One of my most vivid memories as a boy growing up in the gospel-centered home that I did is of a Family Home Evening that we had when I was maybe four, in the basement of our little starter home in Bountiful, Utah. Mom and Dad helped my little brother and me trace our hands with blue marker on poster board. We cut those out, and then wrote on the five fingers of each hand our life’s goals, which we arrived at with Mom and Dad’s gentle persuasion:
1. Get Baptized and Receive the Holy Ghost
2. Receive the Aaronic Priesthood
3. Receive the Melchizedek Priesthood
4. Go on a Mission
5. Get Married in the Temple
That remains a pretty ideal life’s plan for young men in the Church today1—and there is a lot of good to it. Speaking personally, those were good goals for me, and they served me well. Over the years, I have also become more sensitive to the fact that sometimes ideals aren’t attainable, and that within Mormon culture the pain of unmet expectations or attainments can be really acute, even brutal. I want to speak in this post to a slightly different set of expectations that I wish we laid more cultural emphasis on—expectations that, in my view, are more attainable for a larger percentage of our willing young men and that might be more easily adapted to young women, as well.
1. Be Baptized and Receive the Holy Ghost.
Baptism and confirmation is our symbolic embarkation on the journey of discipleship. It is how we signal our intended course for life. It is available to all who attain accountability. Receiving the Holy Ghost is an on-going process.
2. Become a Faithful Home Teacher.
This might be my most radical revision to the standard list, and it is the one that I want to expend the most electrons on in this post. In reality, I’m double dipping because, at least under the current order of things, receiving the office of Teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood is entailed in becoming a home teacher, so that original goal of mine is still there. But the emphasis now is not on priesthood as an end in itself, but as an authorization and call to serve. This matters a lot to me, because I am of the view that too much is made of men passively “holding the priesthood,” and not enough of them being actively “called to serve.” The fact is that both men and women are called to serve and are authorized serve in the Church, and “holding priesthood” is not a prerequisite for the most meaningful kinds of service that we render one another. For women, an analogous goal could easily be Become a Faithful Visiting Teacher (cue discussion about the difference in age when when young men vs. young women are called to serve in this regard).
I am currently serving in my fifth (5th) bishopric (two student wards, three family wards). I’ve loved every ward that I’ve ever served in. And in every ward that I’ve ever served in I have been present for prolonged and sometimes anguished discussions, in ward leadership meetings, about how to improve home teaching. I have seen every kind of artifice and means of persuasion considered. (And if you want to know, there is still no substitute for consistent, face-to-face—or, at a minimum, voice-to-voice—accountability through regular priesthood interviews.) I have a theory about home teaching—one that I believe will never be disproven because (a) the idea behind it probably will never be fully implemented so as to be disproven (so back to your priesthood interviews), and (b) if it were implemented, I’m as sure as I can be that it would be proven right. It is that home teaching is the quintessence of priesthood service and ought to receive much greater positive cultural weight than it currently does. If it did, we would achieve Zion and be translated. OK, that might be overstating it, but the benefits within our local congregations would be numerous and profound.
Let me hasten to add that I am not a stellar home teacher. I’m a vanilla home teacher. Plenty of room for improvement here, as the families I visit will attest. But I show up. Once a month (mostly), I show up with my companion and we have a good visit with our families. One of us has a rolled up copy of the Ensign, shares a thought, good feelings are felt, and we leave with a prayer. Not much more to it than that. But every now and then there will be an occasion when there is a little more to it than that. Someone will request a blessing. Or a need will be expressed or discerned. Or a bit of candor will intrude upon the usual niceties of our conversation, and the foundation that was laid by all of that vanilla showing up will suddenly bear weight. But even if those occasions are rare-to-never, I still believe that home teaching is the thing. Here’s why:
It’s weird, but there is something significant about being assigned to minister to, look after, and even love someone. There is a grace that comes when we accept such assignments. It comes to full-time missionaries who fall in love with the people they are called to serve. It comes in marriage, because years into it, no two spouses are the same people they were at the outset of their relationship. They are no longer the people of their initial choosing. They are who they have become through mutual interaction, yes, but also through their own individual experiences that shape them in ways that cannot be predicted or controlled. Spouses have medical problems; they loose their jobs; or they become successful beyond all expectation; they make new friends who influence them in unexpected ways; their kids introduce new dynamics; they change their politics. The capacity to chose to continue to love, to accept one’s covenant assignment and see it through in the presence of real change and persistent difference is no small part of marital flourishing. If that is so, then home teaching is probably one of the earliest relationships-by-assignment that men in the Church experience, and one of the best opportunities I know of to learn this principle of choosing to love, even if by assignment. It turns out to be a crucial life skill. But by and large, we don’t get it. It can take years before we begin to see the potential of such a strange institution, and some folks never do see it.
