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A Review of
Reading Your Life’s Story: An Invitation to Spiritual Mentoring
Paperback: IVP Books, 2016
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Reviewed by Danny Wright
In Reading Your Life’s Story, Keith Anderson provides a primer for intentional spiritual mentoring. He recognizes along with Eugene Peterson that our lives “…only become clear in the hesitations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him.” Therefore, Anderson, the president of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, has written a guide for learning to read our lives as stories within the bounds of spiritual friendships. He wants to help people develop “intentional, planned, repeated and focused conversations” about life in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Divine Author has written with purpose in each of our lives and we must learn to read and co-read in a God-drenched and saturated world that is overflowing with His voice and presence.
He encourages the reader that it is important to remember the basics of “learning letters, then vocabulary, sentence structure, and eventually plot, character development and the flow of narrative.” God is not limited to a specific time and place, certain words and phrases, or even a finite set of practices. God has set up an altar in the middle of life, and we need help reading, remembering, reflecting, recognizing and receiving the ceaseless revelations. In these mentoring relationships the mentee is given a safe and sacred space to “explore, question, struggle, probe, wonder, learn, unlearn and listen.” We all need people who will join us on the journey with questions, curiosity and presence. There are times when we need to have someone who can help us to become disillusioned with the lies that we have come to believe so that we can find the truth and hold on to the reality.
Each person’s life is a text that needs to be read, and it is not always abundantly clear how to decipher the meaning of each of those texts. Therefore, it helps when we can have a companion that can co-read the stories with us, especially since story is the language of relationships. This can become difficult geography to traverse, but as imperfect fellow pilgrims, we can come together with attention and focus and assist each other’s soul care in the areas of healing, restoration, guidance and/or reconciliation.
Anderson points out that this process involves an endless curiosity on the part of the co-reader, because God is always at work in the intricate processes and specific details of our lives. He quotes Paula D’Arcy, who writes, “God comes to us, disguised as our lives.” Our western fascination with how too often gets the best of us, and we do not realize that Jesus is most definitely concerned with the whys and the what’s of our continuing journeys.
In the second section of the book, he frames how the mentoring sessions should be structured. He divides the process into three basic phases: starting well, creating pace and sustaining momentum through accountability, and ending well. The first of these phases consists of inquiry, intake and interview. During the discussion of these concepts, the author provides some excellent guidelines and boundaries for what actually qualifies as mentoring, and encourages both parties involved to set realistic expectations. The realistic expectations of any mentoring agreement will include the creation of a covenant that defines what will be discussed, when the discussions will occur and what it will look like when it is time to end the agreement.
Each session ends up being a travelogue unto itself that deals with the texts of Scripture (Torah), purpose (telos) and timeliness (kairos) as they continue to develop and unfold in the life of the mentee. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning has written, “Earth’s crammed with Heaven,/And every common bush afire with God/But only he who sees takes off his shoes;/The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” The exploration of the events of any life in such a holy setting can take on very different and unique shapes and forms. Therefore, Anderson provides readers with a number of brief overviews of how his mentors have approached relationships with him, and underlines the importance of asking great questions.
The pace of mentoring is slow and deliberate. It involves patient, trustful waiting in a hospitable environment that welcomes and necessitates both parties being present and aware. He even points out that the sessions can be defined as prayer since life is consumed by and constituted with prayer. I especially liked how Anderson encourages mentees to practice exercises of grace between sessions. One of those exercises is keeping a journal of questions that will not let them go, kingdom sightings, and what T. S. Eliot describes as “whispers of immortality.” He also mentions assignments to practice silence, reading certain texts, struggling with specific questions and writing letters. As the sessions come to an end, he believes it is important to look back, look around, look ahead, look with gratitude and to look within. He even points out that you can create symbols that represent the time you have spent together, and to be intentional in the s/ending because life is with replete with opportunities to begin again.
Anderson closes the book with brief discussions on essential books for the mentor, the practice of lectio divina, the concepts of transference and countertransference, discernment questions for finding a mentor and the differences that might exist in a mentor/mentee relationship. There is an old Jewish saying that teaches that God made humans because He loved stories, and Keith Anderson has written an excellent guide for discerning the beauty of the story that God is continuing to write in each of us as we read and co-read our life’s story, as well as others.