A man said to his two sons, “I need you to do a job for me”. One son said “no”, the other son said “yes”—but that’s not how it happened. In fact, the son who said “no” changed his mind and did the job, while the son who said “yes” got involved in something else and never followed through.
It’s a simple story, told by Jesus in Matthew 21, and the point is clear: making the right noises is good, but doing the right thing is better. It’s a point our human hearts need reminding of, and often. Our world is obsessed with words, impressed by words, drowning in words. As someone who enjoys writing, I take great delight in finding the right phrase and spinning it around until I find just the right way to turn it. But no matter how hard I work at this, I have to admit: it’s always easier to find words for ideas than it is to act on them. It’s easier to write a love song than it is to genuinely give yourself for the good of another person. It’s easier to rail against the proud and greedy than it is to stop being those things myself. It’s easier to say “consistency is key in raising children” than it is to be consistent while raising actual children. In almost every area of life, it’s easier to say the right thing than it is to do the right thing.
I’ve always loved poetry as a medium, always felt that somehow the structure and rhythm of it helps me feel the impact of the meaning of the words more deeply. Maybe that’s why there is so much poetry in the Bible. This year I’ve enjoyed trying out the added layer of doing poetry as spoken word. It’s obviously homemade, but here’s my attempt at capturing a few thoughts about legacy:
Birthday cakes are hard work. First there’s the planning, the choosing of flavours and decorations to match the one being celebrated. Then the time comes and there’s the baking, decorating, lighting, singing, and finally eating. Hopefully someone remembered to snap a photo, because once the knife goes in, the culinary work of art is quickly dispersed to paper plates and plastic forks that were created to be used just once, before going to fill the rubbish bin.
I didn’t wash many dishes in our first years of marriage, but I felt quite proud of every one of them. I could scrub one pot in a week and bask in the glory of my goodness. For some reason, my wife didn’t feel the same awe at my occasional fits of kindness. For some reason, I didn’t understand why.
These days, I do dishes. I don’t keep track of how many, and I no longer feel the same way about them. They need to be done—it’s only fair. Even though I’m doing more, I feel less proud of it. This summer, I read a story by George MacDonald that helped me understand why:
When I was five or six, my family joined a small group who were looking to start a new church on the south side of town. I don’t remember much about the earliest stages but I do remember the years we spent meeting in a shopping centre. First it was the gym, and we had to cover the wall of mirrors with paper and I remember my Sunday school teacher telling us not to play on the weight benches. Sometimes the children got to decorate the paper, which was fun. Later, one of the buildings in the centre became available and we leased it for ourselves. Inside, we had a grand piano. I don’t remember how we got it, but we were proud of it, and proud of the lady who played it so well. We did love to sing.
Our family recently returned from a holiday in the country where we had very little internet access and most of the traffic was cows. The time to read and think and enjoy the countryside without distractions was refreshing, reminding me again that sometimes the best way to keep going strong is to stop for a little while…
In the year of our Lord, 1858, the Shirleys of Lough Fea boasted that their estate house contained the largest room in County Monaghan. The honour was not secure, however—a nearby Baron, Lord Rossmore, was determined to claim it for himself. He extended the drawing room of Rossmore Castle to steal the distinction from them. But the rivalry wasn’t over. Lord Rossmore had to extend the drawing room five times to stay ahead of the Shirleys’ relentless construction, and in the end his drawing room still came in second to their Great Hall.
Even though it lacked the largest room in the county, no one could deny that Rossmore Castle was beautiful, built as it was on top of a hill with a panoramic view and 117 windows to see it through (the Shirleys only had 96). Its towers and turrets looked as if they had been lifted straight out of a fairytale illustration, even more so when there was a party on, and there were a lot of parties. The guest lists were star-studded as well—the Prince of Wales was a personal friend of Lord Rossmore. But, as can happen in fairytales, the castle vanished. This had more to do with dry rot than magic, but the effect was the same.
I grew up when Star Trek: The Next Generation was popular, and now I’ve lived to see many of their imagined technologies become real. We’re still not quite there on warp drives or teleporters, but we’re getting closer to the holodeck with virtual reality, and we already have touchscreens, computers you can control with your voice, wireless communication that is constantly available, and handheld devices that can do all sorts of things. I’ve lived to see yesterday’s science fiction become today’s reality.