Monday, December 1, 2014

Stories from My Mission: A Tool in the Hand of God

My worst companion on my mission was my last companion. Of all of my companions he was the most difficult, the strangest, the most worrisome, and the only one that I felt should not be a missionary.

I had already been in my last area with two different companions. While it was unusual to have three different companions in a single area I had had three companions in my previous three areas so getting a third companion was not unexpected. I had two transfers left and while my mission president usually did not put missionaries into an area for only two transfers it did happen. So I was sort of halfway expecting to be transferred to a new area for my last two transfers since my current companion, Elder Larson, had only been there for one transfer.

But on the morning of transfers we went to the mission office (it was only a short bus ride away from my area) to find out who was being transferred. We walked through the door and the office elders quickly told my companion that he was going to be transferred instead of me. I asked who my new companion would be and all anyone would tell me was, "Elder Tanner, I'm so, so, so sorry." I think someone even gave me a hug of condolence. I finally had to corner one of the APs and get him to tell me who my new companion would be (he was a little surprised that no one had warned told me yet).

He told me my new companion's name, but it was a missionary I had never heard of before. I went out to talk to a few other elders who had also come in to find out where they were going and who their new companions would be. There was one Elder who asked my who my new companion would be and I told him. He looked at me and said, "What did you do to be put with him?" We talked some more and he asked me about some of my other companions. I listed them off to him and at each one he winced at the name. At the end he looked at me and said, "Does President hate you? Why would he keep putting you with so many bad Elders?"

Despite my apparent legendary list of "bad companions" according to everyone I talked to this last one would be the one to top them all. About this time Elder Dacoli, who was a friend of mine, arrived. Elder Dacoli and I had never been companions but we had been in the same zone a few times, and we had worked together occasionally and we even had one very special spiritual experience together. Elder Dacoli was the nicest, most Christlike person I have ever had the pleasure to know in my life. Preciously when he had asked me who my companions were he would always have something good to say about them, even for the ones who were quite insufferable. I am sure that Elder Dacoli could find something good to say about each and every person he ever met. Which is why when I told Elder Dacoli who my new companion was his response surprised me.

I mentioned who my new companion was and all he said was, "Oh. Well Elder, good luck." That was perhaps the most damning thing I could have ever imagined Elder Dacoli to say. He didn't even offer to say anything positive about this Elder. I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.

I don't have the time or energy to compress the next six weeks into a single blog post, but I'll give you the highlights. I'll call my companion Elder A.

On his very first day in the area I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because I had learned from so many of my previous companions that to have charity and to not criticize or judge were critical for being a good missionary and also a good person in general. So my initial thought while walking around with Elder A was to give him an opportunity to show me who he was before I made any judgements.

Because I had been in the area for three months I knew it pretty well and I could have just gone where ever I wanted without telling Elder A and he would have had no idea. But I was committed to making this a good companionship so I would stop occasionally and talk to him and explain to him where we needed go and why. We had one set appointment with the rest of the afternoon free. He seemed resistant to going to our appointment, but he eventually consented. Unfortunately the person we were looking for wasn't there so we had to turn to finding people.

I consulted a map of the area and decided to go to a particular neighborhood where I had never been before. I told this to Elder A and he immediately questioned why we were going there. I said that I had been in almost every other neighborhood but this was one I had never before visited and I felt that we needed to go there. He said that we shouldn't go there. We discussed it for a while until finally he asked which direction we needed to go to get there. I pointed north, down the street and he promptly started walking south, in the opposite direction. I had to hurry up to catch up with him. I asked him where he was going and he said, "I don't think we should go that way."

I tried to reason with him but it really didn't work. I got him to turn at the next block, but every time I indicated which direction we needed to turn he would go the exact opposite direction. After a while I stopped talking to him and tried to subtly get him to go in the direction we needed to go. After a few twists and turns (I knew the area very well and had a good mental map) I knew we were back on track and he had no idea we were headed in the direction I had originally planned to go.

When we finally got to the particular street that I had felt we needed to go to Elder A looked down the street and said, "Now that you have wasted our time getting us here, now what?" I indicated a house on the corner and he promptly went to the one on the opposite corner (which actually wasn't a house, it was a small shop and after a brief and awkward conversation with the person working there we moved on). I got him to move down the street stopping occasionally to talk to people. There was one person who was not interested and I said good day to them by my companion persisted and tried to set a time to come back to talk to them. Awkwardness ensued (we never saw them again).

