Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Beautiful Ukrainian Perspective: How Can I Be Useful to the Lord?

Sunday I attended church in Hangzhou where we had a wonderful sacrament meeting that included a young couple from Ukraine who were the concluding speakers.

The talk by the young Ukrainian woman was uplifting and beautiful. My favorite part was her story of an LDS man in her congregation in Ukraine who was born with some severe physical problems that made it difficult for him to walk. In fact, she told me after the talk, the doctors had said that he would never walk, but as his faith grew while still a young child be believed that he could and needed to, and taught himself to walk around age five (I may have details wrong here--will try to check later). His physical limitations were still so severe, though, that it seemed unlikely that he could serve on a regular mission, but he really wanted to serve and applied to serve anyway.

If I understood correctly, it would require special permission from Salt Lake, and he was elated when it came and his application to serve was accepted. He served in Russia, as I recall, and inspired everyone by being one of the hardest working missionaries. He helped bring people into the Church and inspired members and missionaries in his mission and at home. He continues to inspire others today. She asked the man why he wanted to sacrifice so much to go serve a mission. His answer: "I want to be useful to the Lord."

Those words struck me deeply. Many times I finding myself struggling with the wrong goals, struggling to know which direction to pursue. I think that Ukrainian perspective could help bring more clarity by asking, "How can I be more useful to the Lord?"

I was also inspired by her husband's talk. I had spoken with him before the sacrament meeting and was impressed with how kind and friendly he was. But I knew he was uneasy with English. His English is excellent, but sometimes he struggles. As he began speaking, it was clear that the pressure of speaking to a group added to his burden. After a couple of minutes, he turned to a woman on the front row and said something to her. I was surprised to see her jump up, hand a baby to her husband who was on the stand, and stand next to the speaker.

I had met the woman before and had recently seen her and her husband in a video that a non-LDS Chinese man is making to help bring lessons from their positive example of parenting and family love to strengthen other families in China. From that video, I knew she could speak Chinese pretty well in addition to her native English. But then the Ukrainian man began speaking in Russian, and she translated into English. Suddenly a good talk became much more interesting. Subtle points and emotion were more easily conveyed. She even choked up at part of his talk, and so did I. Yes, she had served a Russian-speaking mission in Georgia, near Chechnya. Her Russian is still pretty good, it seems.

When I talked to her afterwards, I learned that I was not the only one who had a prayer in their heart for this good man as he spoke. She had been praying in her heart for him, for she knew of his fears and nervousness. She prayed that his message might be conveyed, that people might understand and be touched. As with many prayers on behalf of others, those offering the prayer frequently become part of the miracle.

Many thanks to the beautiful Latter-day Saints of Ukraine. May we all pray for Ukraine. May we pray for others around us as well. Imagine what life would be like if the people next to us on the subway, in the halls at school, on the streets, in our homes, and in our congregations were more likely to be praying for us than ignoring, mocking, or criticizing us.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Halvor and Hannah Ronning: Inspiring Missionaries to China

One of my favorite books on China portrays Chinese history in the past 120 years through the experiences of a remarkable family. The book, China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People's Republic (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2013) begins and primarily focuses on the life and work of Reverend Halvor Ronning, a Norwegian immigrant to the United States who was inspired to become a missionary in the interior of China. In 1891, the tall minister, his sister Thea, and fellow missionary Hannah Rorem boldly enter a land of sorrow and tragedy coupled with charm and wonder, where their work of service, faith, and love is sorely needed. They found a Lutheran mission and school in Hubei province and put their lives at risk in many ways to serve God and bless China.
The story of their lives and the lives of their descendants reveals much about China and the role it now plays in the world. Many will benefit from the account of the Ronning clan, though toward the end of the book when the rise of Mao is described, some may be offended by the author's biases which result in a not-very nuanced account with Communists being described as rather saintly while the Nationalists are nothing but villains. But regardless of where you stand on such matters, the personal experiences of the Ronnings around the turn of the century present an amazingly gritty and touching portrayal of a life of faith in China during some of its most pivotal moments.

The book has much to say on matters of faith and the cause of Christianity in China. I will have more to say about that later. For now, I wish to focus on the remarkable example of Halvor Ronning in his life of faith, seeking to love the people of China even when they made life difficult for him. An account that especially touched and surprised me happened as he and his family had to flee China during the Boxer rebellion that began in 1898.

The Boxers were a secret society, or a coalition of many secret societies that had spread across China. A key theme of the Boxers was blaming the ills of China on foreigners. They were certainly right in some ways. The great evil of opium and the many concessions forced upon China by the British and other nations were outrages. Unfortunately, the Boxers were not interested in distinguishing between helpful and vile foreign elements. Their approach ultimately became rather one-dimensional: "Kill the foreign devils." The source of so much of China's troubles, the Empress Dowager, a concubine of the former emperor who through murder, conspiracy, and brutality had seized power of China, exploited the Boxers to maintain power and echoed the Boxers' call with an official government decree: "Kill the foreign devils." It was an extermination order, China style.

Many foreigners would be killed. The Lutheran missionary and his family had to flee their home and mission in Fancheng, China. Friends apparently bribed members of a related secret society, the Red Spears, who brought a boat to bring the family down the river on the way to Hankou, from whence they would reach Shanghai and then return to Norway and then the U.S., before coming back to China when it seemed safe again.

As the family was getting into the boat during the night, a group of Boxers came running to attack. Halvor had the women and children go below deck to hide while he and two other missionary men tried to ward off the Boxers. About ten of them swarmed onto the tiny boat. Halvor wielded an oar and used all his might to defend his family. His wife, Hannah, grabbed a stool and came up swinging to defend her family also. But there was little hope of surviving this mob. Halvor was then hit in the chest with a stone thrown from the shore and was knocked on his back. Then a Boxer jumped on him, but Halvor intercepted the Boxer with his feet, suspending the Boxer in the air, and then with a swift kick threw the Boxer off him, tossing him overboard into the river.

Very few Chinese people could swim then or now. The man in the water let out a scream of terror as he began drowning and then went underwater. The fighting stopped as everyone looked at the hopeless scene.

At this moment, I thought, "Ah, there's the key! Knock them all into the water!" God bless him, that wonderful saint, Halvor Ronning, had a different idea that shows me who he really was. He was not a Viking seeking to fight his enemies, but a man of God who loved even those who wanted to ill him. Instead of pushing more Chinese men into the river as the turned to watch, he dived into the him and went below, seeking for the dying man who moments earlier had tried to kill him. Eventually he came up, dragging the unconscious Boxer with him.

He brought the man to shore, and his fellow missionary, Dr. Thorstein Himle, jumped to shore to help resuscitate the man. There was no response. The Boxers all gathered around. As resuscitation efforts were applied, the Boxers cried out that the foreigners were trying to kill the man. But they waited and watched. They began talking about the best ways to kill these foreigners. Should they roast them? Flay them? Halvor knew that if the man died, they would all be killed. Appealing to God for help, they continued doing all they could. Suddenly the man revived. For Halvor and the missionaries, it was a miracle from God, and they gave thanks. The Boxers claimed it was proof of their invulnerability, not recognizing the source of the miracle they had witnessed.

But with the distraction created by the revival, the missionaries were able to jump back on board and cast off, their lives spared.

