Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Not To Know History Is To Forever Remain A Child

[I am pleased to turn today’s column over to a fellow teacher for an excellent argument about the importance of learning history.]

The great Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. “Not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy, to be forever a child.”
In a sense, historical understanding—knowledge of what happened before you were born—is primary to all realms of knowledge. Science is the study of the great discoveries of the past in our knowledge of the natural world. Literature is the study of the great writings of past cultures that embody human experience in the form of story and poem. Mathematics is the study of how great minds of the past have ordered for us the use of abstract numbers and symbols in relation to the physical world. The arts are the studies of the varied and diverse cultural creations of the past. Historical understanding in all these areas humanizes, matures, and uplifts the soul.
Too many citizens of our country today are, in Cicero’s terms, forever children. If knowledge of the past matures the soul, it is not something we can afford to marginalize or sideline. Unfortunately, the hard work of gaining knowledge, eloquence, and wisdom is all too often skirted by teacher and student alike. Because we have neglected knowledge of the past and the great tradition of historical understanding, we live in a culture of Peter Pans, flying free in Neverland with no past and no future, only the ever-present game, the mock battle against pirates or Indians. Wendy’s stories, with their plot of real challenges to be overcome, only reveal to us our immaturity, the fact that we are forever children who won’t grow up.
In my short professional tenure as a teacher, I have had the privilege of seeing students mature through coming to know the past. After numerous classroom discussions about the virtues and vices of historical figures, making charts and lists on the board as my students came up with ideas, they have written profoundly of their desire to mature in their own lives, discerning their own weaknesses and taking steps to improve. After discussing and chuckling at the social dynamics of Jane Austen’s Emma—expressing distaste for Mrs. Elton’s haughty manner, admiration for Mr. Knightley’s gentleness, good-natured exasperation at Emma’s silly lack of self-awareness—I have witnessed the change in my students’ relationships with one another: a more mature thoughtfulness, a deeper sensitivity. Nothing is more satisfying for a teacher than seeing how interaction with the stories of the past matures the souls of his students.
As G.K. Chesterton said in another context, the great tradition has not been tried and found wanting; it has been tried, found difficult, and duly abandoned.

Jason Barney, “‘We Live in a Culture of Peter Pans,’” Imprimis 42 (January 2013), pp. 4-5.

You can see the entire article here: http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis.asp 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why I Believe--Evidence Five: Joseph Smith Excelled At Answering Spiritual Questions

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Five: Joseph Smith Excelled At Answering Spiritual Questions© 

I like reading graduation or commencement addresses.  Recently I read one by a self-proclaimed “non-believer” who teaches piano at the college where he was giving the commencement address.  He said the following:
“For one such as me, as for my secular siblings, the doubt is my reality, the need to accept the answerless questions of ultimate importance.”* 
He did not say what the “answerless questions of ultimate importance” are, but he implied they had to do with the existence of God and of the meaning and purpose of life.  This, of course, is a fairly common notion on college campuses and among intellectuals.  His attitude was that those religionists who claim to have answers are self-deceived and deceivers.  For Mr. Mayerovitch, it is a given that some questions of ultimate importance are answerless. He was in reality justifying his “otherness” and arguing his case that those with certainty should be more accepting and tolerant of people like him.  I didn’t sense a great deal of tolerance on his part for those who have fewer doubts than he does.  Rather, I came away from reading the speech, and I suspect there were those there that day who had the same experience, thinking that I should feel like a fool because I am a believer.  Any really educated and intelligent person knows better than to believe in God and Heaven. 

One of the things that I greatly admire and love about Joseph Smith are the many superlative spiritual gifts he possessed in super abundance.  One of the best was that he excelled in answering spiritual “questions of ultimate importance.”  There are many examples, but today lets consider just three plus one.  They are the questions many people have asked through the ages.

During our service in the California Roseville Mission, I read one well-read general authority who advised Church members to read some poetry regularly.  Poetry has always been difficult for me and I have tried it many times throughout my life without a great deal of success.  However, upon his advice I decided to try it again.  I learned that a poet named Edwin Markham, someone whom President David O. McKay quoted occasionally, was once the poet-laureate of California.  So I found one of his books in an online used book consortium.  In it I found this eloquent example of asking the unanswerable in a poem titled “Man the Questioner”:
The cattle never look before nor after,
Nor have they moments of immortal laughter.
Man is the Thing that knows he has a tomb,
Explores the secret out beyond the hearse,
And probes the mystery before the womb:
Man is the searcher of the universe.**  
In thought provoking verse he verbalized two of the three great questions: 1) Where did I come from?  2) Why am I here?  3) Where am I going?  Markham did not ask the second of the three.

Well informed Mormons know that the answer to these questions are the core of the message of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and are among the early things missionaries teach investigators.  I am not going to burden readers of this column with a recital of those well-known answers. I will simply point out that in what we refer to as the “fulness of the Gospel” we have more detailed and complete answers to those questions than any religion on earth– far transcending and more satisfying than the answers that Christians typically give to them.

I suggest, however, that there is another question which should be added to these “top three” and here too Joseph Smith excelled in answering it.  The question is, “Now that I know where I am going, how do I get there?”  I give but two answers among many that can be found in the scriptures produced by Joseph Smith and in his personal teachings.

