The Common Good

On Scripture: It's Not About You

Teacher mentoring students, iofoto / Shutterstock.com
Teacher mentoring students, iofoto / Shutterstock.com

 A life transition — like any effort to follow Jesus — is stressful: packing and unpacking, bidding farewells, refocusing from one set of commitments to a new future. It might be summarized in the early North African church leader’s interpretation of this Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke 14:27: “Take up your stress and your tortures.” (Tertullian)

This September, my family’s transition from the hazy days of summer’s more casual pace back into the back-to-school rat race is tougher than usual. It not only involves our own children finding their way back onto their college campuses, but I am going too, to teach at Valparaiso University where I’ve been appointed to an endowed professorship which supports the study of Christian values in public and professional life.

Of necessity, most roads back-to-school are paved with lines of procedures, rules, and formalized rituals. The foundation of learning, however, is far less formalized or predictable — it’s more relational, like a disciple and master, protégé and mentor, choral director and chorister. Whether in musical arts, as in in Vy Higgensen’s Gospel for Teens program, or in biblical hermeneutics, the best learning happens in healthy relationships.

Even more, the love of learning is sparked by an intellectual curiosity that comes not from a “data dump” of information, but from giving up one’s own privileges and pleasures in order to commit to a course of new loves, of formation, guided in relationship by the hands of a one who gently shapes others “like clay in the potter’s hand” (Jeremiah 18). The invitation of Jesus “to carry the cross” comes in a Greek verbal form which suggests it is not a short-term, one-time hoisting up of temporary troubles, but a recurrent, lifelong, carrying of one’s cross.

Freeman Dyson will be 90 years old in December and is no newcomer to the academic world. He has been teaching topics like theoretical physics for more than 50 years in Princeton, N.J. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Dyson notes two enduring institutions in our world: religion and schools. I might add, especially religions in which the adherents meet together face-to-face and schools where there are physical campuses requiring tangible human interaction. These sorts of institutions have endured not only because they are grounded in a requisite institutionalism, but because they accompany their learners with a human factor. The systems of rules, ritual and rote activities serve as a womb of tutelage in which relationships can flourish, hence even difficult discipleship is embraced and students dare to leave their own parents and loved ones (Luke 14: 26) as they make their way in the world to make a difference.

Whether in ancient itinerate patterns or in today’s high-tech environments, the commitments that faculties and students make to dialogue together also contain commitments to be accountable, transparent and relate reliably to each other. The writings of Saint Paul show us how the work of informal networks serves the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Silas was a co-worker, co-writer, and co-citizen of Paul’s, and likewise a Jewish citizen of Rome. Silas leveraged his personal relationship with Paul as a passport, gaining him trusty travel passage. Both learners and teachers benefit vitally from these relationships of mutual refreshment (Rom. 15:33). Paul and Silas each accomplished more together than they could have individually, going “through Syria and Cilicia” (Acts 15:41).

Dr. Jerry Kosberg, a coach and counselor to both many mentors and protégés, defines a mentor as “somebody who has moved a little further down the road than you have.” Mentors know the path, both the theoretical maps and the practical itineraries along life’s journey. They know the cost of discipleship. Without totally crashing, they have navigated life’s distracting tricks and destructive traps earning them the right to say to others: “Follow me.” That’s why Paul dares to offer his own experience as a text of relationship-based instruction: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and hear and seen in me” (Phil. 4:9).

In my previous work as the president and CEO of a $45 million faith-based, international non-profit, I was privileged to travel the world, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, to remote and marginalized communities of people living in situations of poverty. In many ways, they are wealthier than we are in the West because of the priority of relationships found in most of these communities. Oral traditions are livelier, storytelling more imaginative, spiritual practices more grounded, learning more holistic. St. Paul would find himself much more at home there than among us. His language oozed with relationality.  

A verse by verse sampling of the story of Onesimus in this Sunday’s second reading from Philemon reveals an ironic overflow of relational words:  (1) “brother,” “dear friend,”  “co-worker,” (2) “sister,” “fellow soldier,” (4) “I remember you,” (5) “your love” (6) “sharing of your faith” (7) “encouragement from your love,” “refreshed through you, my brother” (9) “appeal to you on the basis of love,” (10) “my child” (12)  “my own heart, back to you,” (16) “a beloved brother,” (17) “your partner,” (20) “Refresh my heart,” (22) “a guest room.” 

One of the best gifts any mentor has ever given to me was a bit of advice in the form of a mirror. On it (and on my face whenever I look into it) are printed these words: “It’s Not About You.”  Even though there are times disciples need a difficult word — “exhort and reprove with all authority,” says Paul (Titus 2:15) — mentors can become tormentors when they forget from whom comes their God-gifted responsibility. I am carrying that mirror and its wisdom with me into my current transition, back to the teaching world, as a check on my own inward curvature of self-seeking ego. While there is a time to lay down the law and call to accountability, authorial positions lose the sharp edge of integrity when they become sledgehammer-like rather than scalpel-like. Authority is for building up, not tearing down (2 Cor. 10:8).

Mentors accompany their protégés through life’s inevitabilities: with support at challenging times, direction through bewildering times, hope for overwhelming times, clarity amid awkward times, and joy in spite of despairing times. The communities they forge are not only family-like as brothers and sisters, but as Vy Higginsen’s work demonstrates, they are celebrative, leading to multigenerational survival.

John Arthur Nunes is the recently appointed Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University, a professorship supporting the study of Christian values in public and professional life. From 2007 to August 2013 he was the President and CEO of Lutheran World Relief. His ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

Image: Teacher mentoring students, iofoto / Shutterstock.com

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