I had the pleasure of working with parishioner and Episcopal Priest, Ernie Ashcroft, for several years when he was Chair of St. John’s Stewardship Committee. Not only is Ernie a fellow Brit but a warm and wise soul. When Ernie’s wife, Bette, told me they had been talking a lot recently about mortality and legacy, I knew Ernie would have some wisdom to share with us.
For over 15 years, my wife Bette and I have been members of a Book Club. We meet together monthly. The group is made up of five couples. We come from different backgrounds and had different educational experiences. I have learned such a lot from our discussions since I had a very narrow scientific education, with no exposure to arts or literature after being 15!
During the last month, two members of this Book Club have died. One very suddenly, the other after a long illness. These are but two of the most recent deaths of a number of my friends. These events, together with my own advanced age, motivated me to reflect on our human mortality. To do so necessitated my swimming against the powerful tide of our culture, which strongly encourages distraction and denial by, for example, encouraging us to focus on acquiring material things rather than reflecting seriously about our mortality.
I love to cook and marketers know this about me so I get lots of appealing emails inviting me to buy a wonderful new set of cooking knives, an amazing all new set of pans, or the latest coffee making machine. Yes, these can inflame my desire, but then I ask myself “what is wrong with your present knives, pans or coffee maker that they need to be replaced?” Yes, my present items could be recycled or reused, but why not be happy with what I have?
To state the obvious, we all will die and often the timing of this will come as a surprise to us. As I reflect on my own mortality, I do not have any fear about death itself and its aftermath. I am confident in Jesus’ promise of Resurrection life for us beyond the grave. The apprehensions I have are in relation to the lead up to death. Will I struggle with a horrible cancer or dementia? Will I find myself trapped in my body, following a huge stroke? I cannot know what my future here and now holds, but in the light of looming mortality it seems prudent to me to give thought to my priorities, choices and actions now.
This opens up a broad array of issues for me, but in this piece, I simply want to focus on its impact on my use of money and possessions. It is a truism that “we cannot take it with us”, or to quote the Biblical text “we brought nothing into this world, (and) we can take nothing out of it”. Expending my total effort and energy on leaving a pile of money behind when I “shed this mortal coil” seems shortsighted and selfish.
I have explained to my kids that my choosing to provide them and their kids with satisfying, shared experiences, memories and times together will certainly impact what they can expect to inherit, but in my view, this is more valuable and lasting. Last summer we took all our kids and grandchildren to Madeleine Island (not a cheap proposition) but to witness the sheer joy on the faces of the grandchildren as they experienced being on a sail boat, playing together and of course eating (many) ice cream cones said this is worth it. They will remember this trip long after I am gone.
After Christmas we took the whole family mob to Lutsen and our Christmas present to the grandchildren was ski lessons. One of our grandchildren is on the autistic spectrum and initially he said that he just could not go down even the bunny hill. He watched others doing so for a long while before very tentatively taking the tow up to the top of the bunny hill. Then he considered things for another while before deciding that he could try to ski down the little hill. His joy and sense of accomplishment when he got the the bottom lit up his face. One of his cousins who is 7 was tasked by his teacher to write what he most enjoyed over the Christmas holidays. He wrote six pages about his ski trip!
It is completely legitimate of course to make provision for my family, but is that all I need to be doing with my resources? My grown children are well launched into adult life with good jobs and careers. My grandchildren are well cared for physically, financially, and emotionally. There are four organizations that my wife and I plan to leave resources to after our deaths. We choose these because we have had special relationships with each. And yes, St John’s is one of them.
We at St John’s have a very fine church building with attractive church furnishings– altar, organ, stained glass windows etc. We enjoy these in large measure because of the generosity and sacrifice of the folks who came before us. We have inherited this wonderful physical plant as a legacy. What legacy will we leave behind for those who will follow after us?
For me, it is vital that in the future the church fabric continue to be well maintained and strategic physical improvements be made to it. But equally important is that resources be available to minister not only to our church members but also to those in the wider community often lacking the basic necessities of food, housing, employment, and justice. All these tasks will require significant financial resources. I have the opportunity not only to support the current needs of the church, but also to provide for the future ministry of St John’s. If I leave less for my kids, they will not suffer deprivation and this will free up resources to invest in St John’s future.
I encourage you to join me in facing our mortality and discerning your legacy.
Thank you Ernie for courageously thinking beyond yourself, and even your family, and for sharing your insights with us. I would love to hear from others who have been contemplating their end of life plans and legacy. Please let me know if you are willing to write a post, offer resources, submit an article, or do an interview-you never know who needs to hear your story. -Sarah Dull, Executive Administrator