A few years after Linda and I were married, we rented a cabin way up in the Wisconsin north woods at Eagle River.
One night, the guests at the resort were invited for dessert by the caretakers, a sweet elderly couple. Before we sat down to eat, I happened to see an old photo album of theirs lying on an end table. I did a double-take when I saw a grainy black-and-white photograph of someone who looked familiar. He looked like my grandfather.
Not that I could say with any certainty what my grandfather looked like. He had had died when my mother was an adolescent. I had seen only a few pictures of him. I figured that it was just an odd coincidence that the man in the photograph reminded me of my grandfather.
When I showed our hostess the photograph, she identified the man as A.B. Anderson.
“Huh,” I said. “That is my grandfather.”The woman’s eyes grew huge, and she squealed.
“You’re A.B. Anderson’s grandson?” she gasped. She struggled for a bit to gain coherence and finally said, “When that man preached, it was like angels coming down from heaven.”
For the rest of the evening, she kept staring at me in wonder and repeated over and over, “I can’t believe you’re A.B. Anderson’s grandson. I can’t believe you’re A.B. Anderson’s grandson.”
Up to that point, all I knew about my grandfather was that he was a pastor of some influence who preached much of his career from a wheelchair and died of pernicious anemia at an early age.
Ever since then, I have been aware that a piece of my grandfather, whom I never heard preach and never even met, is with me. When stepping into a pulpit, this awareness is sometimes intimidating, sometimes reassuring. There are weeks when I am really stumped over a Scripture reading. Sunday is fast approaching and I still have nothing to share. I think about this grandfather I never met and I say, “You know, genetically, you didn’t leave me any mechanical or handyman ability, not much social skill or athleticism, and precious little in the way of common sense. You who could make people see angels when you preached, could you give me a little help here? Did you leave enough of yourself behind to help me do this?”
Sometimes I am certain that he has.
Legacies get passed down through places we don’t realize, through means we may never be aware of. They are not all genetic. There are spiritual legacies that shape and live with us without us ever realizing it. Our legacies will do the same. A piece of ourselves will get passed on to people we will never meet in ways we cannot foresee. Sharing that piece is one of the gifts the Holy Spirit; that’s how the Spirit passes along the faith.
It doesn’t pay to think too much about one’s legacy as a preacher, to think about one’s influence on future generations. Way too much pride and self-centeredness there. It is perhaps enough to know that we who step into a pulpit carry pieces of those who went before us, and will leave pieces of ourselves to those who follow. That is a comfort because it assures us that our proclamation is not just an individual effort that may or may not make a difference to anyone. It is part of something ongoing, something far greater than ourselves.
I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:23, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”
We are part of the Spirit’s relay team, receiving the baton and then passing it off. The pulpit is the exchange zone, or at least one of the exchange zones.
We are all part of the legacy of the proclamation of the Gospel. The fun thing about legacy is that we don’t always know exactly from whom we received the baton, nor to whom we are passing it. We don’t know whose fingerprints are on that baton, nor who will be carrying a baton with our prints on it.
It is all part of the mystery and the joy of sharing the piece.