As we moved down the street it turned into a minor battle, with Elder A throwing himself at every person who showed no interest and curtly ending conversations with every person who showed a grain of interest. There was one young man sitting outside his house plucking on a guitar. We approached and I introduced myself. I gave a brief rundown of who we were and the message we were sharing. At that moment the young man said the words that every missionary dreams of hearing on a first encounter, "Hey, that sounds really interesting I would like to learn more about your message. We can talk right now because I have time, and maybe you can come back some other time and we can talk some more."

Elder A heard those words and promptly said, "Well it's been good talking to you but we need to move along." and walked off. My jaw dropped down into the street. I ran after my companion and caught up with him at the end of the block. I asked him what he was doing and he said, "He obviously wasn't interested." To which I replied, "He told us he was interested."

For the next six weeks this same scene played itself out over and over. If I said we needed to go one way he would go the other. If I thought someone was progressing he would disagree. Elder A contradicted me in every way possible. It got to the point that members were approaching me and asking if the mission president knew about Elder A. I told them he did. I knew the mission president knew about him because I did something I had never done before. I requested a transfer, but the mission president turned me down.

It was about this time that I was talking to one of the APs. We had gone to high school together so he was willing to give out more information than normal. He said that the decision to put me with Elder A was made at his first meeting with the mission president after he became an AP. He said that they stood there with a map of the mission, with all the missionary pictures and started matching up companions. When they had nearly finished they had three or four Elders who pictures were left at the bottom of the board and they didn't know what to do with them. For some of them they just stuck them off in their own area and hoped they didn't do anything stupid.

But for Elder A they had a hard time because they had to find someone to be his companion who would not get mad and hit him in the face (something that apparently happened before). They finally decided to give him to me because they knew I wouldn't hit him, and fortunately I didn't prove them wrong.

After six weeks I couldn't stand it any more and asked my mission president for a transfer. He just told me that I only had to survive six more weeks and then I could go home. I really didn't appreciate hearing that. It was one moment when I really didn't feel like sustaining my priesthood leader.

That evening Elder A and I were back on the street with me doing our usual, not telling him where we were going and hoping he wouldn't suddenly decide to do something stupid. There was a less active member I had been trying to find for a while and I wanted to stop by his house. As soon as Elder A figured out that we were going in a specific direction he began his standard practice of taking random turns and trying to steer us away from where ever I wanted to go. Eventually I got us to the right street (we only had to circle the block two or three times before I got him close enough to turn down the right street).

About half way down the block Elder A realized that we were getting to where I wanted to go and promptly went to the opposite side of the street. I walked up to the house to clap only to realize that my companion was standing 40 feet away down the street. I went back to try to get him to just cross the street but the harder I tried the worse it got.

Finally something in me snapped and I did something I have never done with anyone since. I got confrontational. I looked at Elder A and demanded to know what he was doing. He waffled behind some excuses that he didn't think we should be here or he didn't think it was worth trying to find this person, but I didn't let it go like I had before. I kept pressing and demanding to know why he was so resistant to crossing the street. I told him that he didn't even have to talk, just cross the street. He continued to refuse and then asked why I was getting upset.

I really didn't want to do this in the middle of the street, but I really didn't have any other option. I told him bluntly and directly, "Elder, you are destroying the work in this area. You are an active impediment to the work of the Lord." Elder A responded by saying that I was destroying the work just as much and began to list of ever minor infraction I had ever committed, including wasting time walking long distances only to find that the people we were looking for were not home. He listed every personality flaw that he thought I had (or the ones he had enough where with all to know about).

I told him that really didn't want to have this discussion in the middle of the street since it would be a very bad idea to have people see two Mormon missionaries arguing in the street. I insisted that we go back to our apartment but he wanted to have it all out there in the middle of the street. After a while I finally convinced him to go back to our apartment.

As soon as we got in I sat down with him and again told him that he was destroying the work of the Lord and was an active impediment to the Church. He again told me that he was no worse than me. I asked him why he contradicted me on every decision and refused to go anywhere I had decided to go.

Finally after six weeks Elder A opened up and began to be honest with me. He said that our mission president had threatened to send him home, and if he was sent home from his mission he would be too embarrassed to go to Church so he would probably just leave the Church. So when our mission president had read him the riot act he had decided that he would strenuously keep the mission rules. Unfortunately in his mind "keeping the mission rules" meant contradicting me. Before he had met me he had apparently overheard one of the Elders in the office talking about me and my previous companion Elder Larson. The office Elder had remarked at our teaching stats, which were unusually low, and was wondering if we were doing any work out in our area.

