Thursday, July 29, 2010

Passing the Mantle

OT SS Lesson #29 -- originally posted on Mormon Matters
The prophet Elisha is introduced for the first time in 1 Kings 19.  Elijah has recently had his encounter with the 400 prophets of Baal and the still small voice of God on Mt. Horeb.  On his way from the mountain to the wilderness of Damascus Elijah finds Elisha plowing in a field.  He passes by him and throws his mantle over Elisha.  And scripture says that Elisha arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.  Elisha doesn’t receive another mention until the end of Elijah’s ministry — when Elijah’s mantle falls from him as he is translated and is taken up by Elisha — and one can’t help but wonder about the relationship between the two in the interim.  How was Elisha prepared to succeed Elijah, and what relevance does this story have to succession in the Church today?
In the manual, our SS lesson discusses in depth how this story relates to succession in the Presidency of the Church, and how this “mantle” is transferred when the prophet dies.  But I think the story is also fitting for application on the ward level, where callings from Nursery Leader to Bishop are regularly passed around.  As we follow and serve under our ward leaders, we take upon ourselves the learning role of an Elisha.  In the Books of 1st and 2nd Kings, we may not have the details of how Elisha was prepared for his calling.  But 2 Kings 2:9-10 is instructive.  Immediately before Elijah is taken up into heaven he asks Elisha: “Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee.”  And Elisha replies, “I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.”
Ask what I shall do for thee
Here the Elijah figure, or the one being released from the calling, is willing to train his or her successor.  He or she passes on the needed materials, explains what the calling entails, and makes themselves available as a source of information during the transition period.  I think it is important to see each calling as a legacy which is being passed down and improved upon each time a new member steps up to fill the position.  Holders of each calling should be willing to mentor others to succeed as their replacement.
Let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me
When Elisha asked to receive a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit he was not seeking a ministry twice as great as his master’s but he was using cultural terms derived from inheritance law to express his desire to carry on Elijah’s ministry. Inheritance law assigned a double portion of a father’s possessions to the firstborn son [see Deut. 21:17]. Elijah’s response that “if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee” left the gift Elisha requested in God’s hands. Elisha does see Elijah being taken up by the chariots of God at the Jordan River and God does fulfill the request — Elijah received the “double portion” = the power and authority of his master.  This is demonstrated by Elijah’s performance of 8 works of God while Elisha accomplishes 16.
Elijah’s 8 miracles:
1. Shut the heavens (drought) and opened them (rain)1 Kings 17:14, 41-46
2. multiplied flour and oil1 Kings 17:7-16
3. raised the widow’s son from the dead1 Kings 17:17-24
4. defeated the prophets of Baal1 Kings 18:16-40
5. was fed by ravens1 Kings 17:2-8
6. destroyed Ahaziah’s soldiers with lightning2 Kings 1:9-13
7. parted the Jordan River2 Kings 2:8
8. was taken to heaven in God’s chariot2 Kings 2:9-18
Elisha’s 16 miracles:
1. parted the Jordan River2 Kings 2:14-15
2. purified water2 Kings 2: 19-22
3. cursed attackers who were then savaged by bears2 Kings 2: 23-25
4. caused a flood to foil the Moabites2 Kings 3: 14-25
5. caused miraculous flow of oil for the poor widow2 Kings 4: 2-7
6. gave fertility to the woman of Shunem2 Kings 4: 8-17
7. raised a child from the dead2 Kings 4:32-37
8. purified poisoned soup2 Kings 4:38-41
9. multiplied loaves to feed a large crowd2 Kings 4:42-44
10. healed Naaman of leprosy2 Kings 5: 1-19
11. cursed Gehazi with leprosy2 Kings 5:20-27
12. made an iron axehead float2 Kings 6:1-7
13. struck the Aramaeans with sun blindness and then cured them2 Kings 6: 15-23
14. predicted the end of a famine2 Kings 7:1-20
15. prophesied the death of Ben-Hadad and the rise of Hazael2 Kings 8:7-15
16. predicts Israel will defeat Aram 3 times2 Kings 13:14-19
Each of us has likely experienced numerous changes in Church callings over the years.  I have had some interesting feelings both in receiving and in giving up callings.  I’ve discovered that we need mentors — wise and faithful guides, advisers, or teachers — to apply an unseen, affirming influence and positive energy as callings change.   The mentor’s spirit can promote healthy relationships in every presidency, classroom and organization.  There must be a willingness to share our ministry.  This sharing comes from a place of deep satisfaction and peace about the work we have done over the years.  The work hasn’t always been easy and there may be a certain reticence to let go of hard won accomplishments.  But the mentor’s spirit reminds us that it is not so much a letting go as it is a passing on.
Note especially what Elijah says next: “Thou hast asked a hard thing.” It’s hard both to give up and to accept a calling. For me, one of the hardest releases I experienced was that of Seminary teacher. I held the calling for several years. I put a lot of time and energy into it, and I came to self-identify as the Seminary teacher. I wanted to be the best one ever. I wanted to affect the lives of my students and I wanted them to love me. When a new teacher was called, I didn’t want him to be as successful as I was. To this day I have a hard time when a new Seminary teacher is called in the ward. It is just as hard to accept new callings with grace and equanimity. Some people feel inadequate, doubting they can measure up to what has been done by their predecessor. Some accept with pride, thinking that they can do a better job than has been done in the past. Neither attitude takes full advantage of the mentoring process.
As Elijah and Elisha continued walking and talking by the Jordan River, a chariot of fire and horses of fire took Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind.  Both Elijah and Elisha experienced the presence and the power of God in that moment. I believe that we can experience the same as we struggle with the difficult issue of passing on and accepting Ward callings.

