Editor’s Note:  We are pleased to present this once-a-week, all-summer-long series of familycentric essays from Richard Eyre.  As most Meridian readers know, the Eyres, for five decades, have focused their professional lives on strengthening families.  This focus has ranged from writing New York Times #1 bestselling books to speaking to parents in more than 60 countries around the globe.  But their true passion is for an Inclusive, Eternal Family Paradigm that can’t be fully shared or grasped without the insights of the Restored Gospel. And they feel that the reverse of that is also true:  The Restored Gospel can’t be fully grasped or shared until it is seen through an Inclusive, Eternal Family Lens.  The goal of this series of essays is to better understand and have more realistic expectations of both Church and Family. And “family” is broadly defined so that each article speaks to us all, whether we are single or married, parents or siblings, aunts and uncles or grandparents. To read the introductory essay, please click here, and to read essay 2, click here.  

Author’s Note: This series of essays will become a book sometime next year. Meridian Readers can help me write that book with their feedback, inputs, and criticisms. Please send all three to me privately at my pseudonym email Dr*******@gm***.com where I will read and respond. And as you will see below, I am staying true to my conviction that summer articles should contain lots of stories.

Frequently in the first two essays of this series, I spoke about the difference between (and the complementing nature of) ends and means.  I used the story of my granddaughter’s piano lessons to point out that an end is a destination while a means is a way to get there. (Finishing piano book three was her end or goal or destination, and practicing an hour each day was her means or plan or way.

An underlying theme of both of those essays is that

“Exaltation is the end and Christ, His Church, and His atonement are the means.”

I tried to express that end and means are always essential to each other and that neither is fully meaningful or relevant without the other.

But some of the feedback I’ve received basically asks which I think is more important—Christ or Family? Atonement or Exaltation?  These questions make me realize that I have not made my means-and-ends comments or analogies clear enough.  The point is not which is most important, the point is that they each can exist only with the other, that neither is meaningful without the other—that they are not only synergistic, but symbiotic.  God’s goal for us is not obtainable without His plan, neither is His plan consequential without the goal that it leads to.

Thinking of Christ as the means in no way lessens Him.  He is the indispensable, irreplaceable key to the salvation and exaltation that is our Heavenly Parent’s goal for Their children. (“the immortality and eternal life of man—Their “work and their glory.”)

And that is how Christ refers to Himself—He does not say “I am the end.” He says “I am the way…the light.” He says His work and his glory is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life.

And how He came to be that way, that light, that means, is the subject and the topic of today’s essay.

Opening Story

Many years ago on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in my favorite chair reading the Church News, when our youngest daughter, 6-year-old Charity, pulled my newspaper down from in front of my face, looked me straight in the eye, and said “You’re not really my Daddy!”

Now if that won’t get your attention, I don’t know what will! I just looked, a little wide-eyed, at this precocious little kid of mine and waited for her to continue…

“In Primary today, our teacher told us that Heavenly Father is our real daddy—and you are just my brother.”

I scooped her up onto my lap and said “That is wonderful that you know that darlin. You’re right, we lived with our real daddy before we came here.”

But she wasn’t done. She fixed me in her blue-eyed gaze again and said, “And I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I am actually your big sister.”

Now I was trying to remember who her Primary teacher was, and all I could say was “Really?”

Charity said (in her 6-year-old language and logic) something like “Yes, because teacher said that Heavenly Father saved his most special and mature children to come down here later than the others.”

There wasn’t much to say to that—and knowing my little-but-amazing daughter like I did, I thought she was probably right.

Trying to understand the Middle by knowing the Beginning

It is always true in life (or in eternity) that we can’t fully understand the present or intelligently imagine or influence the future until we know the past.

Nomadic Australian Aboriginal men sometimes go on “walk-abouts” where they simply leave their tribe for weeks or even months to be in solitude.  Truman Madsen used to tell the story of one such fellow who went off into the outback and was not seen for several months.

As fate would have it, on the day he returned to his home he saw a white man with a knife attacking his wife.  He rushed to save her and had to be restrained by members of his tribe.

In fact, what had happened was this:  During the Aboriginai’s absence, Christian medical missionaries had come to the tribe, and he happened to return home on the very day that a surgeon was performing an emergency appendectomy on his wife.

Not knowing any of that “past” caused the Aboriginai to come to all the wrong conclusions: 1. The white man was trying to kill his wife. 2. It was being done against her will, and 3. It certainly couldn’t do her any good.

