance from captivity in Germany.

I love that story, and felt like it added an important dimension to my talk. It was a pleasant surprise for me as I read it and applied it.

Our deliverance from the challenges we face may also take a great deal of patience, but we can find deliverance from sin quickly as we turn fully to Christ.

I closed by sharing my personal conviction and witness that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior, Redeemer. He is the Messiah and the Mosiach, source of deliverance. May we have faith in Him and trust in the power of His Redemption and deliverance.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Why Marriage, Why Family"--A Highlight from the 2015 LDS Conference

For those struggling with questions about the Church's emphasis on marriage, and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman, a thoughtful talk from the recent General Conference might be of help. "Why Marriage, Why Family" by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles begins with a spiritual insight from a great man of another Christian faith:
Above the Great West Door of the renowned Westminster Abbey in London, England, stand the statues of 10 Christian martyrs of the 20th century. Included among them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian born in 1906. Bonhoeffer became a vocal critic of the Nazi dictatorship and its treatment of Jews and others. He was imprisoned for his active opposition and finally executed in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was a prolific writer, and some of his best-known pieces are letters that sympathetic guards helped him smuggle out of prison, later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

One of those letters was to his niece before her wedding. It included these significant insights: “Marriage is more than your love for each other.... In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.”  [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (1953), 42–43.]
I like that expression: "love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God." Marriage is not just about us. It is about our responsibilities to others and before God. It is "a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind." Elder Christofferson goes on to explain why that it is the case. He reviews the work of God and the Plan of Salvation, in which a critical aspect is our role in raising and nurturing children that other sons and daughters of God might also be able to participate in God's plan for us that includes this brief mortal phase where we receive the miraculous gift of physical bodies accompanied by, in many cases, the ability to bear and raise children.

Christofferson explains the divine responsibilities that comes with such gifts:
A family built on the marriage of a man and woman supplies the best setting for God’s plan to thrive—the setting for the birth of children, who come in purity and innocence from God, and the environment for the learning and preparation they will need for a successful mortal life and eternal life in the world to come. A critical mass of families built on such marriages is vital for societies to survive and flourish. That is why communities and nations generally have encouraged and protected marriage and the family as privileged institutions. It has never been just about the love and happiness of adults.

The social science case for marriage and for families headed by a married man and woman is compelling.19 And so “we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”20 But our claims for the role of marriage and family rest not on social science but on the truth that they are God’s creation. It is He who in the beginning created Adam and Eve in His image, male and female, and joined them as husband and wife to become “one flesh” and to multiply and replenish the earth.21 Each individual carries the divine image, but it is in the matrimonial union of male and female as one that we attain perhaps the most complete meaning of our having been made in the image of God—male and female. Neither we nor any other mortal can alter this divine order of matrimony. It is not a human invention. Such marriage is indeed “from above, from God” and is as much a part of the plan of happiness as the Fall and the Atonement.
I also appreciate Elder Christofferson's recognition of the many exceptions among us who are not experiencing the blessings of being in a happy marriage with the opportunity to raise children:
To declare the fundamental truths relative to marriage and family is not to overlook or diminish the sacrifices and successes of those for whom the ideal is not a present reality. Some of you are denied the blessing of marriage for reasons including a lack of viable prospects, same-sex attraction, physical or mental impairments, or simply a fear of failure that, for the moment at least, overshadows faith. Or you may have married, but that marriage ended, and you are left to manage alone what two together can barely sustain. Some of you who are married cannot bear children despite overwhelming desires and pleading prayers.

Even so, everyone has gifts; everyone has talents; everyone can contribute to the unfolding of the divine plan in each generation. Much that is good, much that is essential—even sometimes all that is necessary for now—can be achieved in less than ideal circumstances. So many of you are doing your very best. And when you who bear the heaviest burdens of mortality stand up in defense of God’s plan to exalt His children, we are all ready to march. With confidence we testify that the Atonement of Jesus Christ has anticipated and, in the end, will compensate all deprivation and loss for those who turn to Him. No one is predestined to receive less than all that the Father has for His children.
Marriage is a blessing, but also a great challenge. It can test us and try us as it rarely turns out to be all that we hope. For some, it is a blessing never experienced in this life, testing us through its absence or unavailability. But whatever the burdens we face, if we turn to God and rely on the power of the Atonement, the full blessings of God will become available to us, with all the joy and endless potential that He offers. Here in mortality and afterwards, marriage matters. It is not just for our benefit and enjoyment. It is a divine post with great responsibility. May we cherish it and protect it in a world that is increasingly hostile toward one of the great elements of God's plans and one of the roots of human society and civilization.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Satan's Got Your Metadata

