Dallas, the Spitfire, and Mentoring

Dallas and the Spitfire is a description of redemption through mentoring.  Author Ted Kluck experiences a call not only to befriend former addict and ex-convict Dallas Janke.  Ted “disciples” Janke, helping him to deepen his emerging, but fragile, faith, and challenging him to walk the straight and narrow.  For Janke, the Bible is the text book of discipling and mentoring, and although Janke claims to be non-dogmatic and pokes fun at the legalism of fundamentalists, it is clear that Janke has a sense of where Dallas needs to go in his spiritual life.  Though not authoritarian in approach, he exerts tremendous authority by word and example.  He believes that God has a plan for Dallas’ life that will be revealed in his encounters and choices.  Ted needs to keep Dallas on track so that he can experience God’s personal voice directed to him.

I appreciate the importance of modeling and discipline – recognizing with Ted Kluck that it is primarily relational rather than doctrinal – but I take a slightly different, less authoritarian approach, characterized by an open-ended view of God and the world in which we live.  I suspect our differing approaches reflect our differing understandings of God – God as sovereign and omnipotent; God as inspirational, persuasive, and open-spirited. My responses will be excerpted and adapted from my text, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age (Cleveland, TN, Parson’s Porch Press, 106-108).

In considering the nature of spiritual mentoring, or spiritual direction, I believe that all encounters are vocational.  Every relationship is intended to further the divine calling to wholeness and beauty in ourselves and another.   All of us long to be noticed.  While knowledge can often objectify and intimidate, authentic knowledge joins soul to soul.  The Psalmist delights in God’s knowledge of the totality of his experience, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my thoughts.” (Psalm 139:23)  Such knowledge unchains the spirit because it seeks only to enable us to grow into our deepest selves.

In this context, a mentor is one who notices you, picks you out in the crowd, and feels a particular affinity toward your unique spirit.  Mentoring is akin to midwifery.  In its co-creativity, it nurtures the conditions that give birth to our unique vocation.  Global in scope, mentoring can embrace teaching a craft, a sport, an intellectual practice, a profession, or a technical skill.  But, wherever mentoring occurs, the well-being of the other is the primary concern.  Mentors are faithful agnostics who trust God’s vision, not just their own insights, in the mentoring process.  They recognize that they need to let God be the primary inspiration even when God inspires the person they mentor to go in new and uncharted frontiers.

A woman from one of my congregations once spoke of the great gift of an older lady who arranged the flowers for church each Saturday.  Because she did not drive, she asked this teenage girl to be her chauffeur to church and back.  Along the way, they talked about flowers, growing up, and God.   No doubt the older farm woman never saw herself as a mentor, but she shared her wisdom and listened to the dreams of her young friend.   The older lady died many years ago, but her young friend carried on the tradition of bringing beauty to church each Sunday for over three decades.  She learned about life and what it meant to be Christian not just through the older lady’s words and directions, but by observing her in action.  The older lady’s words had authority because she cared – her commitment was, first, to the relationship and, then, to the task at hand as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

A professor notices the unique insights of an undergraduate student.  Over weekly meetings at the university coffee house, the professor listens to his student’s dreams, explores new ideas with her, and invites the student to see herself as a wisdom-giver in training.  Years later the student becomes a master teacher and a leader in her intellectual field.  To mentor’s delight, she introduces her mentor/professor to new ways of looking at the world.

A spiritual healer initiates a woman in midlife to the arts of healing and wholeness.  While expecting excellence in her friend’s work and commitment to her spiritual life, the healer gently reveals to her apprentice her own healing gifts and supports step by step her own growth as a healing partner, whose path naturally reflects her – rather than her mentor’s – gifts.

Nearly thirty years ago, two ministers saw a theologian and spiritual leader in an unkempt “hippie” college student.  They invited him to participate in service projects, to teach a theology class in church, and lead a nursing home worship service.  If they had not seen more in me than I saw in myself I would not be writing these words today.   They nurtured, guided, and supported me, while trusting my journey to the dynamic of call and response – God’s call and my response – in the unfolding of my life.

Mentoring is a gentle process of loving affirmation.  While all relationships involve the interplay of giving and receiving, mentoring ultimately exists for the well being of the one who is mentored.  To be a mentor is to selflessly let go of any preconceived image of who the other will become as a result of your mentoring. Recognizing the vocational nature of all relationships, a healthy mentor midwifes the emerging divine birthings in the soul of another.  The mentor nurtures both roots and wings in the one he or she is called to guide.

The defensive mentor requires obedience and thrives on control.  He desires a student in his image and craves affirmation from the other.  When the student explores her or his own path or sings a different tune, the small spirited mentor feels threatened.  Sadly, this often happens in biblically-oriented mentoring, in which beliefs about biblical inerrancy and literalist understanding of scripture – theologically and ethically – can lead to authoritarian pronouncements, contrary to the movements of the Holy Spirit. The book is more important than the person, and deviation from the book is always apostasy rather than the Spirit’s novelty in the mentee’s life.

Authentic mentoring involves the graceful affirmation of one spiritual center by another.   Good teaching fosters creativity and freedom not conformity or rote learning.  While structures are important, they are the prelude to improvisation and creative transformation.  Even, God delights in surprises and smiles as we chart new paths in the holy adventure.

Healthy mentoring creates an environment of spiritual, relational, and vocational freedom.   The good mentor knows that each person’s path twists and turns in its own unique fashion.  Mistakes and failures on the path are not a call to criticism or blame, but affirmation of new possibilities and unexplored territories.   In the company of the healthy mentor, your center expands, your voice vibrates, and your heart glows.   Imaging the encircling God that he or she embodies, the healthy mentor thrives on freedom, novelty, and creativity, and rejoices when the student explores paths the teacher has never considered.

Good mentoring transforms a relationship from teacher and student, adult and child, to the partnership of fellow adventurers with the Divine Companion.  Good mentoring reflects the Divine Mentor who brings forth our gifts, nurturing our freedom, creativity, and novelty.

Ted is a great discipler.  He knows Dallas well enough to guide as well as let go at crucial moments when too much direction would be counterproductive.  His goal for Dallas is faithfulness in this life and salvation in eternity.  While my approach is more open-ended and sees scripture as a guide on the pathway toward many possible horizons, rather than a road map to be followed line by line and precept by precept, there is no doubt that relationship is everything in mentoring.  This is true of God’s guidance of the world and care for individuals; Jesus’ radical hospitality and companionship with his female and male followers; and the Spirit’s ever new presence in our lives.

Freedom, even the freedom to interpret scripture contextually and personally, discerning the wheat from the chaff in the biblical message, is, from my perspective, the key to authentic Christian mentoring.  It is all about Spirit and freedom, and the willingness to help another discern God’s unique voice in her or his life.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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