I have a big birthday coming up later this year. You know, the kind that ends in a zero. As a result, I’ve been feeling more mortal than usual—aware that my life is passing by, and I won’t be here forever. Milestone birthdays make me introspective.

An elderly family member passed away a few weeks ago. Between the memorial service and the burial, the obituary and the discussion among relatives and friends, we’ve all had plenty of chances to reflect on and discuss the life and character of the deceased person. A few of his acquaintances had some nice things to say—mostly about how intelligent and articulate he was, and how remarkable his life story was.

He was very intelligent, with degrees from several prestigious universities. The story of his early life was remarkable—he was a survivor of the Holocaust, barely escaping Germany in his late teens.

Sadly, those who knew him best could not be so kind. Advanced degrees and boyhood experiences don’t really matter in the long run. In fact, a lot of what we pursue has no lasting value. God won’t care how many birds are on my life list when I die. He won’t care if my living room furniture matched, or which car I drove. And while my kids might have an opinion, I doubt if God cares how much money I leave behind.

In contemplating what I could write about this person’s legacy, two aphorisms gave me pause. One, “don’t speak ill of the dead,” seems to be based more on superstition than anything Biblical or even helpful. After all, the Bible is filled with stories that primarily serve as warnings. The other is spoken by Thumper in the movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” I think that’s very good advice.

With all that in mind, consider what really does matter. How many of us would like to attend our own memorial service? Would we be happy about what people were saying? How do we want others, especially our family and closest friends, to remember us? Or do we want our life to serve as a warning? As my husband remarked with a sigh, “I guess now I know how not to be.”

I’m not going to go into detail about this person’s failings, which were many. His children are trying hard to recall good times, some evidence of his love for them, and they’ve come up with a few. Those are the stories they want to remember. And yes, there are lots of things they have determined to do differently, and they are succeeding.

I want my children to look to me as an example to emulate.

I want my friends and family to have so many good memories of our times together that they’re up all night laughing, “Oh, and remember when we…?”

Of course, the only person we really need to please is God. But what does God want from us?

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

Or, to quote Micah,

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

If we do justice and love kindness, if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we don’t need to be concerned how people will remember us. We don’t need to be a powerful politician or a brilliant inventor. Our best legacy is what we build into people.


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