First, is the simple but profound Third Article of Faith:  "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel."  I have spent the last six years studying the question: "Why ordinances?"  I am not exaggerating when I say that in that simple Article of Faith lay the seeds of a doctoral dissertation or two.

Second, the same morning that I read Markham’s poem I also read Alma 42 in the Book of Mormon which Joseph translated when he was 24 years old.  I recorded these reactions in my journal:
“I had an experience that reaffirmed my testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and the Book of Mormon is the word of God.  During the reading I became aware that the concepts in the chapter were deep and profound.  I found myself asking how Joseph Smith at age 23-25 could have known some of the detail he put in that chapter, how he could have written so deeply and profoundly [at his age].”
That single chapter of scripture deals with the following:
  • The Fall of Adam.
  • An explanation of temporal and spiritual death.
  • How the plan of mercy can satisfy justice through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
  • The role of repentance in the plan.
  • The relationship of law to sin, justice, mercy, punishment and blessing.
  • The resurrection brings man back into the presence of God for judgment.
  • Agency is given to man; we are not compelled to come back to God.
When I compared in my mind Alma 42 with Markham’s poem I wrote:
“The Spirit of the Lord again rested upon me and testified that Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Book of Mormon is true.  Alma 42 is as masterfully woven together as Edwin Markham’s poem, but infinitely more profound. Markham was not unique in asking the deep questions he did.  They have been asked by many before him, and many since.  He was original only in the language in which he formulated his questions.  Alma 42, insofar as I know, is totally original.
Thank God for Joseph Smith.  Lets think together again, soon.

*Robert Mayerovitch, “The Challenge of Otherness,” Baccalaureate address, Baldwin-Wallace College, 7 May 2006, in Vital Speeches of the Day 72 (June 2006), p. 552, emphasis added.

**Charles L. Wallis, Poems of Edwin Markham, (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1950), p. 5, emphasis added.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Jesus Respected The Human Mind

Jesus Christ respected the abilities of the human mind.  Some reading this morning reinforced a thought I have harbored for a long time.  That is that Jesus Christ honored the mind that God endowed each human with.  That led him to teach principles that went far below the surface level one might expect the average person in Palestine to understand. Moreover, there are indications in the scriptures that he and his Father took joy in and thought man should also take joy in the life of the mind.  I give just two examples of these ideas below.

Let me start with the second idea first since it was in my reading this morning.  In Mark 12 and parallels in Matthew and Luke, Jesus gave what has been called the parable of the wicked husbandmen.  The story tells of a man who planted a vineyard with appropriate accessories and let it out to stewards to care for it and he went elsewhere.  Repeatedly he sent servants to gather the proceeds from the venture, but the husbandmen abused them, brought violence on them, and even killed them.  Finally, he sent his son but the husbandmen cast him out and killed him.  So the lord of the vineyard destroyed the husbandmen and gave the vineyard to others to care for.  The story concludes with a quotation of Psalm 118:22 “The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.”

I was fascinated to learn that an interesting wordplay in Hebrew hides here.  The Hebrew words for “son” and “stone” ( ben, eben)  have the same two first letters, but the word for stone has an additional third letter. Jesus was the “Son” of God and he was also the cornerstone of the church.  This metaphor is used several times in the scriptures, each time suggesting that the stone which the builders rejected is the Son of God.  This is only evident in Hebrew, not in the Aramaic or Greek prevalent in Jesus’ day.  Would the average Jew have understood this?  It turns out that something Josephus said suggests they may have. In describing the Roman attack on Jerusalem, he says when the rebels saw the large Roman catapult stones coming at them they cried out “The Son is Coming!”  (Josephus, Wars, 5:6:3.)  There is a debate about what this meant at the time, given they were probably using Aramaic or Greek, but the wordplay in Hebrew is interesting.  

God seems to love wordplay.  It is scattered throughout the prophetic and poetic writings of the Old Testament and frequently used in the New Testament.  My point, it does not necessarily take a brilliant mind to hear and catch a wordplay or pun, but it does take an awake and thinking mind and one that can also enjoy a play on words.  There is a subliminal message here–God trusts the human mind and he understands some of the things that delight and prod it.  He and his representatives frequently use those tools to teach his children and it is possible that they can learn to take intellectual delight in and derive insight from the subtleties of language as well.  The life of the mind can be enjoyable and that is permissible–even intentional.

My second example also contains an implied message completely different from the intended teaching.  John 4 recounts the well known story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  In this encounter Jesus asks the woman for some water.  She, knowing the animosity then extant between Jews and Samaritans, asks him why he asked her for help.  His reply suggests how Jesus felt about the human mind–in this case a female human mind.  He said:  
“If thou knewest the gift of God and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.”
Did he really expect her to understand what he meant by offering her “living water”? Probably not, but he wanted her to ask him about it, which is exactly what she did.  Notice in his reply, how quickly he takes her into an even deeper theological discussion:
...whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
It has always seemed to me that these are pretty heady concepts to discuss with one who was probably a peasant woman.  I doubt there was a Samaritan University in Shechem, and even if there was, it is even less likely that she, a woman, was a student there.  No, but she is one of the extraordinary “ordinary” people we so frequently encounter in the life of Christ.  He obviously trusts that her mind is capable of understanding and believing him.  