What a remarkable man. Having just finished this book, I feel that Halvor and Hannah Ronning are family members. How I admire them and look forward to meeting them someday. God bless them for their service to China. They understood that every soul matters, that every human being is a son and daughter of God, not a statistic.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Where Thieves Break Through and Steal: Your Bank Account (in China or Elsewhere)

An increasing number of friends are reporting troubling cases of theft from their China bank accounts. One friend, after years of working in China and saving every penny, was preparing to return to the US, but suddenly every penny in her ICBC bank account was stolen. ICBC may be the world's largest bank. I think it is the most popular one here in China, where most of the world's money seems to be coming these days. In spite of all the great technology that ICBC must have, someone was able to take out every penny with no warning.

The ICBC bank officials told her that someone had a copy of her card and had taken the money out. She asked how this was possible without knowing her password. No explanation was given, except that it was somehow her fault. She spent five days arguing with them and got nowhere. They said that the thief could have been working with her to perpetuate fraud on the bank, so why should they refund her money? Her only option now is to sue, but she has to go back to the US soon and fears she won't have the ability to pursue the case. But we've encouraged her to work with a lawyer to fight this and are trying to help. She will fight and has a lawyer taking action. I hope to have good news to report sometime.

Her story has almost exactly the same set of facts that we find in a chilling account, "How I sued the world's largest bank and won" at Shanghaist.com. In that case, it was a smaller amount, 15,000 RMB that was taken from the author's ICBC account. He encountered the same consumer service policies and attitudes, and was forced also to sue for something that was clearly not his fault. He won, and it only took 7 months and some modest attorney fees to get his money back.

If you have a bank account with an ATM card, there is a real risk that one day money will begin disappearing from your account. This happened to us with our US bank. Someone in Germany was taking out $300 a day for 3 days in a row before I logged in and notice this. Because the German bank providing the ATM was not able to document that our password had been used to make the withdrawals, it was their fault and they had to refund the money into our account. But I am amazed that the money could be taken out at all without our password. It happened! Check your account frequently.

There are some very high risk factors in China for those of you here or coming here in the future:

1) The daily limit for ATM withdrawals is much higher than it is in the U.S. and Europe. A thief typically can take out 20,000 RMB a day (over $3,000), which is 5 to 10 times higher than typical US limits.

2) The daily limit may not be over a 24-hour period, but may be based on the calendar date, so if that applies to your bank, then a thief can take 20,000 RMB out at 11:55 pm, and another 20,000 RMB out at 12:05 PM.

3) Banks in China often don't have effective anti-fraud protection.

4) There are many thieves with card copying or card scanning devices who can make a duplicate of your card. If they or a small video camera can watch you enter your password, having your account number and your password leaves you defenseless.

5) Thieves can sometimes pull money out of your account without using your password. I don't know how this happens, but it has happened to multiple people in China, and it happened to us with our US bank.

6) When someone pulls money out of your account without knowing your password, it should be the bank's fault and they should reimburse you. But consumer service attitudes and policies may not be identical to those in your home country. China banks may tend to blame the customer and argue that maybe the thief was collaborating with you, so they might not cooperate unless you take them to court. You can sue and win in China, but it will take a lot of work and the help of an attorney.

Because money in the bank is so vulnerable, I suggest several best practices, some of which apply anywhere:

1) Do not keep large amounts in any single Chinese bank. Move a lot of it into US accounts without ATM cards or with two-part authentication, and keep plenty of cash.

2) Use your bank cards as little as possible. Instead, use cash to make payments when possible.

3) Do not let employees walk away with your bank card (they might run it through a card copier device of some kind). Keep your eyes on it.

4) Do not let your card be scanned in any place that seems questionable or seedy.

5) When using ATM machines, look for unusual devices, small video cameras, etc., that might have been added.

6) Keep good records of where you have been so that if the bank says it must have been you that pulled all your money out of your account in, say, Harbin, you can prove you weren't in Harbin that day.

7) Monitor your bank account frequently, and make sure you receive automatic text messages when money is taken out of your ATM.

8) When you do find a problem, document in detail who you spoke with, what you said, what they said, etc. You may needs lots of documented details if you have to sue the bank to get back missing money.

9) Avoid trusting your money to any bank that has a bad track record of protecting the money of its customers. If you know of banks that have performed well in this regard, please let me know.

These problems are not unique to China, but they seem to be a lot more frequent here and more severe, especially with the high daily minimum that thieves can take out.

If you do online banking, your risks are also high due to hackers. I suggest you use complex passwords that you change often, and only use secure computers to access your bank accounts. It's good to have a cheap computer that is never used for browsing but only for bank access, and even then keep good firewall and anti-spyware software on it, keep it updated, use more secure browsers like Chrome or Firefox, and don't use untrusted wifi networks to access your accounts. For added security, use VPN when you access your bank account. This encrypts all the information, although using the typical https connection should do that also.

Don't keep all your money in any one account, and keep a wad of cash somewhere, too. Thieves can get everything, but we shouldn't make it easy for them. That would seem to be part of a sound approach to "provident living."

Other suggestions?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Jaredite Barges: Clearing the Air (with the Help of a Confusing Electric Piano)

I was sure the simple instructions were wrong as I assembled the frame for the Casio electric piano I purchased for my wife for Mother's Day. When it came time to add the pedal assembly, the instructions called for removing two screws holding a metal bracket in place on each of the side panels, and instead of the two screws one big screw would be put in place that was supposed to hold a bracket that could connect to the beam holding the pedals. But it made no sense, because the bracket would only just sit on top of the big metal screw and let the whole pedal beam wobble. It seemed like  the bracket was defective. My wife encouraged me to just plod ahead and stick with the instructions.

It was only at the last step, when the big metal screw was tightened, that I could see how the system worked. It pulled a part of the metal frame in tightly to compress the wobbly bracket and hold it firmly in place. The system was actually pretty clever. It was only after following the instructions through to the end that everything finally made sense. The instructions were good, though they lacked (unnecessary) explanation to allay my concerns along the way.

That experience came around the same time I was reviewing some of the typical critical complaints about the mysterious barges of the Jaredites in the Book of Ether, chapters 2, 3, and 6. As with Noah's ark, we really don't know many details and have to wonder how much of the original record has actually been preserved and interpreted correctly. In the Jaredite story, we have a record passed on from Jaredite culture to the Nephites, and then on to us in telegraphic form. There are opportunities for a lot of helpful details to be lost.

Along the way, it's fair to question the assumptions we bring to the text. Some LDS folks as well as critics have imported a number of assumptions. The idea of the ships turning upside down in the water is one that I don't think is justified. These ships were peaked at the ends and had a top and a bottom. They may have been covered with waves from time to time, but nothing requires them to go upside down, though there would be some encounters with monster waves.

Another possibly errant assumption is that modern glass windows are meant in Ether 2:23 when the Lord explains that they barges can't have windows for they would be dashed in pieces by the waves. A fair question is what exactly would be dashed to pieces, the windows or the barges themselves? I assume the windows are meant, but John Tvedtnes explains why this could refer to the barges themselves being at risk if the structure were weakened with multiple windows. In either case, glass panes are not required here. If the windows themselves are meant, as I've always assumed, other writers have noted that the warning about something being destroyed could simply refer to a window with wooden shutters. Whether wooden shutters or openings with translucent materials (fabric, parchment, etc.) were what the Jaredites understood, they would be a weak structure that would not be wise for the ships. Apparently small ports related to ventilation would be added that could be "stopped" with some kind of seal, unlike the action of shutters on a window. I'll discuss the important detail of ventilation below.

