Monday Memo: Unlearning

Terry Walton


I was thinking...

Have you ever had to ‘unlearn’ something? I know I have had to unlearn many things. The day I received two speeding tickets within two hours, one in North Carolina and the other in Georgia…I had to unlearn a heavy foot on the automobile accelerator (just ask my wife and Debby Fox…they were with me!) I have had to unlearn certain phrases that were simply part and partial of my southern upbringing. Phrases like “Jew-ing someone down” as a phrase used for negotiating a price for a product to be purchased…until one day I realized how demeaning, cruel and unfair that phrase was to our Jewish sisters and brothers. There are other phrases I am embarrassed to put in print that were equally sinister and cruel that I had to unlearn. I had to unlearn using the ‘N’ word to refer to my brothers and sisters of color. Deep within my southern upbringing has been found vocabulary that was thought to be allowable, and even considered by some to be funny, that I now know as unacceptable, harmful, and sinful. I have had to unlearn a lot.

What is the difference between learning something and unlearning something? I suppose one answer could be that when we learn something it has been learned upon a clean slate. When we unlearn something, the slate is cluttered with cloudy matter that needs to be wiped away before a replacement learning can be engaged. What concerns me about the process of unlearning is that the ‘cloudy matter’ on our hearts and minds might not be so obvious to us. We may think we have learned all we need to learn about a particular arena in life when there is so much more that needs to be unlearned and learned.

I have met folks (and I bet you have also) that presented themselves as know-it-alls. It seemed obvious to those who knew the prescribed know-it-all that they in fact knew very little. The know-it-all was oblivious to their need to unlearn and then to learn again. Where have I been a know-it-all only to learn quickly of my learning deficiencies? One thing I continue to unlearn is that when I point the finger at some else’s know-it-all tendencies, there are three fingers pointing back at me.

The power of the Holy Spirit is critical in learning what we need to unlearn. One of the painful but beautiful consequences to the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing into and through our lives is the ‘conviction’ of sin.  It is the Holy Spirit that reveals to us our sin and its need to be unlearned and uprooted from our lives.  John Wesley’s concept of prevenient grace speaks to God being at work in our lives long before we may even know of God and our need of God.  The Holy Spirit can be a gentle breeze or hurricane-force wind that says to our hearts and minds, "You need to unlearn and let me uproot something out of your life."  On the other side is a fresh and freeing learning that is life-giving.  Perhaps in many ways this was a piece of what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to me, all of you who are carrying burdens and heavy of heart…I will help you unlearn."

One of my frequent prayers I commend to you. It is simple and it goes like this… “Lord, help me to grow stronger and stronger in my ability to recognize your voice.”  I pray this because there are a host of voices in our world that seek to garner our ear and our attention.  I pray this because I would be horrified to discover that I had become hardened of heart and could not or would not hear the voice of God in my inner soul. My prayer today is simple, too. I commend it also to you.  It goes like this… “Lord, what do I desperately need to unlearn so that I can learn of deeper ways to live the life you intend for me?”  

If we would sincerely pray this prayer, I believe it would lead to a community prayer which sounds like this… “OUR Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give US this day OUR daily bread. And forgive US OUR sins as we forgive those who have sinned against US.  Lead US not into temptation but deliver US from evil. For thine is the kingdom; the power and the glory…forever”.  So be it…for US…not just me.

What do I need to unlearn? Who do you need to unlearn?

Always thinking...

The Rev. Dr. Terry E. Walton
Executive Assistant to the Bishop

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