As we read we see that she does have important intellectual attributes.  Her mind was quick, inquiring, and supple, and Jesus responding to her questions took her from calling him a “Jew”, to “sir”, to “prophet”, to “Messiah” in one conversation.  She had a thoughtful, confident, and independent mind.  She picked an argument with him about where the correct place to worship was.  She had a religious mind.  She knew about Jacob, the Samaritan temple, and the Messiah.  She had an open and honest mind. When he told her the history of her relationships with the men of her life she acknowledged he was a prophet.  Her mind was willing and believing.  She believed a Messiah would come and when he plainly told her he was the Messiah she went back into town and said to the men there, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” 

This conversation with a peasant woman about abstractions of Christian theology is every bit as high leveled as the one recorded in the previous chapter between Jesus and Nicodemus a Pharisee and a “ruler of the Jews.”  He was doubtless one of the better educated of his people, but as far as the stories of the two show he had nothing over the Samaritan woman intellectually.  Both possessed several billion God-given brain cells and Jesus knew and expected both could use them to perceive, understand and believe his message.

Jesus trusted the minds of people of all religious, social, and economic ranks and genders he encountered. He challenged them to use their intellect to consider high and deep spiritual concepts.  If they did so with a certain degree of humility, integrity and interest the Spirit of the Lord could act upon those minds and the results were often miraculous.  The same is true today!

Lets think together again, soon.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Let Me Introduce You To The "Commonplace Book"

Do you like great ideas, quotations, poems, jokes, and stories, but have a hard time remembering them? Have you tried to save them but given up because it took too much time or you didn’t know what to do with them once you wrote them down or typed them? What use were the scraps of paper, napkins, backs of envelops, or even small notebooks? Well, if you have such an interest you probably will not be surprised to learn that this has been a popular interest for a long time.  

Let me introduce you to the idea of a "Commonplace Book".  It was one of the first manifestations of collecting literary gems. Commonplace books may date back to Rome when Marcus Aurelius complied his Meditations.  Commonplace books as such seemed to come into their own during the Enlightenment.  They were important in early modern Europe and America.

My college edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says a commonplace book is “a personal journal in which quotable messages, literary excerpts, and comments are written.”  But the genre is a bit more broad and involved than that. Wickipedia tells us commonplace  books were a way to compile knowledge.  They were scrapbooks filled with every kind of item–poems, letters, quotations, recipes, tables, graphs, proverbs and epigrams–whatever one was interested in and in keeping.  Often authors wrote their own thoughts in these books.  Thus, one blogger calls them a “thought catalog.”  They were so popular and useful that John Locke developed a way to index commonplace books so their authors could find things readily.  It was a precursor to indexes in modern books.  Wickipedia says “Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. 

Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests and they have undergone many permutations over time.   When I first became interested in this I tracked down Thomas Jefferson’s commonplace book and read it. Though I wasn’t terribly impressed with what he collected, it was interesting to get a peak into his early interests and thought processes.  Just this week I found through Abebooks.com (an online consortium of used book dealers), Charles Stokes Carey, A Commonplace Book of Epigrams Analytically Arranged, published in 1872.  More recently, Ronald Reagan’s collection of quotations, stories, and jokes has become well known since his death.  Some of his collection was recently published to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.*  (You can see a 3 minute video showing how he actually used some of his material while he was President, here:  http://bcove.me/w8yz3mwh .) Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B. Hinckley, both Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, were known for wide reading, clipping and filing things that would be useful in the many talks and sermons and administrative duties they had.  Thomas S. Monson did a similar thing.  A book of more than 900 of his favorite quotations was published in 1985 and is still available today.  It was really his commonplace book. In the “Preface” he wrote, 
Over the years I have enjoyed collecting quotations, poems, and stories that might be used to illustrate important principles of the gospel.  These are words of wisdom and inspiration that have influenced me with their simple but eloquent messages. [Thomas S. Monson, Favorite Quotations from the Collection of Thomas S. Monson, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985, vii.]
I started my own collection of quotations and other information in 1962 and now I have over 21,000 computer files in what I call DanFile.  It is my electronic version of a commonplace book.  In future blogs I will tell you more about this collection and provide a few tips about how to build and use one.

Let’s think together again, soon.

Note: If you would like more information about this interesting phenomenon do a Google search on the Internet and you will find a lot of things about commonplace books, including some history.  You will also find that commonplace books have been the subject of a number of other books and the commonplace books of many people have been published.

* Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom, New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Remembering Lot's Wife

[A friend asked me for this.  It was originally CRM's Reaping Success, Vol. 31 (April 2004).]

Most of the important lessons in life we get from people.  We learn how to talk by imitating our parents. They also show us how to learn almost anything providing only that someone else has already learned it.  Just think how dull it would be to live among people devoid of experience! Experience also has the interesting power to operate in reverse.  It can teach us to avoid those activities that have already been proven to be unprofitable.

I have always felt very sorry for Cain, who lived when the world was so new that very little actual experience had been accumulated.  When Cain became jealous of the success and righteousness of his brother, Abel, he was unable to properly solve his problem, partly because there was no such evil experience to warn him of his danger.  And of himself he was not strong enough to obey God’s law without some actual illustrations of the dangers of disobedience.  From this point of view, we who live in this present age might feel very fortunate, as we have had the profitableness, as well as the unprofitableness of every situation demonstrated and proven over and over again.  We know for ourselves which fruit will come from a given seed.  Right shines out more clearly in contrast with wrong.  It is easier to distinguish between important or unimportant experiences when they are arranged side by side.