Some critics have also wondered how on earth the Jaredites would not recognize the problems of lighting and ventilation until after the barges were completed, resulted in the brother of Jared's prayer to the Lord in Ether 3 in which he presents the problem. Wouldn't experienced barge builders have noticed that right away and raised the objection early? Yes, that's a reasonable question. I don't know the answer to that, but it may be that there were several components to the barges, and the final internal situation only became clear as the parts were brought together in the final assembly. For example, there may have been top sections which were added to the main bottom section in the end, and only then did it become clear that they had a problem. As with my electric piano assembly, a lot of things might not have made sense until they acted in faith and saw, several steps later, how things worked. Maybe they were expecting the final step to resolve the problems they might have been worrying about all along. When the disappointment came, all that was left was more faith and prayer, resulting in the real final instructions that did, in fact, resolve the problems.

The instructions may have come in stages, not all at once, so there might have been no reason to worry as they constructed the ship because they expected more instructions to keep on coming until everything made sense.

Whatever the sequence of events, the Jaredites did reach what seemed like the final stage of construction and were faced with unresolved problems: no light, bad ventilation. Now what?

The result of Ether 3 is that the Jaredites received miraculous glowing stones that would provide light for the journey. Were these radioluminescent materials? We don't know, but the concept of brightly glowing materials is no longer scientifically ludicrous. Interestingly, there are ancient Jewish traditions about Noah also receiving glowing materials for the ark.

The ventilation issue is one that is especially easy to criticize. The Lord gave these instructions in Ether 2:
[18] And it came to pass that the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me, and I have made the barges according as thou hast directed me.
[19] And behold, O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer? And also we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.
[20] And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.
It is commonly assumed that the hole in the bottom is a hole below the water line. Some have proposed that it could have been a moon pool, and I personally long assumed it was an opening below the water line but with impermeable sides rising above the water line defining a moon pool that did not require elevated air pressure and that could be used to dump waste or even catch fish. But how would that help with ventilation?

Perhaps the Jaredite barges had structurally distinct top and bottoms. Since they were light and floated like a fowl on the water (Ether 2:16), a portion of the bottom section could have been above the water line. If so, the port in the bottom could have assisted in ventilation while also facilitating waste removal (and maybe fishing?). Here's a rough sketch (click to enlarge):

The barges the Jaredites built for their travels before they crossed the ocean may have been similar, but without the sealed top portion. The top may have been assembled and locked into place in a final step that led to the sudden realization that they still had a serious problem.

It is also possible that both the top and bottom were crafted with sections that made it easy to add the final ports without just hacking away at the solid hull. But for both ports, when waves were high, there was the risk of water coming in, so being able to quickly stop the port was needed. They may have been hinged or completely removable.

One issue the Brother of Jared raised when he asked about lighting was steering. He wanted to see to know how to steer (Ether 2:19). Perhaps there was some mechanism for steering, such as a rudder, and so he wanted to be able to see to know how to steer. The issue of steering is not addressed after that, but perhaps it was resolved and not spelled out in the brief description we have. Maybe the upper port or both ports together provided enough visual access to guide the boats to keep them together (others have speculated that they may have been roped together, although that could be a liability when dealing with big waves and heavy storms).

OK, I really don't know, and there are still many aspects of this story that are unresolved. But my experience with a confusing electric piano reminds me that many details in instructions as well as written descriptions might not make sense at first. What we are given may not be enough to understand the details and resolve our confusion, and these simple accounts of complex ancient voyages are likely to be that way. We can give up in exasperation, or move forward with faith and patience. In the end, that worked for my piano and I think it worked for the Jaredites.

Related resources:

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Clement of Alexandria, Temple Mysteries, and the Divine Potential of Man

One of the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament era was Clement of Alexandria, who lived from about 150 to 210 AD. While researching the concept of the "yoke of Christ" in Matthew 11:28-30, I noted that Clement makes a connection between the yoke and rites of initiation and other mysteries aimed at bringing us into the presence of God and becoming more like him.

Speaking to those caught up in pagan Greek mysteries, Clement of Alexandria in his Exhortations to the Heathen, a document believed to have been written around 195 AD), speaks of true mysteries that should replace heathen rites. He refers to the sacred rites, "expounding them after [the] fashion" of the Greeks, describing the Christian mysteries as "dramas of the truth" with a sober choral dance.(Hugh Nibley in "The Early Christian Prayer Circle" has noted the parallel between the Greek chorus/choral dance and the early Christian prayer circle.) Here is a passage from Clement's Exhortation, available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.org):

Come, O madman, not leaning on the thyrsus, not crowned with ivy; throw away the mitre, throw away the fawn-skin; come to thy senses. I will show thee the Word, and the mysteries of the Word, expounding them after thine own fashion. This is the mountain beloved of God, not the subject of tragedies like Cithæron, but consecrated to dramas of the truth,--a mount of sobriety, shaded with forests of purity; and there revel on it not the Mænades, the sisters of Semele, who was struck by the thunderbolt, practising in their initiatory rites unholy division of flesh, but the daughters of God, the fair lambs, who celebrate the holy rites of the Word, raising a sober choral dance. The righteous are the chorus; the music is a hymn of the King of the universe. The maidens strike the lyre, the angels praise, the prophets speak; the sound of music issues forth, they run and pursue the jubilant band; those that are called make haste, eagerly desiring to receive the Father.

Come thou also, O aged man, leaving Thebes, and casting away from thee both divination and Bacchic frenzy, allow thyself to be led to the truth. I give thee the staff [of the cross] on which to lean. Haste, Tiresias; believe, and thou wilt see. Christ, by whom the eyes of the blind recover sight, will shed on thee a light brighter than the sun; night will flee from thee, fire will fear, death will be gone; thou, old man, who saw not Thebes, shalt see the heavens. O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy whilst I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant [that which brings someone into the presence of the holy, like the keeper of the gate in 2 Nephi 9], and seals while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. If it is thy wish, be thou also initiated; and thou shall join the choir along with angels around the unbegotten and indestructible and the only true God, the Word of God, raising the hymn with us. This Jesus, who is eternal, the one great High Priest of the one God, and of His Father, prays for and exhorts men.

“Hear, ye myriad tribes, rather whoever among men are endowed with reason, both barbarians and Greeks. I call on the whole race of men, whose Creator I am, by the will of the Father. Come to Me, that you may be put in your due rank under the one God and the one Word of God; and do not only have the advantage of the irrational creatures in the possession of reason; for to you of all mortals I grant the enjoyment of immortality. For I want, I want to impart to you this grace, bestowing on you the perfect boon of immortality; and I confer on you both the Word and the knowledge of God, My complete self. This am I, this God wills, this is symphony, this the harmony of the Father, this is the Son, this is Christ, this the Word of God, the arm of the Lord, the power of the universe, the will of the Father; of which things there were images of old, but not all adequate. I desire to restore you according to the original model, that ye may become also like Me. I anoint you with the ungent of faith, by which you throw off corruption, and show you the naked form of righteousness by which you ascend to God. Come to Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest to your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light.”

