Having a “Learner’s Lean”
Paul had it.* (* keep reading and I’ll share more.)
I want it.
Throughout history, all great leaders who finished strong possessed it.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call it the “Learner’s Lean.”
Next time you’re in a meeting—whether it is a business seminar, church, or the local Rotary Club, be observant. You can always spot this learner’s lean among people. It’s the listener who is really listening.
They’re leaning forward.
Elbows on the table.
Eyes locked on the speaker.
Drinking in every word.
Often taking notes, even if it’s on a napkin.
They have a focus that is visible.
A hunger that nearly be touched.
A connection with the speaker that can be felt.
I have the privilege of speaking over 100 times yearly. I can easily recognize the learner’s lean. It’s the person in the audience who is locked on your eyes, head nodding, smiling, and often their eyes glisten with tears.
It is a speaker’s delight to be in the presence of the learner’s lean. They give us energy and remind us that life is truly an ongoing learning process.
Two weeks ago, I experienced this in Africa. Preaching in the church of another culture can be very intimidating. Terms, stories, and ‘world view’ can vary and the speaker is at the mercy of the world.
Not really, when you’re sharing the truths of the Bible with the Holy Spirit’s help (He is the best interpreter of all time.) the message is conveyed. However, it is fraught with emotional land mines due to our tendency to “Americanize” every message.
I preached at New Georgia Estate Baptist Church in Liberia, and was in the presence of a woman with the “Learner’s Lean.” As I shared from Matthew 8 about “Being in a storm with Jesus” this middle-aged woman, perched on the front row, “helped me preach.”
She was dressed in beautiful traditional African headdress and matching colorful dress. Her attention and demeanor clearly told me that she’d “been in the storm with Jesus” and came out on the other side with her faith in Him stronger and proven.
When I quoted (I was too chicken to sing it like any good Black preacher would have) from the song, “Stand by Me”, she helped me finish it.
When this world is tossing me, like a ship out on the sea,
Thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.
I didn’t get to meet her in the busy moments after the marathon service ended. (Better pack your sack lunch when you attend an African church.)
Later, I was informed that her name was Frances Johnson-Morris, Liberia’s Minister of Anti-Corruption. An attorney, Ms. Johnson-Morris previously served as Minister of Justice (our equivalent of Attorney General) as well as chairperson of the 2006 Liberian Election Commission.
To be honest, there wasn’t anything in her physical presence that said “national leader.” I recognized her as special by her learner’s lean.
It’s a passion to learn and grow.
I wished I could have sat at Frances Johnson-Morris’ feet and learned from her. Knowing Liberia’s tragic recent history, I’m sure she could have taught me much about going through the storm with Jesus.
I could have practiced my own learner’s lean with her.
The Apostle Paul had this learner’s lean, and he kept it until the very end. Look at his closing words in II Timothy 4:13 “When you come, bring the coat I left with Carpus in Troas, as well as the scrolls, and especially the parchments.”
He was writing to his protégé Timothy in Ephesus. The year is circa 65 AD. Paul is awaiting death at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero.
He has fought the good fight, run the good race, and kept the faith. The letter of II Timothy is his farewell address.
In spite of knowing the chopping block and ax is awaiting him in the Roman prison yard, he asks Timothy to bring two items.
One is his coat he left in Troas. Someone asked me, “Why’d he want that coat?” The answer is simple, he was cold. Paul was an old man and older people get cold easily. (Riding with my dad is his final years was like being in a Turkish sauna with a blowtorch in your face. I’d often crack the window just to get a breath of cool fresh air.) it was probably the only coat he owned. Here was a man who’d given up all of the things of the world in following Jesus. He’s at the end of his life and possesses just one coat.
He also wanted his scrolls and parchments.
Here is a man getting ready to step out into eternity… and he’s still got his learner’s lean. These papers are evident of it. He was still learning. Still growing. Still hungry to know more.
I want that.
I heard one of my heroes, T.W. Hunt (author of The Mind of Christ) say, “I’m 75 now, and I believe I’ve learned more in the last 5 years than in the first 70.”
Another one of my heroes, my father-in-law Herbert Terry, is in his mid-eighties. He recently commented, “Curt, I’ve been thinking. I believe if there were some college courses offered in my area, I’d sign up and take them.”
Two heroes with learner’s leans. Still growing. Still going. Still learning.
Learner’s Lean—i.e. a lifetime quest for learning is closely tied in with curiosity.
A desire to know more.
It is most easily defined by reading. This statement is so true: “You can be a reader and not be a reader. But you cannot be a leader unless you are a reader.”
What’s on your bookshelf?
I’ve heard that you can judge a leader’s growth by looking at their bookshelf. This is especially true with pastors. A pastor/leader with an office full of titles twenty years or older probably quit growing twenty years ago.
I love the hunger my pastor has. Benjie Loyd, age 32, has the finest book collection of any pastor I’ve ever known.
I always compliment him on this, adding, “When I see your library thirty years from now, I expect to still be seeing new titles.”
By the way, here’s what I’m currently reading:
Outliers (Audio book) by Malcolm Gladwell. Subtitled is “The Story of Success.” It is a fascinating study on how people succeed. I’m listening to it as I drive. This turns my vehicle into a library.
How People Grow Townsend/Cloud A Biblical study of life-long growth.
This Child Shall Be Greatby Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, autobiography by the president of Liberia, the first woman president on the continent of Africa.
For me, lifelong learning also involves journaling. I’m in the process of filling up journal #47 and I still have the first one began in 1973.
I find that writing down ideas, sermon notes, thoughts, etc. help me grow. I go back and review them and it helps me focus and grow. I can nearly relive my life by reviewing my journals. (Bill Butterworth’s newest book, The Short List, talks about the renewal and introspection found through re-reading journals.)
The Internet is a diamond mine of lifelong learning. In addition to putting encyclopedia salesmen out of work, Google, Wikipedia, and the Net allows someone in Dry Creek, Doodlefork, or Dido (the triangle of culture I live in) the same access to information as the richest tycoon in Manhattan.
My parting words are really a prayer.
Lord, keep a hunger to learn in me.
Don’t let me lose my learner’s lean.
Fill me with a curiosity.
A curiosity to know you deeper.
To learn more about the world and the people in it.
Keep me growing.
Keep me going.
Amen. and amen.