Spirit Alive: Following in the Footsteps of Giants

Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and beyond.
July 25, 2017

Food for the Soul:

Composing One's Life

"Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory."
Benjamin Disraeli
The next several postings of Spirit Alive will deal with some recommendations I have about Summer Reading. You know there's no better way to spend a hot summer day than sitting in the shade with a good book in your hands. Well...that's not exactly true, but reading a good book is a great thing to do in any case...even on a hot summer day. That said, I'd like to begin talking about reading by pointing toward a literary genre rather than to a specific book.
When I left Portland to go to college in 1972, I began a personal practice that has been a part of my life ever since-- I am almost always reading someone's biography or autobiography. This shouldn't be such a surprising activity. After all, as Christians, we engage in this practice all the time by reading about, interpreting, and attempting to live out our own lives in light of Jesus' life. As a result of this process of examination and imitation, we have come to call ourselves his disciples...or followers of The Way. No wonder, The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas a Kempis, has been one of the most widely read Christian books in history. Over the centuries, people have always wanted to take Jesus' story to heart...and in the process become more like him.
In 1972, I started this particular reading discipline when I bought a used copy of Albert Schweitzer's autobiography Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. The book was first published in 1933. It was a great, inspiring, and challenging read that made me think a lot about the world and examine my
own life in new and different ways. In Schweitzer's book, he says things such as:
"Impart as much as you can of your spiritual being to those who are on the road with you, and accept as something precious what comes back to you from them."
"In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit."
These were important, powerful spiritual insights for someone living in the 1930's. They were equally powerful insights for me to come to terms with as a reader in the 1970's. They remain helpful spiritual markers for those of us living in the 21st century as well.
But since reading Out of My Life and Thought, I've read dozens of other biographies and autobiographies about other amazing human beings and important spiritual guides-- from Abraham Lincoln to Nelson
Mandela, from Howard Thurman to Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Mohandas Gandhi, John Muir, Vincent Van Gogh, and Eleanor Roosevelt...and countless others along the way. Each life has taught me a great deal and challenged my understanding of life and what it means to be a human being. As a result, I have come to believe that it is vitally important to put yourself in proximity to greatness, so that you can understand what it looks like when you see it in someone's life. In the process, hopefully you become a more whole, complete human being.
By reading about the way others have lived their lives, I've come to believe that we are each given a unique canvas to paint upon during our lifetime. There is, of course, the canvas and the paints that we
are given to work with, but there is also our own unique landscape that we are trying to understand, interpret, and make into a work of art. This is not an easy venture, but we are each, in our own way, involved in this same fundamental task. But, as we undertake this lifelong challenge, it is helpful to look at the artwork of those who have gone before us and those who walk beside us, especially paying attention to those who are master painters.
Mary Catherine Bateson calls this entire lifelong journey "composing a life." And in her classic book, Composing a Life, she puts it this way:
"In a stable society, composing a life is somewhat like throwing a pot or building a house in a traditional form: the materials are known, the hands move skillfully in tasks familiar from thousands of performances, the fit of the completed whole in the common life is understood. Traditional styles of pottery or building are not usually rigid; they respond to chance and allow a certain scope for individual talent and innovation. But the traditional craftsperson does not face the task of solving every problem for the first time. In a society like our own, we make a sharp contrast between creativity and standardization, yet even those who work on factory production lines must craft their own lives, whether graceful and assured or stunted and askew."
Bateson goes on to say that we can no longer follow the paths of previous generations. But I believe that, while it is true that our current context is unique and challenging, we can learn a great deal from the spiritual giants who have gone before us. For in their own way, by "composing" their lives with dignity and grace, we are able to gain a glimpse into greatness...that can inform our own journeys.
I hope and pray that you'll discover the many companions who are traveling with you on the road to spiritual wholeness and healthy living. And in the process, may you have a blessed and fulfilling journey as well.
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