Let us haste, let us run, my fellow-men—us, who are God-loving and God-like images of the Word. Let us haste, let us run, let us take His yoke, let us receive, to conduct us to immortality, the good charioteer of men. Let us love Christ. He led the colt with its parent; and having yoked the team of humanity to God, directs His chariot to immortality, hastening clearly to fulfil, by driving now into heaven, what He shadowed forth before by riding into Jerusalem. A spectacle most beautiful to the Father is the eternal Son crowned with victory. Let us aspire, then, after what is good; let us become God-loving men, and obtain the greatest of all things which are incapable of being harmed—God and life. Our helper is the Word; let us put confidence in Him; … There is therefore no room to doubt, the Word will say, whether it is better to be sane or insane; but holding on to truth with our teeth, we must with all our might follow God, and in the exercise of wisdom regard all things to be, as they are, His; and besides, having learned that we are the most excellent of His possessions, let us commit ourselves to God, loving the Lord God, and regarding this as our business all our life long. And if what belongs to friends be reckoned common property, and man be the friend of God—for through the mediation of the Word has he been made the friend of God—then accordingly all things become man’s, because all things are God’s, and the common property of both the friends, God and man.

It is time, then, for us to say that the pious Christian alone is rich and wise, and of noble birth, and thus call and believe him to be God’s image, and also His likeness, having become righteous and holy and wise by Jesus Christ, and so far already like God. Accordingly this grace is indicated by the prophet, when he says, “I said that ye are gods, and all sons of the Highest.” For us, yea us, He has adopted, and wishes to be called the Father of us alone, not of the unbelieving. Such is then our position who are the attendants of Christ.
There is much in Clement that resonates with LDS concepts. Many things to discuss later.

In LDS doctrine, the divine potential of mankind is linked to out divine heritage. We don't think Paul was obfuscating when he approved of the Greek poet who wrote, "We are also his offspring" (Acts 17:28). We take him seriously when he said God is our Father, even the "Father of Spirits" (Heb. 12:9-10). And we see a link between our heritage as children of God and our divine potential in what Paul taught in Romans 8:
14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
But some have argued that since Paul speaks of adoption, it means that we aren't actual, literal children of God, but rather that we are an entirely different species. Only Christ is "begotten" or descended from God, and the rest of us are entirely distinct and in need of being adopted.  [Here I delete my errant discussion based on misreading an unclear part of the text, where I thought it said "was adopted" instead of "has adopted." Oops!] But perhaps Clement of Alexandria helps us overcome that barrier to recognizing our divine inheritance, for he teaches in the last paragraph quoted above that Christ in His role as Son of God also was "adopted." Adopted for us to bring us back to God.

My guess is that the concept of adoption in this context means putting off the natural man and fully accepting God, thus being accepted of God, that we may enter into God's presence in a covenant relationship to receive His kingdom and all that He has. We are sons and daughters of God, with the potential to become true Sons and Daughters of God in His kingdom, joint heirs with Christ. Heavy material, certainly, but worth thinking about.

I'd like to know more about the mysteries that Clement knew.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Youth Conference in China and the Contributions of Young Single Adults

Our recent May 2015 Youth Conference in the Shanghai International District of the Church was a good demonstration of many roles that Young Single Adults can play. They were integral to the success of our event.

The leaders planning our Youth Conference realized that we could use more adults to help run a two-day event with a big group of young people, so they asked if we could get some of our YSAs to come help. Great idea! The LDS Young Single Adults in China tend to be a hardy, energetic group with great attitudes, a desire to serve, and a love of others. That shows in the way they stay cheerful and faithful in the midst of heavy burdens at times and many surprises.

Many come here to teach English for very little pay for a semester or two, taking on heavy classroom burdens and sometimes chaotic situations and difficult living conditions. Most of our teachers are in the Nanjing Branch or the Suzhou Branch. Others are here with study abroad programs (e.g., the BYU Flagship program in Nanjing) or internships with corporations. A few are here for the long haul in interesting jobs, including long-term teaching positions.

We went to the District President to get approval to bring YSAs in to help with Youth Conference. We (the District) would pay for their transportation and also provide housing for them. Then I went to the Nanjing and Suzhou Branch Presidents to request their help in identifying some YSAs who would be good additions to our Youth Conference program. I was thinking we would be lucky to get two or three helpers, but we ended up with 10, and what a difference they made. Eight women and two men who taught classes, helped run events, participated vigorously in activities, shared testimonies and spiritual thoughts, and served as loving, interesting, fun role models. I was so proud of those young people and also of the youth who came.

The YSAs weren't just random volunteers the branch presidents found. They carefully considered who would be able to serve well. I have to say everyone of them was a terrific addition. Of course, the active LDS YSAs in China are such a great group that maybe a random selection would have been just as good, but we sure had a strong mix of talents, testimonies, and teachers who made a huge difference and really helped the younger people they came to serve.

Of course, I think much of the success of our Youth Conference was really due to diligent, well-prepared leaders coupled with great young people.

The two-day conference was held on a Friday and Saturday on a weekend where Friday was a national holiday. The event was held at Sun Island, a resort area in the middle of the Huangpu River about an hour or so west of Shanghai (that's an hour based on actual vehicular motion, which often doesn't occur on Shanghai roads). We rented some villas providing enough rooms for everyone, including the YSAs. We asked them to come into Shanghai on Thursday night and stay with local members (4 stayed with us), then they would stay at Sun Island on Friday night and again with members after the event on Saturday night, giving them a chance to attend church in Shanghai if they wished, and most did.

For many YSAs, coming to Shanghai is a real treat, and having transportation, meals, and lodging provided made it a good deal, even though they would spend most of the time here busily serving others. But it was fun service. My wife and I had one of our most enjoyable weekends, choosing to be part of Youth Conference instead of flying to some exotic part of China as we might have otherwise done.

The conference included outdoor activities like games and yoga, indoor workshops at the resort hotel, including an "Ask the Leader" session where answers to tough questions were discussed, a dance on Friday night held in a disco area at the hotel, a service project (letter writing to missionaries) and a testimony meeting. Plus good food.

One of the parents sent a note to the leaders who were over the event, shared here with her kind permission (with asterisks replacing some names):
My kids LOVED youth conference!  They came home so excited.  They enjoyed the workshops and games.  They said that the dance Friday night was one of the best youth dances ever (compared it to EFY).  They loved having the YSAs as leaders.  **** was sad that she had to leave early.   
The youth in our branch only had positive things to say.  [My husband] and I drove four of the YM home from the church last night and they all just loved it!  I heard great things about Brother Linday's magic tricks [anonymizer malfunction!].  And they really enjoyed the testimony meeting.  It seemed like the youth in our branch grew closer together during this conference too.  One of the YM said it felt like they were together a lot longer than 2 days -- in a good way!  You packed a lot in! 
Today in church several of our youth shared their testimonies about their youth conference experience.  **** talked about the theme.  And **** talked about something she learned from her YSA leader. 
Honestly, well done!!!! 
I bet you are exhausted, you deserve a rest this week. 
Thanks so much!!!!

After reading the note and pondering how well the conference worked, I asked the District YM and YW Presidents what they felt made it go so well. Here is how our superb District YW President summed up the things that made this event so effective:
  • Excellent, involved, easy-to-please youth [Jeff's note: they aren't all perfect, but we really have an unusually sweet mix of good young people here--that can make any youth event a lot easier]
  • Maturity and energy of the YSA leaders - thanks to careful selection by the branch presidents
  • Delegation of certain tasks (i.e., snacks team, water team, tent/trash team)...
  • Hotel/bus arrangements were all perfectly managed
  • YSA-led classes were inspiring according to a few youth I talked to...
  • The Ask Your Leader session that I attended was fun and enlightening. They are such bright kids!
The YM/YW leaders did a great job in organizing. Things were planned with great attention to detail. Packets of information and custom T-shirts designed by one of our young women were provided to every individual. Arrangements for food, transportation, facilities, etc. have been carefully made.
The only real gap might have been failure to anticipate a Shanghai rarity: the potential for sunburn. Usually there is enough haze from pollution or "natural fog" (especially when natural coal burning plants are at full capacity) that sunburn isn't a threat, but we had blue skies and strong sun on our first day. I ran off and bought two tubes of sunblock and ran around like the paranoid overprotective parent I am, trying to administer to everyone, and we still had a couple cases of painful sunburn. Rats! But it could have been worse.

