I have the privilege of continuing to work with missionaries in my ward calling. But the pandemic has produced some difficult issues that inhibit the work for some missionaries. For them, the social distancing and wearing of masks, the shortened time allowance for meetings, and especially the complexity of working through Zoom or other conferencing or social media, etc. inhibit their “sickle swing.” Some have asked for release; others just sit and wait. Since the Lord is not sitting and waiting, is there some “reframing” He could help us see that would change our enthusiasm for our current missionary conditions?
Many years ago, while working in the Church Office Building, I was assigned to help train seminary and institute secretaries and computer specialists. Computers were being introduced for clerical purposes into offices throughout the seminary and institute world. Most secretaries had never been beyond a typewriter keyboard, so a computer seemed very complicated and dangerous. Most were convinced that there was a self-destruct key hidden on the keyboard somewhere by which they would be responsible for ruining the entire program and losing their data. They had learned to safeguard their data in order to manually fill in paper reports over the years, so endangering data just to learn how to type into some electronic, technological black hole seemed senseless.
I was to travel about teaching computer specialists – seminary or institute teachers assigned to this technology in addition to their classroom teaching expertise. Most had begun to learn and use computers, and some were expert geeks with technology. I had been one of them, dabbling with the imagined potential of computers, until being asked to serve in the central office. I wasn’t always very patient in helping someone learn things they were unwilling or afraid to walk the mountainous learning curve that I had hiked over the previous years. I share this to set the stage for what I was about to really learn from a patient Father in Heaven as I prepared for my first “computer specialist training convention.”
I don’t remember all the circumstances and timing but somewhere as I was nervously preparing to teach, many who were more computer proficient than I, how they could go help their office personnel adopt this new technological monster, a question came to mind, “What technology has the Lord used as an interface to help us do His work?” At first, I thought that he uses everything from internet to tractors. But then I realized that the question was aimed at “what user interface” has the Lord used to communicate with us? As I pondered, I thought of the Liahona outside Lehi’s tent.
10…my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.
26…the voice of the Lord said unto him: Look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.
27 And it came to pass that when my father beheld the things which were writtenupon the ball, he did fear and tremble exceedingly, and also my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and our wives.
28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.
29 And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.
30… I, Nephi, did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball. 1 Nephi 16
38…our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it.
39 And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship.
41…They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; Alma 38
It is evident that the Liahona didn’t come with an instruction manual because they learned each new feature and how it worked by using what they already knew. It came incrementally, even with occasional trepidation.
Wondering why that specific question had come into my mind at the specific time, I kept pondering and then thought of the Urim and Thummim. Though we are not told exactly how these “interpreters” worked, we can learn from what we are told by the Lord combined with Joseph’s and Oliver’s experiences using it. We know that Joseph received them in September of 1827 and began his attempt to translate. At one point during those beginning efforts, Emma reminisced of having this fledgling prophet struggle to walk the learning curve of proper Urim and Thummim protocols,
“[O]ne time while he was translating, he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, ‘Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?’ When I answered ‘Yes,’ he replied ‘Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.’ He had such limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.”[i]
Apparently even a couple’s disagreement inhibited the instrument from working. From a tech point of view that seems strange, but this was common with the Liahona as well. We get additional ideas of the process that Joseph was learning, from the failed experience of Oliver Cowdery and the revelation explaining to him what a user manual might have instructed.
6 Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated DC 9
That first step is common with modern tech use. As I sat with many a sweet and dedicated secretary, after orienting to this metaphor, I would ask them what they would “study out in their mind.” We were sitting in front of their “ticking time bomb” of a computer so it was natural to reply, “Well, I guess what is on my screen or perhaps the user’s manual.” I would invite them to talk through the thinking process as they considered what was on their screen. It became evident that a few basic pointers like, “How to get menus to drop down, page specific drop-down menus, right click menus, etc. would give them enough options to then consider the next step…but wait…
Did you notice the unspoken step? “Ask me if it be right?” Part is spoken but what is the “it” implied in the instruction? The translator had to draw a conclusion from possibilities before him after considerable study and reasoning. One could see how this could be a lengthy process until something changed in the capacity of the translator so he could eventually recognize most probable meanings quickly. Perhaps Joseph’s later quote, “time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out.”
Discovering that they needed to formulate theories to be tested was uncomfortable for most new learners because either there is a perceived risk in the consequences of being wrong or it just takes more time than doing it on paper.