Our appreciation of the virtues of the tortoise are more meaningful when set in opposition to the faults of the hare.  The deeds of the good Samaritan are more memorable when viewed alongside the self-interest of the priest and the Levite.  Everyone makes a contribution to our welfare.  The villain serves our success, quite as well as the hero.  One shows us the experiences to be avoided while the other is setting up the examples for us to follow.

We owe a great deal to the scholars, saints, and heroes, but owe an equal debt to the failures, fools, and sinners.  When the first man put his hand on a red hot stove, he made all future pain from that source unnecessary.  In the same way, the villain teaches us to hate unfairness, the sinner makes evil more repulsive, and the reverse action of failure motivates greater ambition in us.  If we love righteousness, the tragedies, mistakes, and sins of others tend to put us in a position to score for good.

One of the most helpful of the negative performers to play upon the stage of the scripture was Lot’s wife. Lot was the nephew of Abraham, and when the Lord moved Abraham away from the idolatry of his homeland, Lot went along.  The Lord had promised to make of Abraham a great nation with Lot and his wife included as beneficiaries.  And it was not many years before they were both enjoying great prosperity, with large holdings of livestock, lands, and goods.  In order to simplify their operations Abraham was appointed to divide the land, and when Lot was given his first choice, he selected the will-watered Jordan plain lying eastward toward Sodom, which the Bible says “looked like the garden of the Lord.”  (Gen. 13:11)

But apparently the Lot family were a little too harmonious with the Sodomites, as they moved into their city to live with them.  This is where their trouble began, inasmuch as the people of Sodom were extremely wicked.  The Bible says that they sinned exceedingly before the Lord.  When their wickedness reached its climax, God decided that Sodom and her equally wicked sister city of Gomorrah must be destroyed.

Abraham tried to intercede, on the grounds that the righteous should not be destroyed with the wicked.  So the Lord offered to spare Sodom if 50 righteous inhabitants could be found. Abraham bargained a little further, and finally the Lord agreed to call off the destruction if only ten righteous Sodomites could be located.  But they sealed their own doom when even ten righteous were not forthcoming.  Then two angels were sent to get Lot and his family out of the city.  Because there was not much time, Lot was urged to hurry.  The angels said, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.”  (Gen. 19:17) But Lot had some difficulty even with his own family. The idea of destruction seemed so ridiculous to the sons-in-law that they refused to leave.  Then the record says, “And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here; lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city.”  But even Lot hesitated, and the record says, “And while he lingered, the angels laid hold upon his hand and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters, and set them without the city.”

Then we read, “The sun was risen upon the earth when the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all of that which grew upon the ground.”  (Gen. 19:16-25) But when Lot’s wife left Sodom, she left her heart behind her.  And she was not quite strong enough to carry out the commandment of the angels against looking back.  Finally when she could stand the strain no longer, she moved to the rear of the line.  Then when no one was watching, she looked back.  The record says, “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”  (Gen. 19:26)

Luke indicated that this idea of looking back on sin would also be a part of our own problem. While he was making a comparison between the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the destruction that will attend our own society at the second coming of Christ, he said, “Remember Lot’s wife.”  (Luke 17:32) Because Lot’s wife disobeyed she became a pillar of salt.  But she has also become the emblem of this trait of vacillation and indecision that is never quite sure of itself.  It’s pretty hard to go ahead very fast when one is interested in what is happening behind us.  To “remember Lot’s wife” may keep us from making her mistake. We may not always look where we are going, but we can be pretty sure that we will usually go where we are looking.

Back in the old days on the farm, the horses’ bridles were equipped with blinders to give their attention a forward focus.  When the horses were without blinders, the distractions from right and left caused them to step on too many plants or to make a crooked furrow.  A good pair of blinders on Mrs. Lot’s emotions might have saved her life.

But looking back still causes some of our biggest problems.  Jesus probably had “blinders” in mind when he said, “Keep your eye single.”  He meant, keep your vision focused and your mind on your duty.  When we listen to the voices enticing us from behind, the power of our forward purpose is usually lost.  Looking back to their old ways was one reason why people failed to follow Jesus.  And he said to them, “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 9:62) In other words, he said, “Remember Lot’s wife.”

A teacher was once telling her Sunday School class this story about how Lot’s wife had looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.  A young member of the class volunteered the information that while his mother was driving the family car she had looked back and had turned into a telephone pole.  But when some other people look back they turn into vacillators, procrastinators, failures, and sinners.  The Apostle James points out that “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.”  But Lot’s wife had a double interest with a serious conflict–one interest was ahead and the other was behind.

One can’t very well hang onto his past in Sodom and avoid the fire and the brimstone that God rains down upon it.  In addition, some of the greatest prizes of life are lost while we are hesitating and reconsidering, with one eye on the rear.  Even in asking God for wisdom, James says, “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.”  He says, “...let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.”  (James 1:5-7) Uncertainty, indecision, and double interests always cause wavering, and wavering is always bad business.  When we try to keep one eye on the past, we not only waver in our faith, but we also waver in our occupations and in every other thing.

