Monday, September 29, 2008

Southern California night hike

It's officially autumn now in Southern California, but from the 90+ degree heat the only way to know this is that the days are getting shorter. The early sunset leaves little daylight for backpacking into Friday night Scout campouts. This past weekend we tried our first hike in the dark and realized that you don't need flashlights if you plan your trip on a slope above 10 million people. The view was enthralling.

That lowest band of lights you see near the mouth of the canyon is a bunch of commuters getting nowhere on the 15 freeway heading out Cajon Pass.

Below is one unexpected source of paranoia on this trip...

That is a real tarantula, seen near the beginning of our trek. I was hoping we would gain enough altitude to be out of their habitat before setting up camp for the night.

More scenes like the one above lit our way to the top of the hill. The Scouts found it a tough climb and fell asleep within minutes of reaching our campsite. But in the morning the daytime views made the hike well worth the effort.

We passed a lot of hunters driving up to scope out the area and one mountain biker, but we were the only ones crazy (and fortunate) enough to be out hiking.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Hugh Nibley classic: Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites

The Book of Mormon includes travel narratives from two ancient groups who crossed the ocean from the Old World to the Americas. The Nephites, who are the principal subject of the book, came from Jerusalem in 600 BC and the Jaredites came from the scene of the Tower of Babel thousands of years earlier. In 1952, Mormon scholar extraordinaire Hugh Nibley presented Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, which compares the Book of Mormon details about these travels with what scholars know about the ancient Middle East and Asia.

Nibley's grasp of fine detail in both historical works and The Book of Mormon is astounding. He examines words, place names, traveling style, family relationships, and warfare of the Nephites and Jaredites, showing repeatedly how these align with things we know about the Mideast and Asia at the same time period.

Nibley's intent is to show that The Book of Mormon is a real work of ancient history. A repeated theme is that Joseph Smith, or anyone else in 1830, could not have produced such a historically accurate narrative. Nibley invites the reader to give this some thought:

"...let the reader make a simple test. Let him sit down to write a history of life, let us say, in Tibet in the middle of the eleventh century A.D. Let him construct his story wholly on the basis of what he happens to know right now about Tibet in the eleventh century--that will fairly represent what was known about ancient Arabis in 1830, i.e. that there was such a place and that it was very mysterious and romantic. In composing your Tibetan fantasy you will enjoy one great advantage: since the canvas is an absolute blank, you are free to fill it with anything that strikes your fancy. So you should have no trouble in getting 'smoothly launched into your narrative'--which Mrs. Brodie seems to think was the only obstacle confronting the author of the Book of Mormon. But there will be other obstacles, for in your chronicle of old Tibet we must insist that you scrupulously observe a number of annoying conditions: (1) you must never make any absurd, impossible, or contradictory statement; (2) when you are finished, you must make no changes in the text--the first edition must stand forever; (3) you must give out that your 'smooth narrative' is not fiction but true, nay, sacred history; (4) you must invite the ablest orientalists to examine the text with care, and strive diligently to see that your book gets into the hands of all those most eager and most competent to expose every flaw in it. The "author" of the Book of Mormon observes all these terrifying rules most scrupulously." (Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, p. 133 - 134)

Nibley does not attempt to "prove" the Book of Mormon's authenticity with any one piece of evidence; instead he submits a mountain of examples that, when considered together, make it impossible that any charlatan could have authored the book. Nibley continues:

"In your Tibetan epic you might get something right by happy accident once in a while but don't expect it. "

An original edition of Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites was a steal on eBay for under $10.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prisoner of pop culture

Before one of Pastor Philip Miles' frequent trips to Russia, he decided to toss a box of hunting bullets in his luggage as a gift for a friend. Pastor Miles' travels took an unexpected turn when he was arrested and charged with smuggling ammunition. Russian courts sentenced him to three years in prison, later shortened to just a few months. Pastor Miles is now safely home in South Carolina.

