Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mentors and Mantles

Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

                        2 Kings 2.9

Passed Experience

Mentors often make the crucial difference between realizing our full potential or merely succeeding. They possess gifts for spotting unrefined talents and sensing unfocused energy in need of direction, and they offer their help and encouragement without expectation of personal benefit beyond seeing their efforts rewarded. It’s no exaggeration to say much of human achievement has arisen on the shoulders of mentorship—from Socrates' tutelage of Plato to Stanley Ann Dunham’s determined guidance of her son, Barack Obama. When we face new challenges, we seek out mentors who’ve already mastered lessons we’ve yet to learn. Mentorship is passed experience, knowledge and skills freely shared with others to prevent them from having to learn “the hard way.”

The Bible is filled with mentoring relationships: Moses and Joshua; Samuel and David; Naomi and Ruth; Paul and Timothy; and, of course, Christ and the disciples. Yet none portrays the dynamics of faith mentorship as vividly and succinctly as the story of Elijah, the elder prophet, and his student, Elisha. We know very little about their relationship, other than Elisha spent a good deal of time in his mentor’s company. In 1 Kings 19, God tells Elijah to anoint two successors, Jehu and Elisha. He finds Elisha plowing his father’s fields and without ceremony, he tosses his mantle on the boy’s shoulders. Elisha instantly stops what he’s doing and chases after Elijah, saying, “Let me kiss my parents good-bye and I’ll come follow you.” Elijah, who’s something of a loner, sends him back to the farm. But Elisha won’t be dissuaded. He knows he can learn more from the experienced prophet than he’ll ever discover on his own. He slaughters his oxen, sets the plow on fire, roasts the meat, and feeds his family. Basically, he fixes things so he can follow Elijah; with no oxen and plow, there’s no use hanging around.

Paying Attention

This chapter in the Elijah-Elisha story ends thusly: “[Elisha] set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant.” (1 Kings 19.21) After that, he isn’t mentioned for quite a while. It’s presumed he stays close by Elijah’s side, paying attention to everything he does, learning from his mentor’s conversation and example. He drinks in every detail and soaks up every second. When Elisha resurfaces in 2 Kings 2, Elijah’s about to be taken out of the world. He does his best to shake Elisha. Three times, Elijah tells Elisha to hang back. Each time, he gets the same answer: “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”

They meet 50 prophets assembled near the Jordan as a sort of bon voyage party for Elijah. It would be particularly fine to join them for a final farewell, but Elijah’s so irked with Elisha, he rolls up his cloak, strikes the river, it parts, and the two cross to the other side. Elijah asks Elisha, “What do you want from me?” The young man answers, “I want twice as much spirit as you have.” Elijah tells him he’s asking a difficult thing. “But if you’re paying attention when I’m taken from you, you’ll get it. If you look away, you won’t.” The two men walk on. From nowhere, a fiery chariot comes between them, stirring up a whirlwind that snatches Elijah into heaven. Elisha’s so overcome with grief he tears his clothes off. Then he sees Elijah’s mantle. He picks it up and strikes the Jordan just like his mentor. The river parts for him exactly as it did for Elijah. The 50 prophets see this and say, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elijah.” A prophet is born.

Faith Formation

Mentorship is a key component of faith formation, yet it’s far and away the most commonly neglected. Because faith is an extremely personal and private matter, we erroneously presume we’re solely responsible for its development. We limit our exposure to general knowledge we glean from the pulpit, study groups, and publications. Unlike academics or careers, where we single out individuals who can teach us one-on-one, we resist initiating close relationships with more seasoned and knowledgeable believers. Our reluctance to find faith mentors does us a great disservice. For starters, it puts us in the imprudent position of having to learn “the hard way.” Second, it removes the opportunity to aspire to levels of maturity and understanding others have reached.

Elisha didn’t want to be like Elijah; he wanted to be better than him. To get there, he left his regular occupations to devote time and energy he needed to pay close attention to his mentor, carefully observing what he did and how he responded to situations. When he picked up Elijah’s mantle, he knew exactly what it was for and how it could be used. There was nothing supernatural about the mantle; Elisha’s confidence in his ability and right to use it made the difference. We should never shy away from seeking faith mentors or be ashamed about aspirations to reach—and surpass—their understanding and abilities. Faith is personal, but it’s also transmitted believer-to-believer, with the stronger Christian encouraging the less experienced one. Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11.1) Placing ourselves in the company of those who can teach us in word and deed is vital to our growth.

Mentors share their knowledge and experience to save us from having to learn “the hard way.”

(Tomorrow: Decisions, Decisions) 


genevieve said...

I have always been thankful for those who have come before me. I have been mentored in a numbered of different situations but am a better person for it.

The best advice I have received is to know and study the bible for myself. I'm thankful for having pastors and mentors who have espoused this. I have been studying scriptures even deeper since I came out as transgender. My desire is to share with other transgender people that God loves them.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Tim. I really like what you say here.

Tim said...

Genevieve, the best mentors do exactly as you describe--they inspire us to grow and stand on our own. The foundation your pastors and mentors laid for you is one of the reasons you stand so confidently and with such love for others today.

Missy, thanks!

Blessings to you both,