It has been said that no farmer ever becomes very wealthy by watering last year’s crops. Yet with many regrets and often with freely flowing tears, we continue to water the irrevocable past.  Frequently we expand our greatest effort and waste our most powerful emotions on events that are forever dead.  No one can live effectively in the challenging present or face an unknown future with confidence, while his thoughts are buried in the musty past.

It is one of the marks of immaturity to moan over what cannot be helped.  Shakespeare had the right idea when he said “things without remedy should be without regard.”  This applies not only to our mistakes but also to our failures and sins.  One of the great laws of God promises forgiveness to anyone who genuinely repents.  But God’s forgiveness is often nullified because the sinner does not forgive himself.  What good does it do for God to blot out our evil from his mind if we continue to let it dominate our thinking by rerunning it in our own?

Sometime ago I talked with a woman 53 years of age who had committed a moral transgression at age 18. She understood that her sin was very serious, but because she had repented a thousand times we can depend on the Lord’s promise that he had forgiven her. But she had never forgiven herself.  Because she felt unclean and inferior, she withdrew from her friends, refused to marry, and became a kind of social and spiritual recluse. For 35 years she downgraded herself with bitter regrets and accusations.  Her life of looking back upon her sin has turned her into something far below the wonderful person that God intended her to be. Her sin at age 18 was very serious.  But for 35 years she has been adding to her sin by wasting the most valuable thing in the world, which is a splendid human life.

We must learn to forgive ourselves and clean the evil out of our memories.  We need to unburden our lives of the heavy load of guilt and inferiority that can prevent accomplishment in any department of life.  As we cling to our sins we multiply them.  By looking back on failure we confirm it and make it permanent.  Only after we repent, reform, and forget, are we in a position to set our hand steadily on the plow to develop new ground.

We cannot even afford to look back on our successes for longer than it takes to confirm their lessons.  For as someone has said, “You can’t win this year’s ball games by reading last year’s press notices.”  When our minds are so fully occupied with last year’s victories, we have too little room for present accomplishment. When we look ahead from age 25, we must expect forty years of experience in a working lifetime.  When we look back we may merely get the same year’s experience repeated forty times.  George Washington once said, “Never look back except to derive useful lessons from past errors and profit from our dearly bought experience.”

But, the motto, “Remember Lot’s wife,” may also help us profit from her dearly bought experience.  Her service to us is similar to that of the baseball player who makes a sacrifice hit, enabling the team to score the winning run.  And by practicing the experience of Lot’s wife in reverse, we can turn ourselves into wonderful successes.

It seems to me to be very appropriate to think carefully of those who have failed, in order that we might better install the opposite as a part of our own successes.  Therefore in the negative section of my own mental hall of fame, I have placed the statues of some of life’s benefactors whose mission is to show us what not to do.  Against the dark background of their fate we can see our own destiny more clearly.  Jezebel stands for colorful wickedness. Cain is the emblem of fratricide.  Judas represents betrayal.  The rich man who traded his soul for bulging barns filled with goods that he couldn’t use personifies foolishness.  The early life of the prodigal son is a visualization of a wasted soul.  And then standing there alone on the mountainside, high above the plains of Sodom, is the pillar of salt, reminding us of those defects of vacillation and hesitation that are bred in our souls when we permit our eyes or our spirits to turn backward.

Sterling W. Sill, “Lot’s Wife,” in , What Doth It Profit?, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1965), pp. 179-184.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why I Believe: Evidence Four: Isaiah 2 In 2 Nephi 12

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Four: 
Isaiah 2 in 2 Nephi 12© 

Second Nephi chapter 12 is an interesting chapter for a number of reasons.  For one, it is the beginning of Nephi’s quotations from the book of Isaiah in this portion of the Book of Mormon starting with Isaiah 2. Isaiah 2 is famous in its own right, but especially among Mormons.  Verses two and three are Isaiah’s famous prophecy about the temple in the last days. 
2.  And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. 
3.  And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
This prophecy was also copied almost verbatim by the prophet Micah (see Micah 4:1-2), so it is not particularly unusual for other prophets to show interest in this passage.   In addition to the important and interesting subject matter of a temple in the last days, a recent article by Jeffrey Chadwick*, professor of religion at BYU has brought to light another tidbit that gives one pause in respect to Joseph Smith and the origin of the Book of Mormon.

I start off with an observation and a question.  Chapter 12 of 2 Nephi is the first of a dozen chapters from Isaiah excerpted into the Book of Mormon.  They run from Isaiah 2 through 14.  Why did Joseph Smith start with chapter two instead of chapter one?  Well, it turns out that the possible answer is very interesting.  Dr. Chadwick points out that some scholars believe that chapter one is out of chronological order.  Section 1 of our Doctrine and Covenants is a “preface” to the book and it too is out of chronological order.  Sequentially it fits between Sections 66 and 67, but the Lord instructed Joseph to put it in the front of the book.  Chadwick believes that something similar is involved with Isaiah chapter 1.

The story is a bit involved, but here is my simplification.  Isaiah chapters 2-35 are a prophetic section which was probably composed by Isaiah prior to the Assyrian invasion of the Holy Land in 701 BC.  Isaiah 36-39 relate the story of the invasion and form a historical bridge between this first section and chapters 40-66 which were likely composed after the Assyrian attack and treat very different themes than the first part.

