Confessions of a Halfhearted Home Teacher

"You're serious? You really want me to tell you what's wrong with the Church's home teaching program?" The speaker laughed warmly as he asked the question. An aggressive and successful company manager during business hours, he was driving toward a waiting golf course two hours away. His voice was charged with good humor. There was plenty of time--they had the entire sun-filled Saturday to themselves. His companion was his own father-in-law, a close friend, a bracing conversationalist, and a man of considerable Church experience.

"Your wife (my daughter) says she continues to be genuinely proud of your progress since you joined the Church, but lately she's become concerned that you haven't accepted your home teaching assignments with your usual enthusiasm. In fact, she says you're 'dying on the vine.' She also says you are becoming very vocal about your negative feelings."

The younger man chuckled again. "My wife (your daughter) knows perfectly well that I joined the Church so I could marry her, and that even though I did the right thing for the wrong reasons, I have since become totally, gloriously converted to the gospel. I know it is true." He mused a moment, reflecting on those early months of marriage, difficult times of adjustment to Mormon membership and its immediate culture shock. "And I'm quite willing to admit that at first it wasn't easy," he added. "Tithing was hard, three meetings every Sunday were overwhelming, and plunging into the Mormon activities whirlwind would have been quite beyond me if it hadn't been for her. Sally did a great job of making me feel at home in our ward, helping me learn to roll with the punches. I have come to enjoy it all--all but home teaching. Home teaching is different. Home teaching is a real problem for me, a thorn in my side--and it's getting worse."

He paused again and made his point a second time, muttering, "It certainly isn't getting any better. Home teaching is like pain. I forget how terrible it is until I have to go through it again." There was no smile now. Humor had drained from his voice.

"I'm surprised to hear that, Fred," the older man said, holding back his own thoughts, the silence forcing the son-in-law to continue his complaint.

"Well, I'm just as sorry to say it, because home teaching wasn't a bore and a burden that first year. I suspect it was because they sent me out with an accomplished companion. He had been in the bishopric, knew everybody, handled the whole thing. I just sat there and looked agreeable during our visits. But if we had a purpose in going, I certainly wasn't aware of it. We did no teaching, as I recall. He did all the talking.

"But now it's different." Fred sighed. "Now I'm the senior companion, the new Melchizedek Priesthood holder. Now I'm in charge, and it just isn't working out. I don't enjoy home teaching, so I put it off until the end of the month. Usually we have a lot of fumbling around before we get together, and then we can't find our families home. When we do find them, our visit isn't very uplifting or entertaining. It's painful for them; it's painful for me. As a result, I have little or nothing to report when my quorum leader lays on me one of those quick, catch-as-catch-can evaluation interviews. Frankly, they embarrass me. The whole thing distresses me, and I just don't want to continue. That's what I told Sally, that I'm going to ask the bishop to release me as a home teacher--so called."

The older man actually laughed. "Is that all? Nothing more?"

His laughter was infectious. The driver smiled again and said, "Sure, there's more. And since you've brought up the subject--and I'm sure your daughter put you up to it and made sure we'd have all day to gnaw on it together--let me also add that I haven't treated this lightly. I've been agonizing over my miserable attitude. I don't want home teaching to turn me sour on other programs within the Church--programs that really are inspired. So I've been searching for answers. I've analyzed my home teaching problem just as I would break down a problem at the office, just like the exercises we used to go through while I was getting my MBA. And I've come up with four basic areas that make home teaching most unpleasant for me, and perhaps for everyone else."

"Only four?"

Fred caught the humor and glanced sideways at his father-in-law but pressed on. "Only four errors in home teaching as our ward does it, but they are four big difficulties for me. Let me name them in order," and he held up the index finger on his right hand. "First, I am assigned five families without any notice. I am literally thrust upon them without any previous counsel or consideration. I learn about them from my priesthood leader, who catches me after church in the parking lot. He waits while I write down the five names, but I can learn very little about them from him because he does not really know them either. When I do meet the five families, I discover we have almost nothing in common. One family quite openly does not want any home teachers, especially me, a complete stranger and a convert. They are inactive and merely tolerate my visits. I cannot warm them up to me. I can see no value in even going into their home." Then he added, "Frankly, I can see no purpose in going to the other four homes."