Elder A took that and assumed that I was the laziest, good for nothing, rule-breaking-est missionary there ever was and came to the conclusion that in order to be a good missionary he needed to contradict every single decision I ever made. He told me that for the last six weeks he had intentionally been making my life difficult because he had it fixed in his mind that I was a bad missionary. All this time I had just been thinking he was stupid. I had no idea that he was malicious as well.

I acknowledged that I was not a perfect person and even accepted some of the things he had listed off as to why I was a "bad missionary", but insisted that minor personality flaws or even just basic human traits did not make me a "bad missionary". I again reiterated the fact that by actively creating disharmony in the companionship he was actively destroying the work of the Lord. I then quoted to him D&C 1:19-23 which reads:
19 The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—
20 But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;
21 That faith also might increase in the earth;
22 That mine everlasting covenant might be established;
23 That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.
I emphasized the "weak and simple" and said that I do not have to be a perfect person, nor live up to Elder A's standard of perfection in order to proclaim the gospel. I only had to give all that I am and the Lord would make up the rest.

That night we came to a kind of a truce. He agreed to stop contradicting me in every decision and we both agreed to do the work we needed to do.

In the weeks leading up to this confrontation I had often wondered why this Elder was on a mission. He barely knew the doctrine, he did not get along with other missionaries. His first companion had apparently hated so much that he had to be moved in an emergency transfer (I hear physical violence was involved). Elder A took just about every thought and twisted it around in such a way that it made me wonder just how much lead paint he had licked as a child. I could not understand why he was not sent home. He was confrontational, irrational, had broken just about every mission rule possible without actually breaking any commandments. In my mind it made no sense to keep him there in the mission field.

So I began to pray.

I prayed and asked to know why Elder A was still on a mission and had not been sent home already. The answer came not all at once but through a series of revelatory experiences and through the gift of discernment such that I learned things I could never have learned any other way.

Elder A had grown up in a very poor neighborhood in an especially poor South American country. For the first 10 or 12 years of his life he had lived in a mud hut with a cardboard roof (a kind of very stiff paperboard coated in tar to make it water repellent). When he was an early teen his family had managed to get a free house in a government housing block. It had two rooms and was made of very basic kiln fired building blocks. He never got far in school but his family had joined the Church and he had gone on a mission out of genuine desire to give back to the Lord for what the Lord had given him. His family was too poor to provide any help so the full time Elders in his branch had provided shirts, pants and shoes so that he could go on a mission. Our monthly stipend that we got (at that time was ~550 pesos or ~$200) was more money than he would typically make in six months. He had never felt so rich in his entire life. He had never been able to afford the food he was now eating. He relished in the the sense that he could talk and people would listen to him because his entire life he was poor and no one listens to the poor.

All this power and wealth went a little to his head. When our mission president had told him that he needed to follow the rules or be sent home, he may as well have told Elder A that he would be cast into hell for all eternity because it had the same effect. That's when he became my companion.

Over the next few weeks there were minor incidents where the spirit nudged me and said, "Look. That is why he wasn't sent home." There were little things that happened that may seem minor to our understanding but were great in the sight of God. Because of my personality there are people who I would have a hard time talking to about the gospel. There are people who would have a hard time talking to me about anything for that matter. If there is someone in my area that cannot hear the gospel because their personality does not match mine that is OK because there in the mission there is usually another Elder or Sister somewhere who can reach them and when the time is right the Lord will rotate those missionaries in and put them in contact with those people.

But with Elder A there were people who were very special or very unique who would have a hard time hearing the gospel from any other missionary. But Elder A was just the right person at the right time to contact a few very specific people, people who did not join the Church as far as I know, but in the eternal scheme of things they needed their chance to hear the gospel.

After several weeks of observing and learning I was praying one night about my companion when I got the distinct impression and received a clear answer to my prayer. It said, "He is mine. I will do with him as seemeth me good. He is a tool in my hand and as long as he is here I will use him to do my work. He is not perfect but neither is anyone else. I know my servants and I know how to use all my servants in the way that is best for them. I will do the same for him as I will do for you. For all who will be my servant, I will use. My knowledge is sufficient that I can do my own work, even with the weak and simple things of the earth. Remember,
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:
11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
12 For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
"My servants are my own and I shall not lose them, and they will do my work."