So what about chapter 1?  Chadwick argues that it too was written after 701 B.C., in fact, right after chapters 36-39, but is placed at the beginning of the book as an introduction to the entire work.  Here Isaiah “addresses the aftermath of the destruction of all the kingdom of Judah but Jerusalem.  This was the conclusion of a disaster that had started with the total destruction of the kingdom of Israel two decades earlier.” (p. 368)  Thus, chapter two is chronologically the first of Isaiah’s writings, which significantly, begins with  a prophecy about a new temple in Jerusalem. 

If all of this is correct, and I don’t know of any serious reasons why it isn’t, then it makes sense that Nephi would not include chapter 1 in his excerpt, because theme-wise it was considerably different than the twelve chapters he excerpted into 2 Nephi.  This leaves me wondering, as things like this so often do, how did Joseph Smith know this? It seems like he always gets the detail right!  But of course he did not write this book, he translated it by the “gift and power of God.”  That is the real key to all the correct details we encounter in his work.

Thank God for Joseph Smith.  Lets think together again, soon.

*See: Jeffrey R. Chadwick.  “The Great Jerusalem Temple Prophecy: Latter-day Context and Likening unto Us.”  In Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament, edited by David R. Seely, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, and Matthew J. Grey, 367-83.  The 42d Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium.  Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2013.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Insufficiency of Technology

I have been reading some of the “Strictly Personal” newspaper columns of Sydney Harris in my morning reading.  Harris combines the enviable (to me at least) talents of being both thoughtful and articulate, even eloquent. He is sophisticated, urbane, intellectual, but he is also practical, almost common.  And he is liberal.  No matter, because I enjoy him for his talent, though I often disagree with what he says.

This morning I came across a piece he must have written before or in the early stages of the computer revolution.  His article is titled “We Pay a Heavy Price for Gadgets.”  He isn’t talking about I-Pads, Smart Phones, and digital wizardry–his reference was the radio and television.  Nevertheless, he sounded a thoughtful warning about the essential insufficiency of technology to the mind and spirit of mankind, portions of which I thought were appropriate to a column on “Living Philosophies.”  They are reproduced below:

“...there is a law of diminishing returns in such devices.  The worst thing about a man-made miracle is that it soon comes to be accepted as commonplace.
This psychological fact–the dwindling returns of pleasure from mechanical objects, so that we constantly require new gadgets to titillate our jaded emotions–is one of the soundest reasons for giving our children [a] ‘humanistic’ education.... 
For it is only in the world of the mind and imagination that we can find the eternally recurring springs of enjoyment. 
Nobody who has ever taken the trouble to read Shakespeare can ever tire of his poetry; nobody who has learned how to listen to Beethoven has ever been known to grow weary of his ‘old’ music. 
Works of art contain their own sources of rejuvenation; and the greater the work, the more ‘new things’ one can find in it year after year.  Hamlet is an inexhaustible play; you can never get to the ‘bottom’ of it. 
Children who grow up with an understanding and an appreciation of this heritage have infinitely more to sustain and delight and console them through life than those children who are given nothing but material objects. [Sydney J. Harris, The Best of Sydney J. Harris, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976, p. 329.]

Lets think together again, soon.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why I Believe: Evidence Three: Joseph's Humility in Leadership

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Three: 
Joseph’s Humility In Leadership© 

A number of my reasons for believing Joseph Smith was a prophet coalesce around his leadership.  Because this is a topic which interests me greatly and which is treated too seldom in our literature, I will have occasion to return to this subject several times.  Joseph Smith was an extremely effective leader, so much so that he is frequently described as “charismatic.”  The term can mean many things when applied to leaders, but usually implies a powerful personal influence on others.  

My interests are in the spiritual principles which he understood and lived by which led to a leadership style that was different from the norm of his day and ours.  The principles of his leadership style come directly from heaven; it is a “divine style” of leadership.  I am not claiming that Joseph Smith was perfect in any way including his leadership.  However, he possessed characteristics and principles, the divine nature of which shine through his life despite his weakness and inadequacies.  

One of his greatest leadership traits was humility.  I know, we so often hear from his enemies and some misguided Latter-day Saints about the strength and force of his personality which seem to belie any humility. There is no question he was a man of great action, again often misunderstood as expressions of hubris and arrogance.  But when you get down deep into the documents and into the interior of his life an attractive and sweet humility emerges through the mists of contemporary caricatures.

It can be seen for example–and I will subsequently write about these things in more detail–in his response to the chastisement he received at the time of the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. Or, given his investment of time and energy in translation and the suffering associated with its publication, it was a remarkable achievement.  Yet Joseph made little of the book’s appearance or his involvement with it. Or, consider that much of 2 Ne. 3 is a lengthy series of complimentary prophecies concerning him and his mission, including one statement in which the Lord said that he would “make him great in mine eyes, for he shall do my work” (vs. 8), but as far as I am aware, Joseph Smith did not make a single statement regarding any of these prophecies.  His humility is also highly evident in his prayer life–particularly those found in his private journal.  I could go on, but as I said, these things are for another day.