Here in China, privacy is something that is a little different than what Americans might be used to. One notices this when shopping for tailor-made clothes at the most popular fabric markets, where the fitting room is a piece of cloth an employee will hold up for you as you change in a corner of the shop or in the hallway. One notices this in the men's room at the beautiful place where we meet for church in Shanghai, where there is a floor-to-ceiling window just right next to the urinals. Privacy is also an issue in phone calls, emails, and other communications, where we recognize that active surveillance is a possible. In this regard, America and China are becoming much more similar, though many Americans don't seem to be paying attention. There is much America needs to learn from China and much I wish America would emulate, but reducing personal privacy isn't on that wish list of mine.

I've been big on privacy ever since I was a teenager and maybe before. As a teenager, I took great comfort in Doctrine and Covenants 6:16, where we read that "there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and intents of thy heart." Whew, what a relief! No matter what, my personal, silent prayers would be private between me and God. No one could snoop. Satan, our sly Adversary, could not know my thoughts and could be excluded from my prayers. Privacy from that most sinister enemy. Whew!

Sadly, years later, some of that comfort has evaporated. Now, in light of certain modern revelations (from non-LDS sources) I am once again nervous about what the Adversary can know and do. Satan doesn't have to be a mind-reader to totally invade my privacy, because at a minimum, Satan's got my metadata.

Metadata has become a more important term in our vocabulary since Edward Snowden revealed just how much snooping the US government is doing on its own citizens. The US government has defended its invasion, claiming that we still have our privacy because they aren't usually actually listening in on our conversations, just getting "metadata" about who we talk to, when, and for how long. Just data about the conversation, not the actual contents. Metadata. So it's nothing to worry about, right? And when it comes to our thoughts, our wishes, and our secret prayers, that's all Satan has to go on, too. Just metadata.

Turns out that metadata is something that Americans should want to protect if they value personal privacy. Metadatter matters. Joe Mornin at Mornin.org has an essay, "Why Metadata Matters," that explains just how little privacy we have left when a powerful agency (or demonic being, for that matter) has access to our metadata. He also has provided valuable legal analysis on metadata and the Fourth Amendment in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. Also look at a related article at Wired. Something to consider.

So Americans, I think it's time to be a little more worried about your personal privacy. Should you be worried that Satan has your metadata? Yes. But why? If you don't believe in the Satan of biblical lore, is there any problem? Yes, there is, but it depends on which Satan you mean. There's the demonic being that may or may not be purely mythical, and then there's S.A.T.A.N., the Security Administration That Answers to Nobody. I don't trust either of them. 

Monday, April 06, 2015

Two Starting Points for Exploring the Unexplained Book of Mormon

For critics, the Book of Mormon is ridiculously easy to explain, as I've learned from my years of interaction with them. Many seem to gravitate toward theories of Joseph as a lazy plagiarist. Too lazy to come up with his own words, he just found scattered phrases in the Bible and some other sources and used them over and over in a clumsy imitation of Biblical language to deal with some popular issues of the day like the origins of the American Indians and the intrigues of Masonry. Then grab a few friends and cajole them into thinking they had magically imagined seeing some gold plates, and bingo, the Book of Mormon and the Church was born.

For those who are willing to recognize the complexity and sophistication of the Book of Mormon text, it can be useful to add a shadowy figure or two to Joseph's frontier conspiracy, maybe Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon and associates, someone who may have had the scholarship to imitate Hebraisms and chiasmus, while developing an intricate story line and imaginary geography with the internal consistency needed for a good work of fiction.

The theories of plagiarism immediately satisfy their proponents, but leave a wealth of details quite unaccounted for. As in science, a good theory may begin with some gaps and puzzles, but over time, these should steadily be resolved and the theory, if sound, should increasingly explain the data and be able to account for future discoveries. The ability to explain and resolve should grow with time. When theories are inadequate, the gaps increase with time.

