As I bring this series on astonishing generosity to a close, I want to end by talking about what it takes to “end” generously. What do we want our life legacy to be? What values do we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren? What stories do we want others to tell about us after we are gone?
I know that many of think we have lots of time to work out those questions. And indeed, we all hope that as we age, we’ll mature. (Unlike, we hope, Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear who "became old before he became wise.") And especially when it comes to being generous, magnanimous (a wonderful word that means “great-souled”), and benevolent.
We really think and plan that “someday” we will be generous. We assume that as we get older, accumulate more resources, and become more “secure”, then we’ll be able to be the generous, giving, person that we aspire to be.
Someday. Like when I am “old”. Or when I retire. Or when I pass on. At the end of my life, we think, when "all is said and done," then I’ll be able to be generous. I’ll leave money in my will to cancer research or to World Vision or my church. I’ll fund a scholarship for a worthy, needy kid to go to school from my estate. I’ll leave my children and grandchildren the resources to live much better than I do. Someday. But what I have learned is that when "all is said and done," all there is is what actually was "said and done."
Some years ago I worked as a chaplain for cancer patients. I was with a number of people when they died. Three in one day, actually. (A day I’ll never forget: A 26 year old man dying from AIDS, a 43 year old man leaving behind two teenage kids, a 86 year old man who was mostly all alone…) And here is something I learned:
By and large there are few big “conversion” experiences at the end of life. The thief on the cross may have made a big change in the last moment while hanging next to Jesus, but most of us don’t. As one of my friends has said, “Throughout life, we remain ourselves…only more so.”
If we are estranged from loved ones in life, we’ll, by and large, carry grudges and feuds all the way to our death beds. The stubborn agnostic, who was cynical about people going to church all his days, tends to go equally cynically into that good night. The person who has pinched every penny will even at the end be checking his portolio on the web instead of hugging his kids. I knew one woman who was so self-conscious about her weight and cholesterol that even while she was wasting away from cancer, she refused to eat butter.
In the same way, those who were tenderhearted, generous and thoughtful of others through life, tended to face death with a magnanimous spirit that inspired the people around them. Sunday school teachers died while singing “Jesus loves me”. Gracious and forgiving people went out of their way to settle accounts. And those who told their loved ones that they loved them through out life, lavished love on others at the end of life.
Those who tended to think that they got a raw deal in life, tended to face death with resentment; but those who were lived with gratitude died with a deep sense of the amazing grace that surrounded them.
When I asked an 84-year-old pastor how he was feeling when he checked into the hospital with advanced colon cancer, he sat up in bed, looked at this then 26-year-old chaplain-intern and said to me, “Pastor, I have been married to the same woman for 60 years. I have served the Lord for even longer. I have lived a very good life. If I can just get out of this bed long enough to officiate my grandson’s wedding this Saturday, then I’ll be glad to go see my Lord.”
All in all, what I learned from those facing the end of life has been my motivation for every day of my life. How do you want to end your days? How do you want to be remembered? Whatever legacy that we want to leave behind requires that we start living that legacy now. We think that things will someday be different, but the truth is that you’ll go as you went.
You’ll go as you went.