After the 116 pages were stolen and the rights to Urim and Thummim taken away, later in that spring of 1828 Joseph felt the loss. He had come to love the Urim and Thummim almost more than the plates because of his growing reliance on it. Doctrine and Covenants section three was received through these “spectacles” months later in July, so we also know that he was finding that they had other modes than just the translation feature. Was it a selectable feature of the interpreters or was something happening to the interpreter?
By April of 1829, almost a year and a half after again receiving this incredible piece of tech, he not only could translate with speed and facility but found that he could see and translate documents he didn’t even possess.[ii] As a result, it didn’t take long for Joseph to transition from the apparent awkwardness of a breastplate that was made for a larger man to which the Urim and Thummim would attach, to the simpler use of the seer stone and finally to dictating by revelation without either the Urim and Thummim or the plates open.[iii] After seventeen months of, at times, slow awkward efforts Joseph was able to finish the plates in record time by June of 1829 spending only some sixty-eight days of “actual translation.” The training wheels had done their job for Joseph. He had functionally become a revelator, the interpreters seem to have aided in the schooling of the revelatory capacity of this young prophet!
“All well and good, but what about the self-destruct key hidden on the keyboard of all computers?” several computer specialists shared the fear of most secretaries over the perceived dangers to their data. As my part in the convention rolled on with this metaphor that question caused a new insight that then generated another related question, “What allowed God and Moroni, to let young-adult Joseph take and work with their keystone record without fear of data loss?” The room went silent until I offered a clue to what I meant. “Did they ever suffer a data loss while Joseph was navigating his learning curve?”
Someone called out, “116 pages of data loss!” I was loving how well this metaphor paralleled our own struggles with our own technology. “So, what allowed them to survive that crisis that otherwise paralyzes our office staff?” Again, someone else who had seen the comparison called out, “They had a backup! The small plates of Nephi!”[iv] I smiled and nodded then looked into the eyes of the thirty or so specialists. We talked carefully about data backup and routines, restore procedures, and the security with which they eliminated the rumored self-destruct key. They thought they had grasped the principle but there was more that was flowing into my mind as I was taught beyond my wildest preparation.
One specialist raised his hand and then asked the perfect question, “But some of my secretaries are past the desire to learn new things in their lives. They feel like they were hired because of their knowledge and skill so “just let me do it my way” seems to be the prevailing attitude.” The learning curve is too time-consuming, paper has worked for years. From a central-office-perspective of data sharing, integrity, and resulting decision making, I knew that the climb up the learning curve mountain would be worth it. I now understood why, what seemed like additional wild thoughts had come into my mind. Again, I asked, “According to the Book of Revelation chapter 2 and D&C 130, will there be a need to know any user interface technology after we die?” They raced to find the information in their analogue scriptures. I thought I was watching a scripture chase and wish I had brought some little candy bars.
6 The angels do not reside on a planet like this earth;
7 But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.
8 The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim.
9 This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s.
I read it aloud and we all reverently felt the awe. Then I continued,
10 Then the white stone mentioned Revelation 2:17 will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known;
11 And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word.
Learning will continue for a long time even after our exaltation. Joseph Smith made it clear,
“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.” Joseph Smith, TPJS)[v]
The transformation that Joseph experienced was more than linguistic. He became a Urim and Thummim to the Church as he received revelation upon revelation. We, too, must experience that transformation for assignments unimaginable in times yet distant. We are given both profane and sacred technology whereby to learn to do the Lord’s work, our work. Alma helped is son awaken to the real Liahona, that one we all possess,
43 And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as our fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass (now these things were temporal) they did not prosper; even so it is with things which are spiritual.
44 For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.
45 And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.
46 O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever. Alma 37
Whether the sometimes difficult to understand scriptures or technology like video meetings, or family history computer interfaces like Family Search, or proselyting and teaching on-line, come, we have a learning curve to climb, there is much to do!! Perhaps the silent question is, “for what are we really being prepared?” We won’t be smiling unless we are willing, now!
[i] From Book of Mormon Central – Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 454; transcribed in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, ed. John Welch with Erick B. Carlson (Salt Lake City/Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2005), 129 (document 38). Briggs also related this story as an aside in “Interview with David Whitmer,” Saints’ Herald 31 (June 21, 1884): 396–397; quoted in Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens, 106 n.23.
[ii] See the heading and content of DC 6 …The revelation is a translated version of the record made on parchment by John and hidden up by himself.
[iv] See 1 Nephi 9:5-6 Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not. But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words.
1 Nephi 19:3 And after I had made these plates by way of commandment, I, Nephi, received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates; and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord
Mormon 1:7 And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will.