This entry highlights one incident and his meek response to it.  In interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I was reminded of this episode while reading an excellent article by Mark Mendenhall and J. Bonner Ritchie regarding the leadership of Joseph and Hyrum in councils.* In June of 1831, Joseph Smith convened a conference and ordained the first high priests. During that meeting he ordained a man named Harvey Whitlock.  Soon after he did so Whitlock’s countenance changed and it was evident to Hyrum Smith that something was seriously out of order.  According to Levi Hancock’s account Hyrum said, “Joseph, that is not of God.”  Joseph replied “Do not speak against this.”  But Hyrum persisted, “I will not believe,” he said, “unless you inquire of God and he owns it.”  Joseph could have put Hyrum in his place–and on a later occasion in Nauvoo when Hyrum was out of order Joseph did correct him.  But this time Joseph bowed his head and after a short time got up and laid his hands on Whitlock and commanded Satan to leave him.

Lesser men may have spurned Hyrum’s questioning of their authority. If Joseph were prideful and arrogant he would likely have ignored Hyrum. Nor did he reprove his brother with sharpness as mentioned in D&C 121; he was not moved upon by the Holy Ghost to do so.  Despite his closeness to God and despite all the revelations and visitations he received, Joseph did not consider himself omniscient or infallible.  Rather, he demonstrated one of the hallmarks of humility–he was teachable.  He listened to his brother, reconsidered the situation and took the appropriate action to get the guidance of the Spirit.  One of the things I admire most about him is when he discovered his mistakes he exhibited the necessary humility to quickly repent or change just as he did in this historical priesthood meeting. Humility such as Joseph’s is a saintly quality of leadership that is largely absent in the practice of many leaders of our modern world.

Thank God for Joseph Smith.  Let’s think together again, soon.

*See, Mark E. Mendenhall and J. Bonner Ritchie, “One Heart and One Mind: Councils in Zion, Zion in Councils,” in Joseph & Hyrum: Leading as One, edited by Mark E Mendenhall, et al., (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010, pp. 1-20.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: Newt Gingrich, Breakout.

America, the greatest nation on earth and greatest hope for the future of the world, also has monumental problems big enough to threaten its greatest nation status and knock her from the pedestal of being the hope of the future if they are not solved.  Poverty, a gigantic inefficient bureaucratic government, an ineffective and costly educational system, 15 trillion in national debt with cities and states facing bankruptcy, 2.3 million criminals in prison-the highest rate of any developed country, the break down of the family, rising costs of healthcare, decaying infrastructure, transportation gridlock, and dependency on fossil fuels are perhaps the Top Ten among the biggest of America’s problems.

Former speaker of the House of Representatives and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich tackles many of these issues in a new book, Breakout.  The core thesis of the book is that amazing technological advances and creative thinking are producing potential solutions to these problems.  However, there exists in every one of these fields what Gingrich calls “the prison guards of the past” who through one means or another hinder these advances that have so much potential to move America forward.  America is poised for breakouts in many areas but special interest groups, fear, greed, complacency, and other motivations are holding her back.

Chapters begin with a discussion of amazing developments in a specific field such as education and the potential those developments portend.  This is followed with example upon example of how the prison guards have or are checking the potential.  Nevertheless, Gingrich's enthusiastic optimism and his vision of America’s future fueled by these innovations permeates the book.  Each chapter is punctuated with ideas and suggestions of how creativity, ingenuity, innovation, and technology may address America’s problems.

Two chapters which especially interested me are those about education and health.  A brief look into  some of the ideas in the one on education may serve to give readers an idea of Gingrich’s approach.  (I’ll say more about health in a future blog.)  In the chapter on education he doesn’t spend a great deal of time discussing America’s woes regarding education.  Perhaps he feels the issue is understood well enough without much elaboration. He does say, however, that “We are on the edge of a dramatic transformation from bureaucratic education to individualized learning.” (p. 26) This is largely through technologies of communication, information and learning that are rapidly evolving and made available primarily through the Internet.  The problem is that despite this virtual revolution in transmitting knowledge, schools and universities have been especially slow to accept the change and advance the transformation.  

But hope is out there.  Gingrich highlights the now well-known Khan Academy.  Salman Khan has produced thousands of short video clips which teach mathematics from elementary to graduate school level math and 100s of thousands of students worldwide are using them to learn math.  The concept can be applied to nearly every conceivable subject matter.  For Gingrich two important benefits derive from this approach–it is free and can be virtually universal.  

Not surprisingly, however, there is a counter attack from traditional teachers.  Without going into the detail in the book, the telling point for me is that those opposing the Khan Academy are content to point out its flaws, but show no understanding of and exhibit no enthusiasm for its potential, therefore they offer no encouragement to create a better version.  

The chapter also discusses the efforts of others to make high quality education at the university level available online either free or at significantly reduced cost.

The book is a call for politicians, interest groups, scientists, educators, and citizens to encourage innovation and put pressure on various bodies holding progress back so that America may enjoy significant breakouts in the areas of her greatest problems.  Whatever one may think of Gingrich and his politics, it is difficult to deny that he is one of America’s foremost creative thinkers relative to addressing her problems with new ideas and potential solutions.  He is both a thinker and an activist.  If there are comparable creative and innovative thinkers on the left who have offered as many suggestions as are contained in this book I am not aware of them.  If you are, please bring them to my attention.  I am interested in reading more. 

See: Newt Gingrich, Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate.  Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2013.

