Time, Faith and Deathless Legacies
Our days on earth are like grass;
like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone—
as though we had never been here.
I think about time and legacies a lot lately.
St. Andrews has a way of marking the passage of time. Lately the sun goes down at around 4:00 PM, heralding the shift towards winter. All the leaves on my favourite tree in the cathedral ground have fallen, its naked twigs stretch towards heaven waiting to be clothed by spring. The great ruined cathedral itself stands as a relic of ancient life haunting our frantic modernity.
And then there are the more practical reminders of time. I have one year here in Scotland. One month before I fly home for Christmas. I’ve got a paper due in exactly one week. Eek.
I’m constantly reminded of how quickly time is passing. It fills me with a sort of vague urgency. To live well? To make the most of my time? To enjoy every sea side walk?
As I walk by the crumbling cathedral, I wonder what my short days in St. Andrews will make of me, and what I’ll make of them.
And I think about my short days on earth.
And I wonder how in the world to live them well.
Last week felt like it would last forever.
I wonder how the next four years will feel.
I wonder what they will make of my country, and what my country will make of them.
I wonder how in the world to live them well.
A comforting thing about witnessing this year’s election cycle in St. Andrews is that it reminds me of the fleetingness of time. Being so constantly reminded of the on and on-ness of history is both comforting and alarming; our little lives on this earth are but blips on the radar… and yet, the enormous impact of one generation can hardly be calculated. I am reminded of the great paradoxical truths: our lives are fleeting, but our lives mean something.
I think legacies are baptised by death.
I mean by this that the true legacy of a person, a generation, or a nation is revealed when its time has passed. What remains of a legacy when the legacy maker no longer remains? I think of Martin Luther King Junior, whose life was cut short, but whose legacy lives on far beyond death because his vision reached beyond the immediate confines of his years on this planet. He made decisions according to his convictions that ultimately cost him his life, because he had a dream that was worth more than immediate comfort.
I think that to live well, to live wisely, and to live righteously is to live with a vision aware of and beyond your own mortality.
This means to make ethical decisions though it may seem to destroy your chances at an easy or pleasant life in the present, because a future made by unethical decisions is worse than a current discomfort. It means to live with a wild hope, investing your life, work, and words in a vision you may not see come to fruition in your lifetime.
Wendell Berry put it well:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
(Manifesto: The Mad Farmer's Liberation Front).
A good legacy is a prophetic legacy: one that looks to the future.
All decisions are eschatological. All ways of living declare what they believe to be true about the future: if your goal is only to survive as long as possible you will not live a life of courageous courage like Martin Luther King Junior. If you believe there is something beyond your life, whether that is future generations or the life of the world to come, you will live differently.
I think our greatest mistakes are when we live short sightedly: when we sacrifice what we know is good, for what is presently expedient, comforting, pleasant, or safe. I certainly know this to be true in my own life. The decisions I most regret are ones I made out of short sightedness for the future; out of fear for survival, of boredom with the present, of impatience with pain.
The writer of Hebrews believed the life well lived was one lived in faith. A person who lives by faith is one who dedicates their life to what is true and good though the consequences may not be seen in their life time; they live in the faith that their faithfulness matters. Hebrews 11 paints a vivid picture of all the women and men in the Old Testament who lived with a vision beyond their own lives…
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
In the chapel of St. Salvators here in St Andrews, there is a strange and ominous piece of architecture. Surrounded by an otherwise light and lovely medieval chapel, there stands in the north east corner what can only be construed to be a 20 foot statue of a ruined city. Curious about this statue, one of my classmates researched it. Apparently, it was meant to be the burial place of one of the old church leaders. Years before his death, he set out to make the most glorious grave possible, so that after his death, people would always look upon it and remember what a great man he was. He paid an inordinate amount of money for its construction (upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars in present day currency). It was intricate, covered tiny figurines, guided in gold and gem stones.
And now, it is an eerie grey monument to a man no one remembers.
Time can be cruel.
As I looked at it yesterday, I was reminded of Jesus’ words:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21).
I don't anything about the man for which this monumented is raised other than that he wanted to be remembered. Now the monument stands as a mighty, ironic visual representation of Jesus' words. In its decrepit, crumbling silence it reminds me that wealth, security, and fame will never leave a deathless legacy. Such treasures betray their seekers. The monument warns and challenges me.
These are strange and difficult times we live in. But I am thankful for St. Andrews making me attentive to time. When I am discouraged, I look to the old cathedral whose weathered stones have seen a thousand seasons come and go. They see will see these next four, eight, and one hundred years come and go. They remind me that legacies are baptised by death, they renew my conviction to live for a vision beyond my own life, to see my main crop as the harvest I don't gather. They ask me daily: what do you treasure?
Oh, Lord. Teach me to number my days that I may present to you a heart of wisdom.