Thursday, September 17, 2015

Seeking Answers by the Spirit

I was strongly influenced by my Mission President, Halvor Clegg, in my understanding of how the Holy Ghost speaks to humans. Here is an edited list of instructions he gave us about getting answers to questions we had as missionaries.

  1. Pray for Inspiration
    1. Continue with the duties of the day, but meditate on the question.
    2. Make a list of the things that come to mind. They can come from many different sources. [You have to do your homework.]
    3. Follow every impression. [Try to overcome your assumptions about what the answer will be.]
  2. Confirm what you receive.
    1. Choose the most logical decision.
    2. Create a relevant yes or no question based on that decision. [Simple, binary answers are the easiest to understand. Remember, this answer is only to the specific question you asked as you asked it. You can’t assume it is generalizable.]
    3. Ask the question: “Is this the answer to my original question?”
  3. This method works for almost all applications
    1. Talks
    2. Lessons
    3. Missionary Discussions
    4. Presentations
    5. Conversations
  4. Don’t forget Free Agency
    1. When another person is involved, remember the Principle of Three.
    2. There must be agreement between you, the other person, and God to get a correct answer. [If all parties aren’t edified, the Spirit isn’t working.]
  5. Develop the Gift of Discernment
    1. It is a gift of the Holy Ghost.
    2. It permits one to understand the truth of what others say and also their motivations. [The homework here requires really paying attention to the other person.]
    3. Knowing the truth and other’s motivations, one can respond correctly.
  6. Be Careful with the Spirit
    1. You must stay focused when you ask a question. If your mind wanders, you may receive an answer, but to whatever you are thinking about in that moment--not your original question.

This list was primarily a reminder of things he taught us both repeatedly in meetings and by example, so I'd like to fill in some of the stories that emphasized what these instructions meant to him.

Every transfer President Clegg prayed about every single assignment. He learned what he could about the missionaries and the places they were needed. He arranged them the best way he could. He prayed about every single one. He didn't get yeses to his prayers on several assignments. He tried again. He did this for three full days before he felt the confirmation that the missionaries were assigned as God wanted. As time went on he got to where he could get answers for missionary assignments in a couple of hours, most times, but he had to learn. He had to do his homework, and it wasn't easy.

This was a common theme of President Clegg's messages. You have to do your homework. If you don't do your homework, you won't get the best answer. You are even likely to mistake a different answer for the one you were seeking. To illustrate this he told us about selecting the missionary who would give the surprise talk at zone conferences. We all had a topic, but no one knew who would speak. As we came in, President Clegg would pray to ask who should speak. As he looked at each of us he would ask, should this missionary speak? He did this until he got a yes. If he let his mind wander and thought, Elder Cannon is a really good missionary, the Spirit might (on a good day) tell him, YES! But that wasn't the answer to his question. Confusing answers was easy. Getting clear answers was hard.

Getting answers was even harder when multiple people were involved. God respects agency. Answers to prayers will not violate agency. An answer from God will fail if it violates someone's choice. I don't remember the stories that went with this, but he talked more than once about promising things in blessings in this context.

Personal revelation trumps instructions from leaders in guiding one's own actions. I'll rename it the Overbearing Relative Rule. When someone comes to you, especially someone who is just passing through your life and not really involved day to day, and presumes to tell you what you should do, you nod, smile, and do what's right. Doing what's right may mean doing what they say, or it might not. One Seventy came and told all the missionaries: You need to stop doing all these different things to try and meet people to teach and just go door to door all the time until you find people. He also said they shouldn't give out so many Books of Mormon. After he left, President Clegg said: Keep doing what you are doing. Tracting isn't effective. We will find money for more Books of Mormon. I've sought and received very specific instructions about the things you should be doing as missionaries, and the Spirit still tells me you should be doing that. Furthermore, the instructions of the Seventy go against the general instructions to missionaries to share the gospel in many ways (most of them more effective than door to door), and to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon. So carry on.

Later on President Clegg reacted very differently to another Seventy. When Elder Gene R. Cook came, President Clegg recorded his instructions and repeated them to us almost every mission conference for the rest of his time as mission president: 1. Humble yourself, 2. Repent, and 3. Pray for the Spirit. He modeled for us how Elder Cook put that in practice in everyday interactions. He taught us skills to help us be humble. He taught us the meaning of repentance as an attitude of change more than a list of dos and don'ts. He taught us that the Spirit didn't wait around for a period of penance, but would come guide us the moment we turned away from sin and toward God.

