On Leaving a Legacy

Last weekend, I lurked around the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, watching as hopeful attendees took classes and faced dreaded pitching appointments with editors and agents.

When you walk through those halls, you can almost feel the weight of all the ambitions and hopes, from the multi-published author struggling with doubt to the aspiring novelist who clings to a dream that seems impossible to the writer who’s facing rejection or anxiety or comparison.

And it reminded me of the tower of Babel and a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton.

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If the second half of that sentence sounds strange, then you’ve probably never heard of Broadway megahit Hamilton. I can’t universally endorse it if you’re bothered by strong language, but the story is compelling, the word play is ridiculously clever, and Washington’s cabinet meetings are rap battles.

Thematic Cliff Notes (no spoilers): Hamilton struggles throughout with a desperate need to leave a legacy, one that drives him to work harder than his peers…and neglect his family and make some incredibly stupid choices. “I am not throwing away my shot” and “Just you wait” are his constant, almost desperate-sounding refrains. He’s determined to make a name for himself, whatever the cost.

In contrast, I give you George Washington: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

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I’m seriously considering making business cards with these two quotes on them.

Of the two characters, guess who has the best perspective on this one?

Since Washington is the Founding-est of the Founding Fathers and the only character with a consistently functioning moral compass, this one’s pretty obvious. Washington recognizes that all our striving can’t guarantee we’ll meet our goals, find a place in history, and be remembered the way we’d like to be.

Keep that in mind as we go way back to another new nation just starting out in Genesis 11. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’”

Which might not have been a terrible idea except A. God had specifically told them to disperse over the face of the whole earth and B. it’s pretty clear from the context that they arrogantly wanted to be more important than God. (That generally doesn’t turn out well.)

So God had a chat with the Trinity: “‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth.”

The people wanted to make name for themselves…and they did. Babel. We’ll forever associate them with confusion and meaningless noise, not a glorious testimony to the ability of man to rise to the heavens.

That’s what happens every time we try to establish our own legacy and grasp at control. It doesn’t take long before we’re reminded that we are not the ones in charge.

The Bible is full of inversions like this. In Jesus’ parable, the fantastically wealthy “rich man” faces eternal punishment, while beggar Lazarus is comforted in heaven. Notice which one has a name. In Exodus, Pharaoh is known only by his title…but we know the names of the two courageous Egyptian midwifes who refused to kill the Hebrew babies, Shiphrah and Puah. The most powerful man in the world is anonymous, while his lowly servants are given the dignity of being remembered in Scripture.

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

Conveniently, I am still young and dreaming of glory. Washington’s advice has come in plenty of time.

The truth that God is sovereign, directing the big-scope story of history and the little details of my life is sometimes a beautiful comfort.

But sometimes, it’s…irritating. Because I want to in control. I have big dreams, big plans, and they come from (mostly) good motives and (sometimes) impact others for good. Like Hamilton, I can be single-mindedly set on my goals, writing like I’m running out of time and refusing to throw away my shot.

That’s dangerous. It was for Hamilton—don’t miss the almost destructive effects of his ambition in the midst of all the upbeat dance numbers—and it is for us too.

Maybe you’re with me on this one. You raise your kids just like the parenting books told you to. You carefully plan your menu, social media posts, or answers in small group to reflect well on who you are (or who you want to be). You set goals, make resolutions, and go after success. You pitch your book at that conference like all your hopes are resting on it.

You build your tower toward the sky, and you’re not really trying to reach higher than God.

But that tower’s still pretty impressive, isn’t it?

Listen to the thousand confused and varied voices streaming away from Babel. They are trying to tell you: if you have to choose between presenting God a list of demands and trusting him with the future, always trust.

You are not your accomplishments. You are not your fears or failures. You do not have to accomplish great things for God.

Your identity is in Christ, and that actually means something, something completely un-cliché. It means that God knows your name. It means you impact the world most by living a life of faith in the one who is in control when you are not.

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is…God is telling your story. He’ll do a better job because he is the Author, so set aside your striving and trust him. Let that be your legacy.

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10 comments

  1. I thoroughly and completely love this post. It is impacting to know the Creator of the universe has a purpose for our lives. I sorta like that I can kick back and put my feet up on the footstool of life and watch God unfold the story that is mine and His.

  2. When I originally read this, I made a note to come back to it for illustrative material for my current sermon series in Ecclesiastes. And I’ve now arrived at a point where I’ll be quoting/summarizing you (re: Hamilton/Washington) to exemplify Eccl. 5-6.
    Thanks!

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