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Elder Richard H. Winkel

The Fiery Furnace

About 600 years before Christ—at about the same time that Lehi and his family were leaving for the new world, Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians. Israelite slaves were taken to serve their masters in Babylon . Four of the most famous were Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They are known for refusing to eat of the king’s rich diet and drinking his wine. Daniel became known for interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams—similar to Joseph and the Egyptian Pharaoh. Daniel subsequently served as the confidante and counselor of the King. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were placed over the affairs of the province of Babylon.

Some time after the ascent to leadership in the Babylonian kingdoms, jealous dignitaries close to the King sought to destroy the Israelites. A great golden image—90 feet high—was built and placed in the kingdom where all could come and worship it. The dedication of the image was a major affair of state. All the dignitaries of the kingdom were called in, which included Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Music would be played at a certain time of the day and then all would worship. And it was said that, “Whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:4-6).

Because it was against their religion to worship idols, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to bow down to the huge golden image. Subsequently they were taken to the fiery furnace to be consumed. Where Daniel was at this time we are not told. He was probably close at hand and either lacked the authority to stop the tragic proceedings or was told by the Lord not to interfere. So the decree was carried out. The three Jews were bound tightly in their robes and thrown into the furnace.

The heat of the fire was so hot that the soldiers who threw the young men into the furnace were burned to death themselves (Daniel 3:17 -22). The Bible then tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste, and spoke, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” He then said, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have not hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Daniel 3:24-30). The king then commanded Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to come forth out of the furnace and subsequently restored them to their administration posts. This story has a happy ending—at least for the three faithful Israelites.

I would like to tell you of a true modern day story that has similar overtimes. This story comes from chapter 12 of the autobiography of Paul Jesperson, entitled, “My Internship on Earth.” (Sixth printing 1986). Brother Jesperson was born in 1910 and died about two years ago in April of 2002. His wife, Lilly, is still alive, as are his five children. Brother Jesperson was the stake president of the Chicago Illinois Stake in 1960. He served two missions to Denmark —the country from which his parents immigrated in 1906. The following is his story:

“In my late teens while studying engineering at the University of Utah , I worked nights, seven days a week, as night engineer and fireman at the steam and electric power plant of the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City . My father was then the chief engineer at the hospital, and to help me earn my way through college, had entrusted me with this responsible job.

“The plant consisted basically of four coal-fired steam boilers and two steam-driven electric generators. As the hospital was not connected to the city’s utility, it was entirely dependent on its own power plant for heat, light, and power—all vital in keeping its 300 patients alive. During my shift at the plant (from midnight until 8 a.m. ), I was entirely alone with two buildings full of large and complicated machinery and equipment. Even today I find it difficult to comprehend how such a responsibility could have been entrusted to an immature young man still in school.

“In those days, power plants were not automatic as they are now. Every pound of coal had to be shoveled into the furnace hoppers by hand; proper flow of water to the boilers, and air to the furnaces had to be manually regulated. To generate the high-pressure steam, terrific temperatures were required in the furnaces. The white-hot fire would, at times, get so intense the brick lining of the furnace would melt and run like molasses—this takes a temperature of about 3000 degrees, or ten times as hot as a baking oven. This high temperature was developed by directing a blast of air into the fire, the air being led from large fans through air tunnels under the boiler-room floor.

“As part of my job, I was required once a month to inspect these air tunnels, and clean out any ashes that might accumulate in them. I should explain that these tunnels were about thirty inches square. The main tunnel ran the length of the boiler room, in front of the boilers. From the main tunnel ran branches at right angles leading into each furnace. Immediately before the branch tunnel went under the furnace there was a large butterfly damper of one-quarter-inch-thick steel plate, roughly thirty inches square, so pivoted that it could be shut to completely close off the air to the furnace.

“To regulate the amount of air flowing, a steel bar handle was fastened to the damper and went up through the floor. There were notches along the lower edge of this handle so the fireman, standing on the boiler room floor, could lift the damper to any desired opening, and then secure it in that position by means of the proper notch. The damper was so balanced that by releasing the handle at the notch, the damper would fall shut by gravity, and the handle would automatically drop into a notch to put the damper into a locked-closed position. From the damper, the air tunnel continued another eight feet or so under the firebox of the furnace.