From this I learned to trust in the Lord, because He knows so much more than we do. After that I was perhaps the only one in the entire mission who had anything good to say about Elder A. I began to see him as God saw him and it changed everything I knew about him. There were so many other missionaries who wanted to offer their negative assessment but from that time on I always strived to say only good thing about him when talking to other missionaries. I think I had more good to say about him than my mission president (sometimes I wonder if my mission president understood why he never sent Elder A home). I don't know if anyone noticed that I only had good things to say about Elder A but I know that God noticed. And he thanked me for it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Rabbath Ammon: The City With the Greatest PR Campaign Ever

[Author's Note: When I originally started writing this I intended this to be a lighthearted post about I verse I recently read in the book of Deuteronomy. So if that is all you care about then just skip down to where it says "Original Post". But I just couldn't resist looking up some basic information about the people and places mentioned in that verse. That turned into an even more in depth look at some Biblical history that I was not very familiar with. That in turn lead to more searching and more reading and more ideas.

By the time I decided to stop I was turning a short lighthearted post about a single verse into a Russian Novel. I had 20+ tabs open in my browser and I was trying to figure out how to distill that much information into a single post. After a while I decided that I didn't have to, nor did I want to attempt that. I had unintentionally hit on a very rich subsection of Biblical history that very frequently gets misinterpreted. Some of the topics that I came across in researching that one verse have been used (almost) more than any other part of the Bible as the basis for some of the most fantastical, misguided, insipid, and just plain wrong Biblical exegesis.

My original short post was turning into a post on how a single word in the Bible can be used as the basis for an ever expanding repertoire of tall tales and theological speculation that leads into the truly bizarre. But rather than flesh it all out into a complete post I threw it all away and went back to my original idea of a short, humorous post...plus a long boring "Author's Note". I'll provide the links but if you want to go down the rabbit hole and take the blue pill then you will have to do your own research.

A few links to get you started:
Og
Rephaite
Ammon
Nephilim

One of those links will lead you down a path of pure history, another down a path of linguistics debates, another down a path of speculation and fantasy and the fourth down a path of a combination of all three. I leave it as an exercise to the interested reader to figure out which is which. Now back to my regularly scheduled post.]

----------Original Post----------

Every PR department dreams of coming up with the ultimate ad campaign. One that will work it's way into popular culture and be used cultural icon or even become a standard figure of speech. But of all the PR departments that have ever been there was one that out did them all because they managed to get their star tourist attraction mentioned in the Bible along with a seemingly prophetic endorsement from Moses himself to go see it.

In the book of Deuteronomy Moses (or his ghost writer(s)) is recounting their travels in the wilderness and the various wars fought and victories won, when he mentions one king they fought against and killed, Og king of Bashan. After listing the cities they captured on the far side of the Jordan River he then mentions Og again includes a little tidbit of tourist trivia.
"For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man." (Duet. 3:11)
In other words, "Hey look at this guy we killed. He was HUGE! Like HUGE! Like a GIANT! You don't believe he was a giant? Well Mr. Smartypants, you can still go see his bed. It's over in Rabbath Ammon. Just across the Jordan River. It's HUGE! His bed is, I mean. But seriously, you can still go see his bed! Just take a look and measure it out. Only a GIANT would have a bed that big. And we KILLED him! Go us!"

So the people in the city of Rabbath Ammon had something there that was a major tourist attraction that they called Og's bed. We don't know what it really was (some translations say sarcophagus rather than bed) but apparently by the time the parenthetical statement (almost all other translations put it in parentheses, but not the KJV) was inserted in the book of Deuteronomy it was a major tourist attraction. So the PR department of Rabbath Ammon outdid them all and got a shout out for their main tourist attraction put in the Bible with the apparent approval of Moses.

----------End----------

[Author's End Note: Yes, another boring one that deals with scholarly stuff and actual history. Before you think that Moses was out endorsing tourist attractions in Gentile cities, keep in mind that this was a parenthetical statement that was added much later. So even if Moses had written the book of Deuteronomy he most likely did not insert that little gem.

"Wait!" you say. "What do you mean 'even if Moses had written the book of Deuteronomy'. But Moses did write the book of Deuteronomy! Didn't he? That's why it is called one of the five books of Moses." Weeeeelllllll....There is an idea out there that has some credence to it that says that Moses did not actually write the book of Deuteronomy.

The theory goes something like this. King Josiah (b. 643) and his priests were in the middle of a major religious reform in Jerusalem. Along the way they found what they called "the Book of the Law" which was probably the core legal code laid down by Moses, as preserved by the scribes over the years. Over the next few years little bits of history and introductory material was added, including the parenthetical statement about king Og. This book became the basis of Josiah's religious reforms, but was not part of the original writings of Moses. If this was the case then the book of Deuteronomy may not have been part of the Brass Plates taken by Lehi into the wilderness. So originally there were only the four books of Moses, and not the five that we now have.

