Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Proverbs 22) transports me to one of Steven Wright’s stand-up comedy routines, where he tells the audience about his unsuccessful attempt to end his life by jumping off a tall building. He wound up doing a triple back flip with several twists and turns, landed on his feet, and walked away. The only ones to see this were two kittens in the alley, and one said to the other, See, that’s how it’s done. Cue the rim shot. I just got back from two days in Atlanta with a group of folks from around the country gathered by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), to talk about the need for mentoring relationships among young people entering the ministry field. It’s a long-held critique of theological education, whether seminary or divinity school, that it doesn’t really prepare ministers for the day to day trials and tribulations of the church, the back flips and the twists and turns of working with people around challenges of life and faith. Not to say that ministry is enough to make you want to jump off a building, but it does feel like a free fall sometimes. And since we really shouldn’t expect the world of academic research to give adequate preparation for that fall into the life of a congregation, the question is, who is going to show young ministers how it’s done? Who’s going to show them how to land on their feet and keep walking? For the folks at FTE, the answer is in mentoring. Sounds simple enough, until you start telling and hearing stories about the good and bad mentoring experiences people have had, both as a mentor and a mentee, and you realize there can be many twists and turns in these relationships as well. After all, we’re still dealing with people, people with abounding gifts and abounding flaws. I suspect it’s easier to create a full-blown educational institution that teaches Hebrew and homiletics and history than it is to orchestrate a large scale mentoring program.
We are not the first people to ponder the best ways to prepare the next generation for the tasks and challenge that lie before them. Solomon, the epitome of wisdom, found it wise to write an entire book of proverbial insights to prepare young people for leadership. The introductory chapter tells us it is for giving knowledge and discretion to the young, for the discerning to get guidance. In short, it is a mentoring manual, filled with insights – most as short and pithy as a Steven Wright joke – intended to show the way. The passage we’re looking at today, like many other chapters, uses the life consequences model as the mentor tries to show his young mentees the reality of sowing and reaping, investments and returns. You sow injustice, the sage says, and you will harvest calamity. Investments in the poor will yield a return of blessing. Oppressing the poor, on the other hand, and currying favor with the rich; these actions will ultimately bring you to poverty. Knowing the value of good work and mastering the skills of your trade will put you in the company of kings. Hanging out with hot-tempered people will land you in a trap. Adultery is a deep pit. Raise your children in this good way, in the disciplines of wisdom, and they’ll return to you as wise adults. Lots of good advice. Sounds simple enough, but here’s the kicker: for Solomon, it’s one of those “do as I say, not as I do” deals. The proverbial wise man did not practice many of these pithy insights himself. He sowed injustice, exploited and oppressed the poor with forced labor in his temple project, was adulterous to the nth degree, had a hot temper that caused him to murder his brother, and he hardly raised his son to follow these good and wise sayings. Rehoboam doubled down on his father’s oppression when he became King.
Herein lies our quandary for mentorship. We are a gifted and flawed people. It seems that the capacity for giftedness is often matched by the capacity for tragic flaws. We have tremendous capacity for compassion and generosity in our culture; matched only by our capacity for oppression and exploitation. And we continue to act surprised, as person after person goes through flips and flops and twists and turns in the effort to lead us onward, whether in family life or church life or national life. And here’s the grace; we seem to land on our feet and keep walking. Perhaps that is how it’s done.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.