Saturday, April 30, 2016

Alma 36-38 - Letters to Helaman and Shiblon

This section of the Book of Mormon contains some of the most personal writing in the entire work. Only the letters of Mormon to his son Moroni evoke a stronger sense of love and poignancy. Also contained in this passage is THE chiasmus of the entire Book of Mormon, Alma 36.

These are not letters dashed off in a moment. They are instead, works of literary art Alma spent hours crafting. His intent wasn’t to write something beautiful and instructive, though they are. He wrote them to bare the most powerful witness he could to the reality of Jesus Christ and the events surrounding his conversion. While you can read them quickly in a few minutes and get something out of them. If you spend time pondering this passage and getting lost in the artistic beauty of the work, you’ll learn so much more.

To delve further into the literary artistry is beyond the time and space I can take here. If you’re interested here are a couple of links to much more detailed examinations of the chiasmus: Chiasmus in Alma 36, A Masterpiece: Alma 36

Also in this passage, Alma retells his conversion to his sons Helaman and Shiblon. He also hands over to Helaman custody of the plates, including instructions about what not to say of the Jaredite record. Contained in it is one of my favorite scriptures, Alma 37:37

“Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings,
and He will direct thee for good.

     Yea, when thou liest down at night,
    lie down unto the Lord,

        that He may watch over you in your sleep.

    And when thou risest in the morning,
    let thy heart be full of thanks unto God.

And if ye always do these things,
ye shall be lifted up at the last day.”

A quick word to the observant, the punctuation here is not what is found in the current printing of the book, but what exists in Royal Skousen’s work, “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text.” I’ve presented it pretty much as it appears in that work, though I’ve marked the parallels with the indentations to make them easier to see. I did it so you can see Alma's use of parallelism to enhance the meaning of the passage. As you compare each level against its counterpart, you'll get a deeper meaning of what Alma is trying to say. This is just a taste of the literary artistry in this passage. Reading Skousen's version will increase your appreciation for the Book of Mormon and show in a compelling way, this is not the work of an Upstate New York farmer of 1829.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Alma 32-35 - Sermons to the Zoramites

I’ve lived with the nagging fear the tale of the Zoramites is in the Book of Mormon because it’s so easy for me to slip into behaving like them. After Alma shows us how they “worship,” he records three different sermons. Each one used to reclaim these people. Each one touches a different fundamental aspect of discipleship, which if used, will help us become better disciples.

So, what topics are taught? We have Alma’s visually evocative lecture on faith. Will you ever look at a seed again the same way? He promises the test of the seed will work even if all you have is a desire to believe.

Then there’s the admonition to pray for everything: your crops (work), family, enemies and friends. That not only do you pray for them, but that you should pray often for them. I tend to forget the flip side of this in that we also need to help the needy. In effect, it’s acts of charity which give power to our prayers. Or, put another way: if you want God to answer your prayers, serve His children.

There’s a powerful lesson on the Atonement and lastly, (at least for this post) there’s the dire warning that now is the time to repent. Now is the time to improve ourselves. Those who think they’ll wait to the next life to repent will discover the spirit (God or Satan) they choose to listen to in this life won’t change at death. I learned this when I first became a missionary. Back then I thought, “when I become a missionary, I will become a mighty servant of the Lord.” Wrong. To my horror and shock, after arriving in the Language Training Mission, I found out I was still me. The only way I became a servant was by a lot of hard work, prayer, scripture study and fasting. Change came because I worked for it, not because my circumstances had.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Alma 31 - The Zoramites

It’s rather ironic Korihor met his end at the hands of the Zoramites. He died literally under the feet of people who believed exactly as he taught. I can’t help but think he would’ve fared much better at the hands of the people who best lived the religion he eschewed, the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s.

The Zoramites are caricatures of the person who is pious and religious just for show. They are also a warning to us who are striving to be true Christians. They were all about appearance and vanity: pious on Sunday, and anything but the rest of the week. They thought they were “God’s elect” saved and set aside to be redeemed while the rest of the world is destroyed. They loudly claimed from their towers to know things, which in reality were far from the truth.

My great fear is that I am an unwitting Zoramite more often than I care to admit. And that for me is the best lesson to learn from them. They thought they had a corner on the truth, which they didn’t. And they thought they were God’s special people, which they weren’t. If anyone was what the Zoramites thought they were, it would have been the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s.

