How Not to be a “21st Century Illiterate”

Questions for Learners

by Em Seinemeier

[5 minute read]


Ok, so today I might be feeling a little old… or maybe we might go with reflective … or even contemplative? There, that’s better: contemplative. You see, as we approach the dawn of a new decade, Nathan and I have just celebrated 25 years of marriage (four children and 14 houses lived in), and 20 years of pastoral ministry together. Phew - and we’re only just getting started at 45 years of age! Apart from the kids bit, that is sooo done.

We’ve all heard it said that we apparently ‘learn from experience’, and while we might politely nod, we can also all think of many people who definitely do not … and if we’re honest, we have often been those people. T.S. Elliot once penned so eloquently: “We have had the experience, but missed the meaning…”, and I know I resonate with that!

Especially in leadership, how easy is it, with the speed of change, the demands we face on our time, energy, focus, priorities, relationships etc, to experience much while learning comparatively little? Call it survival, plate spinning, whatever - I love the idea (generally attributed to John Dewey) that we don’t so much learn by experience, but by reflection on experience. And learning has always been something of a passion of mine.

In many ways, it’s been a good thing moving house as often as we have, because I have a history of picking up an interest or skill, perfecting it to death until I’m completely over it, and then passing it on, so the enforced decluttering of the discarded has really been a mercy. In school and Uni I was an avid achiever, and with the advent of the internet (told you I was old!) the availability of knowledge, information and new perspectives was unprecedented in both its accessibility and democratisation - amazing!

Practically, over time however, I find the learning that has been most valuable, most foundational and anchoring to me, has not been the mastery of skills or information, but that which has by necessity required adaptivity. Growth, at its very essence, requires change, transformation, a willingness to yield and adapt, and flexibility in meeting and responding to the demands of the reality we face (Cloud explores this thoroughly in his book ‘Integrity’). Futurist, author and philosopher Alvin Toffler puts it this way: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Adaptivity vs rigidity and inflexibility.

How’s that for a challenge?! There’s an open-handedness that’s required to do this well - not to be mistaken for complacency, as it’s super intentional. There’s a vulnerability and humility needed to step away from clinging to unnecessary black and white binary thinking as our default, our tendency to nail things down with an incessant desire for certainties ... and to pause to look with curiosity at what’s before us. This comes more naturally to some that others - as a person who, especially in early stages of faith and leadership, loved high speed and tidy compartments for everything, it’s been harder won!

In this often chaotic, crazy Christmas season, can I encourage you, weary friend, that we’re not talking about doing / being more, working harder, or just plain old pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps! What we’re reminded of in this advent season is that God reveals himself fully to us in Jesus, and comes to be with us as Love personified - we don’t ever have to do anything alone. We can trust that God is up to much good in the world, in our neighbours, and in us, and He invites us to actively partner with Him in the transforming and renewing He’s doing by His grace. We can yield to His hands gently forming us, being ready to respond, grow, mature and change – what good news!

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you … God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
Romans 12 : 1 – 2 MSG

May I leave with you some questions that have become, for me, a practice to sit with periodically? Some reflective questions that make space for truly learning from experience?

  • What have I learned this year, and how did I learn it? How is my posture of humility to learning from those older/ younger/ different or ‘other’ to me? Do I have space for wonder, curiosity and discovery?
  • What am I in the process of unlearning? What are the things I need to let go of to grow, ways of thinking and acting that no longer serve in moving forward? How flexible am I to respond to change, especially where I haven’t chosen it?
  • Where am I relearning? Perhaps things I thought I knew, but now see with more depth, compassion or perspective? Where do I sense a challenge to choose trust over fear as I do this? Where can I see God patiently forming me, and how am I responding?

Wishing you a wonderful and refreshing Christmas, and our Father’s very best for the new decade before us.