This is just a taste of what I learned from President Clegg's words and example. I've gone on to interpret and apply his teachings in my own ways, but his stories are enough for now.

Monday, September 14, 2015

To Friendship: Three Sonnets

Here are three sonnets written for three friends. Perhaps you can see something of the different relationships I had with each, of course revealing more about me than them. Two are still friends today, although we see each other little. The third was more a mentor, and likely doesn't remember me, but I remember many things from the senior religion seminar for science majors that he taught. One group of students looked at the frequency of major earthquakes throughout the world over a historical span to see if there really were more natural disasters within the last 20 years. There weren't. I heard John Hilton speak about stylometry. I heard the story of the cold fusion fiasco from one of the principles. We discussed evolution and religion and things like the Drake equation. One thing I remember most was his lecture about the transformative power of charity (love) in fostering mental health. It was neither sappy nor intellectually shallow, and inspired and lifted me for some time as I made baby steps toward managing depression. Now on to the poems.
Too unfamiliar. . .
Too unfamiliar is the ebb and flow
of oceans, or the warm rainfall, or break-
ers on the rocks. I’ve never seen the glow
of lava lighting night dark seas and mak-
ing boiling plumes of steam that rise and blow
around the world to fall on mountain lake.
But rain on mountain lakes I’ve seen, and trees
that send plumes skyward out of sight. No few
white snowflakes have I caught that flew on breez-
es thrown by winter, spreading light on moon-
lit nights. And I have watched the roll of sea-
sons, every year the same, yet always new.
Your foreign world is far, but it is mine;
We’ve only one, and mine is yours to find.


Since submarines are not my line, I should-
n’t be surprised you haven’t dedicat-
ed all your life to see man recreate,
with biochemistry, the world God would
have made if he had known.  Your car takes you
most everywhere, and me too, ‘cause I won’t
drive—it’s immoral.  Somehow your books don’t
make sense to me, and I can’t say that you’d
enjoy mine much.  The languages we read
don’t match.  Not even English.  You don’t dance,
and I doze off when you tell of the chance
some general had if he’d known how to lead.
But we sense truth is truth, a friend’s a friend,
and I think truth and friends must make true friends.

Brother Jones

My friend is quiet, his voice is mild, his smiles
are soft, and when we talk it never lasts
too long.  He’s never touched me, and our pasts
have only met, our futures spread out miles
and miles apart.  My life is mine to live;
he’ll not intrude.  Yet he has listened to
the Spirit whisper what I need, and through
His stillness knew just how to give.
He listened, taught, lived, and loved to show
me how to live in peace and grow beyond
the fears of man by taking up the trials
of humankind one thought, one step, one mo-
ment at a time.  Now we must hope this bond
of friendship might help others on our trails.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Reading Translated Scripture

"Orth . . . has a completely different vocabulary, so the words for anthem, anathema, and anathem are altogether different and yet linked by a similar pattern of associations. Rather than use the Orth word, which would be devoid of meaning and connotations to Earth listeners, I have tried to devise an Earth word that serves as its rough equivalent while preserving some flavor of the Orth term. . . . These characters may speak of carrots, potatoes, dogs, cats, etc. This doesn't mean Arb has exactly the same species. Naturally, Arb has its own plants and animals. The names of those species rough Earth equivalents have been swapped in here to obviate digressions in which, for example, the phenotype of the Arb equivalent of a carrot must be explained in detail." Chapter 1, Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
I may have misspelled the names, since I am listening rather than reading the book, but it seems to me that upwards of 90% of people's problems with accepting the Book of Mormon as having a historical foundation arise from assuming it was translated in some way substantially different from that described by Stephenson in writing his speculative fiction about a world that doesn't exist. Add to that
  • a translator who likely doesn't fully understand the terms and ideas presented in the original work (unlike Stephenson who understands it all because he made it up), and is thus making some flawed approximations, 
  • the likelihood that not only some of the physical objects didn't exist in the translator's experience, but also some of the ways of thinking were incomprehensible to him, 
  • and original authors who had their own physically and ideologically limited perspectives, 
and the Book of Mormon doesn't look like a freakish, composite mish-mash of 19th century ideas that must have been created by an inspiring genius sponge fraud. Instead it looks like a perfectly ordinary translation. The miracle is exactly where Joseph put it--in the visitations of heavenly beings and translation by the gift and power of God--even if we don't know or understand the details. The miracle is in the soft touch of Heavenly Parents who work with people where we are, inspiring us toward creative acts of love despite the pressures to tear down and exclude.

