Discipleship

I suppose everyone encounters the concept of discipleship in their own way and time, but once encountered the inevitable next step is a prolonged period of moaning about how hard it is to find someone to do the discipling. For me it happened about seventeen years ago. I was in a weekly Bible study with some of the other evangelical-leaning Episcopalians at my church, a Christian for just a few years, and ran through the standard litany of complaints about how unnamed “mature” Christians (I had none in mind) were apparently neglecting their mentorly duties to me and others, for reasons I couldn’t fathom.

To make the point, I turned to an older couple in the group, married perhaps forty years at that time. and said, “Look, surely if a young couple came to you and asked for guidance and wisdom about being married you’d be glad to give it.”

Instead of the vigorous nodding I expected to get, I got a deer-in-the-headlights look. Even after forty years of marriage my friends reacted in terror to the thought that someone might actually ask them for advice—after all, they might follow it, and it might not turn out well, and then who would be responsible?

That’s what I imagined they thought, anyway. Perhaps so, perhaps not. But in any case I eventually realized that avoiding the burden of an obvious role is a shameful neglect of one’s duty to others. When I turned fifty I told people I didn’t consider myself properly prepared to be a fifty-year-old man in the community, but since I was the fifty-year-old man God had given them I would do my best to measure up.

Still, I think there was way too much wishful thinking in the idea that I could have walked the path better with mentoring. Looking back on it, most of the walking was walking I had to do alone. To the extent that I unthinkingly followed the guidance of purportedly wiser men, I suffered. It is simply too much to ask another person to know your mind and circumstances thoroughly enough to make wise decisions for you, or even to explain to you how to decide a given situation wisely. Wisdom is not a set of rules which dictate the path, it is a set of eyes which allow us to view a landscape for what it is so that we can chart our own highly individual path.

One other thing about finding a mentor, which I’m not spiritual enough to couch in biblical terms but is still a reality that must be wrestled to the ground. Musicians also dream of being mentored by someone more highly skilled than they are, because they expect the mentor will be able to smooth the path of learning for them—tell them just how to handle situations they face, introduce them to the right people, point them in the right directions.

But as a very experienced musician once told me—what’s in it for the mentor? Highly skilled musicians get their satisfaction and challenges from working with people at their own level. Such a one might do a certain amount of pro bono work among the novices. A very few might even be called to work among the novices, and those we call teachers. But it is too much to expect a highly skilled musician, of whom there are very few, to spend a significant amount of their time bringing along the novices, of whom there are very many. Better to do the work of learning among your peers, helping one another, challenging one another to grow in the music.

Similarly, I think it is wise to not look for any significant amount of hands-on mentoring from an experienced Christian. For those who could do the job, the demands on their time from those who want to learn is already intense. Better to just observe them closely, take any wisdom they choose to share with you very seriously, and otherwise spend your time working with your equally needy peers, edifying one another, caring for one another, exhorting one another to love and good works. Leave the elders plenty of space to continue their own growth, among their own peers.

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