The Road IS Long
Last month the Lord promised me help when I needed it, so I took a leap of faith. I had no idea that the help He would send would be my Dad.
I’m a great test-taker. In my younger days I was a teacher’s student, the kind of kid that made teachers feel like what they did mattered. My senior English teacher called over the summer to ask for my AP English scores, and then screamed into the phone when my Mom told her. I did pretty well on the ACT. I was a lot smarter on paper than in real life (a fact that did not escape my Dad’s notice), but I’ve always looked pretty good on paper.
When I faced my real estate exams last month, even at three times the age I was during the ACT, I wasn’t terribly worried. It’s an eminently practical profession, and I had studied well. Still, a few days before, I was suddenly seized with anxiety. I would have to pay for the exams again if I failed and I had budgeted tightly to do this. I wondered if I should reschedule and study more, but as I stood in the shower and prayed, the answer came very clearly: You will pass, and I will help you. Keep the appointment.
So I kept my appointment, but the anxiety strangely intensified. For some reason beyond my understanding, I felt besieged by doubts. Few times in my life have I experienced a stupor of thought that lasted for days. It’s unnerving. So I sat down in front of the computer and began the test with my mind still an inexplicable blank. I prayed. I struggled through the fog to understand the first question, selected an answer, then prayed. I felt the slightest sense of peace, something I had to reach much more deeply into my soul to feel than usual. I clicked to confirm the answer. I read the second question, several times. I prayed, with concentration.
Through scores of questions it continued. After three hours I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was put my coat on and leave, but I pressed forward. I read a question about a land distribution at death with a particular form of will and sat in complete darkness, even though the week before I could have rattled off the answer immediately. I felt through my mind, searching for the answer, and suddenly a tiny but incredibly frustrated voice shouted from far, far off, “For crying out loud, YOU KNOW THIS!”
I was suddenly alert. I knew that voice, but even more importantly, I knew that frustration. Only one person in my life has ever been that frustrated with me, and in that particular way. It was Dad.
Dad and I don’t have the best relationship. Dad is dead now, and he left without us tying up loose ends. We have, as the cliche goes, unfinished business. As the years since his death have stretched, I find myself increasingly interested in finishing that business, in being reconciled once and forever.
So I called to him in my mind. “Dad, is that you? Are YOU the one He sent to help?” There was nothing, and my test was timed, so I slowly turned back to the computer, my mind an even bigger jumble. This was different. The next question was about tenants in common, a very easy concept but sometimes, especially with inheritances and multiple tenancies, a bit tricky. I felt stupidly for the answer, finally chose one, and prayed, but this time I asked Dad what he thought. It felt like the affirmative was easier to hear.
I worked through several more questions in the same painful, plodding way, and clicked submit. Suddenly, I felt two hands slap me suddenly on the back, like someone was standing behind me and excitedly gave me a push forward – or what it would feel like if you knew that was happening but couldn’t be touched or feel it – and I heard “You got it kiddo!” as clearly as if someone said it right behind me. I turned around to a silent, empty room, then turned back to stare at the screen, blinking the next question.
There were still a few more questions, but the exam is a 70% pass/fail. As close as I can figure, I hit the number of questions correct that I needed to pass when I answered that question. I received no more help, the questions grew no easier, and I can honestly say that I don’t ever want to be left to myself again. I finished the exams, had no idea how I had done, but was never more excited to have finished anything (except possibly birth) as I was those inexplicably difficult tests. When I went into the next room, the attendant was printing my certificates. Just as the Lord promised, I passed, and He helped me.
I’ve thought often about that experience in the intervening weeks. I’ve wondered why the Lord sent Dad, because I am completely sure it was him. I’ve wondered about what happens to us after we die, what work we do if we’re allowed to do work for the kingdom, and how that’s organized. I’ve prayed a lot about it, seeking understanding, wondering why I got a peek inside the veil and was able to perceive that Dad came to help me, wondering why it was still so hard for Dad to try to reason with me.
To be clear, Dad was not a monster. He helped me as a young person. My car, dilapidated as it was, always had gas in it. He suffered terrible anxiety when he thought something bad might happen to me. He puffed out his chest at my accomplishments. He loved me. He didn’t like me and he didn’t trust me, but he loved me, and I knew it. It made perfect sense that Dad would come to help me, and it made perfect sense that it would make him want to kill me. That was how we rolled.
So as I thought about this eternal program of ministering spirits helping mortal ones, it occurred to me that God doesn’t make those assignments blithely. Dad never learned to lead by long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned (at least, not with me). He led by demanding, humiliating, or storming. As a ministering spirit, he was no more fully in possession of those ideal capabilities than he had been while here, and it made his work very difficult. But why would I be made aware of his struggle? And why would his struggle have anything whatsoever to do with me?