I understand why people reject this view of translation. Most people I know do, both believers and unbelievers. Even when thinking they accept it, they don't embrace the consequences of it. There are implications of this belief that call into question many things said by prophets both ancient and modern. There are implications that make the Parents who gave us the book either less, or more involved in human life than different groups claim as reality. There is a subjection of the Book of Mormon to scholarship, and a rejection of aspects of scholarship that deny the divine. There is a hidden universalism that rejects the notion of "one true church," yet a retained exclusivity that say Gods acted here with this one man and this small group of people. There is a tangible, physical hope for Zion, yet a grave precedent for how people have gotten there in the past, and a denial of the idea that we can build Zion as Mormons alone.

I haven't explained these connections here, but I see each of these tensions logically tied to belief in the Book of Mormon as an inspired, but ordinary translation. Since these tensions inspire me, I'm happy to live with them. I can often see why others aren't.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sacred Genius

I recently finished The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of S. Ramanujan, but really also a partial biography of G. H. Hardy--two early 20th century mathematicians who changed the world of mathematics, and less directly the world we live in, through their groundbreaking work. Hardy lived a full life of involvement with mathematics, politics, sports, but not romance that there is record of. Ramanujan lived a life nearly consumed by mathematics--at least when he could keep himself and his family fed enough for him to take the leisure of mathematics. He lived a spartan life because he seemed to desire no more.

A friend brought to my attention (via The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt) an analysis of 19th century, American communal movements. The conclusion drawn was that movements survived proportionately to the amount of sacrifice required by the movement. It didn't work for secular movements, though. Without the 'sacra' of sacrifice, the deprivations didn't have the motivating power to help people work together over extended time.

I have grown up around mathematicians. Specifically serious researchers into pure mathematics. No fiddling around with the minutiae of applied mathematics to make beautiful theorems fit real world numbers. They are an odd bunch. I don't mean odd as in socially awkward or standoffish. They have a whole spectrum of personalities and inclinations. But when you get a glimpse of their working lives, of what goes on in their minds in their spare time, it is something unusual. Have you ever watched three men spending an evening working together by sitting around the living room, pad and pencil in hand, each staring at different sets of line drawings on their papers, not talking to each other for minutes at a time? The whole room silent, but if you say hello only two of them will notice and the third might not register the new sound? That's not typical even of the mathematicians I know, but it's also not unheard of.

Like most kids, I wanted to grow up to be a Nobel Prize winning scientist, or a sports star, or president, or something. I'm pretty sure scientist was most often top of the list, but definitely a scientist who discovered great things. That's not what I have become. I've become a teacher, a dabbler in many things, a consultant on modest research, and a father who spends a lot of time at home. I entertain myself with ordinary things and I'm good at wasting time and energy. But I get stuff done. I do some things very well.

I have no idea what my IQ is. I honestly don't see how it matters what anyone's IQ is if you aren't a researcher trying to understand trends in human development or societal development. I'm sure there are people with higher IQs than our great discoverers who have never done anything worth mention in a history book. Smart is good, but only one element in genius. Maybe I'm smart enough to be a genius. Maybe my kids are smart enough to be geniuses. But do I want to be? Do I want them to be?

From what I have seen of genius, it requires great sacrifice. Whether an atheist like Hardy or a devout Hindu like Ramanujan, both treated mathematics like a holy calling. It inspired them to forsake other pursuits, just as it has to some degree in all the mathematical researchers I have known. Yet both missed out on a depth of family life that I love. Genius seems to require living within a world that separates you from others, sets you apart, makes your life holy. But being apart comes at a cost. I love the fruits of the geniuses that have blessed my life. I enjoy those fruits daily, nearly constantly. Yet I don't know if I feel any calling strongly enough to make the sacrifices of genius, and I don't know if I want to. I don't know if I want my kids to. I just don't know.