The second chapter of 2 Kings is striking in its poignancy.
God is about to take Elijah to heaven, and everyone knows. Elijah knows. Elisha knows. All the other prophets know, and they pop up at Bethel to make sure Elisha knows (3). And because Elisha knows God is about to take Elijah away for good, he refuses to part from his mentor. In fact, when Elijah attempts to defer Elisha from coming to Bethel, and then again from Jericho, Elisha refuses. “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live,” he objects, “I will not leave you” (2, 4).
Together, the two men cross the Jordan. Elijah asks if he might bequeath anything to his protege, and Elisha requests a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah’s response is cautious; he claims the fulfillment of the request will depend on whether or not Elisha witnesses his departure from the earth. And then:
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more (11-12).
Most people make note of this chapter, rightly, for Elijah’s fiery departure. But I’m drawn to it because of how well it describes all the complexity of the nearly-parental relationship between an older believer whose time is spent, and the younger believer whose job it was to pick up the mantle and continue on.
The promise of being welcomed into God’s presence surely overwhelms Elijah with joy. And yet it’s notable that in his final moments he allows Elisha to accompany him, and asks, “What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” (9). The cultural implications of this verse are profound. Although Elijah is Elisha’s mentor, and Elisha is Elijah’s chosen successor, the relationship between them is less like a “mentorship” and more like the bond between a father and son, and their farewell bears the echoes of the final blessing that firstborn boys in Israel received from their fathers.
Secondly, Elisha’s response is striking. He wants to be equipped for what was ahead, and his response is in itself a tribute to Elijah’s spirit. When the horses and chariots finally come, we can hear that he is torn between awe and grief: astonished by the “chariots and horsemen of Israel,” he nevertheless understands that this is a farewell, and his grief is made evident in his cries of “my father! my father!” and his tearing of his robe (12).
Biblical mentorship can be difficult, and it doesn’t often look like what we see in these verses. My sole experience with church-sanctioned mentorship died in a Starbucks three months after it started, when the young woman who’d signed up to be mentored kept skipping meetings to sleep in and eventually gave up on the program. To be honest, I suspect that Christian mentorship was never quite meant to be a church-sanctioned participatory activity to begin with. At its heart it is a more organic matter, driven by God’s spirit and by circumstances. God brings believers together and, as they progress in getting to know each other, they bless each other and grow each other together.
It’s important that Christians not neglect the joys of a mentoring relationship, but it’s equally important that we recognize those relationships when we enter our lives – or where they might be present already. I’ve seen many Christians throng to sign up to “be a mentor” at church without considering the fact that they probably already serve as mentors without knowing it – or that they interact daily with those in their lives who are desperately seeking out a mentor.
Mentorship at its heart is really not about coffee dates and accountability sessions and growth charts and the pseudo-corporate trappings that accompany such things. It is about two people: one of whom wants to learn, and one of whom wants to teach. Eventually, that learner will one day become the teacher for someone else.
Take a look around. What believers have fallen into your sphere of influence? How can you serve them? How can you learn from them? What can you pray about for them? In what ways can you serve as a model, or in what ways can you emulate believers you admire?
In our individual Christian walks, we’ll benefit from the times we get to walk alongside others. Elisha certainly did – and, though he mourned Elijah’s departure, he grew into a ministry of his own that was all the stronger for the influence of the man he loved like a father.
May we all move each other to bigger, better faith.
Remember: I am still accepting testimonies or a sentence or two about the spiritual blessings you are thankful for this Thanksgiving!