Our situation in China may be quite different than yours, but perhaps there are some things you can learn from our Youth Conference experience and the value of tapping the energy and testimonies of great YSAs. I guess that's what happens in EFY events in the States, but I've actually never been to one of those.

Thanks to our District Leaders, the YSAs, our young men and women and their parents for enriching our lives with this event. Here are some photos:

Friday, May 22, 2015

"I Have Said, 'Ye Are Gods'" -- The Latest Scholarship on the Controversial 82nd Psalm

Latter-day Saints often need to discuss or defend LDS teachings about the potential of sons and daughters of God to become more like him (our version of theosis, which we feel is on solid ancient ground with strong ties to early Christianity). A commonly used passage in such discussions, a proof text, is Psalm 82:6, "I have said, 'Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.'" Christ quotes this in John 10:340-36, a passage we commonly use as well:
34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
35 If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;
36 Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
These are interesting passages indeed, but the source, Psalm 82, raises some questions since the context doesn't fit neatly into the LDS position. Who are these people being called "gods" and why are they being condemned? Doesn't sound like such a great thing for actual exalted beings, right?

The gritty details of Psalm 82 and its relationship to the words of Christ in John 10 are explored in detail by Daniel O. McClellan in "Psalm 82 in Contemporary Latter-day Saint Tradition" at Mormon Interpreter. This is the most thorough and satisfying discussion I've seen, yet it will leave some of us unsatisfied since it becomes clear that there is not a neat resolution in the "non-harmonizing perspective" provided by McClellan. But understanding Psalm 82, both what it might have meant to its author and the different way it may have been understood and applied in New Testament times will help all of us better understand how these verses relate to LDS theology.

Here are McClelland's concluding remarks:
So this brings us to the final question. If we understand John’s description to be a verbatim account, is Jesus misusing scripture by reinterpreting Psalm 82? I suggest he is not. I believe Jesus is doing what all scripture-based religious communities do, namely reading scripture in a way that makes it applicable to their time. He likens the scriptures to his own day, to paraphrase 1 Nephi 19:23. In John 10, the reference to Psalm 82 refers to foundational narratives in the Jewish community’s shared identity, namely the Exodus and Sinai traditions. Peterson and Bokovoy do the same thing in proposing that Psalm 82 can be ideologically linked with Abraham 3’s council in heaven. This is a Latter-day Saint foundational narrative. When we can tie texts like these to our own communal narrative, we strengthen our community’s identification with sacral past and utilize that past to inform our present experience. This makes the scriptures a dynamic tool, not just a frozen text.
On a literary level, Jesus’s defense here has a wider rhetorical purpose, as well. Not only does he identify himself as one of the Jews by appealing to a shared understanding of the Psalm’s meaning, but by appealing to that tradition, whereby those who received the word were made divine, the author reminds the reader/listener of a promise made a few verses earlier (John 10:28): “I give to them eternal life, and they shall never [Page 96]perish.” John 1:12 is no doubt also in view here: “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” John’s message is this: The Israelites were briefly made immortal and thus divine by the reception of God’s Word. The Word is now incarnate among you, and he is inviting you to receive him. John 10:34–36 and Jesus’s appeal to Psalm 82 is not just about Jesus’s divinity, it is also about the divinity of those who hear and believe.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Increasingly Strange Text of the Book of Mormon

Stanford Carmack's series of four articles at the Mormon Interpreter provide a large body of detailed data pointing to something strange, increasingly strange, in the Book of Mormon: the grammatical patterns of the original Book of Mormon firmly rooted in Early Modern English (EmodE), giving it a grammatical signature earlier than the KJV Bible. Explaining the Book of Mormon as a crude imitation of the KJV is now more problematic. But understanding the Book of Mormon is much more interesting now. It may still take much more analysis and study to come up with theories that stick for the origins of the Book of Mormon language. Why EModE? How was it provided? Was there a pre-translation?

In Carmack's latest article, "Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828)," he adds to the data by exploring several additional patterns, the most interesting of which I felt is his examination of "it supposeth me," a rare inverted syntax pattern that occurs four times in the Book of Mormon, each consistent with language much earlier than the KJV in ways that make it highly unlikely for Joseph to have picked this up on his own. Interesting.
Could Joseph Smith have known about this inverted syntax? I suppose he could have seen it, had he spent time reading Middle English poetry. Was it accessible to him? No. This grammatical structure is exceedingly rare, the embodiment of obsolete usage. Had he ever seen it, he hardly would have recognized it and been able to transform it.... Yet the text employs inverted syntax with suppose appropriately and consistently four times. 
Along the way, Carmack points out just how complex and interesting the Book of Mormon text is:
Let me also say at this point that it is wrongheaded to propose Moroni as translator in order to account for “errors” in the text. He may have been involved in the divine translation effort, but to employ him as an explanatory device in order to account for putative errors is misguided. The English-language text is too complex, diverse, and even well-formed to ascribe it to a non-native translation effort. Again, as I have stated in an earlier paper, the BofM is not full of grammatical errors. Rather, it is full of EModE — some of it is typical and pedestrian, some of it is elegant and sophisticated, and some of it is, to our limited or uninformed way of thinking, objectionable and ungrammatical. The BofM also contains touches of modern English and late Middle English. It is not a monolithic text, and we are just beginning to learn about its English language.... I have certainly come to realize that it is not the text of the BofM that is full of errors, but rather our judgments in relation to its grammar.
For those wanting certainty, that's disturbing language. But this smells like an adventure that will lead somewhere. Critics and fans alike should find this challenge worth digging into. Will new insights about Book of Mormon cause it to go down in flames? Critics may hope so. Carmack already offers a strongly worded thesis, feeling that whatever the details are that led to EModE in the Book of Mormon, the complex pre-KJV content of the Book of Mormon implies that the Lord "revealed a concrete form of expression (words) to Joseph Smith" and that the text itself is of divine origin.