7 Responses to “Passing the Mantle”

  • Stephen Marsh
    is not so much a letting go as it is a passing on — I think you have made a great point about how we should mentor and support each other, passing the torch on of each calling.
  • Martin
    I have little doubt you were a good seminary teacher.
    Passing the mantle is a little different for us than it was for Elijah, because we’re not riding off into the sunset, we’re just changing roles. Not too long ago I was released from a bishopric in order to serve as scoutmaster. We had considered another man in the ward who was already working with the deacons as the natural fit, but for some reason it didn’t feel right. We actually went without a scoutmaster for a few months trying to find who the Lord would call, while the guy who we’d considered for the call did his best to cover the vacuum. When finally it became clear the Lord’s finger was pointing at me, it was a little hard. I loved serving in the bishopric. I couldn’t help but think in my mind “Gee, Lord, that other guy would have been a great scoutmaster — he certainly can do anything I can do.” Guess who was called as the new counselor? Yep. That guy. The same guy I’d worked so closely with as the counselor over the youth. And he’ll be great. It’s me I’m worried about. Scoutmaster is a little overwhelming compared to bishopric counselor! I guess he’ll just have to mentor me, as I did him.
  • st1305
    That is an excellent post.
  • Margaret
    Do you think the double portion was possibly just that – the inheritance of Elijah’s power and authority. The bible has recorded only so many acts by Elijah compared to Elisha but that doesn’t mean that’s all Elijah did. After all, He is the one who held the keys of sealing given to Joseph Smith.
    BTW, I love your idea of mentoring.
  • Mormon Heretic
    biv, I love the analogy with ward callings. I do wonder how we are supposed to feel when we replace someone that either quit coming to church, or obviously put little effort into their calling, especially when the bishop indicated the previous person was a bit direlict in their duty.
  • Mark Gibson
    A very thoughtful post; thanks.
    From time to time I hear comments about ward callings being “pre-ordained” and, because of that, one should never refuse a calling. Some elements of that are probably true, but I still think it puts a lot of pressure on a member, especially a convert looking at their first calling. I remember attending a new members gathering as part of stake conference. The Bishops were encouraged to issue callings to everyone having been a member for as little as two weeks. Some are eager for that type of service, others not so. In fact, it may play a part in some converts quickly going inactive.
  • cornponebread
    Apart from my mission, I have felt the mantle of a calling on other occasions, but most strongly the last time I was Gospel Doctrine teacher for my ward. It was my 3rd or 4th time in this calling, but this was the time I really noticed it. My eyes were opened, both to understanding of the scriptures and also to the world around me. It is difficult to describe the clarity of perception I experienced while I had the calling. After several years I was given another calling, but they couldn’t find another willing Gospel Doctrine teacher for almost 6 months, so I pulled double duty. The problem was that I had been released from that calling and set apart for the new calling, and I could tell the difference! It was much more difficult to prepare lessons and to draw from my experiences and perceptions. And when they did get a new teacher, she was great. It was like a relief to me. The mantle had been passed, although we weren’t necessarily both there when it happened. It had been almost dropped in the intervening months and the new teacher picked it up more than it fell on her.

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