The trend with Book of Mormon data over time is one that I'd like to call attention to. For those of any faith interested in the details and especially the origins of the Book of Mormon, let me point to recent areas of investigation that have yielded many surprises that need to be explained, somehow, if we are to account for what the Book of Mormon actually is, not just what we imagine and hope that it is.

Some of the most important data related to the Book of Mormon is the external tangible data and evidence related to the first book, First Nephi, where we have a clear and specific description of a journey with a known starting point and specific directions and geographical features. Until about 20 or 30 years ago, it was all rather laughable to our scholarly critics who knew that places like Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula or the River Laman simply did not exist. Now we have a wealth of data confirming the plausibility of the voyage and the places visited. There are plausible candidates for the River Laman, the Valley Lemuel, the south-southwest path, the place Shazer, the ancient burial place Nahom (including an ancient burial place of a similar name in the precise area that fits the text, and 7th-century B.C. archaeological finds confirming a tribe of a similar name inhabited that area--bingo, bingo, bingo), a plausible eastward path from Nahom to the sea, and two nearby competing candidates for the actual place Bountiful itself, with the primary candidate (in my opinion) being Khor Kharfot. It's not just a surprisingly green spot on the coast of Oman, but one that appears to fit numerous details in the text, even down to the level of being a rare source of iron ore near the surface that plausibly could have been used by Nephi to make tools for the ship he built.

The Arabian Peninsula, including Khor Kharfot, is a physical starting place for better understanding the Book of Mormon. Research at Khor Kharfot in particular is desperately needed to better understand this rare gem that is facing environmental degradation and loss in several ways. Before it is too late, its unique ecosystem and its ancient treasures need to be studied, documented, and preserved. This is a prime starting point for gaining more understanding related to the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, there is an international team of mostly non-LDS scholars and lovers of knowledge and the environment who are joining forces to explore and preserve. I salute the newly formed Khor Kharfot Foundation and encourage all of us to consider making a donation to support their work.

Here is a photo of the Khor Kharfot Foundation team. What a great looking group!

There is another starting place I'd like to suggest. Some of the most interesting and puzzling data related to Book of Mormon origins is coming from extensive scholarly investigation into the dictated text itself, the original Book of Mormon manuscript. This has culminated in the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, which now serves as the best we have for a critical text for the original Book of Mormon. It's what we need to be using for scholarly analysis of the text if we are interested in exploring its origins and the translation process.

The details uncovered by Royal Skousen provide strong confirmation that the text was dictated and written line by line by a scribe based on what he heard dictated, often showing the kind of mistakes and corrections consistent with a dictation process. But there is far more interesting evidence coming from the language itself as dictated. What once was thought to be a lot of hick grammar actually is good grammar, but from several decades before the rise of the King James Bible. The work of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack provide a rich body of new data that we need to understand and account for, somehow, wherever that leads. This is one of the new frontiers for Book of Mormon research. I'll discuss why I think it is especially important in a future post.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Musings

It's Easter Morning here in China. I'd like to share a few recent scattered thoughts as I begin listening to LDS General Conference.

I'm listening to the Priesthood Session live as I begin this post. President Henry B. Eyring's talk reminds us of how much we need to rely on personal revelation to meet the challenges of our callings and our lives. There are great risks, great opportunities for good that can be missed, and abundant opportunities for our own failure and destruction. Daily guidance from the Holy Ghost is needed, and this requires "more than casual listening and reading." Serious study, reflection, and seeking the Spirit must be a part of our lives and ministries. His stories are touching and instructive. He's one of my favorite speakers.

I really appreciate Elder Russell M. Ballard's call for the greatest generation of young adults. When I was young they told me that we were the greatest generation, but I think this would be a good time for the real greatest generation to step up and rise to the increased challenges of our era. I really admire so many of the young people I see in the Church today, and hope they will take on the challenge. (I'm back now from our fast & testimony meeting in Shanghai, where the young people of our ward really wowed me and many other adults. Most of the meeting involved teenagers and pre-teens coming up on their own and sharing sincere observations about their faith and living the Gospel. Quite inspiring! The future is in good hands, at least in some sectors.)

In another talk, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Seventy reminded us of an important truth: “God cares a lot more about who we are, and who we are becoming, than about who we once were.... He cares that we keep on trying.” Exactly. Whatever messes we've made of our lives, God is anxious to welcome us back and move us in surprisingly better new directions, if we'll let Him.