I think the devil is not in these details, but something is, and further work is needed.
In the middle of his latest paper, after summarizing some of the many interesting findings so far, Carmack makes an even stronger series of assertions/conclusions that I'm not quite comfortable with, though I think I understand his excitement:
  • The BofM is full of King James English whose meaning obligatorily derives from the 1500s (since much kjb language derives from 16th-century translations, especially Tyndale’s).
  • The BofM has quite a few instances of older, nonbiblical meaning, including:
    counsel = ‘ask counsel of, consult,’ used in Alma 37:37; 39:10; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1547.
    depart = ‘divide,’ used intransitively in Helaman 8:11; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1577.
    scatter = ‘separate from the main body (without dispersal),’ as used in the BofM’s title page; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1661.
    choice = ‘sound judgment’ or ‘discernment,’ used as an abstract noun in 1 Nephi 7:15.
  • Past-tense syntax with did matches only mid to late 1500s usage.
  • Complementation with the verbs command, cause, suffer matches only the late 1400s and the 1500s.
  • Syntax like Nephi’s brethren rebelleth (in the prefaces to 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi) corresponds to 1500s usage; it is not in the kjb and was obsolete in the 1800s.
In view of the foregoing observations and evidence, I assert the following:
  • There is undeniably substantial evidence in the BofM of EModE meaning and syntax that was inaccessible to Smith and scribe.
  • Smith could not have known the obsolete meaning of some of these words except from context because semantic shifts are unpredictable and unknowable to anyone in the absence of specific philological study.
  • The pervasive EModE syntax as well as the existence of obsolete, inaccessible (nonbiblical) meaning in the text mean that Smith must have received specific words from the Lord throughout the translation.
  • Therefore, the wording of the BofM did not come from Smith’s mind; he dictated specific words that were given to him.
  • God was in charge of the translation of the English-language text of the BofM; no mortal translated it.
  • Smith translated the BofM in the sense of being the person on earth integrally involved in conveying Christ’s words from the divine realm to our earthly sphere; Smith was not the translator in the conventional sense of the term.
My discomfort lies in extrapolating the data to determine what did or did not happen in Joseph's mind. Yes, if  EModE points to tight control, then specific words or grammatical patterns would seem to have been provided somehow. But as Carmack has noted, the text of the Book of Mormon is not monolithic, and the way Joseph responded to whatever was provided to him may not have been monolithic for every sentence, verse, and chapter. I believe God was in charge of the whole project, but being in charge did not stop Him from allowing Oliver to hear and write words incorrectly, nor did it stop the printer from introducing errors, nor did it stop Joseph from making corrections and changes, including many fixes of obviously bad grammar (to our ears) that we have just learned was typically good grammar from a much earlier era. If the hands and minds of men could play a role in all those stages, was Joseph left out at the earliest phase when he dictated text to his scribes? Is it not possible that a base translation was available in some way, but it could still be modified at times as it went through Joseph's mind and lips? Was there still some flexibility at play in how Joseph conveyed whatever came to his mind or eyes? I don't know, but think it is possible, and perhaps even needed to deal with instances of apparent loose control in the text (all of which may need to be reconsidered as we move forward with the data from Carmack, Skousen, and hopefully many more contributors in this area).

I don't know what Joseph saw and experienced, but am deeply intrigued by this new mystery of sound Early Modern English infused into the text. To me, it does seem to defy the theories offered so far by those who see Joseph as the author of what is merely a modern text dressed up in KJV language with some embarrassing hick grammar that had to be cleansed. It does seem to support the possibility of divine origins. But I think we need to be cautious of inferring too much.  The implications of EModE content need to be explored patiently and tentatively to see where they lead as the details are more fully fleshed out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Blame Mom: A Late Mother's Day Gift from CNN, Peggy Drexler, and UC San Diego

Like most universities, the University of California, San Diego strives to assure parents that their university is a safe place for the children that parents will be sending there. These parents trust the University with the physical and mental well-being of their children. To assure parents, the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention Resource Center at UCSD has a web page entitled "UCSD Parents and Families--Frequently Asked Questions" that has this wise statement:

"Sometimes victims and survivors feel responsible, or are made to feel responsible, for what happened to them. Know that experiences of sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking are not your student’s fault."

I totally agree. But maybe that statement needs a slight tweak, courtesy of CNN: "But it may be the parents' fault, especially if they complain about dirty old men on our faculty who pressure their children to get naked for final exams."

Just hours after Mother's Day, CNN responded to the shocking events at UCSD (50-something male professor requires his entire class to get naked in front of him to take their final exam) by providing an incredible response from Peggy Drexler insisting that that the real problem in this story was the mother who complained about the situation, not the man behind it. (See, but don't look too closely due to the appalling photos from CNN's lewd related stories, the story "Helicopter mom wrong on naked exam," May 13, 2015.) The mom who felt that her daughter had been victimized and dared to challenge this unsafe university is the one we need to blame. She's just a "helicopter mom" who refuses to let her little girl be an adult. This, from the radical professor of gender studies who tells us in her book Raising Boys Without Men that boys raised without fathers but lesbian mothers are actually even better off than when raised in a more traditional family with a father (see the review by Albert Mohler). The hostility of Drexler and CNN toward a mother in this case really surprised me, but given the warped politics and moral debauchery of academia these days, nothing should surprise me anymore.

When the adults in charge have lost all common sense, when the "normal" heavy drinking and sexual promiscuity of co-ed dorms is base enough for a university, when anybody in an authority position can require all the students in a class to get naked in front of members of the opposite sex, there is a need for parents to speak out, even when the class is optional. The fact that the nudity requirement was announced long before the final exam does not make it acceptable, in my opinion, but I recognize that is just my opinion. My point is that when something that may be highly questionable is going on, to expect the students to be only ones with the right to object is unreasonable. Parents ought to be able to do more than fork over cash.

Hurray for parents who are to stand up to authority figures that put their children in harm's way, even when they are 18 or older. Sometimes young people, even after age 18, need parental help, and not just financial help. 

I've raised four boys. I know how hard it is for them to be different and to challenge local school authorities when things are absurd or out of control. We've had long discussions about some of the problems they've seen and in a case or two, felt a need, with their support, to step in and speak out to school authorities. Nothing that drew media attention, thank goodness, or CNN would surely have let the world know that the problem was the parents. Yes, that was high school, not college, but parents ought to still care and be ready to protect when there is an abusive situation and pressure on the child.

Many parents will pay large amounts of money to the university to fund the education of their children. Many will continue to be responsible for their children long after graduation when they find that their major does not seem to have any value with the people who need capable employees. Parents should be able to speak out against abuse and sexual exploitation without being blamed as if they were the problem, not the perpetrator.

The parents' page at UCSD also states:
Sexual assaults most commonly take place between acquaintances in familiar surroundings. SARC educates students on this issue using various campaigns and workshops. SARC also provides comprehensive services to victims, including individual and group counseling, support groups, on campus advocacy and accompaniment to police interviews, medical evidentiary exams and court dates. SARC is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the year. 
Just wondering of SARC has looked into this case. What is being done with the photographs from the final exam? Maybe this is a non-issue, but has anyone asked? Were there hidden cameras? Open cameras? Anything done to prevent photographs from being taken and shared? Any counseling offered to the students? Any recognition of the abusive situation this created? Any actual adults there at the University who don't live in a fantasy land where anything is OK (except parental objections)?

Children, young adults, and even older adults need moms. Moms who do more than just pay for their miseducation. We need moms and dads, in fact, though it doesn't always work out that way. We need to support parents in their parental roles as protectors, not just check writers, and not blame the mom when a seriously misguided professor at a university instructs a daughter or a son to undress in front of the opposite sex for a final exam or for any other purpose.

Universities are not especially safe places these days. Some seem to condone binge drinking. Most seem to condone and promote promiscuity. Abuse of many kinds is far too common. A friend of mine, while on the faculty at a philosophy department at a major US university, told me it was common knowledge in the department that one professor had required some of the females in a class to sleep with him to get a good grade. That's not safe. I'm not aware that any of the victims had the courage to share the problem with mom and have mom step in, but they would have been better off to resist that pressure and not go along. One good "helicopter mom" could have helped. Might have been blamed, censured, and ridiculed, but she would have helped.

Hurray for moms and dad who dare to challenge the insanity of universities. My condolences to the students at UCSD. Stay close to your parents. You may need more than just their moral support based on the quality of education you seem to be getting.