And he held up two fingers on his right hand. "Second, I am requested during these parking-lot instructions to take a young Aaronic Priesthood holder with me. We also do not know each other, but I soon discover that he is very busy with high school activities and almost never available. He does not return my phone calls. When we do get together, it is obvious he would rather be elsewhere. He and I have even less in common than the families we teach. At least the parents are fellow adults and stay home some nights."

When Fred held three fingers up, the father-in-law smiled, for it looked identical to the Boy Scout sign. This reluctant home teacher had never been a Boy Scout. He missed the humor of it entirely.

"Third, no one has ever really explained to me what I am supposed to accomplish by all these monthly visits. What should I teach? What should I say? How should I use my junior companion? How can I, a newcomer to Mormonism, a rank outsider in many ways, teach anything these longtime member families have not already heard? And am I really supposed to be checking up on their family prayers and asking them point blank if they're getting along together? Who am I to intrude on their personal lives? If I ask them questions like these, I seem to be prying, playing the sinister investigator. Thus far, our home teaching visits-- and usually I go alone or with Sally--have proven worthless. I've tried it for seven months now, and I'm tired of it all.

"Finally," and Fred waved a full four fingers toward his father-in-law, "number four on my list of unpleasant home teaching areas is this unceasing pressure for me to get into those five homes at any cost. When I was sent out of town once and missed all five families, why, my quorum president made me feel as bad as if I'd just committed adultery! I've learned that 100 percent is vital because 100 percent is perfection, and perfection is what we Mormons are working for in life. With home teaching, I gain instant perfection monthly!" he scoffed. "Which Church president said, 'Every member a statistic'?"

"It was David O. McKay," the older man said dryly. "And what he said was,'Every member a missionary.' But go on. I'm listening."

"So--I must be prepared to report on the status of each family at the end of the month. What status? Am I there to teach them something? Am I really representing Christ? Or am I supposed to be sniffing out internal family difficulties I can pass along to random line leaders in the ward parking lot, or in a crowded hall between meetings? Because that's where most of my personal priesthood interviews take place." This was cynically said, but he softened his tone as he murmured, "Frankly, I resent it all."

They drove on in heavy silence for several minutes before the older man spoke.

"You're sure that's all? Just the four unpleasant areas?"

The driver stole another sideways look at his father-in-law, noting he was smiling broadly, and his own firm face immediately melted. But they both knew it had been a well-constructed indictment. Because the older man still held back, Fred continued.

"Soooo," and he cleared his throat, "you've got to admit I make a strong point or two--or four. And it seems to me that the question I have to ask is a very simple one: Is the LDS home teaching program really inspired? commanded of God? And if it is, why do I feel so miserable about it?" Another pause followed. "And the burden of proof, dear father-in-law, is yours." He reached over and patted him on the knee for emphasis. "Because," and he sighed again, "there's no inspiration in what I've been assigned to do. So let's hear from you now."

The white-haired man put his hands behind his head, lacing his fingers, stretching, smiling.

"You know, Freddy, your problems with home teaching carry me back to problems of my own during the early 1960s, right after correlation was presented to the Church. Someone came up with the idea that the priesthood bearers should carry a specific message to their families each month--a message that was probably thought up by some well-meaning committee at Church headquarters. These messages were printed on little slips of paper. Not a bad idea.

"But after a few years, the teaching ideas for the little messages wore pretty thin." He chuckled to himself, remembering. "They gave every set of home teachers a green book each year to record the family names and other information, and in the back of the book were the twelve monthly messages. We discussed the new message each month with the family, and after the visit, we tore out the printed slip and left it with them. The reason I'm amused in thinking about this is that the committee started running out of good ideas for messages--and we ended up with some really weak ones, really strange ones. Many had absolutely no application for some of our families.

"I vividly recall standing on the front porch of a house where Tom and I--we were both young elders--had never found the father at home, only the mother with four bright little children. We were very dutiful in giving the proper message from the green home teaching book, elaborating on it as required." He savored the memory flooding back. "So just before he knocked, Tom held up the slip, showed it to me, and suggested that it was my turn to teach the family. The printed message was on communism--and he obviously didn't want to give it to all those little children, who simply wouldn't understand it. He then claimed he had given last month's message, the one on safe driving. No, no, I objected, I had given last month's message, and it wasn't on safe driving; it was on profanity. I remembered giving it well--for none of those little children even knew what profanity was! Well, Tom finally agreed with me, and his shoulders sagged as he took the message slip back.

