I have a wonderful home teacher. He tries to visit every month, despite our frequent too-busyness; he remembers every child’s birthday, and mine; he shows up to baseball and basketball games and high school improv nights to cheer for my kids. Once I posted something on Facebook about how much I love lilacs, and he and his wife were at my door within the hour, arms full of gorgeous blooms–I think they must have cut down an entire lilac bush in their yard. When he asks if there is anything he can do for us, I know the question is sincere and heartfelt and would be followed by the relocation of at least a New England-sized mountain if I asked. He seems disappointed when I can’t think of anything to ask for.
Once, I had a meeting scheduled with his wife, and called to cancel because I had a cold and felt mildly crummy. He called a few minutes later. “I heard you were sick,” he said, sounding oddly elated about it. “It’s no big deal,” I told him, truthfully, “just a little cold.” “I’ll bring you guys pizza for dinner!” he said, sounding as though he absolutely could not think of anything more fun. I felt like I was doing him a favor when I said “thanks, that would be great.”
A little while later, he was on the porch with pizzas and a bag with vanilla ice cream and root beer in it. “I hope your kids like root beer floats,” he said. They do, of course, but that was not why I suddenly got all teary. It was his uncertainty that made me realize the holiness of the moment. My home teacher, despite his valiant efforts, doesn’t know my kids all that well. It’s a pretty safe bet that they like root beer and ice cream, but we haven’t spent enough time together for him to know that for sure. His kindness to us is not grounded in the usual currency of human friendships–mutual self-revelation, reciprocal gift-giving, shared experience… I think he likes us just fine, and we like him, but that is not the reason he cares for us. He tends to us not because we are interesting or amusing or admirable, not because we merit his attention, but because he loves Jesus and knows that “[Jesus] first loved us.”
It’s easy to think, in our 21st-century, post-Oprah, therapeutic culture, that such friendship is inauthentic or artificial–I have myself occasionally bemoaned the apparent falseness of friendship by administrative assignment. As my aging curmudgeon self starts to see things my younger self missed in her idealistic zeal, I’m realizing that I am not as complicated or sophisticated as I sometimes like to think. We are, in the end, creatures–creatures with simple needs, creatures of habit–easily won by regular (monthly, perhaps?) demonstrations of simple devotion.
There’s a scene in The Little Prince that describes our situation:
What does that mean–‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me–like that–in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . .”
The next day the little prince came back.
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . .”
Part of our resistance to being thus tamed comes from hubris about our own feelings for those we would love–surely, surely we would not do home teaching or visiting teaching out of a mere sense of duty! We want to feel genuine affection for our charges. And yet, as much as we would like to be motivated by selfless love all the time, the fact is that most of us are subject to the laws of thermodynamics just like everything else in the universe. Left to our own devices, we will take the path of least resistance, hang out with people who don’t demand too much, let charity be overcome by the entropy of selfishness or mere laziness.
But when moments of crisis make us the ones demanding too much, requiring others to overcome inertia to help us, we may be distressed to realize that we are maybe not lovable enough to merit all the help we need, the affection we crave. (I’m speaking for myself here–I’m sure you are lovable enough for any practical purpose!) In such moments I am desperately in need of care that comes from someone who loves me not for my own sake, but for Jesus’.
Those of us whose beliefs occasionally smack up against the paling fence of Mormon orthodoxy are tempted to insist that *doing* Mormonism is as important as believing it. I’m less sure than I used to be that the doing and the believing can be so tidily dissected–something about those particular root beer floats makes me less confident in abstract and oh-so-clever discussions of praxis. It is not some sociological concept of community, but the love of Jesus that made that root beer not only sweet with simple human kindness, but sacramental–redolent of wine and blood.