Through countless lessons, interviews, seminary videos, and sermons, we groom our young men from their earliest ages to anticipate and expect to serve as full-time missionaries. In our current LDS culture, it is the culminating rite of passage after which one is “set.” It can be more significant than being endowed, or degreed, or even married (unless that marriage is post-mission, in the temple). I get why this is so. The statistics are compelling. Returned missionaries are much more likely to stay “active” in the Church, more likely to marry in the temple, and so forth. I have no interest in arguing against the value of serving a mission. My last post was a meditation on some things that I treasure from my own service. But I do feel that we could do more, culturally, to inculcate and value an attitude of service that precedes the one-time shot of a mission, and persists thereafter as pattern of life.
Where are the primary songs about being a home or visiting teacher one day? How often does the significance of this life-time calling get mentioned in patriarchal blessings, fathers blessings, or blessings of ordination? Where is the training for Elders and High Priests about how to nurture their junior home teaching companions? How often is service as a home teacher mentioned as part of talks about the significance of the Aaronic priesthood? Where are the stories of home teaching experiences told around the campfire in Scouts? Where is the genre of literature about home teaching or visiting teaching that corresponds to the mission memoir? I’m quite serious: If we really valued home teaching as a culture, there would grow up a genre of literature for it, too. After all, it is a remarkable thing that we engage in—no less distinctive (from an outsider’s perspective) than serving a full-time mission. A lifetime call to insert yourself into the lives of people you wouldn’t necessarily choose as friends is a remarkable thing. I guarantee that there are stories to be told here. President Monson has told a few to get us started. I could tell some of my own. Just as great art reveals the hidden beauty and the existential grace in the seemingly mundane, there ought to be a literature that theorizes and lends value to home teaching and other lay ministerial experiences. Feature-length films and reality shows on BYU-TV would follow (for better or worse). For, where your heart is, there will your cultural production be also.
And one more thing. What constitutes effective home teaching needs to be made more contextually relevant, and it would be if we cared enough to bring our cultural weight to bear on this calling.
3. Make and Keep Temple Covenants.
Once again, I am double dipping, since being ordained an Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood for men is a prerequisite to making temple covenants. But both men and women make temple covenants and submit themselves to what I call the discipline of Mormonism, which includes keeping those covenants. The discipline of Mormonism, when chosen freely and lived right-mindedly, can lead to a well-ordered and dignifying pattern of life. For someone who is serious about keeping temple covenants, marriage, when it becomes an option, will include temple sealing as a matter of course. So, there, I’ve now triple dipped.
4. Get a Good Education.
Does anyone want to disagree with me on this one? Okay, then. I will only add that, like receiving the Holy Ghost, becoming educated is an on-going process.
5. Give Back.
Here is where I put missions, other callings, community service, charitable contributions, and parenting. Because every life is different, what this means to each member of the Church will be different. We can still ask that all our young people who are able to do so serve full-time missions. We can still specify that a mission is a priesthood duty for young men. But let there be a greater recognition of the varieties of legitimate kingdom-building service to which we can be called or to which we might give ourselves. I think this is gradually happening. Would that it happen more. The principle is simply that we live beyond ourselves and our own self-interest—that we value and cultivate family, community, humanity, and shared investment in our common well-being, and that we do it all in remembrance of Christ.
NOTE: This post is the last in a series based on the monthly themes from “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, and November.
1. I’ve struggled with how to structure this post about the youth lesson topics for December, because the experiences of men and women with respect to building the kingdom of God (that’s the theme) are still structured quite differently within the program of the Church. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—though the differences have indeed become less pronounced in the past few years—but it’s something that I have to factor for as I lay down some of these thoughts. To put it simply, my musings this time around pertain mostly to the expectations that men and young men have regarding what is called “Priesthood service” in the Church. I do want to reflect, though, on how these ideas might pertain to women and the ways they are likewise called to build the kingdom of God.