Not knowing about our premortal past can cause us to come to wrong conclusions about our lives and our world in the present. In our turbulent times, it is easy to look at the suffering, the confusion, the vast inequity, and conclude either that there is no god or that he cares nothing for us, or that he is arbitrary and unfair.

But that is a little like a spectator coming late to a track meet and walking into the stadium in the middle of a race to find some runners ahead of others—and concluding that the race is not fair. He simply missed the start of the race.

One of the glories of the Restored Gospel is that we know something of the beginning and the end of the race. Although, of course, there is no beginning or end in eternity, and this mortality is not a competition or a contest. Rather, it is a growth experience and when seen in context with our premortal life and the Spirit World and the Millennium, it is completely and beautifully fair, and benevolent beyond our ability to comprehend.  It is that premortal beginning that is the focus of this essay.  I led into it in the introductory essay which said:

“We know few details of that premortal counsel, but we do know that our eldest Brother presented our Heavenly Parents’ plan of agency and progression and offered Himself to atone for our inevitable mistakes. Thus, Christ and later His Church and Restoration became the means by which we can reach the end of Exaltation.

“Another intriguing thing we know about that great counsel is that at some point we “shouted for joy.” Perhaps we might even speculate that this may have happened twice: First when we learned of the plan to create an adventure/agency earth where we would have all the ingredients necessary to become, in important ways, more like our Heavenly Parents.

“But I wonder, after the initial jubilation of the idea, if we may have realized how perilous the round-trip journey would be—knowing that no unclean thing could dwell with God and knowing that all of us would fall short. Then Christ made His supremely magnanimous offer to atone, to intervene, to make it possible for us to return. Perhaps that was when, for the second time, we shouted for joy.”

Middle Story

Years ago, Linda and I were in the Caribbean on a friend’s sailing yacht and as we pulled into a marina, we were shocked to see another boat exactly identical to the one we were on. (We later found out that yachts like this are always made in pairs, and by sheer chance we had encountered our “sister ship.”)  Its owner turned out to be Graham Kerr, the “galloping gourmet” of TV cooking show fame, and he invited us on board for dinner.

During our dinner conversation, the subject of religion came up and Graham told us that he had previously been a Christian, but had converted to Hinduism.  I told him that I had never encountered that particular transition, and asked him to tell me more.

He said it was actually pretty simple.  He had been troubled all his life about the inequities of this world—some rich, some poor, some sick, others healthy, some born to mobility and boundless opportunity and others to isolated, ignorant stagnation.  His Christian faith could not explain that to him or tell him how God could allow such unfairness, so he embraced Hinduism because it taught of multiple lives for each of us which in their sum total, would equal out to fairness and equal opportunity for all souls. He added that he still had worshipful feelings for Christ but couldn’t stay with the unfair theology.

I asked him if he knew that there was a Christian church with doctrine that addresses that issue through belief in a forward and backward eternity, not in which we change over and over from one life-form to another, but in which we stay our individual selves and move from phase-to-phase of our existence until there is the complete cumulative fairness of all having experienced the same opportunities and potential.

He replied that no, he did not know there was a Christian church that taught that.

And you can imagine where my missionary mind took the discussion from there

Seeing Our Previous Life through a Familial Lens

In the Church, when we think about our premortal existence, we usually focus on the great Council, the “war” in Heaven, the ascendence of Christ as our Savior, and the casting down of Satan.  But perhaps the overriding truth the Restoration gives us about our pre-existence is that we were a family, that we have Heavenly Parents, and that we are all one other’s Spiritual Siblings.

And this changes everything.

It shifts our paradigm from a sovereign, or arbitrary, or punishing god to a Parental God. And it changes our perception of His love (Their love) from collective to personal, and from conditional to unconditional.

It also allows us to believe in the fairness of eternity rather than the seemingly random unfairness of this world.

And belief in (and some knowledge of) our premortal past gives us context for what we all love to call the Plan of Salvation, or the Plan of Happiness, or the Plan of Eternal Progression or the Plan of Agency (and indeed, it is all of these.)

God, as the ultimately wise Parent, knew our progress was limited as long as we were there within His realm, under His care and direct stewardship and example.  Only with agency and the limitless options of this orbiting laboratory and adventure called earth (and with the veil that made our agency complete) could we learn at the next level, and only with the gift of mortal bodies could we play out physically the God-like roles of parents, aunts, uncles, children, siblings, and cousins that, coupled with good choices, could make us bit-by-bit more like Him, (more like Them) which is and always will be the measure of our progression.

