Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Mentor's Death

I still remember when I learned he had passed away.

He was one of my earliest professional heroes, someone I admired, looked up to, called on for advice, all the usual mentorship stuff we throw around too cheaply most of the time. This guy was the real deal to me. He took a chance on me, gave me my first shot in leadership, and I took very personally the goal of never letting him down.

We worked hard together, laughed a lot, and my daily interactions with him were an ongoing tutorial in leadership, both effective and, sometimes, not so much. His health was terrible, and he didn't do much to improve it. When he retired, I didn't hold out much hope that he would live much longer at all. Literally. I thought it was likely he would be dead within a few years.

When I moved away a couple years later, I honestly feared he would die, and I would not hear about it in time to attend his funeral. I don't know if this is sickeningly morbid, but that's what I thought would happen, and this scenario just broke my heart.

So, before I moved, I took the step of asking a friend to keep me posted about him. She would certainly know if and when anything happened, and I rested easier knowing my feared scenario would not come to pass.

Well, you may have guessed by now:  It happened after all, exactly as I had envisioned it.

Turns out, my early-career hero lived another ten years after he and I parted ways, and experienced improved health during much of that time. I learned this when I happened to catch up with the friend who was supposed to tell me when he died. She did tell me...that he had died about a year before.

My surprise and sadness were, in the moment, matched by frustration with my friend, though I did not tell her so. What purpose would it serve? She told me the story of my mentor's death, and we reflected together on how much he had meant to us. My friend did acknowledge how unfortunate it was that I had never been informed of what happened, and just when I thought she was about to apologize for forgetting me, she dropped some humbling perspective:

"I'm surprised you didn't know. He was so active on Facebook, I assumed you were keeping up with him."



I myself had been active on Facebook for five years at that point, and couldn't believe my mentor had never friended me in all that time, if he was on Facebook too. I really thought I was important to him, a protege he was proud of, a legacy beyond himself, an extension of his values and priorities, etc, etc, etc. I actually resented my dead mentor for a bit. How could he have ignored me all those years, when it would have taken nothing but a few keystrokes to find my open Facebook page? I should have been among the first people he looked up when he opened his account!

Of course, after awhile, the obvious and uncomfortable fact settled into my mind:

"You didn't look him up, either, you know..."

Pride, pride, pride.

This man, who lived a full life of family, faith, and professional success, many of whose years included the burden of serious illness, who spent many years working with many different people, and only two of those years working with me, should have prioritized an ongoing, personal connection with me, during the last ten years of his life. And all that, when I hadn't thought to look him up myself.

That thought was the foundation for the hurt and resentment I felt.

When you spell it out like that, I was not nearly as slighted as I first felt I was. In fact, the opposite. I had felt I deserved the glow of my mentor's continued attention and praise, without the investment of my own attention and thought toward him. I thought I should have meant a great deal to him, when I had not made sure he knew how much he meant to me.

But I hope he knew. I have to believe he did know.

Isn't it a mystery how we pass through the lives of people, and they through ours?

And, isn't it interesting to consider the expectations we so often bring to the table, expectations of what others are supposed to do for us, emotional needs we want others to fill, but not always what we could do for them?

Could this be different?

Could we instead focus on giving freely to others, investing gladly in the lives of those souls who are with us for a season, regardless of what they ever give back?

Could that outlook possibly be the key to feeling the glow I thought should have come from my mentor?

RIP, Mr. Shelton.

I loved you, and I hope I somehow showed you how grateful I am for all you invested in me.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Without Guile

Sweet night.

We've had a busy day, and we're tired. Settled into our laptop spots in the living room, interacting with the world out there, and even a little bit with each other.

Our 6 year-old, Jonathan, has a buddy spending the night at our house tonight, so he is more excited than usual. We Redboxed a movie and a Wii game for our boys and Jonathan's friend, but the kids have instead gravitated toward the Legos in the bedrooms, which is a cool reminder that kids like to play, don't need much help doing it, and adults don't need to plan every minute of their lives for them.

But here's what just happened, that I am praying I will never forget:

Jonathan has a little thing he does now and then, when he is listening to the radio in his bedroom. We keep his radio tuned to K-Love, and his favorite artist is Toby Mac. When a Toby Mac song comes on, we usually find out about it when Jonathan comes running down the hall and, without a word, turns on the radio in the kitchen so we can hear the song too.

The best part is hearing his sweet, six year-old voice singing along with one of his heroes.

The lyrics to "Get Back Up" or "Me Without You" take on a whole new relevance when sung by your child.

Tonight, sometime after Kristi and I had drifted into laptopland, and the kids in Legoland had faded into the background, I became aware that the kitchen radio was playing, at pretty decent volume, and Jonathan's voice could be heard singing along with Toby Mac's new hit, "Speak Life". The spirit was contagious, and I couldn't resist singing along, too.

It was then that I realized the radio in Jonathan's room was on, and that he had done his usual thing, playing K-Love in his room, and turning on the kitchen radio to let everyone share in the joy of Toby Mac.

So, what about this meant so much to me on this particular night? He has done this many times; it's not a new thing. Why such a big deal?

The difference tonight is that a guest is here.

I am amazed and overjoyed that our son behaved exactly the same way in front of a buddy that he normally behaves when he is alone with us. He played the same music, shared the same joy, sang with the same gusto, and did it all without the slightest hint of hesitation, inhibition, embarrassment, or shame.

He didn't change a thing on account of a guest being present.

I distinctly remember doing quite the opposite while I was growing up.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not naive enough to think our six year-old will never experience embarrassment about the norms of his household when his friends come over. And I don't maintain any illusions that he will never behave differently with friends than he will in front of us. The innocence I saw tonight will not remain unspotted throughout our son's youth; I get that.

But what if....Can I even say it? What if...

What if, somehow, it could be?

A child growing up with such a sense of identity that it didn't matter who knew who he really was? A kid who knew it was OK to be honest? A boy or girl who could just sing their true song in their true voice, regardless of who would hear?

Of course, this transparency works both ways.

Just as an uninhibited child will share faith and family norms with friends, he or she will also express differences in faith and family norms with the very family who so carefully instilled those things. Parents can't ask for one, and not accept the other.

How do we raise children who will let shine the light God has placed within them, in front of friend, foe, or stranger, without feeling an obligation to filter, dim, or shade the light, or put it out altogether? Kids who will grow up into men and women free of guile? People who are who they appear to be? Husbands, wives, parents, and friends who sing the song their spirit is moved to sing, without shame?

When do our masks begin to form?

God, let us as parents nurture the sensitive flame of your spirit in the hearts of our children.

Father, let us never blow it out.