In any event, I doubt it that Moses was the one who mentioned Rabbath Ammon's main tourist attraction.]

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Expecting Perfection

I found this little nugget of wisdom in a journal kept by Joseph Smith (written by others) from December 1841 to December 1842. This entry is found on October 29th, 1842.
"[Joseph] said he was but a man and they must not expect him to be perfect; if they expected perfection from him, he should expect it from them, but if they would bear with his infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, he would likewise bear with their infirmities." [Source]
How often do we demand perfection from our leaders, but we complain and protest when the same is done to us?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What I Read: LDS Themed Blogs and Books

A while back I was having a conversation on gospel topics with a missionary serving in my ward and he asked me how I learned so much about gospel topics, mostly things that would never be discussed in Sunday School, Seminary or Institute. I think the answer I gave at the time was, "Well I read several books and I follow a few blogs. I also look at the footnotes to find more things to read."

For anyone, such as returned missionaries, who want to go on and learn more about the Church, Church history, the Gospel, and LDS themes in general I thought it would be helpful to provide a list of resources I use, blogs I follow, or books that I have read that I felt were important. If there are others that you have found useful feel free to suggest them in comments (if you have your own LDS themed blog that you want to promote, feel free to leave a link in the comments. I won't consider you narrowly for promoting your own blog here...as long as it is not anti-Mormon, spam, or well, off topic.). There may be some that I have forgotten so I may update this list at some point. I list them now in no particular order.

Blogs I Read

Personal Blogs
  • Mormanity: A blog run by Jeff Lindsay, "an LDS guy in Shanghai. Formerly of Appleton, WI, Jeff writes about the Mormon experience, life in China, and the joys of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." If you read LDS themed stuff long enough you will sooner or later run across Jeff's stuff. I will mention his LDS FAQ later on. Some of his blog posts are personal, or spiritual, but occasionally he posts about LDS apologetics and I find his topics and links very helpful.
  • Studio et Quoque Fide: A blog by Neal Rappleye. He posts about LDS apologetics and keeps people updated on things that are currently being talked about in the field of LDS apologetics. His blog also has several good links, both on the side and in his posts with more material to read.
  • Angels in the Architecture: A blog by Gregory L. Smith. Posts occasionally with quotes and other LDS tidbits. I learned about him when I read a pair of articles he wrote a while back for Mormon Interpreter.
  • Keepapitchinin: A Mormon history blog by Ardis E. Parshall. She post multiple times a day with things from LDS history. She is perhaps one of the best amatuer non-academically trained historians I know of. My sister occasionally posts guest posts to Keepapitchinin. To be honest I don't read everything she posts (I probably only read like 10% of what she posts), but the stuff I read is interesting.
  • Forn Spǫll Fira: A blog by John Gee. He posts about LDS scholarly stuff and apologetics.
  • Warfare and the Book of Mormon: A blog by Morgan Deane. The name of the blog basically tells it all. Morgan is a military historian and offers interesting insights about the Book of Mormon that is not your standard SS/Seminary fare.
  • Speaking Silence: A blog on Patheos by James Faulconer. He teaches Philosophy at BYU, and now that I read his blog I regret never taking a class from him. [A note on Patheos, I hate their interface and it is very difficult to find the RSS feed for his blog. So if you want the RSS feed here is the feedburner link.]
  • Ether's Cave: A blog by Matthew Roper and John Gee. They post about Mormon research, apologetics and things like that. They have a list of what they call "howlers", things that anti-Mormons used to say disproved the Book of Mormon, but have since been shown to be correct.
Non-personal blogs
  • Fair Mormon Blog: This is the blog run by Fair Mormon. Fair Mormon used to be just FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research), but they got so tired of explaining what Apologetics is (no that does not mean they are apologizing for the Church, Apologetics means offering a logical, rational, defense of your faith, beliefs or opinions.), so they changed the name from FAIR to just Fair Mormon.
  • Mormon Interpreter: If I had to tell someone who wanted to get into Mormon apologetics and research where was the one place they need to start I would say they need to start with the Mormon Interpreter. They are the intellectual continuation of the work that was started under the old FARMS Foundation. I have been reading the blog and the journal since it started back in 2012. They do good work and provide most of the sources for additional reading that I do. If everything you know about the Church and the scriptures you learned from Sunday School and Seminary then reading the Mormon Interpreter will be like being thrown into the middle of the ocean when all the swim lessons you ever had were in your bathtub when you were 5. For new readers most of the material will be over your head unless you have read extensively about LDS topics in other places.
  • Maxwell Institute Blog: This is the blog of the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies). When I began following the blog a few years ago they always had some very interesting stuff. But a few years back they decided to take the Institute in another direction and they have been doing boring stuff ever since. Still they are the repository of all of the old FARMS articles and data. And that is important.
General Resources

