Anyone who’s ever held a baby knows the sense of awe – not only at the fragile and perfect nature of babies but at the wonder that this is how we all get here. To hold a baby, whether our own progeny or not, is to hold the future, to hold hope.
I’ll be talking today about the spirit we have received from our elders as well as that which we are leaving for our own offspring.
I learned the word “progeny” from my maternal grandparents when I was a teenager. After my Grandpa Dudley retired, he and Grandma Winnie decided to research their respective genealogy lines. Eventually they wrote up their findings for their daughters and grandchildren. The word “progeny” kept popping up in their conversations with us about their research. I always liked the fancy sound of the word. Later, when I became a mother and held my own babies, I understood how precious my Grandmother Winnie’s own progeny were to her.
I was a young child in Sunday School when I first learned the story of Elijah and Elisha in today’s scripture reading. Most of my life, I have identified with Elisha, the younger prophet, or Elijah’s spiritual progeny. I admired Elisha’s ability to boldly ask for what he wanted. He had seen Elijah’s awesome accomplishments. Through it all, Elijah was never lacking in spirit.
Now that the old prophet’s time on earth was coming to an end, his apprentice Elisha felt the need to carry that spirit with him, to help him face his own challenges. Elisha didn’t stop there, though. He wanted even more than Elijah’s spirit – he wanted a double portion! Every time I heard this story, I was awed by Elisha’s audacity, and his imagination. After all, just one portion of Elijah’s spirit was almost too much to be contained within a single human body, and Elisha wanted seconds! I was inspired.
Flash forward a few decades. I’m 61 years old now. I’ve had a few things go wrong with my body, things that remind me that our sojourn on earth is finite. So, lately, when pondering the conversation between the two prophets, I’ve been relating more to Elijah – the old guy in the story.
As Elijah heard the request, he must have been flabbergasted. I imagine him stifling an eye-roll. He may have been thinking, “My spirit was hard-won. How could I possibly pass it on to you?” And indeed, his initial response was, “You have asked a hard thing.”
Notice, though, what Elijah did not say. He did not dismiss Elisha with a “Silence, whippersnapper!” as the Wizard did to Dorothy. He did not say, “Go out and earn your spirit.”
Yet Elijah did push Elisha to inherit his great spirit by earning it. After acknowledging that the young prophet had “asked a hard thing,” Elijah said, “If you see me taken from you, may your wish be granted.” To inherit any portion of Elijah’s spirit, to say nothing of the “double portion,” Elisha had to step up. He had to have the courage to face a crisis directly, have the stamina to watch his mentor ripped from his presence, riding off in a chariot of fire. To inherit that double portion, Elisha had to find his own spirit. He had to show that spirit by being courageous – and watchful.
I also imagine that Elijah was thinking, “What particular aspect of my spirit do you desire? What are you seeing about me that I don’t see?”
In the Southern Baptist tradition that is my background, we make reference to the “Starry Crown” we are to receive in the afterlife. Each star symbolizes a soul we led to Christianity or otherwise influenced positively. The Starry Crown is yet another way of looking at how we pass on spirit. By asking for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elisha declared, in essence, that he was a star in Elijah’s crown. Elisha was saying, “I admire you so much, I need your continued presence as I go forward in my calling.”
It’s always humbling to receive another’s admiration. Time stands still a little bit when one person says to another, “Your life has made all the difference in my life.”
About 20 years ago our dear, departed sister, Adele Fadden, recalled a woman whom she had admired at UBC in the 1940s, when Adele herself was a young mother. The woman looked after everyone. “I wish we had someone like that at UBC now,” Adele said wistfully.
Someone else replied, “We do, Adele. It’s you.” Adele Fadden had inherited her mentor’s spirit. She showed that spirit in all the things that made her Adele: how she baked bread, how she remembered the details of people’s lives, how she took us under her wing, how she flashed her great big smile. Adele’s life was a testament to the indwelling Holy Spirit.
We share the Gospel, and therefore create a heritage of spirit, when we are least aware of it. My cousin tells me that she gets an inkling of her impact on her grown children not from the kids themselves, but from their spouses, her daughter-in-law and son-in-law. “The in-laws often tell me something that my children recall my saying when they were growing up,” she said. “But it’s never anything I remember, never a crafted, rehearsed lesson. It was usually something mundane that I said while folding laundry or driving them to a dentist appointment.”
Here are some examples of the ways my elders bore witness to the Holy Spirit, how they created a legacy that I hope to pass on, in turn. My parents were modest people. They did not consider themselves to impart great wisdom. However, when their respective lives ended, the knowledge, compassion, and sense of service that they left us were obvious.
When I was growing up, my father was a bank officer. Over a period of several years, he lost that career and ended his work life as a gas station attendant. If you’re too young to know what that is, I’ll explain over coffee! When he died, it had been 20 years since his last day at work. At his funeral, though, the minister spoke of “Jim Moyer’s ministry at the gas station.” People still remembered the way my father attended faithfully to their cars, checking every fluid level, and if they were going on a long trip, the quality of their tires and the air pressures. After the funeral, my cousin said to me, “This was your father’s legacy.” That legacy was something more than dollars and cents. It was the way his life bore witness to the Gospel.
There was even more to that inheritance. Because my father had lost his career, I had a fear that the same thing would happen to me, as if such failures were lurking in our DNA. In the most recent recession, my business did fail. I had to close my office, for a while, and take a job in retail sales. Although I have regained some business, my income is still less than what it was before.