Note: The class in question was optional, and the requirement for nudity in the final exam could, according to the professor, be fulfilled in other ways without necessarily taking one's clothes off, though the desired and intended outcome is obviously full physical nudity, and that's what all the students did in this year's class and apparently that's what nearly everybody does, though I read one one report of someone in the past keeping their clothes on. The optional aspects, like optional attendance at the university itself, does not lessen the questionable nature of the requirement for nudity in a final exam at a university, especially one running on tax dollars, nor does it lessen my discomfort with blaming the mother instead of recognizing the obvious problem of student nudity in front of a professor.

Yes, I admit that I have strong biases and may be overly harsh in viewing that activity as unwise and lewd. But I think parents should be able to speak out about the environment their kids are in without being treated like they are the problem.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Human Side of Trees

Diane Wirth has an interesting article at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (BMAF.org), "Cutting Down a Tree: a Metaphor for Death in Scripture and Mesoamerica." It draws some connections between the symbolism of trees in Mesoamerica with those of the Old World, especially the Near East. This is a meaningful topic in the Book of Mormon also, where we have, for example, the profound imagery of the olive tree/vineyard in Jacob 5, the imagery of the tree of life in Lehi's vision and elsewhere, and other instances of tree-related symbolism.

After reading Diane's article, I suggest reading further about the ancient concept of the Axis Mundi or Cosmic Tree. Wikipedia could be a place to start. (You may also see many concepts that link the LDS temple firmly to its ancient roots.)

One of Diane Wirth's points is that in the Old World and in Mesoamerica, there was a tendency to invoke trees as symbols of humans and divine beings. This reminds me of something right here in Shanghai.

 In the midst of the tallest buildings in Shanghai, near the center of the town, lies an unexpectedly serene and generally overlooked park with one of Shanghai’s most intriguing mysteries. Lujiazui Park is a beautiful but small park, offset against the towers on all sides. But within its borders lies the mystery of two unusual figures, rising and hovering over the city, sculpted by an artist who I understand to be a Christian. These angels begin as trees rising from the earth, and then transform into feminine angels watching over and nurturing the inhabitants below.

Angels? Sculpted by a Christian, in a public park in a Communist nation founded firmly on atheism?

Angels are not only a symbol from Christianity or Judaism. They play a role in numerous cultures and beliefs, and even for a formally atheistic society, I believe the Party leaders here recognized that angels of this kind can be widely appreciated symbol of protection and favor of China, be it heavenly favor, cosmic, spiritual, or whatever. Yes, there can be a touch of mysticism and cosmic imagination here without subverting official policies. And for those of us who wish to see further dimensions to the art, I welcome the concept of heavenly favor of China. May real angels watch over this grand nation and its peoples!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day and Grace, Mormon Style

As I reflected upon Mothers Day and my relationship with my mother, I saw a potential opportunity to clarify a common misunderstanding about the LDS perspectives on grace and obedience. Some people have heard that Mormons try to earn their way into heaven and seek to keep God's commandments to score points for blessings, unlike them, the "real Christians," who obey God as an expression of love and gratitude for grace already given.

Over the years, my mother has given me a lot of commandments. Some were very basic, like "brush your teeth," "do your homework,"  and "don't throw lemons at your brother when he's standing in front of my china cabinet!" (Sorry, Mom! Had no idea he would duck. I am amazed at how quickly you forgave me after that fiasco.)

Other commandments were more difficult or annoying. "No R-rated movies? But 'Rollerball Murder' just has a little violence, and a lot of my LDS friends are going!" (I'm grateful that I obeyed on that count, though. Thanks, mom.) One of the most important commandments or recommendations, though, was very easy: "You really should marry Kendra." Wisest commandment ever.

Sometimes my obedience was driven by fear of punishment or desire for reward. That was in my early years. But as I grew in maturity and in respect and love for my mother, my loyalty and obedience was no longer driven by considerations of risk or gain, but of love and respect. I listen to her and respect what she says and make sacrifices for her not because I want something for me, but because I love her. She's my mother. She's given me life and so many blessings that have made my life wonderful. I can't repay her, but I can listen, talk, obey, and look forward to being with her in the eternities.

God gives us commandments. He teaches us with warnings and rewards. But as we learn to love and follow Him, our repentance and our service becomes natural, motivated by aligning our interests and desires with His will, driven by a desire to be a good son or daughter of God, whom we love and choose to serve. We are grateful for His commandments. Some challenge us, some are easy, but we strive to grow closer to Him by serving, loving, and obeying. Not because we are in some kind of master/slave relationship, but a relationship of a child to a loving parent who has given us everything, whom we can never repay, but whom we can increasingly love and serve.

Mother's Day can teach us a little about grace.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grace and the Temple: Insights from a Jewish Scholar

Some of our fellow Christians misunderstand LDS teachings regarding grace, feeling that our choice to obey God and respect His commandments somehow means we think we earn our salvation and thereby deny the mercy and grace of Christ. That confusion sometimes becomes frenetic when our critics discuss the Temple, which to them epitomizes Mormon emphasis on works and self-righteousness rather than relying on the merits of Christ. The concept of having to keep specific commandments in order to have a Church leader give you a temple recommend can be especially foreign and irritating, and is easily misunderstood. To our critics, it is a sign that Mormons have abandoned grace and emphasize mortal works instead of the Atonement of Christ.

In reality, the temple is a place of turning our hearts to Christ, using teachings, symbols, and covenants to help us focus our lives more fully on Him and recognize the power of His sacrifice and mercy to transform, bless, and save us. It is, however, a foreign place to us modern people, for it is rooted in ancient Middle Eastern concepts that are a far cry from the mundane world we live in. Recognizing its ancient roots, though, helps us to better appreciate its imagery and meaning. (See my LDSFAQ page on the LDS Temple and Masonry.)

On the issue of grace and obedience in a temple context, the teachings of early Christianity help shed light on modern LDS concepts, as I argue, for example, on my LDSFAQ pages on covenants and on grace and works. But useful insights can be found even earlier that that, going back to the ancient Jewish temple itself. The connection between God's grace and our obedience in the context of temple worship was noted by Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson in his book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985).

Early in his book, Levenson discusses the six ancient steps of the covenant formulary, the archetypal pattern of covenant making that scholars only recently recognized in ancient Middle Eastern documents, and which is also found in the LDS temple and in King Benjamin's covenant-focused speech at the Nephite temple. In discussing how the covenant between God and man was repeatedly renewed, and how God's requirements for keeping his commandments were recalled, Levenson reminds us that the basis for the required obedience is God's past grace, and His desire to transform us into more holy beings:
His past grace grounds his present demand. To respond wholeheartedly to that demand, to accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, is to make a radical change, a change at the roots of one’s being. To undertake to live according to Halakhah is not a question of merely raising one’s moral aspirations or of affirming “Jewish values,” whatever that means. To recite the Shma and mean it is to enter a supramundane sovereignty, to become a citizen of the kingdom of God, not simply in the messianic future to which that term also refers (e.g., Dan 2:44), but also in the historical present. (Levenson, p. 85--page numbers are for the 1985 printing.)
Later, Levenson discusses Jeremiah 7:1-5, Jeremiah's speech at the temple where Jeremiah challenges the Jewish reliance on the temple as a place that will protect them. The potential grace available from that Holy House will not be afforded if the people do not accept the moral code that goes with it and rely on the temple as a place instead of a sacred tool to build their relationship with deity. Jeremiah opposes the disconnect between our morality and the grace God affords.