Let's think together again, soon.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Happiness: The Views Of Three Smart Men


Today's "Living Philosophies" are the thoughts of three very smart men on the subject of happiness which are at once enlightening and thought provoking.  Enjoy!


RALPH WALDO EMERSON: The True Secret of Happiness

Whatever your goal may be, strike out for it.  What if you die in the attempt?  If you put every shred of yourself into the attempt, you will have had life's one great exhilarating and soul satisfying experience anyhow. When you start out to pursue your dreams, be prepared for a great discovery. It is the effort itself that will give you peace. This peace goes with you as you grow older, becomes your choicest companion, never leaves you. Wrestling this peace from a troubled world is about all there is to the secret of happiness.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Larry Bielat, Winning Words of Champions, (New York: Wings Books, 1995), p. 121.

BOOKER T. WASHINGTON: Those Who Do Most for Others Are the Happiest

The education that I received at Hampton out of the text-books was but a small part of what I learned there. One of the things that impressed itself upon me deeply, the second year, was the unselfishness of the teachers. It was hard for me to understand how any individuals could bring themselves to the point where they could be so happy in working for others.Before the end of the year, I think I began learning that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others. This lesson I have tired to carry with me ever since.

Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery, (New York: Bantam Books, 1963), p. 46.

THOMAS JEFFERSON: Health, Learning, Virtue Ensure Happiness

Be assiduous in learning, take much exercise for your health & practice much virtue.Health, learning & virtue will ensure your happiness; they will give you a quiet conscience, private esteem & public honor. Beyond these we want nothing but physical necessaries; and they are easily obtained.

Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 17 July 1790, in John P. Kaminski, ed., The Quotable Jefferson, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 235.

Let's think together again, soon.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why I Believe: Evidence Two: How Ministers Are To Teach The Gospel To Non-members

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Two: 
How Ministers Are To Teach The Gospel To Non-members© 

Last week I initiated this series with comments about D&C 38:41 which imposed a high ideal upon Mormon ministers when preaching.  I observed that this seemed rather unusual for a lad of twenty-five years of age to give to the new church.  I want to follow up that with other statements by the youthful Prophet that give this ideal even greater significance to the young Church and its ministers.  This is further evidence to me of his prophetic calling and inspiration, and perhaps his uniqueness.

The passage quoted last week was one of a number of statements in Joseph Smith’s early revelations which instruct the ministry in the way of their duties.  In June of 1829, Section 18 of the Doctrine and Covenants was given. In verses 20-21 the Lord said to David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery: “Contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.  Take upon you the name of Christ, and speak the truth in soberness.”  In March of 1830, in Section 19:29 the Lord told Martin Harris to “declare glad tidings” and “publish it upon the mountains...among every people that thou shalt be permitted to see.”  In verses 30 and 31 the Lord instructed, 
And thou shalt do it with all humility, trusting in me, reviling not against revilers.  And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost. [Emphasis added.]
Ten months later the Lord gave the revelation quoted last week–D&C 38:41: “And let your preaching be the warning voice, every man to his neighbor, in mildness and in meekness.”  
By December of 1833, Joseph was including some of these things in his instructions to departing missionaries.  He cautioned them regarding their manner of interacting with non-members.
Let the Elders be exceedingly careful about unnecessarily disturbing and harrowing up the feelings of the people.  Remember that your business is to preach the Gospel in all humility and meekness, and warn sinners to repent and come to Christ.
Avoid contentions and vain disputes with men of corrupt minds, who do not desire to know the truth.  Remember that “it is a day of warning, and not a day of many words.”  [D&C 63:58] If they receive not your testimony in one place, flee to another, remembering to cast no reflections, nor throw out any bitter sayings.  If you do your duty, it will be just as well with you, as though all men embraced the Gospel. [Joseph Smith, HC 1:468; TPJS, p. 43, emphasis added.]
On 30 March 1836, preparations were being made for administering the sacrament in the Kirtland Temple.  An account of what transpired follows:
While waiting, I made the following remarks–that the time that we were required to tarry in Kirtland to be endowed, would be fulfilled in a few days, and then the elders would go forth...but to go in all meekness, in sobriety, and preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified; not to contend with others on account of their faith or systems of religion, but pursue a steady course.  This I delivered by way of commandment; and all who observe it not will pull down persecution upon their heads, while those who do, shall always be filled with the Holy Ghost; this I pronounced as a prophecy, and sealed with Hosanna and Amen. [HC 2:431; or TPJS, 109, emphasis added.]
Here Joseph makes it clear that these revelations constitute a commandment to missionaries.  A commandment with a promise. 

In a day when extreme and militant religionists dominate the planetscape, hate-filled promulgation of their faith by confrontation, argument, rudeness, vitriol, ridicule, insult, debate, falsehood, slander, deceit, persecution, violence, and even war are commonplace. The result?   Hearts grow cold and hard.  In attempting to drive many to God they are driven from him and those who claim to represent him.  The commandment Joseph Smith gave Mormon missionaries is consonant with the teachings of Jesus Christ when he said “love your enemy” and “love one another as I have loved you.”  And the promise is if they will keep these commandments they shall be “filled with the Holy Ghost”–the single most important thing for a missionary to possess in preaching the Lord’s gospel.  

Thank God for Joseph Smith.  Let's think together again, soon.