Back in the 1980s, I did an oral history project with my father, also known as Bill Tammeus, though his true name was Wilber, a name I'm glad to have avoided. I got William instead.
My parents then lived some 500 miles from me, so mostly, I'd mail Dad a list of questions that he would respond to on cassette tape. I'd transcribe his words and mail them back to him for editing.
When we got done -- either because I ran out of questions or his patience expired -- I had 222 pages that eventually got reformatted to 127 pages of single-spaced material. Now, more than 23 years after his death, I can't tell you how glad I am that I have what turned out to be Dad's spiritual will.
In this document of stories from his boyhood and his adult work in agriculture and the investment world, what comes through to me are the roots of his solid Christian values and his middle-class American principles.
For example, when I asked him about the role the local Methodist church played in his family's life when he was a kid in Delavan, Ill., here's what he said:
"Of course we always went to church every Sunday, and I suppose that I went mainly not to be left home alone. Everybody else went, and it was the thing to do. So we went. ...
"I think that by example, I did the things that were right because my folks did them, and there was just no other way. It never occurred to me really to do anything different than the rest of the family did because we were a pretty decent sort of a group, and we always tried to be a part of the community. I was not a rebel in any sense of the word." (Both Dad and Mom passed along that trait to me.)
If my own children and grandchildren one day are looking for words from me about the values that were important to me, they probably won't have to record conversations with me. I will have left behind thousands of columns and blog entries plus several books. My latest one, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, is, in fact, full of my take on the values that have shaped my life and that I would like my descendants to know about and consider for their own lives.
And yet I feel I have more to say, and I'm at work on a new book about my understanding of faith to help fill that gap. I'm looking forward to doing a bit of work on all of this when I teach a seminar Aug. 3-9 called "Writing Your Spiritual Will" at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in beautiful northern New Mexico. If you, too, want to ponder how to pass along not your valuables but your values, I hope you will join me that week at the ranch, which welcomes people of all faiths and none.
We'll talk together then about the differences between a spiritual will and a spiritual legacy, and we'll explore the various influences that have helped to shape our lives, especially the influences that we hope our children and grandchildren will want to explore and maybe even appreciate.
Between us, my wife and I have six children (two mine, four hers, all ours) and seven grandchildren, from age 12-plus to a year and a half. It's hard to find one-on-one time with them to explore values and ethics, and some of them are still a bit too young for such abstract conversations.
But I want to leave them some kind of permanent record of why my faith has been important to me, why God matters to me and why I might matter to God. And I bet you want to leave a similar record. So let's work on this together.
[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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