I engaged in an interesting, if not uncomfortable, forum this week. A group of Baptist ministers and educators, who range in age from their forties and seventies, discussed and rather candidly shared their thoughts on the question, “How do you want to be remembered?” Someone shared that Norman Wiggins, who was President of Campbell College for decades and led it to become Campbell University, had asked that only one thing be inscribed on his tombstone — “United States Marine.”
Of course, most dedicated, sincere Christians would aspire to be remembered with something similar to that well-known motto of the United States Marine Corp, “Semper Fidelis” (“Faithful Forever”). A visit to any cemetery proves that most people would like to be remembered for the good they did and the best that they were. I read that a novelist researching a book about life in a certain New England town visited the local cemetery as part of his investigations. The writer noted with interest that nearly every tombstone from that era bore a final epitaph. Unfailingly, these were words of praise for the departed with references such as “kind, generous, upstanding, loving and faithful” appearing again and again. This prompted the researcher to ask, “I wonder where they buried the sinners?”
As I listened to the thoughtful reflections and tried to engage in some sort of meaningful reductionism regarding my own time and life, I realized how complex, selective, fascinating and often faulty is the human memory. As Robert Burns once yearned for “the gift to see ourselves as others see us,” perhaps it would be more interesting, if not humbling, to know how “others might remember us.” I suspect it is more productive for Christians to focus on things to remember than on how one might want to be remembered. The greater danger is forgetting rather than being forgotten. In a world that is quick to declare its accomplishments and takes far too much for granted, how easily one forgets life is largely grace and gift, granted, inherited, passed down by sacrifices and service of others. In a world where freedoms and rights are asserted, too many forget the importance of quietly fulfilling one’s responsibilities. In a society that is passionate about self, it is convenient to discount the call of Christ to love God and others first. The importance of a clear and good Christian memory is revealed in a memorial to a 19th century soldier in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. It reads:
To Charles George Gordon –Who always and everywhereGave his strength to the weak,His substance to the poor,His sympathy to the suffering,And his heart to God.
Steve Bolton retired at the end of June as the pastor of Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Forecaster.