Archive for October, 2009

Spiritual But Engaged

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I taught on early Christian Monasticism last night and we discussed how the most deeply felt human sentiments will eventually work their way to the surface of our lives sometimes expressing themselves as movements.  Christian Monasticism was one of those movements.  It was driven by the deep spiritual hunger of common people who wanted to know God more intimately.  This kind of spiritual hunger seems to be a fairly common human need or desire.  

For example, our culture seems obsessed with spirituality.   There is in fact a whole market dedicated to all things spiritual.  Our consumption of spirituality in many ways mirrors the way we consume fast food.  Much in the same way we want a veritable smorgasbord of fast food options at our disposal, we also want our spiritual options to be equally diverse because spirituality, like fast food, is essentially a matter of personal taste and preference. 

The history of Christian Monasticism is a paradoxical story in that it offers us encouragement to seek God while also warning us about the consequences of pursuing spirituality primarily as a means of self-fulfillment.   Not in every case but in many cases, those who chose a monastic life lost touch with the world.  They became disengaged from the  world and its many problems and crises.  They essentially created a life for themselves that was privately engaging but socially irrelevant. 

Some would argue, “well of course, that is what spirituality is about.  Spirituality is a way for me to escape or disengage from the world and all the problems and issues that keep me from focusing on and knowing God.  It is a way for me to express my personal spiritual preferences and satisfy my personal spiritual needs.” This perspective may be true for some forms of spirituality but I would suggest that it is contrary to Christian spirituality because the God that Christians are seeking to know and be intimate with is actively engaged with this world as its Creator and Redeemer.  If the Christian belief in the incarnation teaches anything, it teaches us that God is intimately involved in the messy, broken, complicated, stressful and painful business of being human.  God is not interested in helping us escape this world.  God wants to enlist and empower us to change the world. 

If we seek this God in the hopes of being spiritual we will find ourselves radically reengaged with the world, motivated by a renewed passion for addressing the very problems and issues we attempted to escape initially.  We will find ourselves involved in a truly transformational process as opposed to learning new coping mechanisms.  We will live lives that are both personally fulfilling and socially relevant.  For the followers of Jesus Christ, spirituality is ultimately grounded in the messy business of living life while being fully engaged in God’s plan to heal the world.

It’s Your Story

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

MillionMilesCover3d_TransparentBkng_200Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, reads like an auto-biographical, stream of consciousness sort of memoir. Several chapters in I found myself totally entertained but asking the question, what’s the point again? I need to know the point because I am a historian and historians are always reading for a thesis statement or a core argument to analyze and critique but then I read a book or have a conversation that reminds me that before history was an academic discipline it was a powerful story about life that people shared with each other. It was a story about identity, belonging and purpose. It was a story that said, “regardless of what may be happening to you right now, you are not alone and your life matters.” The reason that all history is a story is because, at its core, all history is biography. It’s your story and it’s my story.

Miller uses his story, his auto-biography, his history, to remind us that we have both an opportunity and a responsibility not to waste the story we have been given, not to give up when the dream dies again, not to settle for the mundane when the life we want to live demands more than we want to give. He defines a good story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” This is not another appeal to greater consumerism. It is a clarion call to greater investment, to make a real difference, to live life in a way that offers hope and transformation to others.

We all get to write one great history in this life, our own. Take a moment in the next week to reflect on your life and ponder these questions. Is there anything about this world and the people in it that when I see it or hear about it, I want to weep and pound the table? Are you willing to follow that passion and write those people into your story? We all like reading a great story or watching a great movie about a hero who continually overcomes great obstacles to ultimately accomplish something that truly matters, something worthy of historical note, something that changes the world for the good, but few of us want to live that story. The common theme found in the lives of great people is their willingness to persevere, to follow their passion, to face the conflict and live their story to the end.

We don’t get to decide whether our life was powerful, inspiring or memorable, that is for others to decide. But we do get to live it in a way that is true to who we are, offers hope to our world and refuses to be mediocre. It’s your story. Write the one you would want to read.

The Not So Inevitable Past

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

History has so much more to offer us than a seemingly endless list of disconnected facts and boring details occasionaly interrupted by dramatic events. It is so much more than “this movement occurred after this event was started by a series of other events…” One of the reasons for this approach to history is a generation of educators who taught history as though it was an academic subject to be memorized rather than a compelling story that invited us to step in, walk around and locate ourselves in an unfolding human drama. Perhaps the worst effect of this “memorizing” approach to history is that it made history seem as though it was inevitable, that it had to happen the way it did. In effect, this approach devalued the lives of the people who lived it. It made people appear as though they were only an after-thought when compared to the events themselves.

What if we approached history as though it were a window on the human condition rather than an inevitable, unavoidable, or unpreventable recounting of past events associated with countless dates and dead people? What if we stopped thinking of history as something that had to happen the way it did and take seriously the fact that history is actually a never ending story about people living their lives, facing the limitations, opportunities and challenges of their moment in time while making countless choices that often resulted in future outcomes they could neither predict nor control? What difference would it make for us if we studied history in this way?

Would we take our own moment in time more seriously if we realized that just like others who lived before us, we will get sixty seconds in every minute, sixty minutes in every hour and twenty-four hours in every day, no more and no less. History is a story about our common humanness that tells us that our life is not inevitable. And because our life is not inevitable, history reminds us that we have the terrible but wonderful responsiblity to live it. You see, what you and I do with our lives really matters.

Being Honest

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

“What was it possible for the people of a particular time to have believed?”

Not everyone loves history. For many people, studying history is boring, not to mention a colosal waste of time. But folks don’t hesitate employing history to make a point, support an idea, push an agenda, galvanize support for a cause, defend an action or sell others on the merits of implementing their plans. If we are not careful, history can become just another casualty in our urgent need to fix, manage, or control current events. Because history is primarily staffed by the deceased, we feel little compulsion to treat the past with courtesy or respect. The pressing utilitarian demands of the moment often far outweigh the need to be accurate, thorough, and, most of all, honest. Religious and political leaders are often the worst offenders when they misappropriate history in an effort to rally others around their cause.

So what? Before we decide to use history to make a point, let’s ask this simple question, “what was it possible for the people of a particular time to have believed?” Not what I really need them to believe in order to make my point. Not what they should have believed in order to support my point. Not what I would have believed if I had been them. Be honest. Was it possible for them to believe these ideas, support this cause, be motivated by this sentiment, be driven by this need, oppose this plan or join this movement? If the answer is no, respect demands that we not abuse them by forcing them to be unwilling accomplices. Being honest in our use of history may not help us get what we want when we want it, but it could force us to exercise more wisdom, discernment, and creativity. It may demand that we slow down and admit that we have not thought deeply enough, talked long enough or prayed persistently enough. History cannot save us from the persistent pressures that leadership will exert on our character, but it can cause us to stop, reflect and remember that being honest has never been an utilitarian exercise in any century.

My Mantra

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

It was unintended of course but a number of my former students as well as many of my new friends have zeroed in on my use of the phrase, “most of history is the history of the unintended.” This phrase has become, unintentionally, my unofficial motto or mantra if you will. What is intentional is my desire to present history as real life as opposed to some carefully calculated, orchestrated, rehearsed and implemented strategic plan. We often study history in a carefully calculated and orchestrated manner but just because we study history that way should not imply that it happened that way. If you want a pretty good clue as to how things actually happened for people in the past, take a moment to reflect on how your own life has unfolded and is unfolding now. If your life seems to be more a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (to quote Winston Churchill), you have captured the essence of life as people have always experienced it and, in that sense, the study of history can truly become an exercise in self discovery.