Dick Gordon interviewed Miles about his experience on NPR's "The Story" (listen to MP3). Interestingly, Miles recounted how his least favorite part of incarceration was the television blaring nonstop movies, music videos, etc:

"It almost drove me crazy. Finally everybody'd be asleep, I'd turn it off, and I'd have maybe a couple of hours that I could read, pray, and just have some solitude. I can't tell you how I craved just silence."

Pastor Miles explained how he obtained relief from the worst of the programs:

"I remember one time they were watching some full-on porn. I got up, went into the corner, opened up my Bible, and just stood there with my back to the TV. And in about 5 minutes, they changed channels. That was the last time they watched porn in the room while I was there."

Have you ever felt like you were trapped by inappropriate or overbearing movies, television, and music? From experiences in doctors' waiting rooms, the bowling alley, dorm rooms, and so on, I can relate to the feeling of being imprisoned by explicit media. What do you do to escape? Pastor Miles' seeking refuge in the scriptures seems like one good technique.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What to do if Mormon missionaries knock on your door

Mormons are widely known for their attempts to proselyte door-to-door. Chances are you've seen young Mormon missionaries in white shirts and ties "tracting" a neighborhood, looking for people interested in learning about the Mormon faith. Perhaps they've even come to your house before.

In this post I'll give some tips on what to do if Mormon missionaries knock on your door or contact you on the street, whether you're interested or not. These tips come from my own experience of two years as a Mormon missionary in Argentina and various other times volunteering with missionaries in the United States.

There are a few things that make Mormons different from other people that might knock on your door. First, Mormons are not selling anything; they are paying their own way to be on the mission and they stand to gain no status, privilege, or monetary reward from finding proselytes or teaching lessons. Second, Mormons do not believe that you are doomed to a fiery eternity in hell if you don't listen to their message. Mormon theology is not this superficial, which is one reason I find it so believable. When Mormon missionaries knock on your door, they are sharing a religious message that they feel will augment or enlighten existing beliefs that you have.

Mormon missionaries are instructed not to argue with people or deride their beliefs. If missionaries do this to you, ask them for their local mission president's telephone number so you can report their misconduct. But I really doubt this will happen. The vast majority of missionaries feel that their time is too valuable to spend extensive effort trying to persuade people who are not really interested.

With this in mind, here are some tips for conversing with Mormon missionaries that approach you, depending on your attitude about hearing their message:

If you're not interested in what they have to say...

Politely and briefly explain that you are not interested. If you really don't want them to come back, don't make up an excuse like, "I have to go to work right now," which might be misconstrued as possible interest. You're not going to offend the missionaries if you politely explain that you're not interested. It's nothing they haven't heard before.

I also suggest that you don't ignore the knocking. It's possible the missionaries are looking for a neighbor, or maybe they got your address by mistake. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, someone at your house requested a visit. If the missionaries think someone with possible interest is living at your address, they will come back many times even if no one answers.

Missionaries rotate areas usually every 3 to 6 months, so it's possible you will get them coming to the door again even if you are not interested. If this happens it will only take you a few seconds to explain that you are not interested and that will take care of them for a while longer. Given the amount of work missionaries have, I think it's unlikely they will knock on your door by chance more than once a year. Missionaries usually only knock on doors when they cannot find people to teach by other means (member and media referrals, etc.)

If you're not sure if you're interested...

Ask them to give you the 5 minute overview on your doorstep. They will be thrilled to do this. I think you will have a good idea after 5 minutes if you want to continue listening. In many cases, people are more attracted to the "spirit" of the missionaries rather than what they are saying. This makes sense. If someone really is bringing a message from Jesus Christ, as the missionaries purport to do, it should be detectable in the way you feel while you are talking to them.

If you are interested in what they have to say but they caught you at a bad time...

Tell them this and suggest a time they can return. Accustomed to rejection, some missionaries will interpret, "This isn't a good time right now" as "I'm not interested." If you suggest a time for them to come back and indicate that you are really interested, the missionaries will gladly make an effort to return to your house at the time you suggest.

