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20 January 2017

The question of legacy

The question of legacy

Marijke Hoek is a theologian and lecturer.

On the day Barack Obama passes the keys and codes to Donald Trump the question of his legacy will undoubtedly be fiercely debated - left, right and centre. Depending on the particular angle, the opinions will be colourful and varied. 

The question of legacy shouldn't merely emerge when an era is coming to an end. Neither is it limited to world leaders; it also applies to us. And, while a legacy concerns something one leaves behind, it is equally valid as a forward-looking theme.

Etty Hillesum, who diarised her experiences of supporting Jewish people in occupied Holland in the Second World War, was inspired by that forward glance: "When a spider weaves a web it throws out the main threads ahead of itself and then follows it. The main thread in my life is way ahead of me in another world. I'm already building that new society."

Her faithful dedication came at a price as she refused to go into hiding and was killed midway through the war in Auschwitz. Her legacy lives on.

Every web begins with a single thread, which forms the basis of the rest of the structure. The apostle Paul's eschatological framework constitutes that forward thread. Besides the transforming power in this new age that has already begun, the future eschatological dimension is reflected in the typical Pauline 'seal', 'deposit', and 'guarantee' imageries. These metaphors portray both the beginning of a process and the unbreakable connection with the remaining stages of salvation.

The main thread of Paul's life was indeed way ahead. His faith in the returning Lord inspired and moved him. The emerging day of the Lord characterises his work and writings, giving direction, focus and urgency. For while time is endless, it is also limited.

"What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short." Therefore, daily decisions on possessions, life-changing decisions on relationships as well as matters of the soul (whether happiness or grief) all stand in this eternal light" (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

The bigger picture helps us to keep perspective, to see again how our daily life stands in the context of eternity. It enables us to lean into the future. We are part of an in-breaking kingdom. His Lordship determines not only what we do, but also how we do it.

The Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen wrote: "We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people, but each of us has our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us the strength to live out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time."

The future wants to come through us; we've already been handed the keys and codes. The gift and role of the eschatological spirit is key in Paul's understanding of living faithfully according to Christ's example: "The Spirit, not content to flit around on the surface, dives into the depths of God, and brings out what God planned all along. Whoever knows what you're thinking and planning except you yourself? The same with God - except that He not only knows what He's thinking, but He lets us in on it" (1 Corinthians 2:10, The Message).

Through and beyond this present paradoxical life, the Spirit assures us of a glorious future inheritance. While the new creation will always be a gift, the content and character of our daily life matters. In the midst of changing power dynamics and shifting sands, Paul's encouragement rings loud and clear: "Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).

And so, we trust that His legacy will be rich and powerful, inspiring a spirited life today.

Image: CC Jungwoo Hong