By J. Robert Moon
Realistic Expectations for Our Spiritual Legacy
I stare out the window from my seat on the Delta flight from Atlanta to St. Louis, realizing I am still in shock. Four hours ago, I received the unexpected call that my dad died while he and my mother were visiting relatives in Branson, Missouri. My profession as a pastor is kicking in as I plan his funeral in my mind. These thoughts compete with my role as the elder son, anticipating my mother’s grief pouring out, immersed in loss.
A Thanksgiving Treat
My mind drifts back to the Thanksgiving weekend seven months earlier. Even in my shock, I am feeling grateful for the lengthy conversation that took place over several days. It was in that one-on-one time with Dad that I wanted him to fill in the gaps of all the stories I had heard about life in the Moon family before me. He was always quick to keep our dinner guests rolling with laughter at his tales of living in the wild west of Arizona just a few years after its statehood, when men with ten-gallon hats wore Colt 45s hanging from their belts and road horseback through the desert at midnight for entertainment. And I had also heard dozens of personal stories from his preaching that included tales of extraordinary spiritual experiences. I was curious about how these events took place. More importantly, I needed to understand much of the why behind the decisions that Dad and Mom made, which impacted my siblings and me and still do.
For several hours, in segments between meals, Dad re-told some of the familiar stories and filled in with new tales I had never heard. He explained some of the factors that drove the Moon family to wander from southwest Missouri in the 1930s to Mesa, Arizona, back to Missouri, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then to middle Georgia in the 1950s, where we were midwestern strangers in a Steel Magnolia confederacy. On this Delta flight 30 years ago, I realize I am most fortunate to have recorded that conversation in writing.
Reflections on Ministry Across the Generations
For the past 30 years, I have been going over those stories in my head as well as the biographical notes my widowed mother constructed in the 20 years after Dad’s funeral. What I have been looking for is the connection as well as the disconnection between my father’s style of ministry and my own. We loved each other dearly, but we were so very different on so many issues regarding ministry and social issues. He was an anomaly for his day, with a social ministry to care for the most disenfranchised members of society, but a theological footing that held very restrictive applications of religion and life. I, on the other hand, took on an aggressive role in social issues way beyond his comfort level and embraced a theological perspective he would consider progressive, liberal, and perhaps downright heretical. I think the answer I have been seeking resides in his spiritual legacy and mine. Did we have realistic expectations then, and do I have realistic expectations now?
A Spiritual Legacy
In my combined 32 years in pastoral care and as a financial advisor, I have participated in a wide range of discussions in hundreds of cases where one generation’s spiritual journey is not repeated in successive generations. That failure to carry on the family faith often becomes a grand disappointment to the elder generation.
It is said of wealth legacy that inherited wealth will typically not survive more than two generations. This serious loss of family wealth can be mitigated with a high probability of success if certain steps are taken by the generation that founded the wealth and the successor generations. This is the business of effective family estate planning. It concentrates primarily on the transfer of wealth that encompasses financial assets as well as family traditions and purpose. Spiritual legacy is often included in a holistic approach. A personal or family spirituality is one of the driving forces behind the wealth legacy passed on to heirs. The remainder of this article acknowledges that spiritual legacy can be an important, if not the most important, gift to pass on to our heirs. But we would be best served in this specific legacy if we have realistic expectations.
There are two venues from which to address expectations in spiritual legacy. Let’s begin with the benefactor, the one who wants heirs to carry on a certain element of the family faith. A motivation for this legacy is to help our heirs avoid the painful mistakes, knocks, and bruises we might have suffered in our youth, our rebellion, our naiveté, and lack of relationships, including spiritual ones. “If only my kids (or grandkids) would take what I experienced and possess that as their own, they would avoid so much trouble and pain.” This expectation is unrealistic! Rather it is realistic to convey how our spiritual journey, the knocks and bruises, the curses and the blessings, played its role in who we became, the decisions we made, and the result of what others see now. What we should not expect is for them to understand all of that. The best we can hope for is that we give them some information from our experience, that may or may not be applicable to them.
My own case with my father and me is a prime example. Why did we develop along such different tracks in ministry? I continue to search for the core of his soul decisions that drove him with a disregard for his health and the consequences for his family. I don’t possess that kind of drive. What I am coming to realize is that, unlike my father, I did not have decades living with an incurable disease that was diagnosed to kill me 30 years ago, as he did. Nor did I own and operate a tavern from which one of my customers would drive away to commit vehicular slaughter on a dark highway in Mesa, Arizona. I would hear of and have compassion for my Dad as he told of standing on a bridge ready to jump and escape it all only to have an epiphany and walk back home — convinced life would have greater purpose yet to be revealed. I have not stood on such a bridge in my life, in spite of periods of great failure. But what my father escaped, which I did not, was a 22-year marriage ending in a painful divorce, several years of unemployment that depleted my life savings, and watching a second wife succumb to breast cancer. Hearing firsthand, that Thanksgiving weekend long ago, his story about the illness and its accompanying personal epiphany, the tavern and his overwhelming guilt, and his standing on the steel girders of that bridge filled me with courage that whatever I might experience, and whatever form my faith might take, it would be sufficient to carry me to the next day.
Receiving a Spiritual Legacy
Each generation lives with new challenges, threats, temptations, and perhaps ever more complicated issues. What heirs can expect is to learn why their benefactors did certain things.
Much of the passing on of heritage is devoted to telling the following generations how success was achieved, sometimes in spite of overwhelming obstacles. In spiritual legacy, the important question to be asking is not “how?” but “why?” Why did you make that decision that turned out to be a failure or success? What were you feeling during that crisis? What are your feelings now? It is the “why” that transfers from one generation to the next — the bridge that will give us wisdom from ages past to consider applying to the challenges of our day.
So, for the heirs, the boldest thing we can do to inherit what might become the most valuable legacy is to ask “why?” and wait for the answer, without judgement.
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Robert Moon is a financial planner and former pastor with an undergraduate degree in sociology, masters in both divinity and business administration, and a doctorate in ministry. He has combined these disciplines to provide consultation for pastoral care in the context of wealth. Robert’s passion is promoting generosity with realistic expectations. He is the author of several publications, including My Pastor, My Money, and Why We’re Not Talking. His latest publication, Two Sons and Forty Years—A Novel, presents a modern-day review of the famous prodigal son parable with speculation on what happens between the two sons after the loving parents pass away. These are available on Amazon. He can be contacted via email Robert@JRobertMoon.com or phone 703-754-1233. Visit http://jrobertmoon.com.