Thursday, April 26, 2012

Get Your Towel Dirty

There are some people we simply can't pay back, and I suspect that we should stop trying. There is nothing you can do to pay your parents back. They gave you life and no matter what you do for them, it's always going to pale in comparison. You have no gift that will measure up to life, ever. 

After Jesus on his last night took a towel to Peter's feet, Peter could have immediately turned the tables and washed Jesus' feet. It must have occurred to him, given his protests at Jesus' condescension. And it would have been a meaningful gesture, but it would not have carried the same power and symbolism. It always means more when the master serves the apprentice. You never forget it.

I have a mentor who in the last 12 years has done more for me than I can describe or absorb. He has played a role in every job I have been offered. He was the one who gave me the pulpit for my very first sermon. He connected me to a wonderful and generous church that supported me through seminary and the ordination process, and that supported me financially when I was a missionary. When I struggled to find a job out out of seminary, he made many calls on my behalf. He was the first one to tell me that I could get ordained by the PCUSA to work with InterVarsity. He is the one who suggested that I started this blog 5 years ago. When I was struggling personally a few years ago, he sat with me, listened to me, prayed for me, and cried with me. He endorsed my book and featured it on his blog for a week. Without his influence and his counsel I'm not sure that I would be a pastor and published author, and I know for certain I would not be the person that I am now.

For years I struggled to find ways to pay him back. I hoped for a day when finally I would have the stature where I had something to offer him. I was in mentor debtor's prison. Until I realized that I can never pay him back. That realization didn't carry  a helpless or inadequate feeling. It was freeing. On the day of that revelation, I made a new commitment, one that I could actually keep: Even though I can't ever repay my mentor, I will commit to helping other people who are coming up behind me. I will offer whatever I have to give to people who need it.

I have tried to hold to that ever since. Sometimes I even tell people why I am helping them, because I owe a debt that I can never pay. The hardest part might be accepting the fact that I have things to offer people. I tend to always feel like the student; it's been a slow process to accepting a new role as a teacher. I think we all have more power than we realize. There is always someone who can benefit from our expertise, our guidance, our feedback. If you're 13, there's a 12-year-old who is in need of some serious junior high knowledge about where to sit in the cafeteria and what corner to stand in during a dance. Or perhaps there is someone older than you who is breaking into your field and you have some wisdom to share. Sometimes we will respond to people, but the most poignant acts of service come when we surprise people with the initiative.

So my challenge to you is twofold: 1. Accept that you can't repay the mentors in your life, whoever they are. 2. Let your gratitude overflow to people who can benefit from your help. Or, phrased differently, get your towel dirty. There are a lot of dirty feet out there. 

Here are a few ideas:
  1. Help someone identify a specific gift or talent, especially if they are not aware of it.
  2. Truly listen to someone - ask them about what they care about, their experience, their dreams. Don't     project your experiences onto them but help them discover themselves. A true mentor does not shape people in their image, but helps them discover the image of God in themselves.
  3. From time to time, when you don't have the time, find the time.
  4.  Use your connections to help people who lack connections.
  5. Inconvenience yourself to make someone's life easier.  
  6. Once in a while, gently, encouragingly, and lovingly offer a little unsolicited advice.
  7.  Do the blue collar work. Work behind the scenes, even doing physical labor, without expecting any recognition for it.
  8.  Prioritize the emails and requests from people in need, not your colleagues who want to trade favors.
  9. Ask an unexpected question to an unexpected person.
My life has been changed by people who had every right to shelter themselves off in an executive washroom, but instead chose the role of a servant and washed my undeserving feet. Will I, and you, get our towels dirty?