It came as a surprise for me that Elder Michael T. Ringwood of the Seventy selected the easy-to-overlook Book of Mormon character Shiblon as his personal hero from the Book of Mormon. Shiblon is an example of someone who wanted to serve rather than have fame and dominion, and quietly went about doing what was most important. Good observation on his part.

Look out, I sense a tangent coming....

The name Shiblon, by the way, is also a unit of weight (not coinage!) in the Book of Mormon, according to Alma 11:15. This name may be related to a Jaredite king's name, Shiblom, one of a number of Jaredite names that crop in Nephite culture, consistent with the persistence of Jaredite influence among the later Nephites, (e.g., Corianton, Noah, Korihor/Corihor, and Nehor). There is also a Nephite unit of weight called a shiblon, "for a half measure of barley." According to the entry for Shiblon in the online Book of Mormon Onomasticon, a terrific resource to explore possible meanings and connections for Book of Mormon names, this usage of shiblon might derive from Hebrew šibbolet, "ear of grain."

LDS folks have long assumed shiblon was related to the next unit of weight mentioned in Alma 11:16, the shiblum. But the detective work of Royal Skousen leading the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon shows that what Joseph dictated in his translation was actually shilum, and that is what the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon now has. The Book of Mormon Onomasticon's entry for shiblum explains what happened:
SHIBLUM has been the reading in Alma 11:16, 17 since the 1830 edition. It was written down as SHIBLUM in the original manuscript by Oliver Cowdery (probably based on the reading of the word SHIBLON in Alma 11:15, 16. O [the original manuscript] was then corrected by him to SHILLUM by overwriting the b with an l. Then (possibly with the assistance of Joseph Smith) he crossed off the overwritten l to produce SHILUM. In the printer's manuscript it appears only as SHILUM. The 1830 typesetter erroneously set shiblum (in what is now verse 16), which it has remained through the current edition of the Book of Mormon. In verse 17 both O and P [the printer's manuscript] have only shilum, but the typesetter repeated the mistake of verse 16 by setting shiblum, the reading in 1830-2013.[1] While the derivation of shiblum from ancient HEBREW is somewhat problematical, shilum is not. Its derivation from the HEBREW shillum, "reward, payment, compensation" is found in Micah 7:3 in the context of bribing judges.[2] According to Hoftijzer, in Northwest Semitic inscriptions slm has the meaning "to be paid, repaid."[3]
  1. Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon. vol. 3. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 1810-11.
  2. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds. The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 4. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 1511.
  3. Jacob Hoftijzer, Dictionary of North-west Semitic Inscriptions [Leiden: Brill, 1995], 2:1145.
If you don't have the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, you might want to mark your printed or electronic Book of Mormon in Alma 11 with a note explaining that shiblum should be shilum, meaning "reward, payment" in Hebrew. This is one of numerous examples of Hebraic influence that Joseph probably could not have appreciated since he didn't study Hebrew until around 1835. Without the recent investigation of Skousen into the original Book of Mormon text, it's something we probably would not appreciate today.

The issues around this one word provide one more glimpse into how the Book of Mormon was produced that is consistent with the accounts from witnesses, consistent with some degree of tight control in the translation process, and consistent with ancient Hebraic influences in the text. At the same time, it reminds us of the certainty of human influence and error in the printed product, as is the case with any scripture that goes through human hands, thus pointing to the need for the kind of investigation that Royal Skousen has done in his many years of work leading to the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon.

I look forward to learning more from General Conference. Next weekend is when it is rebroadcast for audiences in Asia (the time difference between Asia and the US can be so annoying), but I've enjoyed getting a slight head start on some of the talks today.

Finally, this is Easter. Let me say that I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior, my Redeemer, and the author of all hope and salvation. In spite of all its beauty and wonder, this world would ultimately be depressing without the love and hope He offers through the Atonement. Our mistakes can be cleansed, our suffering and death can end in triumph, and anguish can become joy, and with His power, we can have strength to change our crudeness and selfishness into the power to love, to do good, and to help others and ourselves find joy.

