Monday, October 24, 2011

Sermon - "Leaving a Legacy"

As we all know by now, we are in the middle of the 2012 pledge campaign. Part of that effort is legacy giving. That’s planning to give a portion of your estate to the Fellowship after death. It has been a vital piece of our income, and we hope it will continue in the future. If you want to learn more about the possibilities, please talk with Barbara and Tom. In conjunction with the UUA, they can support a pretty wide variety of types of planned giving.

But leaving a legacy isn’t just about leaving money. In fact it’s not primarily about giving money. I think of it sort of like parenting, and more generally caring for the people that you love. One big piece of that role is providing material resources, a home and food. The basic necessities make life possible, and a range of other material resources can make life easier or open wider opportunities. In the end, those things are about providing financially. But we also offer other gifts in caring for children or loved ones. Arguably, we offer much more important gifts of guidance, love, support, patience, discipline. We offer our outlook on the world, our sense of right and wrong. Implicitly we offer our ideas about God and religion.

So leaving legacy is sort of like caring for our loved ones. There are a few different ways that we provide support. Some support is financial, and some is emotional. The financial piece you can talk about with your accountant or with Tom, our VP for fiannce. The more emotional piece is what I want to talk about today.

Whether we understand it as a financial gift, as a spiritual presence, or as an ethical / emotional legacy, there will be a continued presence after each of our deaths. We talk about it in many different terms, but something continues on.

While I have been with many other grieving families, I have been fortunate to have not lost many people close to me. My primary personal experience of death has been that of my grandparents, most recently the death of my grandmother. Time finally snuck up on this wonderful firecracker of a southern belle. After some sever medical complications she struggled and slowly declined over a couple of years.

I went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home where she was staying. We had a nice visit. Her attention span varied from day to day, but I remember her being clear this particular day. We had lunch with her friends and chatted a bit. Eventually it was time for me to go. I was leaving to go back to Colorado and then out of the country for several weeks. I knew very well that this might be our last time to spend together. “I’ll see you soon.” I said, kissed her cheek, and walked out the door.

Before reaching the end of the hallway a sinking feeling settled into my gut. Why had I allowed myself such a causal parting? Why didn’t I have the courage to end our conversation with goodbye? “I’ll see you soon,” I said. It felt like a complete cop out, a total denial in the face of death. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to let her go.

I’m not sure when this came together and made sense to me. It probably came to me the driving the car or brushing my teeth one morning. I have a sort of contrived fantasy of an epiphany as I stepped out of the nursing home and into the sunlight but I know that isn’t the case. Regardless of the time or place, I finally came to see that my last words to my grandmother were not an empty lie. I knew that I would indeed see her again soon. That I would see her in the smile of my mother, in the wonderfully irreverent family gathering at Thanksgiving, and most of all in myself.

No, I don’t have dreams about conversing with my grandmother in white robes sitting on fluffy clouds. For many people images of heaven or other notions of an afterlife provide comfort and meaning in the face of loss. They are each valid and real responses. But I find comfort knowing that she lives in me. She lives on in the fascinating and wonderful world that she helped create.

And that was her final gift to me. She gave me a clearer understanding of my place in the world and my relationship with God. Thousands of pages of theology texts and countless hours of class time and discussion could not give me the reassurance that my grandmother finally imparted. I will see you soon. I will see you forever.

My grandmother didn’t have any money to leave behind. But the legacy that she left me was invaluable, both in her life, as she helped raise and mold me, and in her death, she lives on as a symbol of unconditional love. That’s the sort of legacy that I want us to think about today. Both the legacies that we have been blessed to inherit, and the legacies that we will leave when we are gone.

