Will there be nothing to show that we were here?

Some months ago I revisited the town where for over 13 years I had been the pastor of the local Baptist church.  I knew the front of the church premises had undergone some alterations, so I decided to call and see for myself the changes that had been made.  It was a week-day, so I had to knock on the side door to get in.  A very pleasant lady answered the door, but she hadn’t a clue who I was – nor indeed did any of the other staff in the church office.  I was amazed.   Under my leadership a small declining church had developed into a strong virile church.  In those 13 years the church had quadrupled in size, from 83 to 300+ members.  God had really blessed my ministry – and many people had been won to Christ and been baptized. But now, some 30 years later, not even my name was known.

More recently I heard that the Baptist college, where for 6 years I was principal, is looking to appoint its fourth college principal since my departure in 1992.  In a way that perhaps I had not fully realised before, I sensed that my principalship now belonged very much to the past. If my portrait is still hanging in the dining room, my name may still known to some.  But in all likelihood nobody now knows that under my leadership what was then a struggling college was transformed:  for student enrolment doubled, the faculty increased by a third, and new patterns of ministerial training were introduced.   It was an exciting period in my ministry.  Yet probably now, almost 25 years later, my contribution has been forgotten.

Although only 3 years have elapsed since I retired after having served me last church for 21 years as its senior minister, probably for many my ministry how belongs to ancient history.  Yet by God’s grace so much was achieved: under my leadership what was a traditional declining city-centre church became a strong, vibrant, growing fellowship, serving the community in a host of ways.  But the truth is that with the passing of time and with the appointment of new leaders, all this will soon be forgotten.

As I was reflecting on  this, my mind went to Psalm 103.15-16: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (NRSV).  Or in the more down-to-earth paraphrase of Eugene Peterson: “Men and women don’t live very long; like wildflowers they spring up and blossom. But a storm snuffs them out just as quickly, leaving nothing to show they were here.” (The Message).  The meaning is clear.  We are creatures, born of dust and ephemeral as grass.  As Henry Lyte puts it in his fourth verse of ‘Praise my Soul the King of Heaven’, (a verse interestingly omitted in Baptist Praise and Worship):

Frail as summer’s flower we flourish,
Blows, the wind and it is gone

In the words of one commentary:  “Life is short, and when a human’s life is over, he or she has likely not left any stamp on the planet that will last” .

I confess that initially I felt somewhat depressed by this perspective on human mortality – and all the more so, since I am yet another birthday this week.  Did I really give my life for nothing?   I think back on all the time and effort, the pain and the tears, the struggle and the sacrifice of my 43 years of service as an ordained Christian minister – was it all for nothing?  No, of course not!  Although my life and my work may indeed be soon forgotten, I dare to believe that my ministry has had eternal consequences.  Precisely what those consequences are, I do not know.  In this life it is impossible for any pastor to measure what God has achieved through their ministry – for the most part we have little, if any knowledge, of what has been wrought in other people’s lives.  Yet the reality is that time and again in my ministry and indeed the ministry of every other pastor too, ‘the kingdom of God has come near’. Although the time comes when our names are forgotten and our achievements are no longer known, in the sight of eternity we have made a mark that will last.  Our lives will not have been lived in vain.  God willing, the day will come when the Lord, whose “steadfast love… is from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103.17), will say to me as also to many, many, others: “Well done good and faithful servant – enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25.21,23).

6 comments

  1. As someone who has just left my current ministry for what will be my final one before retirement, I share you feelings. I suspect that what you describe would be especially relevant to urban situations where there is a rapid turnover of population. Certainly one of the problems we faced in London is that people walked out of the back door as fast as they came in through the front – especially true of young people looking to move up the property ladder.

    Of course what you describe is not only true for ministers. I’m sure that few people would remember my wife in the schools where she has taught, although she might return and discover that some of the children in the school are the progeny of her former students! The same would be true in many workplace environments, especially as “jobs for life” have largely vanished. Even in graveyards “never forgotten” is inevitably untrue.

    So one simply has to trust in God that one’s efforts on his behalf – and even one’s mistakes – have born not only lasting but eternal fruit. No-one person in “secular” employment can ever say that.

  2. It all chimes in with what we are told over and over again in the meditating community- the need to let go of our ego.. we cannot store up brownie points and every time we sit down to meditate(or pray) we are starting out afresh ;but then the gradual letting go paradoxically frees us up to be more and more open to others, to be more and more open to ourselves. What went before does not in a sense matter; we are learning to die to ourselves and preparing for death in a sense… and yet paradoxically we are then able to live more fully, more meaningfully in the present. Very counter intuitive in a world where productivity is so valued..but I believe (mostly!) that this does make sense.

  3. Welcome to the club. Paul. Your comments are so true and I am sure are true for almost everyone who enters retirement. I was shocked when the firm, my father had worked for most of his life issued a “history” not that long after, in which he was scarcely mentioned even though he had served in the highest positions in the company for many years. Thanks to the new administration in the USA I now know that this is called “Alternative Truth”.
    It seems there is nothing so dead as a former anything except perhaps for about 0.5% of people who stand out particularly for good or bad reasons. Perhaps we should be grateful that we are not remembered! I guess the important thing is not what we did but what God was able to do through us. He doesn’t forget. Brian Jenkins

  4. On further reflection, could it be that our “reward” is that at last we are enabled to become ego – free, “lost in wonder, love and praise”? But I still think we can say that the verse Andrew Waugh quotes is relevant and I always think of it accompanied by that haunting Taize chant – “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”….one’s identity does still matter a bit!

  5. As a retired tax-gatherer and a sinner I don’t expect to find tangible evidence of 37 years hard labour! Forty years ago I attended the Tavistock Institute’s Leicester Conference where I was actively engaged in exploring the dynamics of the relationship between Power and Authority. I survived the experience, not knowing what I had learnt but over the years I came to realise that it was an enriching experience. As you summarise, the eternal consequences are immeasurable. Happy Birthday Paul, may you have many more years to continue making your mark.

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