Beyond that, the mission to reclaim the Zoramites contains a pithy observation by Alma: the preaching of the word had more effect on the behavior of people than any other thing, even the sword. You want to change someone’s behavior, teach them the Gospel. Once internalized, it will cause changes no amount of force could ever do. It’s why all of us here in mortality chose the Father’s plan of agency over Satan’s plan of force. Change and growth has to come from within, it can’t be forced.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Alma 29-30 - Other "true" churches and Korihor

There aren’t many greater contrasts in the Book of Mormon than Alma’s earnest prayer desiring to teach the Gospel to the world and the sordid tale of Korihor. On the one hand, Alma desires to be an angel (he knows what they can do!) to convincingly teach the Gospel to everyone. Then you have Korihor, an Anti-Christ, who teaches a message that in this life, it’s everyman for himself. Two men. Two messages: grace and charity on one hand, selfishness and pride on the other.

There’s an insightful gem into God’s efforts to teach His children tucked in Alma 29:8. There, Alma says the Lord grants to all nations in their own languages and cultural milieus all the wisdom He sees fit to give them. In Moroni is found the lesson that anything which points man to Christ is of God and good. Then in Jacob 5, we have God's effort to iteratively groom and prepare the olive vineyard for the last great harvest. They all show His' efforts to redeem and save His children are not confined to just this church.

I’ve been asked in the past how to explain the affirmations of other people in other religions who say their church is THE true church. How do I explain the witnesses they have had, I am asked. The key to the answer is in this verse. God gives to all people what their cultures prepare them to accept. As they master that and are ready for more, He'll find a way to give them more. I just happen to think the apex of His effort will always be found in the LDS church.

For the LDS church, there is more yet to come, even if it is nothing “more” than the sealed part of the Book of Mormon or the Law of Consecration. I look forward to the day those are revealed, but until then, I’ll do my best trying to live what has already been given. Even with that, I have a lot of work and growing to do.

Well, that took more space than I thought. On to Korihor. By reading and studying his messages, you will see all the arguments he hurled at Alma that are similarly hurled at the church today by its critics. See if these don’t sound familiar:

Church leaders’ motives are impure.

They glut themselves on the offerings of the members.

The church’s doctrines enslave people rather than free them.

There is no Christ.

There is a loving, all forgiving and friendly God who loves us as we are, so why work so hard being “good.”

The doctrines of the church are founded on the foolish traditions of long dead men.

What you see, feel or experience with your senses, is more important than what you learn through faith. (Atheists love this one, it’s the foundational axiom supporting the claim science is better than religion for teaching man about the world around him.)

Alma easily dismantles these arguments and exposes Korihor for the fraud he is. At the end of their debate, all Korihor does is demand, “I won’t believe until God shows me a sign.” So, God shows him one -- by striking him dumb and deaf. I like the judge’s observation, “who do you think God was going to manifest this sign on? Someone else?”

No longer useful to him, Satan abandons him. Like a used up candle, Korihor gutters out, trampled to death by the über self-righteous Zoramites.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Alma 25-28 - Then End of the Mission

I must admit, the previous post was a lot of fun to write and contemplate. If you haven’t read it and are interested in knowing how I roll, reading it will give you a good idea. Now, on with the rest of the Book of Mormon story…

Many of the unconverted Lamanites, mostly Nehors, are so angry with the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s they begin to make war again on them, again. With the death of the king, things go from bad to worse. Other than be destroyed, their only recourse is to flee to the Nephites and beg for their mercy and protection. This is what Ammon begs the new king to choose. He agrees to it on one condition, that Ammon inquire of the Lord to get His will in the matter.

Ammon does ask and the answer comes back a resounding “yes!” He's told to get this people out because Satan has such great hold upon the hearts of the Lamanites. Talk about an act of faith! They leave behind everything they can’t carry and flee into the wilderness just on Ammon’s assurance this is what the Lord wants them to do. Their best hope is becoming slaves to the Nephites. They flee. When they get to the wilderness dividing the two nations, they wait.

It’s while they're here, Alma meets them. The rest of the story is well known. It begins a theme that continues throughout the rest of the Book of Alma. Ever after when Lamanites seek asylum amongst the Nephites, they do so by renouncing war and burying their weapons in the ground as proof of their intent. It sets an interesting context for a tradition I read about that exists among the Hopi indians, that their ancestors did this same thing long ago. I’ve wondered if the two are related.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Geek Time - this has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon

I’m embracing my geekiness with this post. I read an article stating some astrophysicists speculate the observed phenomena described as “dark matter” may be grouped into particles like baryonic matter. This is Spock-fascinating stuff for me, but before I geek out on it, let me explain why.

First off, a primer on “baryonic matter." In school we're taught the basic building blocks of stuff are protons, neutrons and electrons. This was avant-garde material when I was young but it’s way out of date now. Today, instead of the basic three particles there are a whole slew of them not to mention several different ways to classify them. Based upon what’s called the “Standard Model,” there are quarks, leptons, bosons and the Higgs-boson. How many isn’t germane to the discussion, you just need to know there are lots of them. All are lumped under the category of “baryonic” matter. In effect, baryons make everything you see around you, including light and even electricity.

