Today on NPR, I heard a discussion of “Ethical Wills.” The idea is that, in addition to leaving material possessions in a will or trust, we leave for those in future generations a statement of our ethical values. It is an opportunity to pass on what we truly value, believe, and hold dear. A guest shared his experience of reading his father’s Ethical Will, of seeing it in his father’s own handwriting, and being reminded of the values passed on to him. I agreed with the attorney who called in, not to disagree with the concept, but to emphasize that our financial/material wills and trusts should express our deepest values. Another woman called to ask ‘why, if we live our ethics, we would need to write them down for our children to know them.’ One response was that an “Ethical Will” is an opportunity to reach to generations beyond our children and those who knew us directly.
I was compelled by this discussion. Several things occur to me. First, we would do well to express our ethics in writing; not only that future generations may know us and perhaps be engaged by our ethical beliefs and values for our world and community, but that we may understand what we believe and why. Too many of us move through our lives without reflection on the decisions we make and what those decisions say about who we are — heart and soul. Even when we do reflect on our actions, we cannot assume that those close to us understand the faith, the grounding, the experiences, the understanding of life out of which our actions grow. What an amazing gift to share with those dear to us and to their children, and children’s children.
Second, I am aware that we have a difficult time talking about what we believe, here and now, with our famlies, friends, and faith communities. We can spend years working together, even living together and never truly explore and share with each other the grounding of our beliefs. Why wait until we have completed this life? What would happen, even change in our communities if we could talk about what we value and why?
At last, do our financial wills and trusts express our deepest values and commitments? Indeed where our treasure lies, there are our hearts. I was moved today by the story of a couple who left their entire estate to Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago. The monetary gift was generous and significant, but not huge by some standards. What moved me was that they, at times, would hold off turning on the air-conditioning in order to save so that their gift to DDH would be greater.
In our society we avoid talking about money because it is a ‘private’ matter. We must learn how to examine the stewardship of our resources from the perspective that our resources — financial and ethical — are not private. They are given to us by God and all that God does is for the whole of God’s people. How we share our values, beliefs, money, land, and hearts has a direct effect on our families, communities, and world.