These are general resources and are not updated on a regular basis like a blog. I use them more as a reference and where to find additional reading material.
  • LDS FAQ: This is not to be confused with the official FAQ put out by the Church. The LDS FAQ is run by Jeff Lindsay (who writes on the Mormanity blog). This site contains an incredible amount of references, sources, explanations and at times humor dealing with anti-Mormon attacks on the Church. If anyone has specific questions about Church history, doctrine or practices that are causing them to question their faith this is a great resource for putting those issues into perspective.
  • Joseph Smith's Polygamy: This is a site run by Brian C. Hales. He wrote six books on Joseph Smith and polygamy and if you ever do any reading or research into that topic you will eventually come across his stuff. He is currently the de facto authority on that topic.
  • Fair Mormon: They do all things apologetic and also respond to just about every anti-Mormon attack out there. There is also an associated YouTube channel that contains many presentations by LDS scholars and authors that are very interesting.
    • Fair Mormon Wiki: A sub portion of Fair Mormon is their Wiki. It contains a good place to find interesting topics and also find good sources for questions that arise from anti-Mormon attacks. If I am researching a particular LDS themed topic and I need a place to start sometimes I start here.
  • FARMS Review: No longer being published but the old publications are available online and are very useful.
  • Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Another FARMS/Maxwell Institute publication. I don't know if they are still publishing, but their archives contain good stuff.
Books

Books that I recommend. There are many, this is just a short list.
People I know about but don't read on a regular basis
  • Daniel Peterson. He has a blog over on Patheos that I occasionally read, but I don't subscribe to it.
  • William Hamblin: He also has a blog over on Patheos but I don't subscribe to it. For both Peterson and Hamblin I do not object to their stuff (hey, I read Mormon Interpreter), it's just that they are the chocolate sundae of Mormon apologetics and I prefer mint cookies and cream. You may like their stuff, but I don't read it every day.
  • Scriptorium Blogorium: A blog by Michaela Stephens. She posts on average every other day with an insight about the scriptures. There are many good things on the internet but I don't always follow all of them. This is one of those things.
  • Ploni Almoni: Mr. So-and-So's Mormon Blog: A blog run by Stephen O. Smoot. It covers apologetics, current topics and other controversies.
Places I Avoid

I know this may seem weird but there are some places that focus on LDS topics, but I try to avoid them like the plague. I will not list them all, but in general I avoid places that have a large number of authors but little or no editorial oversight on content and comments. These blog communities are mentally and spiritually draining so generally I stay away from the "bloggernacle". Again, in no particular order.
  • By Common Consent. Whenever I go read it I come away feeling like the authors are trying to be "edgy" without being heretical. The posts have a tendency to make me upset or contentious or both. The comments even more so. In the end it is just spiritually draining.
  • Wheat and Tares: Same as for BCC above.
  • The Millennial Star: Same as for BCC and WaT above. [Edit: A few comments below state that M* is not all that bad. I may have changed over past few years, but back when I was reading it it fit in with the other blogs on this list. So M* may be different now.]
  • Feminist Mormon Housewives: Same as for BCC, WaT, and M* above.
  • The list goes on. I just tend to avoid those blogs. Some are good and not like BCC, WaT, M*, FMH, others are just more of the same.
  • Anything anti-Mormon (or "pro"-Mormon but with a decidedly faith discouraging bent, written by non-, former-, ex-, anti-, soon-to-be-former-, excommunicated-, should-be-honest-with-themselves-and-just-leave- Mormons...*cough*mormonthink*cough*).
This is not a comprehensive list of everything that is out there. Nor is it a comprehensive list of everything that I read (I have 100+ items in my Feedly reader list), but it is enough to get started for someone who wants to enter the world of LDS scholarship, apologetics, or topics. If you have anything else you want to add, just leave a comment.

As a final note. You can see a side-by-side comparison of Isaiah chapters and verses in the Book of Mormon with their corresponding Bible chapter and verses (using the KJV of the Bible) by checking out my other blog, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Stories from My Mission: "La paciencia es la ciencia de la paz."

When I was in the city of Eldorado in Misiones I met a wise old farmer who once shared with me a tidbit of wisdom that has stuck with me ever since.
"La paciencia es la ciencia de la paz."
Literally this means, "Patience is the science of peace." But it has a much better ring to it when you say it in Spanish.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Follow the prophet, for he is in the Lord's Sôd.