Gravity appears to be the glue that holds the universe, galaxies, stars and planets together and dancing along. Earth is round because of gravity. It orbits the sun because of it. The sun shines because its constituent mass is held so tightly together fusion occurs. You get the idea: gravity makes the universe go round.

Here’s the nub: there’s not enough matter in the universe to explain the behavior scientists see. Here’s why: when scientists run their computer models, they’ve found galaxies spin so fast they should be flinging stars all over creation. They’re not. Since the math for this is pretty inflexible, they had to find a way, some magic sauce, to make the equations work. That magic sauce is “dark matter” and “dark energy.”  The amount they determined was needed to explain how the universe worked was a lot higher than they expected. They computed, baryonic matter makes up less than five percent of the total. The rest came from these two other sources.

This is old stuff for astrophysicists. What geeked me out, is now there are indications dark matter may not be a single type of particle but a bunch of different types like baryons. In sophisticated circles, dark matter, goes by the moniker, “WIMP.” It's an acronym for "weakly interacting massive particles." It means wimps exert a weak gravitational pull on baryons. Because of this, galaxies spin along the way we see them and all is good. They don’t interact with baryons in any other observed way. A bazillion wimps could shoot through you right now and you’d never know the difference.

If that seems hard to believe consider this: atoms are mostly empty space. "How empty," you ask? Hydrogen the simplest atom, consists of one proton and one electron. The proton is the center, the electron “orbits” it. Now for the scale. Make the proton the size of the sun. Guess where’s the Jupiter-sized the electron is. Give up? It's further away than Pluto. That's a LOT of empty space!

Let’s step back from the geek brink for a second. Given this scale, what makes matter look solid is not what it’s made of but the forces these particles give off and interact with. You see, touch, eat, feel and essentially live because force of fields bouncing off of each other at the sub-atomic scale. Without them, you're a ghost!

So, now into the über-geekness of this post. Some scientists speculate this wimp-matter may not only have different types of particles, but also its own set of forces. Forces which could give it the ability to form stars, planets and even life. All unobserved and unaffected by us, yet occupying the same volume of space we do.

Because they are bound by gravity, who’s to say this spatial overlap isn't more granular than just at the galactic level. What if they overlap at the stellar and planetary level too? Imagine our baryon Earth and a wimp Earth, both occupying the same volume of space moving together. The baryon-Earth orbits the baryon-sun we see while the wimp-Earth orbits a wimp-sun.

The cool part is comments by Joseph Smith argue for this interpretation. Just a couple are: “Angels are from this Earth.” Maybe the baryon-Earth and the “wimp-Earth” are a single world in God's eye? There’s also, “spirit is matter too, just more refined.” The word “refined” may not be the best choice, but given he said it in the 1830’s he can’t be faulted for not knowing words we don’t yet know ourselves.

A wimp-universe makes a lot of sense. And while we call it dark, I suspect it’s anything but. We call it that for the same reason a blind man calls a sun-lit room dark — he can’t see the light. Now maybe, as we learn more about “dark matter” this understanding will change. Time will tell. For now, I think the “spirit world,” where we lived before coming to mortality, is this wimp-Earth. The universe it’s in is the “real” one. And the baryon-universe we can see is the temporary test environment.

Stretch your brain….

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Alma 21-24 - A Tale of Two People, the Lamanites and the Nehors

This passage could be called the Tale of Two People. On the one hand, you have Lamanites who are pure descendants of Lehi’s and Ishmael’s sons. On the other, you have Nephites who rejected their religion to become Nehors and then became Lamanites. What these two groups do is a sobering warning to us: keep your testimonies fresh and alive!

The pure Lamanites are converted and never fall away. They would rather die than take up the sword against any man. Contrast this with the Lamanite Nehors who were once Nephites, virtually none of them are re-converted. They also play key roles in the slaughter of other Lamanites and Nephites. In the end, they and their descendants become a driven, hated, and scourged people.

As I lament their fate, Alma 5:7 rings in my mind. Another people fell away into great darkness but the Lord brought them back. It’s why we should take great hope from the words of the living prophets and apostles who say to never give up on those we love who for whatever reason leave the church. Live the Gospel to the best of your abililty. Keep the welcoming lamp light lit. You just never know when something will touch their lives. Elder Nielsen's talk from April 2015, "Waiting for the Prodigal," is all about this. It's a must read.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Alma 18-20 - Lamoni's Conversion

The lesson on leading with faith, which began in chapter 17, is reaffirmed in this passage. Because Ammon followed the whisperings of the Holy Ghost he became an instrument in God’s hands to teach the Gospel to Lamoni. In a miraculous series of events, Lamoni, his wife, many servants, and others in his house are all converted too.

