Standing on the Border

  • Laura Flanders
  • Oct 17, 2007

As I was driving home from the airport this week I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It read, "If you aren't outraged, you're not paying attention." Without dwelling on the political message behind this sticker, I pondered the universal truth it held about person-to-person connection. When we pay attention to life and to the people around us, we experience all sorts of emotions; anger, fear, resentment, sorrow, joy, etc. At Denver Seminary, students are challenged to pay attention. And often, in this midst of their reading, writing, listening to lectures and dialoging with students from different backgrounds, they have to more deeply WATCH the world around them. And, as we learn from Habbakuk 1:3-5, watching is not an easy task.

I often tell my colleagues that the job of a mentor at Denver Seminary is the most rewarding and the most difficult. Helping students WATCH requires a great deal of skill. As mentors, we are asked to be willing and available to respond well to the myriad of emotions that result in a mentee's life. What is a healthy response? Should I teach, should I answer my mentee's question, should I simply listen, should I find a good book for them to read? What is the skill I need to learn? It may be any one of these I just mentioned. But the overarching mentor quality I must possess is that which Parker Palmer calls, "one who stands on the border". Instead of always comforting, correcting or teaching my mentee through the emotional responses that come from watching, I should simply be present to her emotion rather than trying to fix it. In speaking of his friend who stood beside him through a painful journey, Palmer states, "He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey - the courage to let it be - that I myself needed if I were to endure" (Let Your Life Speak, pg 64). 

The courage to let it be is what we do when we stand on the border. This is not a passive mentoring activity. It is highly active in that it requires a great deal of skill in facilitating an awareness of what God is doing in and around the life of a mentee. Anderson/Reese in Spiritual Mentoring remind mentors that the Holy Spirit is already at work and that the mentor should act with attentive listening, attentive prayer and active discernment. Like an optometrist, the mentor "does not invent the light or create the patient's eyes; rather he or she helps focus the patient's attention on the light that is already present" (Spiritual Mentoring pg 46).  

As we help our mentees focus on the Spirit who is already present in their questions and emotions, we are not fixing them, we are simply standing with them. Margaret Guenther uses the analogy of a midwife. She states, "The midwife is present to another in a time of vulnerability, working in areas that are deep and intimate....She does things with, not to, the person giving birth" (Holy Listening, pg 87). As our mentees more deeply watch and engage the world, we should create the conditions that allow them to share their emotional response and encourage them to pose their raw and honest questions. It may get ugly! We simply need to stand on the border of their emotion and invite them into deeper dialogue. Let us listen well to their story; knowing all the while that the Spirit is present and actively working to focus our mentees on the light. While there is nothing, you as the mentor, need to do to your mentee, you can do this work with him; helping to bring his Christian faith to a greater understanding.