I'll try to make this brief. Today in Sunday School our lesson was entitled "God Reveals His Secrets to His Prophets" which dealt with the role of prophets. This is a topic that I have been thinking about a lot recently partially due to the fact that someone whose blog I read regularly has decided to leave the Church and follow after someone he considers to be a prophet of God. Part of the discussion in our Sunday School lesson centered around what it meant to be a prophet and I decided to share something that I had learned over a year ago.

One of the central scriptures in the lesson was Amos 3:7 which reads:
"Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets."
The entire discussion focused on other parts of the scripture until I share something I had learned from an article in the Mormon Interpreter by William Hamblin. The Hebrew word for secret in that verse is sôd (סוד). As Hamblin explains in his article,
"In its broader sense the Hebrew term sôd (סוד) means a confidential discussion, a secret or plan, a circle of confidants, or council. Nearly all scholars now agree that sôd, when used in relationship to God, refers to the heavenly council/sôd of God, which humans may sometimes visit to learn divine mysteries or obtain a prophetic message to deliver to humankind. The celestial members of this council are variously called the “host of heaven” (1 Kings 22:19), “gods” or “sons of God” (Ps. 82:1, 6), or “Holy Ones.” Sôd can refer to either the divine council itself or to the deliberative secret results of that council—that is the secret plans of the council—which a prophet is sometimes permitted to learn or to reveal to humankind. Only those who are part of the divine sôd/council know the sôd/secret plan, and only those who are given explicit permission may reveal that sôd to humankind."
I mentioned this idea to the class (in a much abbreviated form) and said that what sets prophets apart from everyone else, especially from false prophets, is that true prophets are part of the council and counsel of the Lord. Only true prophets can stand in the sôd and know what the Lord has planned for mankind. The prophet Jeremiah mentions the sôd when he denounces the false prophets of Judah who prophesied that Jerusalem would not be destroyed.
"16 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Do not listen to what the [false] prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’ 18 But which of them has stood in the council [sôd] of the Lord to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word?" (Jeremiah 23:16-18 NIV)
Jeremiah could say this because he had stood in the sôd of the Lord and had heard the Lord's sôd, and had been authorized to reveal the sôd to the people. When a prophet is called and allowed into the sôd he and only he is authorized to reveal the sôd to the people of God. There are some who are uncomfortable with the idea that a man will act as the intermediary between God and man, but that is the pattern that has been followed since Adam and will continue until the end of the earth. Not everyone in invited into the sôd of God, but everyone can receive a knowledge of the sôd.

Part of what brought this about and made me mention this in Sunday School (and now on my blog) was something written by the now former LDS blogger I mentioned at the beginning. He was convinced that there should be no intermediary between us and God when it comes to revelation, the priesthood, and our salvation. He felt that we should not be taught to "Follow the Prophet" since that placed a barrier between us and God and turned the prophet into a kind of idol that we were being commanded to worship.

His attitude and conclusions greatly saddened me because he was essentially turning away from the truth due to a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that is not supported by anything the prophets themselves have said or done. It is like coming to the conclusion that Moses was not a prophet because the children of Israel were worshiping a golden calf. In the Church the counsel we receive from the prophets does not detract from our Christ centered lives, but rather it strengthens it and deepens it because the prophets have stood in the sôd of the Lord and know His sôd. In the Church when we say follow the prophet, we do not mean to follow a man and not follow Christ, but only to give heed to their counsel and teaching of the prophet because they have stood in the sôd of the Lord and can lead us in the way light and salvation.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chiasmus in Numbers Chapter 8

Today while I was reading in Numbers I noticed a rather interesting chiastic structure in Chapter 8. I noticed it because at the beginning and end of the chapter are four verses of material seemingly unrelated to the rest of the chapter. Even though the four verses at the beginning and the four verses at the end are unrelated to each other, the fact that both of them were there in the chapter, and about the same length made me think, "Well that's unusually symmetric!"

Which immediately made me think, "Wait. Symmetric. This wasn't an accident there's structure to this chapter." And by noticing that structure it prompted me to look for more structure and then uncover a rich chiasmus that I never knew about. I did a cursoury search and I haven't found anyone who lists Numbers 8 as a chiasmus so I hope Biblical scholars haven't missed this rather interesting example of a chiastic structure.

