It may not be obvious at first, but the story about Elijah and Elisha—especially the ending where Elijah ascends in the chariot of fire and Elisha literally and figuratively picks up Elijah’s mantel–is about mentoring. More to the point, it’s about what it is like to lose a mentor—to have a mentor disappear from your life, and to learn to go on without them.
I’ve been richly blessed in my life to have had a number of mentors, and I know what it is like to have a mentor taken away. I’ll tell you about a couple of them.
Bill Placher was a college professor of mine; he taught my very first religion course in college and had a lot to do with my choice to pursue ministry. He was arguably one of the finest theologians of the last generation, and yet he loved nothing more than teaching undergraduates and helping them grow. He had a tremendous gift for explaining difficult intellectual ideas in ways that were easy to grasp. You often knew he was the smartest person in the room because he didn’t need to impress anyone with his credentials or his graduate school vocabulary, which some folks use to make others feel smaller. In his early 60s, with no prior warning, Bill died of a massive heart attack. No one would ever take his place in my life. I felt a tremendous resource in my faith and life and in my teaching ministry suddenly snatched away.
KC Ptomey was another mentor of mine; he was the pastor in the first church I served as an intern in ministry. He too was a brilliant teacher; there’s story I love to tell about him. When KC retired from ministry, he was invited to teach practical ministry at one of our seminaries. His curriculum for teaching weddings and funerals was especially smart. He used case studies. Every student was assigned a couple, with information about their relationship and family challenges and their faith background and was assigned a time in the semester at which they would report on their plan for premarital counseling and preach a sermon for the wedding. The remarkable part of the class was that KC taught funerals the same way—except that there was no posted schedule. For funerals you got your case study 3 days before you were due to present it, by a phone call at any time of day or night; and it did not matter what else you might have planned that week. This was brilliant, because if you’re going to go into ministry, that’s the way funerals work. KC retired in plenty of time, hoping to teach and travel and enjoy his family and his many close friendships—and then cancer struck and took him away. It was too early, too soon, for him and for all of us who looked up to him. And I wondered, what would I do without this great teacher?
As much as we may want to hold onto someone forever, doing so is out of our control. That is a true statement no matter who we are talking about—a parent, a spouse, or a friend, God forbid, a child. With mentors, the loss has a particular kind of quality. We have to learn to live without their guidance; we have to accept that what they had a chance to teach us will have to be enough, and we will need to go on without them.
Today we read the story of Elijah and Elisha—a mentor and a student. Elijah was perhaps the greatest prophet in the history of Israel. He was a thorn in the side of the most corrupt kings in Israel, and he was the true north heeded by all the good ones. He was a person of unmatched courage, who put the common good of the people and the faithfulness of the nation ahead of his own comfort and safety. We remember him in biblical tradition as one who does not die but ascends to heaven riding a chariot of fire into the sky. In the New Testament, he returns, gathered with Moses at the feet of Jesus in the scene called the Transfiguration. Moses, Elijah and Jesus—these are mentors of faith.
Elijah was Elisha’s mentor—his teacher—and this is the story in which Elisha must say goodbye for good. Elisha finds out that God is about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. This is the terminal diagnosis: Elijah must say to his student, ‘Our days together are few; the time is short.’ Elijah gives his student three opportunities to stay behind and let him go. Elisha does not want him to go. Three times he swears an oath: I will not leave you; I will be at your side until the end. Elijah asks his student, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you.” And Elisha asks Elijah to leave him with a double share of his spirit. Apparently, Elisha does not feel up to the task of going on without his teacher. He has no idea what he will do without his mentor.
Here I see Elisha thinking thoughts that occur to many of us. He can only think about the things that he is not: I am not Elijah. I am not a great prophet.
He’s so focused on the things that he is not that he might as well be naming anything: I am not a leader; I am not Moses; I am not a good swimmer or a fast runner; I don’t excel at math. I am not a snake with its slyness or a bear with its strength. I am not a cat with its balance or an eagle with its wings.
Some of these may sound like silly examples but they are emblematic of the thoughts so many of us have about our own inadequacy: I am not pretty enough or thin enough or smart enough; I am not funny or likable enough; I am not good with words; I don’t express my feelings well; I am not “good” enough—I have made mistakes that I can never overcome. These are the thoughts of inadequacy that haunt us and that keep us stuck in our past or unable to realize our dreams.
At its best, what good mentoring does is help us lay aside the things we are not and instead remember the things we are—the things God created us to be. The story of Elisha and Elijah shows how this works out. You cannot hold on to your old mentor forever—you cannot remain trapped by your inadequacies—if you want to live into the future. So, as hard as Elisha tries to cling to his master, he cannot resist when a pillar of fire finally separates the two of them and carries Elijah away. Elisha’s grief is real and palpable; he shouts into the roaring wind while Elijah disappears into the sky. But Elisha does not turn back. As Elijah had instructed him, he keeps looking forward, and so God grants him that double share of spirit that he had so desired. Elisha will figure out how to move ahead without his mentor; he will learn to live with his fears and leave behind his inadequacies, for God does not care about those things. What God is most eagerly awaiting…is for each one of us to see that we’ve been created with our own unique set of gifts, so those can be set to God’s work in the world.
This story of a miracle we read: all this talk of chariots of fire, life and death, it all may sound rather dramatic, but the fact is that the work of mentoring is usually much more ordinary than this story, though it may be just as powerful. You may know that Knox Church has a mentoring program; we share it with Elders at Third Presbyterian Church; adults from both congregations mentor young people in the community.
Take a look at something—this is a report card of one of the students who got involved in the mentoring program this year.
All of the personal information has been removed, of course. What I want you to notice is the difference, in one school year, between the first quarter of mostly Ds and Fs to the 3rd quarter of all As and Bs. The thing to notice here is not about the grades, and it’s not about the quick turnaround, though both of those details point to a more important reality.
The important reality is this: there is nothing inadequate about the young person who is responsible for this report card—and there never was. If he did not have the intelligence, the tools, the gifts, this kind of transformation would be impossible. What you see here is simply the result of a caring, supportive adult reminding a young person—you can do it. I believe in you. God has given you what you need. No matter what anyone else says, no matter what your report card has said in the past, you are not inadequate. So many of us can be this kind of difference in the life of one of God’s children. So many of us need to tell this message to someone else so that we can be reminded of it for ourselves. (If you’re interested in learning more about our mentoring program, you can contact Knox anytime to learn more about it.)
In this story about our mentoring program, the story about Elijah and Elisha, and the other stories I’ve shared about what it means to say goodbye to a mentor, we see a common thread: we all need people in our lives to teach and encourage and urge us forward. Also: when that work of mentoring is done best, it allows us to claim our own giftedness and to grow into the person that God has made us to be.
If you have spent any part of your life benefiting from a mentor, or being one to someone else, I pray that today’s message has been an occasion for you to give thanks for that relationship. Perhaps it’s also been a time to consider the good each one of us can do, even at a distance, by reaching out to someone else to remind them that they matter, that their gifts matter, and that God has created them to be an amazing person and you believe in them. This is the work of faithful friendship that God calls us to do.