"We were welcomed inside, and he spent the next few minutes reading from the slip and convincing the children that communism was a blight on the world. We hoped they were uplifted by all this. We had a pleasant exchange with the mother on how the family was doing, I gave a nice closing prayer, and we said good-bye. But just as we walked off the porch, Tom heard the oldest child ask his mother softly, 'Mama, what is communism?' "

"And that's the point I'm making," Fred erupted. "Where is the inspiration in teaching little children about communism and safe driving?"

"But don't you see? That is an important part of the divine plan," the father- in-law said patiently. "We are mere mortals striving to implement a program the Lord has commanded us to carry out. But he doesn't tell us exactly how to do it! That's always been the challenge to Church leaders, to figure out the best way to accomplish what the Lord requires. We may stumble around trying to produce a plan for home teaching, but the idea for visiting every member at home is already perfect. It was commanded by God." And he bent forward and searched through the briefcase at his feet. He pulled out a book and quickly opened it. "See, God gives the basic commandment to home teach, but he then says, let's see--yes, right here: 'For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.' " 1 He leaned toward Fred, holding up the book, his finger still touching the scripture he had read.

"So God is commanding us to home teach, but he isn't going to tell us exactly what we should say each visit," the father-in-law said, stabbing the page for emphasis. "And did you note that God interchanges the word 'compelled' with 'commanded.' When we are commanded to home teach, we are also compelled to home teach."

"Yes, but I haven't yet heard the words 'home teach' anywhere in the scriptures," returned the driver. "Read me where it says 'home teaching' in the Doctrine and Covenants."

"Easily done," replied his father-in-law, and he quickly turned a few pages in the book. "In the very first month the Church was organized, in April of 1830, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith the essence of home teaching: 'To watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; and see that there is no iniquity in the church . . . and see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty.' 2

"And in that same revelation," the older man con-tinued, "the Lord explained how this Church-wide strengthening would be accomplished. For he also commanded-- and this is the key--'And visit the house of each member, exhorting them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties.' 3 We must recognize that Joseph Smith--great as he was--couldn't visit the home of each member of the Church--small as it was then. Even the most dedicated bishop can't do that now. That's God's commission to all priesthood holders. That's home teaching! And there isn't another so-called Christian church in all the world that makes any attempt to do this astonishing thing: to watch over every family and individual in the entire church on at least a monthly basis." The older man had greatly warmed to his subject, and he leaned closer as he climaxed his explanation.

"Home teaching," he said slowly, "is one of the singular signs of the true church."

The reluctant home teacher frowned. "But those weak messages about communism and--"

"Oh, fiddle!" retorted the father-in-law. "Don't you see? Home teaching is the vehicle to get priesthood visitors into every home on a continuous basis, to 'watch over the church always,' as the Lord said. Overcoming weak messages, that's an obvious need--but that occurs after you've determined to go visit your families, to sit with them in their homes. In those first correlation years, they may have had some messages that didn't apply to everyone--not to children-- but at least the vehicle was working. Tom and I were there! We represented the Lord to that little family. If we confused them with communism, at least we also inquired about their welfare, we looked around and saw that everything seemed all right, and we left a priesthood blessing in the home. That's worth everything. And they knew we cared about them. After all, we had set aside some time just for them. They had to have felt they were important to us."

"Hmmm," mused Fred, taking one hand from the wheel to stroke his chin meditatively. "Then you're saying the specific message isn't really as important as being in someone's home monthly?"

"No, I'm saying there are some marvelously uplifting messages that priesthood holders should be bringing into their assigned homes. But first they've got to be there. I'm also saying that when men try to implement and articulate a commandment of God, they may have to shift about a little until they find out how to do it." He patted the book in his lap.

"The Lord doesn't give Church leaders all the answers, nor even individual home teachers. But he does say he wants us to be 'anxiously engaged in a good cause,' 4 and that's what today's home teaching is all about, trying to figure out what's good for each family, for each individual."

The driver squinted down the road, contemplating. "So you're saying home teaching is a divinely inspired vehicle we have to drive into every member's home, but that we also have to figure out for ourselves what message we should be carrying in the vehicle--and how it should be unloaded?"