Mormon makes another comment about the divine protection Mosiah got from the Lord for his sons. The brother of the leader of those who sought to scatter the king’s flocks, who was killed by Ammon, sees an opportunity for revenge. He raises his sword to kill him and dies in the act. The lesson here is the Lord keeps His promises.

Yet the story continues on and Ammon shows his willingness to follow where the Spirit leads when he tells Lamoni he’s going to Midoni to save his brother Aaron and two friends. Lamoni chooses to go with him. On their way, they meet Lamoni’s father, the king over all the lands of the Lamanites.

A fight ensues that ends up with the king seeing just how much Ammon loves his son. It changes his heart towards Ammon and the people in his group. Which prepares him to be taught by Aaron.

These missionary stories are amazing to read and contemplate. There is a common thread here that begs further comment. These spectacular conversions occurred because Ammon and Aaron and the others had faith they could happen. They had it because they’d already seen it in their own lives and especially with Alma the Younger. They knew from personal experience what the Lord could do and so they went forth and acted, expecting Him to do it again. And He did.

It’s a powerful lesson that the Lord blesses us according to our faith. All we have to do is act upon it ourselves, live righteously and follow the Holy Ghost’s promptings.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Alma 17 - Ammon, A Son of Mosiah

Ammon is a poster child for missionaries or any one who chooses to serve the Lord. He’s bold yet humble, optimistic, faithful and passionate in his desire to do God’s will. When I think of Ammon as a missionary, I think of a teenage friend of mine who served in Korea years after I did. I spent two years of my life trying to proselyte by the book, knocking doors, street meetings and the like. I was blessed with some success and I’m grateful for my experiences.

My friend, on the other hand, felt impressed to proselyte by playing table tennis. He was pretty good at it and was instrumental in baptizing a multitude of people because of it. To appreciate this you have to understand that table tennis (ping pong) is popular there. Back in the day, there were many businesses where hundreds of people would play the game for hours. By connecting with the people this way, he got in many doors I was never able to enter. Once inside, people would ask, “why are you here?” And off he went.

Such is the case with Ammon. Following impressions from the Holy Ghost, he offered to be Lamoni’s servant rather than son. He ends up with a job no one wanted, sheep herder. It was literally a dead end job, where if you failed, you died — at the king’s hand. I’m pretty certain, he had no idea what lay in store for him. Throughout their preparations to come and in his own stated desires, all they hoped to do was save a few Lamanites. The Lord had bigger ideas.

Unlike me, he followed where the promptings took him. At the end of the chapter, he not only has the respect of the other sheep herder servants, he’s got the King’s attention. What happens next, is in the next post.

I just have to add this observation: for want of a better phrase, I’ll call it “God’s promise of protection to the obedient son of a righteous father.” God promises Mosiah his sons will be protected in their mission to the Lamanites. Ammon knew of this and when he faces off against a group of Lamanites who mean to kill him, he does so fearlessly. True to His promise, God protects Ammon. If it didn’t happen again, I’d say it’s a one-time deal, but the Sons of Helaman, have similar divine protection when they go to war for the Nephites. Is this a universal promise? No. But if the need ever arose, I want to live worthy of asking for it.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Alma 12-16- The Fall of Ammonihah

When you compare the stories of the people of Ammonihah with Zeezrom, a picture of God’s justice and mercy comes into clear view. It’s insightful that one of the chief instigators of the questioning and persecution which Alma and Amulek endured, Zeezrom, repents and is forgiven. At the same time God destroys others who followed Zeezrom but chose not to repent.

What it shows is God will forgive almost any sin (yes, I know there are a couple which He won’t forgive). But He’ll forgive A LOT of things. At the same time, if you are determined to go your own way, He’ll let you — to the point that when the day of reckoning comes, you’ll know with certainty it was you who put yourself in the dire straits you’re in. You’ll know there’s none but yourself to blame.

This is what Alma explains to Amulek as they watched the martyrdom of the righteous women and children of Ammonihah. He said God permitted the atrocity so there would be no question in the mind of any observer that the retribution which comes upon the residents of Ammonihah was well deserved.

He also talks how these victims go to rest in God’s kingdom. Having died for their testimonies, they will be blessed by Him. These are good things to remember when you feel the injustices of others heaped upon you. The wicked may have their “fun” for the time being, but in the long run, you don’t want to be in their position.

Sigh. It’s easy to say, but oh, so hard to do. It reminds me of what Thomas Payne wrote, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value…. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods….” These sentiments are profoundly true.

So, several good things to remember: one — anyone can repent and be forgiven. And the lessons we learn in adversity are often our most cherished and valued gifts.