“One night, about three in the morning, after checking to make sure that everything in the plant would be okay during the ten minutes I expected to be down in the tunnels, I opened the manhole in the floor, let myself down into the main tunnel, and closed the manhole after me, as the air had to be kept blowing through the tunnels to keep the fires going. There was no need for a flashlight or other illumination as the white-hot fires glowed from the furnace out into the tunnel. But even though the temperatures in the fireboxes were over 2000 degrees, it was comfortably cool in the tunnel, due to the constant rush of cold air.
“Arriving in front of one of the boilers, I was now face-to-face with the steel damper. It was wide open so I could peer past it and inspect the tunnel under the firebox of the furnace, and see the cast-iron grates at the top of the air duct, and the roaring fire above. As I was so close to the fire, yet still so cool, I wondered if it was also that cool in the air duct right under the fire.

“It is said that “Young men think old men are fools—but old men know young men are fools.” Being young and foolish I decided to find out. Lying down on my back I slowly wiggled under the damper, head-first, until my head and arms were actually on the other side of the damper, and inside the furnace, with the roaring fire now just inches above my nose. The radiant heat from the glowing coals was quite intense, but amazingly enough the cold air blasting by me kept me from getting unbearably hot.

“It was at this point that I made the most stupid decision of my life. It has been said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that makes you stupid—it’s what you do know, and don’t do.” I said to myself, “I can go in all the way, then be able to brag to my friends that I have actually been inside a white-hot furnace and not consumed!” (Jacob 6:12).

“So, still on my back I continued to inch my way forward until, with a final shove, I got my feet out from under the damper and inside the furnace. In making this last move, however, a terrifying thing happened. My toe somehow caught the damper control handle, knocking it out of its supporting notch, thus causing the damper to come crashing shut. With the air flow completely cut off, I was immediately engulfed in the full heat of the furnace. Realizing that I could survive but for seconds, I knew that somehow I had to get turned around in that cramped space, and without touching the red-hot grate above me, get my hands onto the damper handle.

“To this day I don’t know how I did it, but some way or another I got myself turned around. But now the real horror of the situation struck home—the damper facing me was but a smooth piece of steel plate, completely filling the tunnel. There was no handle I could grab and release. The handle was on the opposite side! Desperately I clawed and shoved against the plate, hoping that somehow the handle had not locked shut. But it had. There was only one option left—I would have to break or bend the damper open. With the intensity that only a life-or-death struggle can command, I pressed against the damper until it felt that every blood vessel in my body would burst. But all to no avail. The damper held fast. Realizing at last that there was no way I could get out, I just quit—gave up—sank down, and prepared to die.

“What does a person think about when he faces sudden death? Some say that all the scenes of his life flash rapidly before him. Not with me. All I could think of was my parents—they would never know what happened to me, for soon I would be burned up, vaporized, and disappear without a trace. While thus in the depths of remorse for the sorrow and agony I would inflict upon my mother and father for the rest of their days, I heard a creak, then felt an inrush of cold fresh air. Opening my eyes I beheld a miracle—the damper was slowly turning open.

“With the full blast of the wind now once again around me I quickly regained my waning senses and lost no time in crawling out under the damper and into the security of the main tunnel. Only one thing was on my mind—who had unlocked the handle and opened the damper? Had someone up on the boiler room heard me rattling the damper, and then opened it? But that seemed impossible. Besides me there were only a half-dozen men in the whole world who would know where the handle was, and how to open it, and they were all miles away and sound asleep. I hurriedly crawled to the end of the tunnel, got my hands on the manhole cover, lifted it off, and boosted myself out onto the boiler-room floor. My eyes quickly scanned the area, but there was no one in sight. I walked over to the boiler I had been under. Sure enough, the damper handle was raised to full open position and locked in place. It was uncanny. I began to get the strange feeling that someone close by was watching me. With some apprehension I began a systematic search of the room, but found no one. Gathering courage I went outside, completely encircling the power plant. Not a soul was in sight—only the cold, black, silent night.

