When my parents were alive I made it a goal to call them weekly. When I called, they would pass the phone between them to share what was going on in their worlds. Mom brought me up to date on the family while dad described a new project in his workshop or a subject he was studying. Here’s how a couple of phone calls went with my dad.
“I discovered an author that you might enjoy,” he said during one phone call.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“His name is C.S. Lewis. Have you ever heard of him?” he asked innocently.
My dad was wading through some of Lewis’ works, books that I found difficult to get my head around. A few weeks later, we had another conversation about another author.
“I’m reading someone that you need to read,” he said.
“Who’s caught your attention this time?” I asked.
“His name is Francis Schaeffer. Have you read any books by him?”
Have I read any books by him? Schaeffer was probably one of the most influential authors in my life up to that point! My dad was ploughing through The Christian Manifesto and The God Who Is There. Here was a seventy-year old retired meat-cutter discovering two of the most influential Christian authors of the twentieth-century. My dad never stopped learning.
One of my life verses is Ecclesiastes 4:13: “Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.” The king had power, prestige, and a position but he was foolish — he stopped taking advice from others. This reminds me of a quote by Winston Churchill, “I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught.”
Notice how the poor youth differs from the king. This young man lacked power, prestige, and position — but learning made him a better man. His life was rich in wisdom. We all need to be young, poor, and wise.
As I peer at life though my grey hair I’m convinced that lifelong learning is the missing quality for most leaders. Author and seminary professor Howard Hendricks used to say that many people will have this carved on their tombstone: “Died: May 22, 1990 — Buried: June 2, 2019.” When we stop learning we stop living. What characterizes a lifelong learner?
- Lifelong learners are obsessed with wisdom. Wisdom is extolled in both the Old and New Testaments. Old Testament scholar Dr. Daniel Estes writes that “wisdom is skill in living as Yahweh intends.” Wisdom is navigating through life with God’s priorities and values. Where do we find these values and priorities? The Psalmist gives an answer, “the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). Lifelong learners are people of the Scriptures, gaining insight from Biblical instruction. We need the higher peak of God’s perspective, a peak that towers over our own experience, to skillfully live.
I started seriously reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible fifty years ago. There’s no other book that I read daily. I’m always discovering new insights on how to live well. I’m obsessed with gaining wisdom because I’m obsessed with the Bible.
- Lifelong learners extract wisdom from life’s experiences. I love this line from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth is crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest of us sit around picking blackberries.
Our lives are “crammed” with heaven. Heaven is unavoidable to those who look for it. Everyday life is an intersection of our experience with God’s presence. This means that class is always in session for the lifelong learner.
The Holy Spirit constantly helps me draw wisdom from everyday experiences. In leading a three-hour training session recently, I discovered that the topic became bogged down after an hour and a half. The life seemed to be sucked out of the room. I’ve decided that if I teach this topic again, I will streamline the content to cover and increase the interaction to keep the life in the room. Experience is often our best teacher.
- Lifelong learners take risks. Risks are difficult for me because I have a perfectionistic streak. I want to make sure that things are perfect before I do them. I also want to look good before others. If I take risks I may lose a piece of my reputation. However, without risk there is no learning.
I took a major risk recently. Instead of silently suppressing my frustration with someone on a phone call I immediately called them back to express myself, resolve the conflict, and work towards understanding. What did I learn? I have a fear of confrontation but I cannot let this fear determine the right thing to do. I must risk in relationships.
- Lifelong learners stop to think. This should be obvious but it’s missed by many of us. There are thirty-two different words in the Scriptures for thinking about what’s happening around us. These words include: reflect, look, examine, watch, think, meditate, consider, ponder. We live in an age of constant motion and sensory input. Studies have shown that professionals will work over fifty hours a week and spend another twenty hours connecting with work issues on-line. We give ourselves little time to think.
Lifelong learners take time to stop, look, and think. I block out time each week to stop and think. I review the week, reflect on my experiences, and record any lessons that the Lord is teaching me. We can’t learn without taking time to think.
Let me wrap this up. My parents were poor but wise. They left very little behind in the way of an inheritance. One item that was passed on to me was my dad’s questions.
For over forty years, my dad taught Sunday School and led small group Bible studies. In his desk was a folder filled with his lesson outlines, outlines filled with questions. When I read the books dad owned, I discover questions he wrote in the margins. He was always asking questions, always curious, always learning. His questions are part of my inheritance.
No matter our age or position, we should all strive to be young, poor, and wise. May the Lord help us be lifelong learners.