What counts as fame comes and goes. Today’s celebrities are faint whispers soon forgotten as others take their place. The great and famous in one age are relegated to historical trash piles when a new age has examined them and found them wanting. Some great names are remembered for the wars they fought and empires founded, but even they fade into the recesses of our mental closets to join the stuff that had been crammed into our heads by relentless teachers. Who is it that is truly remembered? For the most part they are the ones who have given us great ideas, great literature, great art, and great discoveries, each of them likely to have been dismissed, even persecuted, during their lifetimes. I doubt that they ever aspired to historical greatness, even as a few, perhaps, sensed that it was their fate. I imagine they preferred to do their work, be given due thanks and appreciation, but otherwise allowed live without the hassle of public acclaim.
The apocryphal book of Sirach offers praise for famous men who are remembered in history for their great deeds, or have left wondrous creative works for future generations to enjoy. Good for them, whoever they are. What has always intrigued me is that the author goes on to remember the rest of us as well.
But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children’s children. Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation. The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise. (Sir. 44)
These are the people from whom most of us came, and from whom our descendants will take root. A superficially brief look at the genealogy of my own family reveals that we were mostly farmers, teachers, and ministers, with an occasional blip on the radar to accommodate a noted scholar, athlete, momentary celebrity, along with the requisite horse thief. Something like that is probably true for your family too. If there is such a thing as average, I guess we were it. Back in high school, many of us rebelled against being average. Who wants to be blah? We did not want to be unremembered as no names trudging her and his way through life along with all the other no names doing nothing great or exciting or interesting.
We were wrong. There is no such thing as average, and going through life with a name that will not be remembered does not add up to nothing. It is from these that nations are fed, new generations prepared for life, the ebb and flow of daily life enabled and maintained, and from whom the possibility of greatness is born. John Polkinghorne talks about our God of infinite possibilities in a universe of unbounded fecundity. At the heart of all those possibilities lies the multitude of those lost to memory, yet in whom, and through whom, all those infinite possibilities exist. We are the infinite field and the infinite seed that will grow infinite possibilities ripe for the harvest. We are not nobody but uniquely somebody. We are, as it is said, each created in God’s image, yet unique in all of creation. Amidst the infinite we are each known by names that will never be forgotten.
As with all living things, the time will come when our work will end, whether completed or not. There will be questions. Did we ever begin? Did we abandon it? Did we care enough to do the best we could with what we had? Were we wheat or were we tares? Amidst the cares and occupations of daily life, did we even know what our real work was?
They are difficult questions, uncomfortable to answer with full transparent honesty. It’s not that we deceive others with intentional dishonesty, though some do. Most of us deceive ourselves with all best intentions. Thankfully, ours is a God not only of infinite possibilities, but also of infinite second chances. As Christians we are confident that in Jesus we are each embraced with abounding, steadfast, reconciling love that guides and guards us along the way – if we will accept it. Our time on earth will end, but we know that in death, life is not ended but changed for a greater fullness and wholeness of new life in God’s nearer presence. I imagine, as God calls us each by name, that the questions will still have to be answered. It will be a little uncomfortable for me. No doubt it will be a breeze for you. We can meet up later and compare notes. In the meantime, how does it feel to be among those whose names will never be forgotten?