As you read this next passages from Levenson, consider it in the context of the misleading grace versus works argument so often levied against LDS religion. I suggest that Jeremiah's critique of those who claimed "we are safe" because of the temple is not unrelated to some of our critics who say "we are saved" because of their belief in the Bible while claiming that Christ's call therein to "keep the commandments" somehow cannot mean what it says, and that those who teach that doctrine actually deny God's grace.
What Jeremiah does oppose is the idea that the divine goodness so evident in the Temple is independent of the moral record of those who worship there, in other words, the effort to disengage God’s beneficence from man’s ethical deeds and to rely, as a consequence, on grace alone. To the complacent cry of his audience that “We are safe” (v 10), the prophet responds by noting that the Temple is not “a den of robbers” (v 11). The grace of God does not mean exemption from the demands of covenant law, from ultimate ethical accountability. Grace and law belong together. In separation, they become parodies of themselves. For Jeremiah, this means that one cannot ascend into the pure existence of the Temple with his impurities intact. He cannot drag his filth into paradise and expect to benefit from paradisical existence. Mount Zion is morally positive. It does not accept the moral debits of those who seek only protection there. Rather, the protection follows naturally from the relationship with God which is appropriate in that place. Such a relationship excludes the practice of the sins prohibited in the Decalogue (v 9). (Levenson, p. 168; emphasis mine)
Brilliantly stated! The temple is about the relationship between God and man. It is a cosmic mountain intended to pull us higher, but we must seek to climb toward the ideals that are before us. We must seek to shed, or rather, allow Him to rip away, the impurities that weigh us down and hold us back from God's presence. We cannot cling to Him while clinging to our dross. It is in a covenant relationship with Him in His holy temple where we can most fully receive of His grace. As Levenson puts it, "Grace and law belong together." Levenson continues:
For them [Jeremiah's audience], the delicate, highly poetic image of the cosmic mountain has become a matter of doctrine, and the doctrine can be stated in one prosaic sentence: In the Temple one is safe. The Temple does not thrill them and fill them with awe; the vision of it does not transform them. For them, the appropriate response to sight of the Temple is anything but the radical amazement of a pilgrim. Instead, the Temple in their eyes is simply a place like any other, except that there the long arm of moral reckoning will not reach. Hence, they approach Zion in the stance of one about to take possession of what he deserves, not in the stance of one humbly accepting a miraculous gift which no one can deserve. Jeremiah’s audience seeks to profit from the Temple without committing themselves to the moral dynamic that animates it. (Levenson, pp. 168-9; emphasis mine)
Ironically, it may be that some of our critics--some, not all!--who speak of the security of grace reach for that gift with the same flawed attitude that Jeremiah condemned in the Jews who misunderstood God's work and failed to grasp why they needed to repent in order to obtain the true blessings available through the temple of their day. The greatest miraculous gifts of the Gospel, gifts that we cannot possibly deserve, are offered with conditions in covenant relationships, not that earn us anything, but allow God to transform us into the people He wants us to be as we strive to follow Him and seek to enter His presence.

As for the notion of standards of worthiness being connected to entry into the temple, the LDS concept may not be as innovative and foreign to the Bible as our critics would like to think. In the paragraphs shortly after the previous quotation, Levenson makes further points about the temple as he discusses Psalm 24:
This psalm [Ps. 24], chanted by Jews today on Sunday mornings, opens with a cosmic perspective. The first stanzas (vv 1-2) reminds us that the earth rests upon the waters of chaos and owes it endurance to the power of the creator who so established it. This image of God’s putting the earth upon a foundation resting over the waters is, once again, a reflection of the idea of the Temple as cosmic capstone, holding back the waters of anti-creation. [Note: I would add that this resonates with the creation story that begins the LDS Endowment and with the LDS concept of the baptismal font in the lowest part of the temple, which may be symbolic of the waters of chaos and death conquered by Christ and His Resurrection.] The term “all that it holds” (v 1; literally, “its fulness”) reminds us of the chant of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision in the Temple:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, The fulness of the whole earth is his glory (Isa 6:3)

In Isaiah 6, the “fulness of the earth” is God’s glory; in Psalm 24, it belongs to God, who is the king of glory. In both instances, the term indicates the cosmic scope of the Temple. Thus, the second stanza of the psalm (vv 3–6) does not change the subject significantly. We have simply moved from a description of the cosmic rooting of the universe to the question of who shall be admitted to the mountain shrine which still incarnates that original creative energy. In this and in the last stanza (vv 7–10), there seems to be an antiphonal structure. One group of worshippers asks the questions, and another answers. It is not readily evident how the roles were divided, who said what, but one can imagine that vv 3, 8a, and 10a were recited by worshippers seeking admission to the Temple complex and that vv 4–6, 8b–9, and 10b–c are the answers of the priests who guarded the gates. Alternatively, it may be that the priests asked the questions by way of examining the congregation to determine whether they indeed met the qualifications for entry, and that the answers were supplied by the congregation to demonstrate their mastery of the requirements. In either case, the issue in the second stanza (vv 3–6) is, what are the ethical characteristics of life within the Temple precincts? What must one be like to reach the top of the sacred mountain? The last stanza (vv 7–10) makes it clear that the presence of God enters the Temple only after the ethical prerequisites of vv 3–6 have been met. It may be that these verses accompanied a procession of some sort, with the Ark, perhaps, symbolizing YHWH. At all events, it must not be missed that the second and third stanzas are parallel. Each records an entrance to the Temple complex, one by visiting worshippers and one by YHWH the king. In light of the first stanza, it is clear that YHWH might have chosen to dwell anywhere. The world is his. His presence in the Temple, as I have argued, does not imply his absence elsewhere. Rather, he intensifies his presence and renders it most dramatic at the cosmic center. It is there that his power and his sovereignty are most vivid, for it is there that we see the palace he founded upon the tamed body of his primal challenger, the seas. Similarly, according to the second stanza (vv 3–6), those who enter there must represent the apex of ethical purity. They must be people of “clean hands and a pure heart” (v 4). In no way could the cultic and the ethical be more tightly bound together. They are two sides of the same experience. The cult celebrates the glorious victory of God the king, through which he established order in the universe. The ethical tradition, as it appears in Psalm 24, celebrates the order and lawfulness of man, through which he qualifies for entry into the presence of God in the palace he has won. It is significant that in Hebrew the same term (sedeq) can indicate either victory or righteousness/justice. The Temple represents the victory of God and the ethical ascent of man. (Levenson, pp. 170-172; emphasis mine)
The victory of God and the ethical ascent of man are linked, reminding us of what the Gospel is all about. "For this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). God's victory, Christ's victory, is about enabling our righteousness and eternal life through the power of the Atonement, enabled by the transformational covenant relationship offered therein.

When Christ was asked what we must do to obtain eternal life, His answer was unmistakably clear in Matthew 19:16-21: "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." Christ followed that with a request, carefully tailored for the needs of the rich young man He spoke to with love, to go and sell all that he had in order to follow Christ. To sell all for the Kingdom of God was not an impossible request intended to sarcastically mock the notion of keeping the commandments, but was what many early Christians actually did, and what this rich young man needed to do. It's also what modern Christians in the temple covenant to do, potentially, in consecrating themselves and all that they have to the building of God's kingdom. In this way, the wealthy can let go of that dross which weighs them down and hinders their climb on the temple mount, a climb in which God reaches down to us in grace and pulls us into his presence in a sacred grip of grace, if only we will let Him.

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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.