In the second greatest story ever told, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells the story of a family plagued by the lasting legacy of sin’s destructive power and the all-surpassing truth that God is Light and in Him is no darkness. The young protagonist, Alyosha, is a monk committed to practicing the Christian faith with the intensity and integrity of his mentor, Father Zossima. When the novel reaches the place in which it is time for Zossima to die, Dostoyevsky’s masterful commentary on the Church reaches scalpel precision. Due to the Christ-like nature of Zossima’s legacy, his followers are crouched in anticipation, awaiting a miracle to emerge from his expiration. The company of the faithful is fraught with opposing perspectives. Some despised the reverence that the dead priest received and so they hope for an anti-climax . . . or worse. Others are neutral and are willing to withhold judgment on the man until it is clear that his legacy either produces something of great and lasting consequence or not.
A contemporary of Zossima, Father Paissy, sees the expectation of something profound emerging from the death of saints as being a thing that worldly souls might insist upon but is crass and inordinate amongst men of God. Whenever he would detect such a spirit in the monks, he would reprove them with the words, “Such immediate expectation of something extraordinary shows a levity, possible to worldly people but unseemly in us.” The narrator makes the note that, deep down however, Paissy earnestly desired a great thing to emerge out of the earthly end of a righteous man. But while the watchers hovered between something great and nothing, most were unprepared for what actually happened.
And, behold, soon after midday there were signs of something, at first only observed in silence by those who came in and out and were evidently each afraid to communicate the thought in his mind. But by three o’clock those signs had become so clear and unmistakable, that the news swiftly reached all the monks and visitors in the hermitage, promptly penetrated to the monastery, throwing all the monks into amazement, and finally, in the shortest possible time, spread to the town, exciting every one in it, believers and unbelievers alike. The unbelievers rejoiced, and as for the believers some of them rejoiced even more than the unbelievers, for “men love the downfall and disgrace of the righteous,” as the deceased elder had said in one of his exhortations. The fact is that a smell of decomposition began to come from the coffin, growing gradually more marked, and by three o’clock it was quite unmistakable.
Dostoyevsky alternates in his writings between deeply apologetic arguments for the Church and strongly scathing criticisms of her. In Father Zossima’s stench, however, there is a prescient warning for ministers contemplating their own earthly impact and the nature of the legacy they will leave behind them. When it comes to how the earthly audience will perceive the sum of your contribution, plan on folks erecting a memorial of your blunders and contributions that later had to be undone, not a miraculous spray of lilies bursting forth from your headstone. This will lend itself to the acquisition of humility and a kind of gravity that is necessary in Godly churchmen.
I’ve lately been contemplating the legacy of a minister, here in the Northeast who, not long ago, resigned. I have regularly encountered individuals or families who have been profoundly impacted by the faithfulness of this man to the Gospel and to his work of shepherding God’s people after the manner of Christ. In his own church, however, some of the only remaining life-long members, old enough to have known the full breadth of his work, happened to be folks who were not all that impressed with him and likely never had been. The new minister who had followed him in the pulpit was, understandably, surrounded by a buzz of excitement and pregnant expectation. The new parishioners were glad for the older man’s contribution, whatever it was, but also didn’t think his exit warranted much of a celebration; after all, he was just a man.
Of course, there are exceptions. Many men have books written about them by their fans and many people love those books. Some men have films made about their impact. It’s not necessary that a minister be pessimistic about the quality of his work or the manner in which it will be received by his people — but he must be sober and humble. Men fixated on leaving a legacy are often men looking for signs that the proper monuments are being erected along the way, especially as they near the end. These men tend to mark their own success by the number of thumbs up and likes they visibly receive. In this way, legacy-building can become not only an idol but an invitation for the man to get all dressed up for the letdown.
My own father is a man who has faithfully served the Lord in churches all over New England and Canada for nearly half a century. Every congregation he has served, however, has either closed or long-forgotten him. In this case, it is true that his children will rise up and call him blessed but the opportunity for him to judge the quality and nature of his work by visible outward responses is not really an option. That can be a blessing. It’s not simply that an audience-vote might leave the man of God discouraged in his final hour, but that to look for signs of how the audience might vote negatively shapes the man while he lives and works. Every minister is quick to mouth the words that he works for an audience of One, but very few ever work in so unnoticed a context that he could actually test drive that philosophy.
Zossima’s stench of decay becomes one of his most talked about contributions to the community of the faithful and beyond. This does not mean it is by any means a fair assessment of the entirety of his work in their midst. This is part of the confusion. Ought not legacy be primarily shaped by the positive contributions one has made to a congregation? And yet, it is not simply a congregation that is watching, it is a congregation of varied perspectives, the communities that extend beyond the congregation, and the future generations that will assess a minister’s legacy from an entirely different situation in life. Ministers sometimes die only 1/4 of the way into a project for which they were the only ones with vision. Ministers have a kind of success with this or that method of evangelism and so they don’t ever change lures, only later to be blamed for failing to discern the changing times. How often is Spurgeon solely remembered for his half-baked understanding of full covenantalism, Augustine for his rare instances of excessive typological reach, or Calvin for his arguable complicity in the death of Servetus? Yet, as far as we can tell, these were great men of God. Fallen human perception is drawn to the flaw in the canvas rather than the beauty of the painting. Of course this isn’t always the case; but legacy builders should expect right judgment solely from one Critic. Rest assured that the voice of that Critic will be far weightier than a room full of people who felt pressured to say something nice at a celebration of life.
Ministers of the Gospel will often cast an earthly shadow that exaggerates the actual size of the blemishes. This is unavoidable. Planning for a thankless response from the shadowlands will properly orient the man for perseverance. There is an assessment coming. There is praise coming from the praise-worthy. We will need new ears in order to hear it.
Garrett Soucy lives in Maine with his wife and nine children where he is the pastor of Christ the King Church. He is also a writer and musician.
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