If you are interested in what they have to say and you have some time...

Invite them in and tell them a little bit about your religious background. If you have a Bible on hand, go grab it. Then listen closely as they present their message, which should last about 30 - 45 minutes. If you like the visit, the missionaries have additional lessons they can share with you during other visits. At any time you can decide if you want to continue hearing more or if you want to discontinue the lessons.

If you want the missionaries to knock on your door but they never do...

Visit the Have missionaries contact me page at the web site. You can fill out a form with your contact information that will be sent to your local missionaries.

If you're interested in learning about Mormons but you're not ready for the missionaries to visit...

Take a look at the Church's informational web site If you click Basic Beliefs and go down the menu items on the left, you'll get a good outline of the message that missionaries share when they visit people's homes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Kickin' it in Quebec

I spent a lot of time during my trip to Ottawa going back and forth across the river that divides Ontario from Quebec, something that I imagine is routine for many of the city's residents. I was fascinated by the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences between the two provinces.

One of the most striking is the change of the dominant language to French. It's easy to forget about this coming from the west coast of the U.S. My first day at the office I went to grab lunch at a Gatineau mall food court. I went for all-American: A & W. As was the case everywhere I went in Canada, the restaurant staff greeted me kindly. "Bonjour," the clerk welcomed, "____ _____ __ ___ ______ __?"

I held up three fingers, "I'll have a number three," I slowly articulated.

"Do you want fries or onion rings with that?" she replied in perfect English. It was like the first days in my foreign-speaking mission, but with a safety net. I loved it.

There are five main bridges in Ottawa, and I think I got to go over at least four. This one, the Pont Alexandra, is right across from Parliament and is great for walking. I was startled by the width of the river. It took me somewhere from 10 to 15 minutes to get across.

The Quebecois city across the river from Ottawa is called Gatineau. It's made up of several neighborhoods. The one you hit when you cross Pont Alexandra is called Hull. It contains a few sprawling federal office complexes, built by the Canadian government to distribute jobs to the Quebec side of the river.

You can tell you're in Quebec because the stop lights become horizontal and they have all kinds of options. The lights actually have two reds, I guess to tell you that you really need to stop (Californians take note). Then there's yellow, green, blinking green (!), sideways green arrow, straight green arrow, etc.

I have French Canadian ancestors who lived a few hours east of Ottawa and I felt a great pull to the Quebec side of the river. Although work committments prevented me from making the trip out to their exact homeland, I did get to see a portion of Parc de la Gatineau, a massive forested recreation area north of the Ottawa metro area. This is Lac Pink. Guess how you say that in English.

This trail to a waterfall reminded me of scenes from Mormon history in upstate New York. I imagine the forested Quebec landscape is similar to that near the Sacred Grove.

No one was on this waterfall trail and the excursion was very quiet and peaceful with clean, clear air. Just what a Southlander needs once in a while...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Images from Canada's capital

While USA political convention-goers were bathing in the stars and stripes, I spent last week surrounded by maple leaves on a business trip to Canada's capital. Ottawa is a fortunate place to get sent on a business trip. The city is beautiful, clean, walkable, and offers a lot to do. Before and after work each day I had just enough time to walk around and see most of the important stuff...from the outside. Next time I might have time to go inside something.

Here are a few pictures from the Ontario side of the river. Later I'll post some images from the Quebec side.

Below is the Rideau Canal which was built by the Army to be a water arterial through Ontario. It runs north-south through Ottawa and becomes a skating rink in the winter.

The canal ends at the Ottawa River with this series of locks.

The eye-catching architecture of these Parliament buildings is so different from what you would see in Washington, D.C., an interesting distinction between two countries that are so similar in other ways.

The National Gallery of Canada mimics the architecture of the Parliament in a modern, glassy way.

Here's what happens when you stand outside the art museum and look at the cathedral.