If you are a reader of our newsletter, the Sealight, you may remember that I wrote about an effort that I am calling The Legacy Project. What I hope to do is to interview some of our members, to collect their stories and a bit about what their life has been about. Now this isn’t the sort of who, what, where, when interview that you may be familiar with. Yes, I’m looking for stories, but only because those stories, the ones that stick out in memory, are an example. They are an example of what is important in your life. I’ll also be asking participants about what has been most important to them over the years, and what they hope for the future of our world. Then after the interview, everything will be put down in writing and I’ll check back to make sure it is accurate and it is the message you want to share. It will be printed and bound so you can share it with whomever you want. The goal is to encapsulate to the extent possible, the yearnings and learnings of a person’s life. We want to capture those stories and thoughts for two different reasons.

First of all, it is an incredible legacy gift. This legacy isn’t about money or material things. This legacy is about documenting the hard-earned lessons, the years of joy and heartache, to pass on to another generation. It’s a gift of heart and mind, to feed the future.

The second, and no less important goal of the legacy project is that it gives the interviewee an opportunity to do some discernment, and finally get something down on paper. How many of us have half written journals at home, or the book we never wrote, or the letters to loved ones that have never been written? I’m betting lots. The idea of recording these stories and thoughts on paper is to offer some assurance that what is in your heart has been recorded. And what you most want to share with your loved ones will be there even when you are gone. It’s a chance to be sure that your memory will live on the way you want it to.

Believe me, as someone what has sat with plenty of families already in my short time of ministry, recording your thoughts on paper is one of the most meaningful gifts anyone can give to their family. It can happen with something like I am trying to do with the Legacy Project, or it can happen in a much more specific way, in something like a living will. But, I have seen way to many families wringing their hands with uncertainty after a loved one dies. Putting your legacy in writing guarantees the message you want, will get across to the people you care about. It’s that simple.

Putting down on paper the legacy that you want to leave is important, but thinking about death and your legacy isn’t something only to be done in Autumn years. Awareness of our own mortality certainly grows with time, but it comes to light throughout our lives. Just last week I heard from a young mother who was shaken to the core by the death of a peer, another mother with young children. As the reality of the fragility of life set in, she was deeply concerned for her own young children. “What if something happened to me,” she wondered? “What would that mean for my kids?” The reality of our own mortality sinks in at different times and in different ways. It can be deeply unsettling. It can strike fear into the core of our hearts when we know there is so much that remains undone. So many people to be loved more, so many goals to be achieved, so many fascinating things to be learned. Recognizing our mortality can be a very scary thing.

But it can also be an amazing piece of motivation. Not too long ago our world changed when one of the century’s most influential innovators died. I count myself among the many, many people who knew little about Steve Jobs before he died. But as many have learned, his creativity and relentless challenge to improve, were responsible for much of electronics as we know them today. He was an amazing man. And according to Steve Jobs himself, part of his unrelenting nature came from an early grappling with his own mortality.

At the 2005 commencement speech and Stanford University, Steve Jobs said, “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

I love that immediate grasp of perspective. If this were the last day of your life, is this what you want to be doing? The answer may be no, for a day or two. We have all been there. But if the answer is no for too many days in a row, it is time to change something. Thinking about the legacy that we will leave in the world isn’t just about writing a will when we are 80 years old. Thinking about the mark that we hope to leave on the world is a question for everyone, every day of our lives. Because frankly, there’s no telling which one will be our last.

For Steve Jobs, the last day of his life came long before anyone thought was fair. It’s jarring when people die young. It’s really jarring, because it reminds us of our own mortality. But the funny thing about death is that it’s the one thing that is certain. You know the old adage, the only thing that’s for sure is death and taxes.

In the average life there are so many twists and turns, so many unexpected little, and not so little shifts that we never expect. It would be impossible to plan for them all… but we try. We keep a tidy calendar and have disaster kits. We plan for college, and careers and retirement. We do our best to anticipate and plan for what comes next. Yet the one thing that is certain to happen TO ALL OF US, is something we rarely talk about.

Obviously, I don’t mean this sermon to be a big dooms day message. “The End Is Near” or anything like that. I’m not saying we are all doomed so we might as well accept our mortality and let go. NO. Quite the opposite. This is about taking an honest look at our lives, taking account, to see if they add up the way we hope. Because if they don’t, if there’s something that needs to change, then today is the day to do it.


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