I marvel in His creations. I marvel that it was even possible to find the solutions that enabled stars (balanced on the precipice between black holes consumed by gravity and massive explosions into nothingness from the fury of fusion and electromagnetic forces) to not only exist but provide engines for creating carbon, iron, and the elements we need for earth and life itself. I marvel at the beauty of DNA and how much structure, instinct, and machinery can be encoded. I marvel at the joys of human life and our abilities to appreciate art, music, literature, fine cuisine, family life, romance, and philosophy.

There is so much more to our life, so much more beauty and potential, than random chemical accidents creating genetic memes that compete to reproduce for no purpose at all. There is glory, beauty, and wonder in this life, especially when considered in light of God's majesty and His purposes for us. Our lives do have purpose and meaning, in spite of all that we suffer, and that meaning is found most fully by recognizing and kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, who personally knows our pain, takes it upon Him, and offers us freedom and joy. How wondrous Easter is!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Shanghai International District and Our Tradition for Young Single Adult Events at District Conference

For those who work with Young Single Adults (YSAs), I thought I'd share some of the experiences we've had in the Shanghai International District. Some things that worked for us might be helpful to others in the future, especially in places with scattered single adults over a large geographical area.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to China, my wife and I were asked to serve as co-chairs of the District's Single Adult Committee, one my duties in the District Council. (Best calling ever! Love these enthusiastic young people, and a calling where husband and wife get to work and travel together is a dream calling indeed--for those of us who enjoy being married.) Our district has waves of YSAs come in twice a year, with roughly 100 or so LDS YSAs at peak times. Most come here for just a few months to teach English or to study for a semester. The biggest groups are in the Nanjing Branch (4-hour drive from Shanghai, or 90-minute by train), where they are dispersed across several cities over a large area, and in the Suzhou Branch, also scattered over several cities like Suzhou and Changzhou. Changzhou is one of those tiny Chinese cities you probably never heard of since it only has 5 million people, not quite twice the size of Chicago. Shanghai and Hangzhou also have groups of YSAs.

Our initial challenge when we were asked to work with the YSAs was to look for some way to bring YSAs together for our District Conference held twice a year on a Saturday and Sunday. Previously the District YSA leaders had tried arranging Saturday service projects but meaningful group service projects pose unique challenges in China and may require complex approvals that have sometimes been withdrawn at the last minute. We took a slightly different route. Recognizing that many of our YSAs were not making much money and didn't have much time off, giving up a free weekend and a big chunk of change to come attend church meetings was not all that big of a draw. We wanted to make District Conference more appealing and valuable to them. Since many of the District's YSAs have not seen much of Shanghai, we decided to offer group tours of Shanghai for YSAs. We would also continue the tradition of providing free housing for YSAs coming to town, with the help of LDS members (foreign members) in Shanghai.

We quickly found that the idea of organized tours to see Shanghai was quite appealing. We initially offered a variety of tours that people could sign up for, and then we would offer the three or so most popular ones. Developing the itineraries and getting support to run the tours was an exhausting challenge, especially since we were also struggling just to find,  reach, and provide housing for the flood of new people who had just come to China in time for the Conference. Way too much work.

As things have evolved, we now have the Shanghai YSA liaisons kindly running the housing end of things. They take the names of the YSAs as we get their information and work with them and the Shanghai members to arrange housing. As for the tours, we now offer just two. The first is a "Main Attractions" tour of Shanghai that hits some of the most famous and interesting sites (People's Square, nearby People's Park to see the amazing matchmaking market, East Nanjing Road, Yu Garden and the adjacent old city (we go into the Ming Dynasty era garden), the Bund, the Huangpu River ferry, the skyscrapers of Pudong, and Lujiazui.

The other tour is the Qibao Ancient Water City tour, where we go to see a beautiful region with a crowded pedestrian street, lots of crazy shops, unique little museums, and some beautiful views on a canal. The Qibao tour is popular with those who are already familiar with the basics of Shanghai. It's one of my favorite places, but very few foreigners ever go there. Both tours end by bringing people to our LDS meeting place (Yongda Center at the corner of Longyang Road and Fangdian Road in Pudong) in time for our 3:30 PM Saturday afternoon session of District Conference, where we hope our YSAs will be fed spiritually.

Speaking of food, those on the tours buy their own lunch on Saturday. Good meals are possible for around 30-40 RMB ($5). They can also buy their own dinner above the Longyang Subway station near our LDS meeting place for about the same amount.

