Faces on Faith: What is your legacy?
I once received an e-mail from a not-for-profit organization I have done business with in the past. The subject line posed a question, which was repeated in the body of the e-mail itself. “What legacy will you leave?” it asked. What legacy will you leave? As you might imagine, the organization had a suggestion as to how I might answer the question. It focused on a new project it is undertaking, which is in need of funding. If I were to help fund the project, it said, I would indeed be leaving a legacy. In the words of the e-mail, I would be “passing on a rich heritage.” Bottom line: It was looking for a donation.
Still and all, this business about leaving a legacy is not to be ignored. I did not make a large donation to the organization behind the e-mail. But the e-mail did highlight an important developmental task, especially in one’s later years. What is it we will leave behind? What will be our legacies?
When you reach a certain age, you begin to ask yourself such questions. What can I leave behind that will help people remember me? What can I pass on that will preserve my memory? If I give a certain amount of money to my alma mater and it names a new building in my honor, students will think of me every time they go to class and see my name emblazoned across the entrance. If I donate a large enough sum to my church, my synagogue, my mosque, it’ll put up a plaque and folks will offer up prayers of gratitude every time they sit in the pew I endowed. Now don’t misunderstand, I am not naive. I’ve been heavily involved in fundraising efforts for decades. Not just for the churches I’ve served, but also many community organizations. And I am well aware of the fact that it often involves appealing to the egos of potential donors. And in many ways, that’s OK. It’s just part of doing business.
Interestingly, though, Webster offers two definitions of the term legacy — neither of which have to do with preserving one’s name. The first deals with material things. “Legacy, a gift by will especially of money or other personal property, [a] bequest.” The second definition is more wide-ranging: “Legacy, something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor from the past.” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition) While it is true that such legacies may indeed result in a person’s name or even details about his or her life, being remembered long after they are gone, legacies are primarily about passing along something of value to others.
Which brings us once again to that question I was asked in that e-mail: “What legacy will you leave?” What will you pass along to those who follow? Gifts of money and property may indeed make a real difference in the lives of many, such gifts are important. But beyond that, what wisdom, what principles, what example will you leave for others?
If you are young, remember, it’s never too early to consider such questions. And for those who are older, it is not yet too late. But whatever your age, don’t put it off.
The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.