A long time ago in a far away galaxy, when I was just past the midpoint of my German-speaking Swiss mission, a professor who had been an influential mentor of mine wrote to say that he was coming to Switzerland for research. Would my companion and I like to do dinner with him?
My companion, it so happened, had also enjoyed a class from this charismatic professor, so we replied that we would love to meet him for dinner. But unfortunately, although he'd indicated the date of his arrival and promised to send his flight time and number, his second letter never arrived. So we had no idea where he was coming from, what airline he was coming on, nor what time — morning, noon or night — he would be arriving.
Now, I happen to be a living, breathing violation of the admonition in the Doctrine and Covenants to "retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated" (88:124). I love early mornings, but, typically, from the wrong side. I repent daily, but continue to sin.
Still, I kept the mission rules. I was always up at 6:30 a.m. I can't say, though, that I loved arising so early, and I certainly wasn't inclined to wake up before the alarm clock sounded.
However, on the morning that our professor was due to arrive, I was awakened at exactly 6 o'clock by the distinct impression that we needed to hurry to get ready and go pick him up at the airport. (I was a zone leader; we had a car, and we were living in Kloten, a suburb of Zurich near the airport.) We raced out the door and met him just as he emerged from the airplane. We took him to his hotel and joined him that night for dinner.
I have literally no idea why, nor even whether, it was important that this professor and I should meet in Switzerland. It was pleasant, but I could think of nothing significant then, and can think of nothing significant now, that hinged upon it.
And this raises theological questions, some of them very serious: Why do such things happen? Is God involved? Are guardian angels involved? If so, why would God or angels act to guarantee a meeting between a missionary and his professor — or to help somebody find lost keys, or whatever — while millions starve and the agonized prayers of parents for their dying children seemingly go unanswered?
I don't know.
But I do know that such incidents as this (and there are many like it) have occurred in my personal life. I can't deny it; to do so would be dishonest. I remember how sudden and distinct and unmistakable the impression was. And scores of acquaintances have related similar experiences to me.
I've sometimes toyed with the rather horrifying idea that we do have guardian angels, and that they're very like home teachers. In other words, while some are dutiful and conscientious, others … aren't. ("You're kidding. My guy died three years ago? Really? But I could've sworn that I checked in on him just last month!") But that's not theologically serious.
I don't pretend to understand the mind of God. In fact, if God's preferences and agenda were identical to my own, if they always made instant sense to me, I would be extremely suspicious.
With Nephi, "I know that (God) loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things" (1 Nephi 11:17). "For now," said the Apostle Paul, including himself despite his own eminent status among the prophets, "we see through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
A child's successful prayer to find a lost toy may not loom large in the cosmic scheme of things. But perhaps its point is to teach that child, and to remind that child's parents, that prayer really works, that there really is a God who cares about us and does, sometimes, intervene.
Although I've had more significant experiences (including some that I'm unlikely ever to share in a newspaper column), my meeting with that professor, ultimately trivial though it surely seems, did teach me something very important: I've been told that prophets cannot foretell the future, and that we cannot know things except through natural means. But I can testify, from unmistakable personal experience, that those two claims are false.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.