I was recently hanging out in a wildlife area of Colorado, where informative plaques abounded. One in particular caught my eye, highlighting families who’d owned ranches where this area now stood, in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It got me thinking about all the different ways we come up with to “historically” immortalize ordinary people after they’re gone—and by “ordinary” I mean people we wouldn’t think twice about if they were standing in front of us right now, because they’d be roughly as accomplished or smart or likeable as us. But because they’re no longer with us, we find ways to keep them alive, to highlight the importance we didn’t especially recognize while they were still alive—to resurrect their memories, if you will.
I think we do this, at least on some unconscious level, because we inwardly recognize our deep desire to keep ourselves alive a little longer, even beyond our own time on earth. We believe and hope that people will remember us after we’re gone. We want our lives to have mattered to someone, to have been significant in some way. And even far too many of us among the living don’t feel that. In fact, “the need for significance” gets an unusual amount of play in the church today. You might be feeling that need right now, in fact.
And that’s apparent in the reputations we try to keep—whether it’s a good name or at least a bad enough name that people will remember it. We want to be loved or respected, or at least feared or hated—even if peoples’ feelings are really being directed more toward a persona with our name attached to it than a representation of who we really are and what really matters to us. Either way, however, if we’re not careful, eventually those reputations will own us, rather than the reverse.
And I think that’s one of the biggest reasons that God calls us to lay our reputations down. Not because we need to grovel before God and make absolutely sure He’s higher than us, but because our reputations, no matter how legitimate they might be, become a way of securing and encasing ourselves in a human love that—even when that’s genuine—is less than God’s love for us.
Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, described it as “winding experiences around myself… like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”
As soon as we begin to rest in our own accomplishments and others’ perceptions of them, we drift away from the Spirit. Walk into almost any long-established church or denomination if you need further proof.