Historical Mentors and Mistakes

Storytelling is a family tradition for me. My Dad and his seven brothers and sisters did that at every family reunion and then as time has progressed and we have all had plenty of mileage, my brothers and our families all do the same thing. Our family history is important to us and we find a level of inspiration and joy as we remember hard times, laughter, profound triumph and spectacular failures. We compare scars (literal and emotional) and talk the nights away. One interesting thing is that we are always correcting each other for dates, times, sequence and scope. We all know that exaggeration is a storytelling tool and that memory is fallible so we tend to keep each other in check. Always well-meaning, the arguments often get heated but in the end, we laugh until our bellies hurt and we love every minute of it. Now, even the grand kids tell Grandpa and Grandma stories and nieces and nephews remember uncle/aunt stories.

As a youth minister, missionary and teacher, the use of stories and history in my work to help others learn lessons for life and ministry is crucial. The written Word of God is primarily a narrative document and (by our very nature as bound within time and space) story is how we experience our lives from beginning to end. However, it can, at times, become problematic as we look to the past for instruction for life and mission. In particular I want to mention three mistakes we should avoid.

One–Being Over-impressed. The truth is that as I recently read Morris’ three-volume study of Teddy Roosevelt, I was almost in awe of the man and his driven, manic genius. As I was talking to my Dad about it one day, he quietly said, “he also did a lot of things wrong son.” Surprised, I asked what those were and Dad gave me a viewpoint from a Western landowner that showed me that there really is no one on a pedestal. I perceive that this tendency toward hero-making is just part of the DNA of being a fallen human but it can lead to problems regarding how we do church, how we focus our goals (or don’t) or how we prepare for the mission field. Sometimes we become critical of our present context because of how amazing those people were and “why can’t we be like that today?” The reality is that those folks were broken and had mixed motives just like us. They had failures, were lazy, were ethnocentric and sometimes downright prideful. The truth is that research always shows that people have feet of clay. When heroes fall of their pedestal or we’ve seen one too many leaders fail us, we swing toward the opposite error….

Two–Being Under-impressed. When some people read history they are automatically assume that it could not be true. A historian/sociologist I enjoy reading made a statement that since it was common in New Testament culture to exaggerate numbers, that Jesus could not possibly have fed an actual 5000 people. Under the guise of “realism” this divergent pole of being awed soon looks just cynical. What is attractive about it is that it looks more “wise” or “sophisticated.” What this view does not take into account is the raw, bone-rotting fear that comes with taking your family to a new and foreign place. A friend of mine who has lived in a slum for almost 20 years told me about the nausea, hallucinations and long recovery that he had when he first contracted Dengue fever. The terror that the Bonhoeffer family experienced when Dietrich was missing must have been excruciating. It is no honor to be cynical of deep sacrifice nor does it reveal love. Both admiration and gratitude seem more appropriate here.

So, with those two opposing views, what’s the third mistake? –Twisting Veracity. When I was doing some research on Patrick of Ireland, I found a book in a library that was said to have chronicled anecdotes from his life. The story said something to the effect that “the young Patrick, happily walking in his native Ireland, came upon a milk-maid whose dun cow had died. So moved by her plight, the saintly boy began to cry and when his holy tears landed upon the dun-cow’s nose, she sprang back to life and the milk-maid was safe from her master’s wrath.” Other stories of that era said that St. Brigit hung her laundry on sunbeams to dry. I have not studied Brigit’s laundry habits but we do know that Patrick was British and not Irish. We also know he was a slave in Eire and, at least for a while, hated the Emerald Isle (no rhyming intended). In reality, there is a time where you need to search out some good sources and do your homework. But when that basic integrity is established, a healthy trust in our historians seems to be required. Complete veracity will be very, very difficult to establish but a broad understanding can illuminate and teach us a great deal if we are willing.

Dr. Ruth Tucker says that all mission history is really biography (From Jerusalem To Irian Jaya: 14) and I agree. The stories that we tell and the stories that we read remind us that we are part of that great cloud of witnesses who have tried to give their life to the Kingdom and to crossing those boundaries that keep people from knowing our great King, Jesus. As we work through learning these stories, I hope they change me and help me avoid some mistakes and choose to take some risks… after all, God is faithful and has proved it a thousand times. Perhaps one day someone will be reading our stories. I hope the are not over or under-impressed. I hope they take the time to find out some truth about us. And I hope our stories will bless them.

I think that if we avoid these three mistakes we will go far in honoring the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and will learn a great deal about how to follow Jesus toward the boundary places.


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