We mortals are so immersed in time that we rarely glimpse timelessness—or eternity. We see fantastic movies where people hopscotch from place to place in time but, in our “real” lives we plod along our time-bound path with no sense that it is possible to do otherwise.
In 1892 my great-grandfather, Ben Goddard, left for a mission to New Zealand. He left behind his wife, son, and occupation. In his journal he said of his parting “Twas a hard struggle and only a sense of sacred duty would have reconciled us all to make the sacrifice.” For more than three years he traveled New Zealand, struggled with the language, taught the Maoris the Good News, conducted meetings, and sang hymns of praise. He even taught language, literature, and math in night school. He came to love the good people of that country far from his home in Millard County, Utah, or his first home in Huddersfield, England.
Lately I have been reading Ben’s journal, yearning to know his soul. His entry for April 2 had a real impact on me: “I received a letter from Mother but no letters from my dear family & on this account I was very sad & uneasy.” I pictured my beloved forebear far from home feeling anxious and lonely. I desired to send him a letter. My heart proclaimed: “I will write him!” even as my mind wondered how to send a message to the past.
If I went back to 1892 to write him a letter, I undoubtedly should not disclose that he would lead an important church work for 27 years after his mission. (We mortals are kept focused on today and faith by being shielded from a view of the future.) I hardly need tell him how much reason his only child, his beloved son, my grandfather, would give him to be proud. (He already adored his boy!) He would hardly have believed the number of descendants he would have only 70 years after his death. (I cannot count all the people!)
Maybe I could just tell him that I love him and that his devotion and testimony have blessed my life. Maybe I could tell him how his expressions of faith and life of service have blessed all his descendants. Maybe I could tell him that a file filled with his letters and journals are among my most cherished possessions.
But how does one predate a letter almost 110 years? I do not know the answer to that question but I felt that, if I made the effort, my message for my great-grandfather would not be wasted. I might—even now—write him a letter and both of us would be blessed by the effort. Time is no barrier for the work of God.
Elder Maxwell (1980) wrote about time: “Even now, time is clearly not our natural dimension. Thus it is that we are never really at home in time. Alternately, we find ourselves impatiently wishing to hasten the passage of time or to hold back the dawn. We can do neither, of course. Whereas the bird is at home in the air, we are clearly not at home in time—because we belong to eternity. Time, as much as any one thing, whispers to us that we are strangers here” (p. 220).
As Alma observed, “time only is measured unto men” (Alma 40:8). God lives outside of time. While we impose our clockwork chronology on life, somehow God surveys all creation and employs the goodness in one corner to the blessing of all. “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty” (Smith, 1938, p. 320). God seemingly can make our actions retroactive, sending goodness rippling through all of eternity.
We have a friend who has gotten the help of a therapist to work through her bad feelings for her parents. Her therapist suggested she mentally bring back her deceased father and unload on him; let him know how hurt, betrayed, and neglected she felt. Tell him off. After doing just that she sought my feedback. I did not want to interfere with her work with her therapist but I suggested that sometime she may want to try a different exercise. I suggested that some day she might again use her imagination to bring her father back from the grave. I suggested that she kneel at his feet and invite him to describe what he would have done for her had his health and knowledge been different. How might he have supported, encouraged, and loved her? What great times together would they have had if he had not been bedridden? In that interview, they could create a new relationship, a new history. Even as I shared the suggestion with my friend, I felt invited to travel across time, making improvements on my marred life story.
The past may be more malleable than we think. The Lord has said that He can make what is crimson as white as wool (Isaiah 1:18). When He removes the stains from our past, He does not leave a void, a vacuum, a gaping hole in our fabric of our lives. He, with our cooperation, creates a past filled with purposeful living and specific goodness. As we become a new creature in Christ, we get a new history filled with all those things we would have done if we had had the convictions we now have. We indeed are changed.
Even now our choices to understand, obey, love, and bless can ripple both forward and backwards through time. Our choices can change eternity. They can bind the hearts of children to their fathers and the mothers to their scarcely known ancestors.
With the tunnel vision of mortality, we do not glimpse the ripples of our choices. We march along mortality gritting our teeth, grieving yesterday’s losses, and dreading tomorrow’s ambushes—unless we have that transcendent faith that lifts us above the worries of mortality. With that faith we know that a perfect Father will backfill the sinkholes of our life histories with love, purpose, growth, and joy. In eternity we will inherit the wisdom gleaned from our own experiences and the wisdom He has given as a divine gift. He can repair anything, even the past.
Brigham Young gives us a glimpse of total trust in the Lord in instructions he provided to missionaries:
When you pray for your families . . . you must feel—if they live, all right; if they die, all right; if I die, all right; if I live, all right; for we are the Lord’s, and we shall soon meet again ( sel. Widtsoe, 1954, p. 324).
For now the veil keeps me from seeing my beloved great-grandfather, but my heart knows that we are bound together eternally in a bond of love. I may not understand just how to capture his eye with my long-delayed letter, but I know that we are connected. I will write him a letter and date it April, 1892.
April 1, 1892
Oh! How I love you! Thank you for your letters, pictures, and journals that have provided me a view of your life and commitments. Thank you for dedicating your life to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your sweet devotion to your family. Thank you for your example of using all your gifts to advance God’s work and bless His children. You will bless generations far beyond your mortal sojourn.
May peace and purpose fill all the days of your mortal ministry. May glory crown your immortality. Even as you receive this message, there are those who rejoice in your whole-hearted offering.
I hope that somehow Ben’s loneliness in that distant day and land may be healed by my message written over 100 years later.
But wait, even now Ben sends a reply filled with love and encouragement for his descendent who is still stuck in time. I cannot discern all the words, but I feel its spirit. I bask in the warmth of his appreciation.
“Thank you, Grandpa. It is so good to hear from you.”
Maxwell, N. A. (1980). Patience. In Brigham Young University 1979 Devotional and Fireside Speeches. Provo, UT: University Publications.
John A. Widtsoe (1954). Discourses of Brigham Young. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
Smith, J. F. (Compiler). (1938). Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
Ben Goddard administered to my sickly great grandfather in 1892 on a number of ocasions, today 2021 we are a numerous family of descendants still living in our little village of Takapuwahia, Porirua