In our more sober and sobering moments, those personal and silent, we are bound to consider this: what will our children, in fact, any who come after us—children, grandchildren, others who became part of lives, those within our spheres of influence—remember about us when we “leave the surly bonds of Earth” and are gone?
What will they say was important to us? Has it become important to them? What have they learned from us? What would they say they learned about God, about life, about His plan for life, from the way we lived, from who we were and from what we did? About how to care for a spouse, or children, or strangers and those different from us? About responsibility, character, loyalty? How will they remember us? And if they do, what will be remembered? In other words, what will be the story of our lives?
Of course, we might wonder if we would be missed, and if missed, why and for what? It seems that looking into the future this way requires us to look into the past. A biblical reference can be helpful here—Isaiah 51 to be precise.
Here, God is speaking to His people through the prophet Isaiah. The people are discouraged, practically without hope. Nothing has gone right. Has God kept His promises? Let me suggest that this is a concern only to those who take God seriously. Hope deferred can be a hard trial.
Judgment had come to the people of God. They were in exile, being punished for their disobedience. God has even admitted to having abandoned His people, albeit briefly (cf. Isaiah 54:7). As an antidote, to provide comfort and consolation, the Lord advised His people to remember who they are, from where and what they have come: “Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged” (Isaiah 51:2 RSV). Or, as The Message presents it: “Listen to me, all you who are serious about right living and committed to seeking God. Ponder the rock from which you were cut.” It is as though God is saying, “Remember yesterday, as you prepare for tomorrow.” The lessons of the past can be instructive for what is to come.
When we cease our reflecting and realism takes over, we may even wonder if memory matters at all. Memories are not entirely in our control. For one reason or another, we may lose them. However, without memories, we could scarcely be moral creatures, because we would have little on which to base or make moral decisions. But, because we do have memories, we have an obligation to consider them and cannot avoid responsibility for what our memories may bring to mind. Elie Wiesel, the well-known survivor of the Holocaust, remarked that if we stop remembering, we stop being. That is perhaps one thing that we dread, especially as we age—that in our personal lives, we will lose our memories. We dread memory loss; it means an enfeebled and weakened life. We fear that situation for ourselves and pity the condition in others. We will lose who we are, because who we are is not just shaped by what happens today, but what happens over all of our days.
And leaving a legacy has to do with memory, i.e., what will be remembered—about us, about what was important to us, about what we did and who we were. A legacy is a way we make promises to the future, as others remember the past and act on what they have learned and remember. What we have learned from those before us contributes to who and what we are today.
Memories, legacies, help us to recognize that we do not have a corner on wisdom or experience. In fact, no age has such a corner. No generation does. That is why we have a high and healthy regard for history, and a high and healthy regard for the future as well. We do not worship the past, but neither are we iconoclasts, destroying everything that is older than we are. So, when we remember, what do we see? Which of our memories must be committed to those who follow?
“Look at your origin,” Isaiah says, “Look at what you were, look at from what you have come from.” Recognizing the work of God yesterday can only result in hope for tomorrow. This is a hopeful, hope-filled God.
We are talking about the lessons of the past. What have we learned from them? The lessons of the past only have meaning as we remember them. So, what have we remembered? What have we learned from the legacy delivered to us?
We look to the past to consider from where we have come and to consider who has produced us, who has influenced us, who has helped us, who has encouraged us, who has guided us, who has reminded us we could be better than we were—that we were better than to be doing some of the things we had done, better than to be saying some of the things we said.
But that was then. What about now? What will those who follow confess they learned from us? We will all leave a legacy of some kind. What kind will it be? Assuming our legacy is not something haphazard over which we have no influence or control, what direction and purposefulness can be brought to bear? We would call it forming a legacy. Just how is it formed?
Where Legacy Begins
A legacy is formed by deciding what is important to us, who depends and relies on us, who learns from us, who looks to us for the answers to life and its opportunities and its questions.
Like the Israelites of old, those whom Isaiah was addressing, we are persuaded and convinced that it all begins with God. We present and represent the things of God to those who look to us for direction, guidance, support, understanding and answers to the questions of life.
We who have found meaning for life, the meaning of life, through an intimate relationship with the God who created us all, want those whom we are teaching and mentoring to know that relationship as well. We believe that life, real and fulfilled life, only takes on meaning as it is lived in the knowledge that God is the One to Whom we are ultimately responsible and accountable.
It requires intentionality, a decision that we will live in such a way that those who come under our influence will have no doubt as to what is important to us and that what we believe is of ultimate importance and eternal significance. Sometimes that relationship, that knowledge, comes in definite and well-defined ways; at other times these words of William Booth, from “Training of Children,” describe the experience:
Question:May not children grow into salvation without knowing the exact moment of conversion?Answer:Yes, it may be so; and in the future we trust this will be the usual way in which children will be brought into the Kingdom. When the parents are godly, and the children are surrounded by holy influences and examples from their birth, they will doubtless come to know and love and trust their Saviour in the ordinary course of things. The Holy Spirit will take possession of them from the first. Mothers and fathers will, as it were, put them into the Saviour’s arms in their swaddling clothes, and He will take them, and bless them, and sanctify them from the very womb, and make them His own, without their knowing the hour or the place when they pass from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of Light.
Whichever way God allows it to happen for us and for those who follow us, our affirmation will be, as it was for Isaiah: ” …Joy and gladness will be found… Thanksgiving and the voice of a song” (51.3 RSV). All the while, the legacy we leave will find favor and fruit in the lives of those we will lead and those who will follow. In other words, it will be the story of a life.
Commissioner William Roberts’ last appointments as an active Salvation Army officer were as USA National Commander and as Chief of the Staff at International Headquarters in London. He and his wife, Commissioner Nancy Roberts, live in Farmington Hills, MI.