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We have loved Vivian from the moment that our daughter, Emily, picked her up from her biological mother at the hospital only minutes after she was born. We laughed that our fair, blonde daughter had a child with dark skin and black curly hair. Vivian brought great joy to our family!
As the months passed it became increasingly clear that Vivi had developmental problems. Her muscles did not work right. She was very slow to walk. Even now, at the age of 11, it is often hard to discern what Vivi is saying. And she is still learning to ride a bike.
But you should see her dance! Put on a peppy piece of music and she launches into a loose-jointed assault on space. She is a wonder and a joy to behold!
Over the years Emily arranged every kind of test and therapy but no one had a diagnosis and no one could do more than support her development in tiny ways.
A few years ago Emily invited me to attend a meeting at Vivi’s elementary school as they refined her Individualized Education Program (IEP). I admit that I felt anxious about the meeting. Vivi’s special education teacher, her speech therapist, psychologist, and principal would all be there. I worried that they would treat her like a problem—a child who didn’t fit well in an educational system designed for different kinds of kids. I went ready to plead her cause and appeal for the very best they had to offer.
My defensiveness turned out to be needless. As the meeting began, each of the educators described what they enjoyed about Vivi. They told specific stories of loving encounters with her and shared joy. It turned out that they loved her much the way our family loves her. They reviewed her progress and made specific plans to help her continue to develop. I was so glad for their willingness to see the best in her and to join with us in helping her develop and find joy.
Since that day at Otter Creek Elementary School, I have wondered if heaven holds periodic IEP meetings for each of us.
Every one of us mortals has developmental challenges of several kinds. First, we are fallen and, “because of the fall, our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2). This leads to that universal human problem: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19). We make many mistakes and neglect God-given invitations.
Since all of us have special needs, maybe every human on the face of the earth has a specialized development program created with the best resources of heaven. Just as our bishop can enlist the ward council and all the resources of the ward to help ward members in need, so Heavenly Father rallies all the resources of heaven for each of us as we struggle along in our moral journeys.
I have tried to imagine a heavenly IEP meeting held for you or me. Who might be there and what might be said and planned? Let’s consider what such an IEP team meeting might be like.
The composition of the group
You might expect that only a very small group of assigned functionaries will show up for your IEP. You would be wrong.
Your IEP team is carefully chosen. Presiding in the meeting is the First Presidency of heaven, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Conducting the meeting is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the one who has demonstrated that He will do anything to save you.
In addition they have invited your ancestors and maybe even those descendants who are still in the spirit realm. Those who know you and love you will be invited as team members. And all the souls who have entered into covenants with God will be ready resources the team can call on. Every soul is precious to them and they are invested in your progress.
It is an impressive group! And they are all focused on one thing: How can we get you back home perfected and glorified?
The agenda for the meeting
You might worry that a group that “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” would not want to give most of us even a passing glance. You might wonder if they will shake their heads as they judge you and turn their attention to those who are doing a better job than you are. But those fears are mistaken. The leader of the group will set a very different tone.
“While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men” (TPJS, p.218).
He doesn’t look at us the same way people do. He sees us redemptively. He is quite determined to help us get all the glory we are willing to receive. He provided a Savior for us so that we could come back and dwell with Him. He is even more protective of you than I was for Vivi during her IEP.
If we ever really understood His love and commitment to each of us, we would be thunderstruck! “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds [our] recurring wrongs” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell). “The first great truth of all eternity is that God loves us with all of His heart, might, mind, and strength. That love is the foundation stone of eternity, and it should be the foundation stone of our daily life. Indeed it is only with that reassurance burning in our soul that we can have the confidence to keep trying to improve, keep seeking forgiveness for our sins, and keep extending love to our neighbor” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign, May 2016 p. 127).
You might expect the heavenly discussion to center around the question, “How many chances must we give this person? He/She makes so many mistakes!” Again, you would be wrong. The heavenly question is, “What can we do to help this precious soul make the next step in an eternal progression toward a glorious home.”
They understand the limitations you brought with you from your pre-earth experience. They know your faults, mistakes, and sins. But they also comprehend the struggles you are enduring through. They know your best attributes and strengths. They are aware of your finest hopes and offerings. So they know exactly what you need to make the next step in your eternal progression. And they have an absolute commitment to help you learn those lessons that will get you home to Father.
The Individualized Plan
Your IEP will begin much like Vivi’s did. Each of the key team members will tell of the things they love about you. They will tell specific stories of loving encounters and shared joy. It is a time of rejoicing for one of Father’s unique creations. It turns out that they love you with an unstinting and undying love.
They review your progress, your strengths, your needs, and make specific plans to help you continue to develop. “The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7).
They make plans as creative as the Creator Himself—the very Being who gave life to dragonflies, aspen forests, and mother earth. They design the experiences that will help you to learn the vital lessons of eternity. They will allocate the noblest resources of heaven to get you safely through times of pain and sorrow. They will place friends, angels, and experiences along the way to teach and lift you. They will spread hints of heaven’s glory on your life’s landscape. They offer all the resources of heaven to get your earthly education and bring you safely home.
Truly it is humbling to know that each of us has the full commitment of Father, the gracious sacrifice of the Son, and unrelenting ministering of the Holy Ghost—plus an army of helpers. “Lord, I pray thee, open [your] eyes, that [you] may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about [each of us]” (2 Kings 6:17).
Of course all their efforts are focused on one task: Getting us to the Redeemer, that great Heavenly Therapist who can “deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace” (“Jesus Christ–Gifts and Expectations,” Christmas Devotional, Salt Lake City, Utah, 7 December 1986; Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p.361.)
When we understand the commitment of heaven in our behalf, we are energized and encouraged!
“Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners [of the spirit world and mortality] shall go free” (D&C 128:22).
When I think how much love and commitment this imperfect grandfather has for a struggling grandchild, I begin to realize how profoundly our Father in Heaven is committed to our growth and happiness.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful edits and helpful additions to this article.
Friends, may I ask a favor? Recently I shared a link to my new children’s book, God’s Trophies. It features a wonderfully illustrated, joyful story that helps children to learn about gratitude for all of God’s creations and teaches them that they are each God’s most beloved creation. (The book would make an excellent Christmas gift for any special children in your life!) If you decide to purchase this book, would you be willing to post a review of the book on Amazon? I would greatly appreciate it! And, if you think your friends might be interested in the book, perhaps you could share the Amazon link with them.