I think the Lord is very interested in reconciliation. I think the whole plan centers on reconciliation; the atonement was a superhuman effort to reconcile as many of our Parents’ children as possible to Them; and an important part of our reconciliation with God is to be reconciled with each other.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Lord’s answer to the apostles about how to resolve conflicts.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
There is a great deal in these two verses, but at the most obvious, we have a three-step pattern for reconciliation. We don’t talk about people behind their backs, to our best friends, or ignore problems altogether. We go to the person, which takes extraordinary maturity and honesty. If that doesn’t work, we don’t give up. We try again with wise others. If that doesn’t work, we invite a bishop in Israel to be involved. And if that doesn’t work, we let them be to us as a stranger. There was a high standard in the Law of Moses for treatment of strangers. Treating someone as a stranger was ceasing to have expectations of them, ceasing to be bound by their expectations, and treating that person as if the disagreement never occurred, but offering that person anything that they needed. They would be as hospitable to that person as to someone they had never met. The slate of relationship was wiped clean, and they started over. I don’t think that’s how we usually read that last verse.
And now I think the work of reconciliation continues after we die. In the verse immediately following the above, the Lord promises:
Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
We take those verses to refer to the sealing power, which must be used on earth to be efficacious for eternity, but we usually focus on ordinances. Immediately following a discussion of reconciliation in our mortal relationships, it seems to point us also toward becoming at one - atoned - with one another on earth, tying up loose ends here for the sake of eternity, making possible the welding together of our souls, not just our sealings.
Quoted in The Faith of an Observer, Hugh Nibley famously said:
We’re just sort of dabbling around, playing around, being tested for our moral qualities, and above all the two things we can be good at, and no two other things can we do: We can forgive and we can repent. It’s the gospel of repentance. We’re told that the angels envy men their ability both to forgive and to repent, because they can’t do either, you see.
So what are we doing after we die, if we’re not immediately judged? Sitting around waiting? Alma makes the following observation, after having pondered and asked for guidance over a period of time:
Now there must needs be a space betwixt the time of death and the time of the resurrection. (Alma 40:6)
And the answer that he gets after putting this observation/question to the Lord is this:
Therefore, there is a time appointed unto men that they shall rise from the dead; and there is a space between the time of death and the resurrection. And now, concerning this space of time, what becometh of the souls of men is the thing which I have inquired diligently of the Lord to know; and this is the thing of which I do know. (Alma 40:9)
He goes on to state that there is a mini-judgment at death, just enough to determine the next condition of the spirit: to paradise or to outer darkness. Those terms invoke a feeling of permanence, but they are the waiting rooms for the final judgment, which provides for everyone’s final appointment.
In the latter days, however, a prophet was deeply curious about Jesus’ ministry to the souls in prison (or Alma’s outer darkness), and received revelation that the Lord did not go personally, but sent ministers from paradise to go, spirits sent to minister in his behalf, much as we minister to one another in his behalf on earth:
But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to fall the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
We see this pattern repeatedly: angels sent to minister to Adam/Eve, Abraham/Sarah, and many others – and in most cases except obviously Adam’s and Eve’s, they had already lived upon the earth when they were sent back to minister. Apparently, the Lord in His efficiency, puts people to work while they’re waiting, helping other people who are muddling through mortality or stuck in spirit prison. Perhaps that is actually the worst part of spirit prison: the inability to do anything – for self or anyone else – but to wait.
Pres. Joseph F. Smith continues:
The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,
And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.
Since a big part of our repentance process is reconciliation with others, and since that binding together is ideally accomplished on earth to be bound in heaven, and since we continue to repent in the next life, and since there is a long history of ministry of angels to people on earth when they are in need of further light and knowledge, it seems likely that the Lord might accomplish many things at once by assigning those who have restitution to make and repenting to do, to mortals.
Could part of our eternal penance, our post-mortal repentance, be to minister to our families still on earth?
If this is so, and after my experience last month I feel more comfortable with that idea, it’s not likely that we’ll suddenly access character traits we didn’t develop on earth, and the absence of those traits will make our work that much harder (as was attested by my Dad’s sincere and utter frustration with his mini-mission.) Elder Neal Maxwell states:
It seems clear that our intelligence will rise with us, meaning not simply our IQ, but also our capacity to receive and apply truth. Our talents, attributes, and skills will rise with us; certainly also our capacity to learn, our degree of self-discipline, and our capacity to work.
It is exciting to me to consider that the work of reconciliation continues in our post-mortal life, that the atonement continues to extend its healing into our next stage of life as well. That seems right, when I consider the brief stay of mortality that so very many people have experienced. In order to be just, our Parents have allowed us to continue progressing, knowing that mortality alone would be far from enough.
These thoughts combine to make me that much more excited to do the becoming work that is ours while I’m here, not to consider putting it off as Corianton did, trusting in some future restoration or future opportunity to repent. There is work to do on earth, and there is work to do in heaven for the work on earth. In both cases, people need ministered to, and people need to minister, for a variety of reasons. In the great efficiency of God, I think he makes each assignment edify multiple people, on earth as it is in heaven.
Joseph said: “For we without them (our dead) cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect.” He was talking about a welding link between our generations – the spirit of Elijah – the hearts of the fathers turned to the children, and the hearts of the children turned to the fathers.
Mine is turning. I can view my father with new compassion, with a desire to release him from the bonds of unfinished business just as I want to be released. I want reconciliation, as offered by the atonement of Jesus Christ, both here on earth and in eternity, for both of us. All day this song has been playing in my mind. The road IS long, with many a winding turn. I think I finally see, after a life of struggling to maintain my equilibrium with him, that he ain’t heavy.