"Exactly," replied the father-in-law. "And very colorfully stated. The Lord wants home teachers to figure out what's best for each individual family. That's because everyone has a different set of needs. It's also an important part of another Church-wide emphasis called 'perfecting the Saints.' "

"And the LDS Church has had home teaching--in one form or another--since the beginning? Since, what was it, 1830?" Fred inquired.

"Home teaching is a latter-day commandment, yes," replied the father-in- law. "But remember, home teaching has always been a basic gospel function. That being true, then there has always been some considerable energy spent on home teaching wherever the Lord's church existed."

"Since joining the Church," the young man said, "I've learned that Adam had the gospel. Would you think he also sent out home teachers?" He asked this facetiously, but the reply was immediate.

"Certainly. As with every father, Adam was commanded to watch over his family-- which was the entire human race in those days--and when it grew beyond his ability to visit the home of each family member, he had to find a way to accomplish that inspired task."

"Ahhh, you have chapter and verse on that?"asked Fred with a sly smile.

"Surely," replied his passenger. "Let me find it in the book of Moses here." And he bent to the task. "Ah, yes, listen to this: 'Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters.' 5 And here again," he read. " 'And thus the Gospel began to be preached, from the beginning. . . . And thus all things were confirmed unto Adam, by an holy ordinance, and the Gospel preached, and a decree sent forth, that it should be in the world.' " 6 The father-in-law looked up. "And how could a decree be sent forth except someone be sent to all the children's homes? Someone assigned by Adam. That's home teaching in ancient times," he said with finality.

"Okay, but--"

"One more from the book of Moses," interrupted the father-in-law. "This is God counseling Adam: 'Therefore I give unto you a commandment, to teach these things freely unto your children.' " 7

Fred had always been amazed over his father-in-law's gift at finding scriptures. "And I suppose you can also find home teaching in the New Testament?"

His passenger bent down again, brought forth still another book, and said, "Glad you asked. This one is easy to find. Listen to what the Apostle James says when he describes the flawless exercise of religion: 'Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.' 8 Now, if that isn't what Tom and I were doing for that mother alone with her four children, I don't know what is."

The older man gazed at the countryside sweeping by them and reflected, "And I suppose that even though Tom presented a somewhat inept message to that little family that day, yet, if they had been in serious want, we would have recognized it--and helped them. That's pure religion. That's why we were there. That's what we were doing."

He turned again to the first book he had laid in his lap. "Now let me give you the benefit of the wisdom of old King Benjamin from the Book of Mormon." He flipped through the pages, found the verse, placed his finger on the words, and looked at his companion.

"You'll recall that this king is also a very humble prophet to the Nephites. When he is tired and old and ready to die, he calls together all of the families of his kingdom--which would be the entire Church--for he wishes to give them the sum total, the essence, of all that he has learned about life and what it means to properly serve the Lord. He has a communications problem, as it says here, 'For the multitude being so great that King Benjamin could not teach them all . . . therefore he caused a tower to be erected, that thereby his people might hear the words which he should speak unto them.' 9

"And what is the greatest single message he could deliver just before he dies? What is the capstone lesson he could teach to these families as their father figure, the consummate home teacher? He gives to them the superlative key to successful living. He says to them: 'I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.' 10 He is telling them exactly what James said, that service to others is pure religion.

"That's the way King Benjamin and James put it in their day. And in our day we call it--hang onto your hat, my boy--home teaching."

Sally's husband narrowed his eyes, studying the highway stretched out ahead of his speeding red car. He loved his wife for her constant concern for him. She was a great companion, and he loved her for what she had done this day, setting her father up to give him a mighty shot in the arm regarding his miserable feelings as a home teacher. Finally he spoke.

"I give up. I guess you're right. Home teaching is an inspired program."

"You guess I'm right?" The older man whooped.

"Okay, okay. You are right. Home teaching was commanded of God in all ages, and instructions can be inspired even in a parking lot." He paused to weigh his next words. "But if home teaching has the divine touch--then why do I feel so rotten about it?"

His father-in-law leaned over and slapped him affectionately on the back. "Why? Because, regardless of your MBA and all your good intentions, you haven't yet learned that if you want to harvest corn, then you must plant corn!"

Footnotes

1. D&C 58:26.

2. D&C 20:53-55.

3. D&C 20:51.

4. D&C 58:27.

5. Moses 5:12.

6. Moses 5:58-59.

7. Moses 6:58.

8. James 1:27.

9. Mosiah 2:7.

10. Mosiah 2:17.

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