It’s been a bad couple of years for musicians dying. Last year we lost George Michael, Leonard Cohen, and Prince, among others. This week, Gregg Allman died. Last week it was Chris Cornell, who hit me the hardest of all. I’m at the tail end of Gen X, a generation who has lost most of our musical icons to overdose and suicide, but I kind of thought we had hit the middle zone where the rest might make it to more natural causes. And anyway, we all thought Cornell had cleaned up long ago. He was 52, with a family and a seemingly stable life. Rich Larson published an article about Cornell that explored the connection between the grunge rock that was the soundtrack to my adolescence, and the early and tragic deaths of so many of its reluctant stars. “Along with grunge,” he says, “Gen X’s great gift to the world is depression.”
Oddly enough, he means something positive by that – that Gen X was not the first generation to suffer from depression, but the first to talk about it openly, to destigmatize it, to sing about it. If we didn’t have the words for our existential crises, Soundgarden did, or Nirvana, or Hole. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this legacy of the musicians of my generation, the brilliance and emotional depth of their music, and the tragedy of their lives and the ways they ended. Generation Xers are left with a choice of legacies to live into.
At some point in my younger years, I longed for a legacy of artistic brilliance. Having watched the cost, I think I’ve decided to settle for a quieter legacy, with less notoriety.
So, what are you doing for Memorial Day weekend? Lots of people have an extra day off and are taking advantage of it by traveling. I’m leaving this afternoon to visit friends in Kansas City. Memorial Day is a strange holiday, not because of the concept behind it, but because of how we celebrate it. It’s a day set aside to remember those who died while serving in the military, and yet most of us will spend the day at picnics and barbeques or hanging out on the beach. It occurred to me earlier this week that because one of my friends is married to a man in the Army, I will actually be spending Memorial Day on a military base. I wondered if being on an active base might put a different tone on the day, but it seems that we’re going to a barbeque with a bunch of visiting British military guys, so apparently not.
When I was young, my family did have picnics for Memorial Day, but we also went to the cemetery each year to put flowers on my grandfathers’ and great-grandfather’s graves. None of them had died in combat, and it took me years to realize that Memorial Day wasn’t just about recognizing people who had died, or those who had served in the military during wartime, which all of them had. I suppose it’s hard to put flowers on graves in Minnesota in November. So we used Memorial Day to remember them and their service, not just their military service, but the legacy they left with my family.
Both of my grandfathers died within a couple of weeks of each other when I was six years old – old enough to remember them but not to really know them. And yet the legacies they passed through my parents are a huge part of who I am. Both of them died unexpectedly and fairly young. Sometimes I wonder what else they might have done or said if they had known they would be gone so soon. What would any of us do or say if we knew we were leaving?
Sometimes I’m amazed by the brevity of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The time between when he started actively doing public ministry and his death, resurrection, and ascension was only three years. What can one really accomplish in three years? I was in my first congregation for roughly that amount of time, and it was just about enough time to realize how much I had screwed up for the first two years. I guess we assume that Jesus did not have the same problems as shiny new ministers and got to maximize his three years. And yet, it was still only three years. One might also assume that God could have chosen some other length of time, so three years was not arbitrary. Jesus wasn’t just making do with what he had. He was being intentional about when he left, and how he left. So many of the people who leave us don’t get the chance to do or say those last things, to leave exactly the legacy they would want. But Jesus, it seems, did.
This is truly a mystery, because if you read the gospels, these disciples are a bunch of very clueless dudes most of the time. And when Jesus ascends, they’re left standing around, gaping at the sky, trying to figure out what to do next. Jesus leaves them while they’re still fairly bewildered from the whole death and resurrection thing, with the final instructions to be witnesses. This strikes me as a peculiar turn, since for three years he’s basically been trying to keep a lid on it. He’s told them to do all kinds of things, but recounting his life to others hasn’t been one of them. But that’s the last bit of the legacy that Jesus leaves: “Tell the world what you have seen and heard.”
And they did, after they got done staring at the sky for a while. People like us who gather in churches around the world week after week are the result of their witness, and the legacy they passed on to two millennia of our predecessors, the things they have said and done to carry on Jesus’ teachings and example.
It must have taken remarkable intentionality on Jesus’ part to prepare this group of ragtag disciples in three years to start a movement that would last 2000 years. It’s a huge risk, leaving his legacy to them and trusting them to carry it forward. I know I’m supposed to believe that Jesus was omniscient, but I do wonder, did he know they would make it work? Even at the end, in this passage that we read today, he is praying for them, for the ones who are about to be left behind, that they will be able to carry on without him.
It’s one of the great miracles of faith, I think, that they did eventually stop gaping at the sky, and got on with it. They became the proof that God had not left the world, but was still living and active in them. They were the legacy that Jesus left behind. And we are, too.
The ascension is an invitation for us to consider the ways that we carry out the legacy of Jesus. How do our words and actions witness to what we have experienced of God? How do we carry the legacy of love and service to a world that is so often gaping at the sky, looking for God?
While we often have admiration for people who left a legacy of brilliance in one way or another, I suspect more of us will have a less notorious witness, one of a steady lifetime of words of love and acts of service that help others experience the grace of the God that we know.
You see, we also leave a legacy behind us. And although we may not know when or how we will make our exit, we too can be intentional about what we leave behind. What will our legacy be? When those who follow us witness to our lives, what will they report? It’s clear that Jesus was intentionally preparing the people he loved to continue on after he was no longer with them, so that he was leaving the world a better place than he found it. And we, too, have the potential to live our lives intentionally, leaving the world a better place than we found it.
One of the interesting things about Memorial day that often gets forgotten, even when we recognize those who died in war, is the reason they fought in the first place. I’m mostly a pacifist anyway, so perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t think anyone goes to war hoping that they’re preparing the way for others to also go to war. All the soldiers I know say they fight so that others don’t have to. Some of us might disagree with whether war can ever bring about peace, but the motivation of most ordinary people who go to war is to end it – to provide peace for others, even at the cost of their own lives. We choose the legacy that we remember this weekend: the glory of war and those who fight it, or the desire for a world without war.
And we choose the legacy that we live out, and the legacy that we leave. What will your legacy be?