The three classic eternal questions that have become almost a cliché in the Church—”Where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going” can each be essentially answered with one word, and it is the same word for all three questions: Family.

We came from family (God’s), we are here for family (to have, be part of, and form our own), and we are going back to family (to Theirs, with ours).

Is it any wonder then, that our Prophet says things like “the Gospel is Family Centered and Church Supported” or “Salvation is an individual matter but Exaltation is a family matter”?

It has been said that all great and lasting stories are at some level about Going Away From and Coming Back to Home.  In Wordsworth’s words “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting, the soul that rises with us, our life’s star, hath had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar… trailing clouds of glory…from God who is our home.”

A great many people believe that there was something before this world, and that we were somehow present and included in that something—and they often feel that this “before” is witnessed to them by things like déjà vu.

But we Latter Day Saints belong to the only Christian Church on earth that teaches of this pre- life as an official part of its doctrine.  Most other Christians believe that our spirits were created by God at the time of our physical birth or the time of our conception—and that, while our spirits have no end, they did have a beginning.  They go on forever forward into unimaginable eternity, but backward only to our arrival on this earth.  This one-way eternity is illogical and problematic on so many levels, but without the Restoration’s paradigm it seems like the only belief-option.

Note: The pre-existence of souls was taught in early Christianity, at least up to the time of Christian theologian Origen, but the Second Council of Constantinople, in 553 AD, condemned this doctrine and formally rejected Origen’s views as incompatible with orthodox Christian theology.

Concluding Stories 

In the first year of our Mission Presidency in the London, our fifth child was born.  He came nine weeks premature and spent the first forty days and forty nights of his life in a London hospital.  It was a challenging time for all of us, but with God’s help, the baby got through it, and we got through it. And the prayers of missionaries and members united us all.

To our dismay, not much more than a year later, both Linda and I began to have the impression that we should have another baby while still on our mission.  It was a completely illogical and frightening thought.  We were busier than we had ever been in our lives, and our five young kids and 250 young missionaries needed all of our time and attention.  But we couldn’t shake the feeling.

Finally, we decided, reluctantly, to fast and pray about it, and the result turned out to be one of the most remarkable spiritual experiences we have ever had.

That Fast Sunday we sent all five kids upstairs with Saren, the eldest, taking care of them, and we barricaded ourselves in the bedroom to pray. Not long after we began our prayer, we both felt a clear and striking feeling that can’t really be put into words, but if we tried, those words would go something like this, “I know this doesn’t make sense to you right now, but go forward with faith.  I have a spirit up here for you who will be as trouble-free as a baby can be and who will bless your family, your missionaries, and your whole mission.

And that is exactly what happened, and while there is not space here for the details, the experience taught us, indelibly, of the familial nature of God and His plan and His paradigm.

He was sending His child to be our child.  He knew this child, and He knew us. He loved this child and He loved us. He saw us as part of His plan, and of His family. He is the Father of us all and will help us and answer the prayers we offer as parts of earthly families which are individually and personally loved as parts of His family.

One little postscript:  When Saren came down from babysitting her siblings upstairs during our prayer, she handed us five little squares of paper, each with a check mark on it. She said “we took a vote, and we all think we should have another baby.”  We had not even known that she knew what we were praying about, but it was a delightful extra little confirmation, and a warning that kids often know more than we think they do.

One Final, Current Story

These days, whenever I have the opportunity to speak to full time missionaries, I have a favorite thing I like to do.  Without warning, I ask the two Assistants to the Mission President to join me at the podium.  I ask the first one to explain the Plan of Salvation or the Plan of Happiness in two minutes, and inevitably that Elder, without any preparation and speaking very rapidly, does a great job, expertly explaining where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.  Then I ask the second Assistant to do the very same thing, but to use the word “family” as many times as he possibly can while he tells the story—and that we are all going to count how many times he can use that word in his two minutes.

After he does, I ask the assembled missionaries which story they liked best.  Though both were good, the second story is warmer, more personal, and somehow more loving and more insightful and enlightening.  The last time I did this, the second Elder used “family” more than 20 times in his two minutes—and all of the usages were appropriate and illuminating.  The bottom line is that the Father’s plan is about family, that we are all members of His (Their) family, that we are all various parts of earthly families here, and that all families can be a part of Their family there.

And that is, I believe, the lens through which we can best understand God and His love.