Starting Fresh: Learning from Our Ghosts

Starting Fresh – Part II

Don’t start the new year with a “Bah! Humbug!” attitude!

Every year, Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is reconceived and remixed in new forms of media. The protagonist, Ebeneezer Scrooge, is a cold-hearted cheapskate who despises Christmas. Scrooge receives a visit from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Through these visitations, he experiences a transformation that is captured by the biblical concept of mετανοέω (metanoia): to change one’s mind, to turn in another direction, a transformative change of heart, especially a spiritual conversion.

In Painting with Ashes, I wrote about the importance of mentorship and utilizing the “great cloud of withnesses” who love us into being (Heb 12:1). This is a community of the saints past, present, and future, guiding us and cheering us on in the journey of life and faith.

A new year is a moment when it’s easy to see we are entering new territory. We have never lived this year before. It will be a year full of surprises, opportunities, and challenges. One of the most important things we can do to start fresh in the coming year is to find guides for the journey.  

In my doctoral research, I discovered how the most contextually intelligent leaders in the world applied three kinds of sight to emerging situations:

•           Hindsight: Studying times past to chart a path for the future.

•           Foresight: Accessing the future through imagination and scenario thinking.

•           Insight: Paying attention in the now, being in time and present.

Here I want to suggest we think of each orientation as a distinct form of mentorship that can guide us in the new year.

  1. Ghosts from the Past.

Every year, I chose a new mentor living or dead, with a significant body of work which can help guide my ongoing spiritual development. This person becomes my rabbi, my teacher. I read everything they have written. Biographies about their life—read those too. YouTube videos of them speaking or lecturing—I watch them. I try to understand their life from the inside, studying the context they inhabited, and the forces that shaped them.

In previous years this has been people like Susanna Wesley, Martin Luther King Jr., Catherine Booth, Lesslie Newbigin, James Cone, Henri Nouwen, Howard Thurman, Leonard Sweet, Elaine Heath, Michael Moynagh, and so on. They often find their way into the latest book I’m working on.

My 2022 mentor was E Stanley Jones, the most prominent Methodist evangelist and missionary of all time. I read his 28 books, and a couple biographies about him (I highly commend Jack Harnish’s newly released Thirty Days with E Stanley Jones for a primer). I even reappropriated Jones’ seemingly odd three finger hand gesture that symbolizes “Jesus is Lord” for the 21st century. I have a sense that he in some way lives in me now, like a voice in the great cloud of withnesses. Jones is a ghost from the past, of whose wisdom I can draw upon. I imagine that I know how he would respond to emerging situations.

2. Ghosts from the Future.

Young people are from our future.

I have moved fully now into the middle-aged season of my life. I am no longer young, with a whole life out ahead of me, nor is the sun setting on my life and ministry just yet. I’m in a strange middle space. Each year I try to surround myself with young leaders doing amazing things, many of whom are in their early 20’s. Some of them call me their “mentor,” but I see every relationship as a two-way street. This is called “reverse mentorship.”

I’m not the only teacher in the relationship. I’m not the one with all the wisdom accumulated through more life experience. I’m also a student, a learner. I want to understand how the context and societal forces that shaped them are different than my own. I’m aware that I have blind spots that inhibit me from understanding their perspective.

I have not done this well at times, and this seems like a particularly prevalent problem among older colleagues. They assume that they have all the right answers, and the young person just needs to listen to how they did it. We can become hardened by years of experience and success, thus becoming unteachable in some areas.

True reverse mentorship requires humility and the willingness to understand. This Old English word is a compilation of two simpler words, under and stand. It denotes grasping a meaning or attaining the truth of a matter. Once we have an appropriate understanding we can explain or defend a position. Conversations then become reduced to an exchange of understandings.

What if a better metaphor for true understanding is the ability to stand beneath a different or even opposing view in the humble posture of a student? Really under-standing our conversation partners position, empathetically, is a way to maintain the heart of a learner. This is our role in reverse mentorship. We must suspend our assumptions. We even need to unlearn at times as young people teach us new ways to think and act.

I can remember times when I was younger, having a kind of hunch that something about a mentors’ thinking and behavior was wrong. My hunch was often validated by Scripture and a powerful impression from the Holy Spirit, then confirmed by time. But in the current form of hierarchal church leadership systems, younger people are expected to submit to authority. I call these folks anti-mentors, people who teach us the things not to do in our vocation. We all need them as well.  

I believe the community of young folks I surround myself with have intuitions, insight, and tacit knowledge that comes from a lived experience different than my own. We can really learn how to navigate emerging complexities through their eyes. We can see glimpses of their future selves, unfolding right before us in the present, imagining the multiplication of their impact as they grow. I believe in them so much I put some of them on my payroll too.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have core convictions that might be different than theirs, but it means I have the humility to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong. My role is to open doors, blow up barricades, and highlight them as they work out their ideas in real time.

3. Ghosts from the Present

Finally, I surround myself with colleagues who are “positive deviants” in the current realities of schism and decline. Positive Deviance refers to an approach to social change based on the observation that in any community there are “deviants” whose uncommon but successful strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge.

As a pastor in a rapidly declining mainline denomination, it’s easy to fall into a mindset of scarcity. It’s like a culture in which a “Bah! Humbug!” attitude has been normalized. I believe the greatest contributor to the UMC’s implosion is pride. We have too much pride to ask for help. We see people being “positive deviants” but because we operate from a hermeneutic of suspicion, we seek ways to discredit or criticize those who are being fruitful, rather than entertain that they might teach us something. I’ve often been on the receiving end of that kind of criticism myself.

I try to operate from a mindset of abundance and opportunity. When I see colleagues doing innovative and vital ministry, I try to partner with them. To learn from what they’re doing. They become my mentors, ghosts, and guides of the present. We also seek to learn together from the ghosts of our own failures and successes as we navigate new challenges.

When it comes to insight, the most important Ghost to learn from is the Holy Ghost. The Spirit who is always moving to the edge, healing lives, going before us, and making “all things new.” I try to learn from and adapt to what the Holy Spirit is doing, even when it seems outside my own comfort zone.

We can all avoid becoming an Ebeneezer Scrooge, by living in a continual journey of metanoia. I hope you find your ghosts, and they help guide you to a flourishing 2023!

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