I wouldn’t want to do everything the way my father did. However, the way he lived his life is a rich, rich lesson in facing difficulties with grace. He was still himself. He still had his dignity, his sense of humor. He was a model of how to go forward, how to craft a definition of self that includes but transcends one’s occupation.
My mother’s witness was evident at her funeral, also. The pastor recalled a friend saying, “When you talked to Martha, you never had the feeling you were talking to an old person.” Truly, there was a side of Mom that did not age. When we divided up her clothes afterward, I was impressed by how her wardrobe was so classic, not elderly at all.
Mother didn’t approach life like an old person. After she retired, she took her hospital volunteer work seriously, logged in thousands of hours, and welcomed the opportunity to learn new tasks. She was fresh as a daisy on the inside.
The pastor included her children’s memories in Mom’s eulogy. Mine focused on the way Mother taught us racial equality. We grew up in a “Jim Crow” state, meaning that racial segregation was legal. Yet my mother taught my brothers and me that she supported integration of housing, schools, and public facilities, and that we were not to use racial epithets, ever. Her reasoning? “How would you like to be called a name like that?” At her funeral, I treasured the opportunity to pay tribute to this side of her.
When I look back, I see my parents’ wealth in their daily lives. I can see the spirit that my parents inherited and modeled for us in the stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents. I see some of this spirit in the women’s sense of beauty. Women on both sides of my family were needlework artists. This doily was created by my great-grandmother Hanes, a crochet artist. My paternal grandmother, whom we called Nanny, made beautiful embroidery, as you see in this bedspread. I see that spirit in the men in their earnest sincerity. Nanny’s father, my great-grandfather Jim Barker, was a circuit-riding Baptist preacher who moved from Virginia to Oklahoma Territory. He baptized my father in a pond, when Daddy was a teenager.
I’m going to shift back now to my mother’s mother, Grandmother Winnie. She faced down a monster in 1929, when nursing her three young daughters through an epidemic of whooping cough. The youngest was four weeks old.
The doctor, Grandpa Dudley’s brother, said grimly, “You’re going to have to give up on that baby.” Losing babies happened a lot then.
But give up on the baby? This young mother had not yet become Grandmother Winnie, the matriarch of a family with eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Decades would pass before she would write her genealogy or teach me about progeny. As a mother, though, she already knew: to give up on a baby is to give up on the future. “I was just all the more determined,” my grandmother said. The baby she didn’t give up on, my aunt Dorothy, is now 84 years old.
In my parents’ examples, in the needlework, in the stories about fighting whooping cough and protecting sick babies, my family left a generous legacy. So will I, and so will you. We don’t know what about our lives the next generation will find salient. For now, trust that you are creating a valuable heritage, as my cousin said, in your daily, and therefore, most influential moments: folding laundry, schlepping your kids – or grandkids – to the dentist. You’re sharing the Gospel. Your progeny want to inherit your spirit.
Now I’d like to testify to the spit & vinegar that was evident in one of my heroes beyond my family, the late Shulamith Firestone. In the 1970s I defined myself as a radical feminist, that is, one who wanted to go completely to the root of male supremacy to understand all its nuances, and by so doing, to eliminate it. Still sounds like a good idea! Ms. Firestone’s hallmark book, The Dialectic of Sex, articulated radical feminism in a brilliant synthesis of the key concepts of Freud and Marx.
Shulie, as she was called by those close to her, was outrageous. She was polite society’s worst nightmare of a “women’s libber” come true. She was among the screamers who disrupted the 1968 Miss America pageant. She helped organize the sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal office in 1970. If you lived through those times, or have studied them in history classes, you probably heard about Ms. Firestone. She was the one who nearly threw the male editor out the window.
Ms. Firestone, who died last August, would probably be surprised to find herself mentioned as a hero in a sermon at a Baptist church. Although raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, she was not observant of any faith. However, her actions remind me of Jesus yelling woes at the hypocrites and throwing the money-changers out of the Temple.
At Ms. Firestone’s funeral, her brother lamented that she had not had children. Her sister rebutted by saying that Shulie, in fact, had thousands of children: the women whose lives and ways of thinking about themselves were changed by her writing and her actions. I am one of Shulie’s children. She left a rich legacy.
The spirit I have inherited from my elders, as their progeny, is a hodge-podge, a casserole of sweet and tart. These maxims reflect some of the ingredients of that casserole:
· Bear witness to your faith in deeds as well as words.
· Speak the truth.
· Attend to the people around you.
· Never give up on the babies.
· Take time to create beauty.
· No matter how old you are, keep your soul young.
· When necessary for the common good, raise a ruckus.
I do not know what my legacy will be, what people will remember my saying or doing. I do know what I have received.
I’ve been noticing the generations coming after us: my own sons and my daughter-in-law; the children, grandchildren and great-grandson that are mine by marriage; my nieces and nephews; my cousins’ children; our youth group here at UBC; my young friends and coworkers.
These young people have great spirit and courage. They are already watching for the chariots of fire, in whatever form those chariots take. They will inherit our spirit many times over and harness it to the best uses.
May God grant us the courage and faith to believe that our lives reflect the Gospel, that we bear witness to the Holy Spirit, and that our young people will want to carry that spirit with them. May we be gracious, like Elijah, and pass our spirit and our cloak on to those who follow. Amen.
Know that your marvelous, appealing spirit goes with you as you leave this place. Know that you have stars in your crown. May we be agents of God’s love in the world. Sisters and brothers, the service now begins. May the people say, AMEN.