Spirit Alive: Looking into the Soul of America


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.

July 24, 2018

Food for the Soul:

Finding Our Better Angels in Difficult Times

"History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."

James Baldwin

This past spring, Susan and I attended several marvelous lectures put on by the Oregon Historical Society in their Mark Hatfield Lecture Series. This year's series included lectures by Taylor Branch, Bob Woodward, Annette Gordon-Reed...and Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, who has written about Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and George Herbert Walker Bush. Meacham is a remarkable historian and writer...and a delightful speaker.

His lecture was outstanding and insightful as he shared his thoughts on President George Herbert Walker Bush. And Meacham has just released a new book, entitled The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, which has already made it to the NY Times Best Seller list. The book is compelling and provides us with useful information to help us reclaim the American spirit in the midst of very troubling times.

Walter Isaacson, an outstanding biographer himself, says: "This is a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book. Jon Meacham explores the extremism and racism that have infected our politics, and he draws enlightening lessons from the knowledge that we've faced such trials before. We have come through times of fear. We have triumphed over our dark impulses. With compelling narratives of past eras of strife and disenchantment, Meacham offers wisdom for our own time and helps us appreciate the American soul: the heart, the core, and the essence of what it means to have faith in our nation."

I found Meacham's book to be helpful in a number of ways...

First, as he reminds us in the introduction, it is important to remember that we are in a constant journey within America, and we have not yet arrived at being the kind of people that we can or want to be. In Meacham's words, "Progress in American life...has been slow, painful, bloody, and tragic. Across too many generations, women, African Americans, immigrants, and others have been denied the full promise of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now."

In addition, Meacham reminds us that  "we cannot guarantee equal outcomes, but we must do all we can to ensure equal opportunity." Hence, our work is still before us as we do battle with forces that continue to try and deny the American promise to those who are different from us, whether this be based on race, immigration status, or gender.

Clearly, Meacham is concerned about our present moment. As he says: "I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does. A president sets a tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and of mind. Presidential action and presidential grace are often crucial in ameliorating moments of virulence and violence-- and presidential indifference and presidential obtuseness can exacerbate such hours."

But one thing that Meacham returns to again and again is his belief that we, as a people, are often able to find our own courage, and in the process discover our very souls, to overcome difficult times. He quotes Eleanor Roosevelt to make this important point: "One thing I believe profoundly: We make our own history. The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, and the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voice of the people themselves."

We are seeing some of this spirit alive and at work through the efforts of those who are saying no to the separation of immigrant children from their parents, from the high school students touring the country and speaking out against gun violence and murder in our schools, and through the courageous voices of women who are saying "enough" to sexual harassment and abuse.

Yes, we live in difficult times, but the voices of the many and the courage of the prophetic witnesses among us are not yet done with their soul-filled testimonies. For as Meacham says: "Our constitution and our politics...have endured and prevailed, vindicating the Founders' vision of a country that would require amendment and adjustment. That the nation was constructed with an awareness of sin and the means to take account of societal changes has enabled us to rise above the furies of given moments and given ages."

I pray that we are up to this important task yet again...in our own time!

Let us walk in the light of God's love,


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.





Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org