Since 2011 when we started this, my wife and I with some other volunteers ran the tours, and we ran ourselves rather weary in doing that. We found that not a lot of other members knew the heart of the city the way we do, and it was quite a chore trying to guide the groups and manage all the logistics. This year we made a change to simplify the tours to make it easier to hand over to someone else: we hired professional tour guides to take groups of people on the Main Attractions tour. Four excellent, English-speaking tour guides took groups of about 15 people each on the route we selected, managing the time well and providing lots of interesting information about this incredible city to help participants really enjoy it. We had the guides take groups as they showed up so we didn't have to wait around for stragglers, as in the past. The last group had the lest ones to show up. And since we weren't chasing everyone down and worrying about where everyone was and where they were going, we could just relax and really enjoy the tours and our time with these terrific young people. Much better. More expensive, but well worth it. This was my wife's inspired idea that really made life so much better this time around. 

In our first couple of years, we had also offered an evening tour that involved lots of walking and seeing some of the cool evening sites. But the past several conferences we have instead provided an evening dance which has proven to be a lot of fun. Using the facilities at the Yongda Center, we've managed to tap iPhones or computers into the sound system and play dance music. Part of the fun is that our YSA liaison in Shanghai is a dance enthusiast who is excellent in teaching some popular dances, and this year one of the YSA men is a skilled dance instructor who led the group in some fun line dancing and taught some fun swing moves.

The dance ends at 9 PM, giving people time to get home and perhaps see a little of the town on the way. They they come back in the morning for the General Session at 10:00 AM (plus there is typically but not always a Priesthood Session at 8:30 AM). At noon after the main session ends, we once again rely on the generosity of our Shanghai area members in 3 branches (Shanghai Branch, Hongqiao Branch, and the Jinqiao Branch) to provide a warm meal for the YSAs. My wife organizes the food and works with the branches to make sure we have a good mix of foods (especially things that go well on rice, plus deserts, salads, etc.). We have some wonderful cooks in this area with a great mix of international cuisines. Good food, including home made cookies and lemon bars that my wife and others prepare for the dance, is part of the recipe for success.

After the meal, there is a devotional for the single adults at 1:00 PM. It last for just an hour, leaving plenty of time for travelers to catch their train and get home.

We think the combination of fun tours, a dance,  good food, free housing, and chance to get together with other YSAs adds incentives for people to make the sacrifice and come to District Conference. Some would come anyway, just knowing that it's District Conference, but since it's so easy to drift into obscurity in this big, complex country far from familiar friends and support networks, we think the added incentives are important. We've heard from quite a few people that they weren't planning to come until they learned about the events, the fun, and the free housing. We've also seen our numbers grow rapidly once we got the system established. The numbers of YSAs in the District are down slightly right now compared to last year, but the turnout was surprisingly high. We had 83 YSAs join us for the tours, and 81 YSAs still with us at the devotional on Sunday. We think nearly 100 came to Shanghai for District Conference (not all went on the tours and not all made it to Sunday meetings).

The devotionals and the other District Conference meetings have generally been highly uplifting, spiritual, interesting sessions. Our District President, Stephen R. Dyer, does a great job as a speaker and in selecting other speakers. These are outstanding meetings. 

We are now looking at working with other Districts in China to coordinate our future events and invite their YSAs to join us and visa versa, but our emphasis will definitely be on those in our District.

In preparing for District Conference, my wife and I go out to Suzhou and Nanjing right after the arrival of the new wave of YSAs  and, with the support of the Branch Presidents, start preparing the YSAs with info about District Conference and our YSA events. We collect contact info to keep them informed, and the branch leaders also send us contact info and work to invite them all to come participate at District Conference. We also sign up those with musical talents for special musical numbers or to serve as the pianist or chorister in the devotional, and we get help on the music for the dance. We feel that going out and visiting the biggest population groups of YSA is important. There is not enough time to visit every branch between the wave of incoming YSAs and Conference, but we see quite a few and help get the word out.

YSAs in foreign lands are a unique group of bold, adventuresome, and fun people. But there are also many who are lonely, frustrated, and drifting. The support and spiritual feeding that occurs through attending District Conference is important, in my opinion. Now we need to look at some additional events to better meet their needs.

We hope some of these ideas might be helpful to others dealing with YSAs under unusual circumstances, though I'm not quite sure how it might help. Let me know if you have any questions.

Here are some photos from our latest event in March: