Recently while I was teaching a lesson, I made a reference to one of classic Hollywood’s definitive leading men, Cary Grant. One of the early-twenty-somethings in the group said, “Who’s Cary Grant?”
After inquiring about which rock he was currently living under, another young member expressed her full knowledge and appreciation of the film legend, and my faith that some of the cinematic greats might reach another generation was restored.
But the point was made. An Oscar-winning actor as famous as Cary Grant was destined to be forgotten. The thought really blew my mind!
If Cary Grant could be forgotten, would I ever be remembered? Think about it. Do you know the name of your great-great-grandparents? You have four sets of them… I know there is this one guy named George Augustus Gordon Gaiden Gaimer who came over from England to the U.S. a long time ago. That’s all I know. I don’t know why he left. I don’t know what kind of man he was. Only that he is my grandmother’s grandfather. His life has very much been forgotten. He’s not in the history books. No great deeds, inventions or discoveries (that I’m aware of). Just a photograph on my parent’s wall. He had a big mustache.
Many of us have dreams of doing something great. Of being great. Famous. Notorious. But what is it we are actually after? Recognition? Appreciation? Acceptance?
It causes me to wonder, “Why?” In the big picture … How much will really be remembered?
Cary Grant is nearly forgotten, along with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Jimmy Stewart will fight on a bit longer each Christmas through It’s a Wonderful Life. Ultra-famed Robin Williams, who’s recent death shocked and dismayed so many fans, will one day go the way of Mr. Grant. Even my kids had to ask with faint recognition…”Who is he again?”. “You know…Hook? Jumanji?” But will they ever appreciate him in Awakenings or Dead Poets Society?
Solomon understood and lamented this thought in Ecclesiastes 6:12 —
“For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?”
Now, the goal here isn’t to be depressing, but to maintain perspective. How many people DO you remember from history? First name and last name: Martin Luther. John Calvin. John Wesley. Christopher Columbus. How about names like Samuel Adams? (Um…didn’t he make beer?!) He was a signer on one of the most important documents in American history…the Declaration of Independence…along with over 50 other men we can’t name. Most people can’t even name the majority of our presidents… James Polk? Millard Fillmore?
My point is this: Even great men have been forgotten. But the effects of their efforts and deeds go on. A.B. Simpson is by no means a household name, but 150 years ago, his clear vision to reach the everyday man and aid missionaries in their global efforts has resulted in thousands of U.S. churches and tens of thousands more worldwide (the denomination known today as the Christian & Missionary Alliance).
I used to think how great it would be to pastor a huge church…to start a movement; that guy known for leading a huge congregation on multiple campuses in a given city; to write a best-selling book like Francis Chan or Rick Warren (then be asked to pray for the president at his inauguration, like Billy Graham before him).
But what’s my motive? To gain recognition? To be popular? To make it into the history books? Why, when the odds are that in 50 years my name will be forgotten outside of my own family circle, and in 150 years forgotten completely?
What a waste of energy and worry! But here is what I do know:
Every one of these men (and women) have created a legacy. I don’t mean a legacy of fame, but of having touched the lives of thousands and thousands. Because whether I am remembered or not, the way that I engage in life will affect those around me.
I want to touch the life of the person in front of me. To enrich the life of my sons, my daughter, my wife, those to whom I minister in a small group, or preach to on a Sunday…it creates a ripple that changes their lives, creating more ripples that touch others.
My own life is the result of these ripples. Jesus made a splash that washed over his disciples. They continued making waves that stretched across the Mediterranean, Africa, across the Middle East to India. Lives were changed, more ripples were created, across generations, through persons…and it has shaped my life. I will never in this life know all of the people who across thousands of years have touched me. I will never know their names. I don’t need to.
Years ago, a young woman names Agnes, an Albanian nun, traveled to India to live in a convent and teach in the schools. But in her travels, she saw that outside of the convent gates lived “the poorest of the poor”. She begged to be able to serve these humble people, but her superiors continually refused. She persisted in her requests until one day, finally, one of the priests gave her permission to leave the convent and do what no one had yet had the vision to do: to minister to the needy, to teach the street children, to touch the untouchable. Agnes is better known to the world as Mother Teresa. Her name is widely known. But do you know the name of that priest? With a simple “yes” he cast a ripple that reached millions.
I don’t need a name…I just want to make a splash. With lots of ripples. Ripples that create more ripples, that travel across oceans and lives and generations, touching people to know Jesus better. Few may see it. Fewer will remember it. But that’s okay, because, you know what? It’s not about me.
The psalmist’s perspective shows who really deserves the notoriety:
“In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.” (Psalm 44:8)
I think John the Baptist may have understood it best. When his disciples were complaining that everyone was going over to Jesus to get baptized, he concluded with this definitive word: “He must increase, I must decrease.”
I like that.