“Back inside I sat down to think. Who or what had lifted the damper against the combined pressure of the air, and the force of gravity? Then into my mind flashed the well-known Bible story of Daniel’s three friends. As you remember, King Nebuchadnezzar had them bound and thrown into the fiery furnace for not worshipping his golden image—but when he peered into the seething furnace he saw not three but four, all walking around unharmed, and one of them was a radiant being like unto the Son of God. He then called the three to come forth out of the fire. When all those assembled noticed that not a hair of the three young men was singed, nor their garments charred, and that there was no smell of fire upon them, the king said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants that trusted him.”

“I thought to myself, how long a time was I in the furnace? The maneuvering to get turned around the prolonged agony at the damper, the time in final contemplation—it had to be at least a few minutes. Yet I knew that a rag thrown into the furnace would burst into flame in a few seconds. Why hadn’t my lungs shriveled, or the water in my eyes exploded into steam? I ran my fingers through my hair—not one was singed; my clothes—everything was intact, nor was there any smell of fire upon them.

“What were my feelings? Amazed, relieved, ashamed, grateful, but most of all, perplexed for although I now knew “what” had happened, and “how,” I still did not know “why.” To answer this I had to ask myself, “What would have happened if I had been left inside the furnace?” The answer to that was easy; without additional coal the steam pressure would drop, the steam-powered generators would slow to a crawl, all electric motors would come to a halt, the boiler fans would stop, the fires would go out, the power plant would die, and the hospital black out. Babies in their incubators would die; delivery rooms, sterilizers, operating rooms, X-rays, and all hospital facilities in need of light, power, or heat would cease to function, jeopardizing the lives and well being of 300 patients, and creating a scandal that would rock the hospital and the Church for years—for although a stand-by diesel-powered electric generator was in the plans, it had not yet been installed.

“Something died in me that night. Whatever the reasons were for saving me, one thing was perfectly clear—my life was no longer my own. I knew I owed my life to the Lord, and that from then on I could never turn down any request or call from His Church. Whatever I was asked, I would have to comply.
“ Alma to his son, Helaman, said, “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God” ( Alma 37:35). I was a humbled young man, and so ashamed of my foolishness that for many years I never mentioned the incident to a soul. It was 17 years later, while driving with my father from Salt Lake to Chicago , that I finally got enough nerve to tell him the whole story. Being more knowledgeable about the power plant and its boilers than anyone else, he was quick to grasp the full significance of the event. But I never discovered what went through his mind, for he didn’t say a word. He just sat dumbfounded, slowly shaking his head back and forth. It was the only time in my life that I found my dad speechless.

“As I now contemplate this harrowing experience, I am impressed with the symbolism. In many ways it reflects the principles of the gospel applicable to sin, repentance, and salvation. For example:

     °I knew it was against all laws of safety to enter the furnace.

     °I had my free agency, but used it to my detriment.

     °As a result of my disobedience, I was locked out of further association with father and became subject to death.

     °To escape death I had to get myself “turned around.”

     °There was no way for me to escape solely by my own efforts.

     °A “Savior” had to open the door.

     °The way to salvation was strait and narrow.

     °There was only “one” door.

     °I had my free agency, to either go through the door, or burn.

     °If I decided to go through the door to salvation, I had to go through on my knees.

     °Once I had gone through the gate, my life was no longer my own. I became, in a sense, the subject of my Savior—thus taking upon myself His name.”

Christ is the name of that Savior. We know He is the Firstborn. Our doctrine is very unique; it speaks of the pre-existence. We know that He is the Firstborn in the spirit and of course the Only Begotten of the Father—an immortal, perfect individual—and Mary, a mortal who we honor and revere and respect. I bear testimony to you, which is part of my call as a General Authority, that Jesus is the Son of God, that He is our Savior, He is our Redeemer, He is the Prince of Peace. Only through Him can we truly find the peace that the world needs.

I bear you my testimony that a prophet leads and guides us in these latter days, and that Jesus Christ is the head of this Church. May we understand how important it is to follow Him as our grand exemplar. As He opens His arms, may we understand that He loves us, that He is merciful, and He wants us to follow Him.

I leave you my testimony that the Gospel is true, that the scriptures will give us the direction we need to follow, and that we do have a Prophet that leads and guides the Church today. I’m grateful to be with you and bear my testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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