By Edward G. Horstmann
“Did you see this?” I heard my mother’s voice calling from the living room. I was a junior in college at the time, home for Christmas, and we were cleaning up the house after the holiday.
When I entered the living room my mother was kneeling next to the fireplace, examining some black marks that were clearly visible on the white brickwork that outlined the hearth.
When I took a closer look I could see that those marks were fingerprints: evidence of someone who had been working in the fireplace, cleaning it out and preparing it for future fires, and who had then leaned against the brick with dirtied hands in order to get some leverage to stand up.
In a few moments the whole story fell in place. The last person who had cleaned the fireplace was my older brother. That had occurred not long after our father’s death, when he had come home to help with some household projects before he and his family went forth on the next stage of their lives. Not long after that, when they were settled in their new home, he had gone out for a run one evening and been struck by a car that swerved off the road, killing him instantly. Those fingerprints were a tangible reminder of his last visit with us, when we had laughed and shared dreams of the future. He cleaned the fireplace so that it would be ready whenever we wanted to light a fire.
Needless to say, those black marks were not removed from the side of the fireplace. When my mother sold our home and moved on to the next stage of her life, I am sure the thing she mourned most about that transition was leaving behind the memory of my brother’s thoughtfulness, written in ashes, right where he had left them.
“Did you find any fingerprints?” How many times have we heard those words in one crime drama after another? I have been wondering how this phrase might suggest a more positive direction. I have been thinking of the things that we do, sometimes without much thought, that leave behind traces of our presence and reveal what matters most to us. For good or ill we leave something of ourselves behind as we make decisions, arrange priorities, and interact with friends, family and strangers. For this reason the poet Maya Angelou urges us to take special care with the words that we use. She believes they have a way of seeping into a place, sticking around when we’d rather they didn’t. They may not always be measurable by traditional means, but they endure nonetheless.
I see Jesus as a man who left his mark for the best wherever he was led to live and love. His hands touched the broken places of bodies that yearned for wholeness, and for those who were healed by him I imagine that the power that flowed through him into them left an indelible impression. He pressed his fingers into bread and broke it open and fed friends and strangers alike, and did so with such relish that after his death those who ate in his name claimed to experience his companionship in their breaking of the bread. The stories that he told were simple but not simplistic and when people passed them along from one generation to another, his wise and warm presence resonated in the beauty of the language that he used. Where Jesus was concerned, the evidence of his presence always added up to something good.
The good news of Easter is that the goodness that flowed through Jesus when he was alive did not die with his death. Quite the opposite. Following his resurrection he seemed to be nowhere yet everywhere: appearing to the women who visited his tomb to tend his body, reaching out with love to fearful disciples, making himself known in ways that made him seem both familiar and strange at the same time. He ate supper with some, made breakfast for others. And when he disappeared almost as quickly as he had appeared, even in his absence there was a sense of presence.
In a life worth living we speak words and create actions that well up from a yearning to see the world made whole. When we do so, we do what Jesus did, which is always to bring more mercy, more grace, and more peace where we live and move and have our being. As we care for the future in this way we leave behind not only a trace of our lives but the fingerprints of God, whose will and wisdom flow through us. And one day perhaps others from future generations will look at the way we tended the creation and loved one another and say, “I love looking at these fingerprints they left behind.”
The Rev. Dr. Edward G. Horstmann is senior minister at Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich.