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Thinking Out Loud

Living Legacies

by User Not Found | Sep 20, 2011
This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.


The late Dan Fogelberg wrote a wonderful song more than twenty-five years ago. It was a song about his father, a musician like Fogelberg. You may remember it. He sang, "My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man. I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band."

I can't hear this song without thinking of my grandfather, Corley Fenley. He was many things, a teacher, a musician, a leader in his congregation. I learned many of the most important things in life from him, including how to pray. A musician who never met an instrument he couldn't play, he was literally the "leader of the band," as well as the director of the church choir. And, in a very real sense, I've seen my life as a living legacy, and most often a poor imitation of his.

A few days ago, Fogelberg's image of a "living legacy" came to mind again as I watched Paul Schaap, one of our trustees and with his wife, Carol, the source of the Schaap Scholarships for Excellence here at Louisville Seminary, teach a roomful of students, chemists, community leaders, university officials, and friends a lesson in advanced organic chemistry. The occasion was the grand opening of the A. Paul Schaap Chemistry Building and Lecture Hall at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

His lesson was so clear that even I could follow it. After it was over I visited with Carol. We talked about what a good teacher Paul is, how natural, humble, and good natured he is in front of a classroom. He makes learning fun. She said, "You know, he would have made a good minister." Indeed he would have. Of course, if he had become a pastor, a significant breakthrough in organic chemistry that has helped doctors make more accurate diagnoses and save lives might not have been made. Paul is a living legacy to his father, a graduate of Louisville Seminary, a minister who served congregations across the Midwest, but his legacy has taken its own distinctive shape, determined by the distinctive gifts God gave him.

We never can tell exactly how the legacy will be expressed. I think of another trustee at Louisville Seminary, Sumpter Logan. Sumpter was in that little group of folks who came to Austin, Texas, in 2009 to talk to me for the very first time about the presidency of Louisville Seminary. A business man, devoted husband and a veteran of more strategic planning processes for our Seminary than anyone can remember, Sumpter is also a living legacy to his father, another graduate of Louisville Seminary, a pastor who served congregations in Kentucky.

The person of whom one is a living legacy need not be a minister. Debbie and I recently toured the home of Cassius Clay, the nineteenth-century political leader, close friend and supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and leader in the pre-Civil War Emancipation movement, who set his family's slaves free the minute he inherited his father's estate. Mary Jane Warfield Clay was never "just" Clay's wife. She ran a plantation, a massive business venture, and in the course of renovating White Hall, the Clay home south of Lexington, Kentucky, imported to the United States the technology for central heating. The Clays lived the kind of life movies are made about, and they bequeathed to their children a spirit of independence and love for freedom and civil rights that may just be unequaled in American history. Their daughter, Laura, a friend and colleague of Susan B. Anthony, was one of the most important leaders in the movement that enfranchised women. She was also the first woman nominated for president by a major political party in 1920. The clays left us with one of the grandest homes in Kentucky. But Laura was their greatest legacy.

This week as I was sitting, smushed into the back pew of a very small plane between Pittsburgh and Detroit, I was reading my worn little Loeb edition of Epictetus. I find this first century Stoic philosopher to be the ideal companion for air travel. In one of his discourses (Book I. xix.), Epictetus warns against the temptation to live in such a way so as to attract the attention of others. He makes fun of tyrants, the power-brokers of the ancient world, who loved it when people scraped and bowed to them and made a big deal over them. Even more, he ridiculed those who imitated tyrants, the people who dressed and went around like tyrants and loved long, impressive-sounding titles, because they wanted people to pay attention to them.

Epictetus flips the scales by which so many of his contemporaries evaluated their lives. He says that we know our lives really matter when there are people who pay attention to us not because of what we might do for them or because of how important we look, but because of what sort of persons we are, because of our maturity and wisdom. We know our lives matter, he says, because others wish to become like us.

My grandfather was, I am sure, unaware that the cotton-headed kid following him around the dirt roads of East Texas would grow up wanting to be like him. I'm sure the same could be said for the fathers of Paul and Sumpter and Laura. That's part of the beauty of the character of the truly virtuous. But Epictetus' question is a good one, "Who wishes to become like you?"

Many of us can point to the people of whom we hope to be living legacies. Are we inspiring anyone in turn? That's a question worth pondering.

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