The first four and the last four verses function as bookends to the main structure found in verses 5-22, and tie it in with the rest of the material. This chapter contains several pronunciations by the Lord to Moses as the Lord spoke to Moses from the mercy seat beginning in the last verse of chapter 7. The structure of the chiasmus is used in an intelligent way to not only report what the Lord said, but also to teach the symbolism of it.

Below I give a breakdown of the chiasmus found in Numbers 8. I use letters in brackets to indicate the different chiastic levels. Parallel words or phrases are underlined and important terms are highlighted (if you are reading this in Feedly then you may need to click through and read it on my blog to see the highlights). At the end I will explain why I highlighted certain passages. Verse numbers are preserved.

[Left Bookend]
1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
2 Speak unto Aaron, and say unto him, When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light over against the candlestick.
3 And Aaron did so; he lighted the lamps thereof over against the candlestick, as the Lord commanded Moses.
4 And this work of the candlestick was of beaten gold, unto the shaft thereof, unto the flowers thereof, was beaten work: according unto the pattern which the Lord had shewed Moses, so he made the candlestick.

[A] 5 ¶And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
[B] 6 Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them.
[C] 7 And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them:
[D] Sprinkle water of purifying upon them, and let them shave all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean.
[D'] 8 Then let them take a young bullock with his meat offering, even fine flour mingled with oil, and another young bullock shalt thou take for a sin offering.
[E] 9 And thou shalt bring the Levites before the tabernacle of the congregation: and thou shalt gather the whole assembly of the children of Israel together:
[E'] 10 And thou shalt bring the Levites before the Lord: and the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites:
[F] 11 And Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the Lord. 12 And the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks: and thou shalt offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, unto the Lord, to make an atonement for the Levites. 13 And thou shalt set the Levites before Aaron, and before his sons, and offer them for an offering unto the Lord.
[G] 14 Thus shalt thou separate the Levites from among the children of Israel:
[H] and the Levites shall be mine.
[I] 15 And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation: and thou shalt cleanse them, and offer them for an offering. 16 For they are wholly given unto me from among the children of Israel;
[X] instead of such as open every womb, even instead of the firstborn of all the children of Israel,
[I] have I taken them unto me. 17 For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast: on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt
[H] I sanctified them for myself.
[G] 18 And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children of Israel.
[F] 19 And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the service of the children of Israel in the tabernacle of the congregation, and to make an atonement for the children of Israel: that there be no plague among the children of Israel, when the children of Israel come nigh unto the sanctuary.
[E] 20 And Moses, and Aaron, and all the congregation of the children of Israel, did to the Levites according unto all that the Lord commanded Moses concerning the Levites,
[E'] so did the children of Israel unto them.
[D] 21 And the Levites were purified, and they washed their clothes;
[D'] and Aaron offered them as an offering before the Lord; and Aaron made an atonement for them
[C] to cleanse them.
[B] 22 And after that went the Levites in to do their service in the tabernacle of the congregation before Aaron, and before his sons:
[A] as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so did they unto them.

[Right Bookend]
23 ¶And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
24 This is it that belongeth unto the Levites: from twenty and five years old and upward they shall go in to wait upon the service of the tabernacle of the congregation:
25 And from the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting upon the service thereof, and shall serve no more:
26 But shall minister with their brethren in the tabernacle of the congregation, to keep the charge, and shall do no service. Thus shalt thou do unto the Levites touching their charge.

By laying it out in this way we see the structure and purpose of the ceremony and the symbolism involved. The Lord explains his reason for having the Levites offered as an offering to Him. They are in place of all the firstborn (i.e. those who would inherit the birthright) of all of Israel. This shows that even though the children of Israel were saved from Egypt they did not lose their birthright. But it took an offering in place of their firstborn to keep their birthright.

Also what is interesting is at the inflection point (marked by [X]) there is a subtle shift in the language. Before the inflection point things are offered, given and done by the people ("Take the Levites", "thus shalt thou do", "Aaron shall offer", "thou shalt set", "Thus shalt thou separate", and "they are wholly given unto me"), but afterwards it is the Lord that takes, gives and does ("have I taken them unto me", "I sanctified them for myself", "I have taken", and "I have given"). This shows the two part structure of covenants, and the covenant people. The Levites are offered, the children of Israel perform acts and offer sacrifices, the priests and high priest (Aaron) offer, set and separate. But in the end it is the Lord who does, sanctifies, cleanses, and gives.

There are many other lessons that can be gleaned from this symbol rich chapter, but I will leave it here for now. Is there any thing that you noticed that is particularly striking? Perhaps some time I will break down [F] and show the correlation between the different offerings and the corresponding verses later on.