Running the Race of a Lifetime

 

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Imagine a group of people coming to your home and interrupting your Twinkie-eating, TV-watching routine with an urgent message: “Good News! We are from the United States Olympic Committee. We have been looking for someone to run the marathon in the next Olympics. We have statistics on every person in the entire nation on computer. We have determined that out of the two hundred seventy-five million people, you are the one person in America with a chance to bring home the gold medal in the marathon. So you are chosen. You are on the team. You will run the race.”

You are surprised because the farthest you’ve run in years is from the couch to the refrigerator. The one time you began a running program you ran down your driveway, onto the sidewalk in front of your house getting to the end of your yard only to turn around exhausted and panting barely making back to your La-Z-Boy. And just yesterday you were sweating so profusely, dripping like a faucet on the clean kitchen floor, your spouse asked, “Did you go for a jog?” “No, I just walked out to the mailbox.”

After the shock of being selected passes, you are gripped by the realization of what’s happening in your life. You picture yourself mingling with the elite athletes of the world. You allow yourself to imagine that maybe you do have what it takes to run the race. At night you dream about standing on the podium after the race and hearing the national anthem, seeing the flag raised, and bending low to receive the gold medal.

You begin to feel a rush of emotion. You say to yourself, “This is the race I was created to run. This is my destiny. This is why I was born.” This race becomes the great passion of your life. It dominates your mind. It occupies every waking moment. To run the race well—to win it if you can—becomes the central focus of your existence. It is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It is what you live for.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, you run a race. It, too, is the race of a lifetime. It, too, dominates your mind. It, too, occupies your waking moments. It, too, becomes the central focus of your existence. It, too, is what you live for.

In this race, like the Olympic race, you have been chosen. This time, however, the Olympic Committee is not selecting; God Almighty has picked. He has chosen you to run the race of a lifetime. Imagine the thrill if an Olympic committee knocked on your door selecting you to represent our country? Imagine, God knocking on the door of your heart selecting you for his team. If you have trusted in Jesus Christ God has done just that.

This is no ordinary race. The race is both a contest and a conflict. The Greek word for race is agon from which we get our word agony. The race is a contest in daily progress toward Christ-likeness. In many respects we race not against opponents, but against ourselves. Are you more like Jesus today than you were yesterday? The race is a conflict in that there is an internal struggle of the soul. Our natural bent is toward sinfulness and laziness. Are you engaging in the necessary disciplines and activities that will enable you to grow and mature in Christ-likeness?

The race is unique to you. It has been marked out especially for you. Like the orange cones on the roadway that indicate the path of a long distant race, God has marked out a race distinctive for you that will take you on an adventure. While the destination is the same for everyone—a life like Jesus, the journey that gets us there is different for everyone. Don’t compare your track to someone else’s track.

The race has no time outs. Like the marathon run, this race has no time outs, no breaks, no intermissions, and no halftimes. We are instructed to run and keep on running.

The race is full of obstacles. Unlike the marathon and more like a steeplechase, this race is full of obstacles, barriers, hurdles, and hazards. They can’t be avoided or erased. They come in different sizes and at different stages.

You run to win this race. Winning is not beating the other runners. The prize is becoming a spiritual champion. A spiritual champion is one sold out to Jesus, straining to become more like him every day. The finish line of faith is a life that is more Christian today than yesterday. The goal is not perfection, but progress.

Winning the race will require great endurance. Winning this race will require great endurance, perseverance, patience, and resolve. Victory necessitates that we run with undying persistence and steadfast endurance until we arrive at the finish line victorious.

Back to your home and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s invitation. It dawns on you: You cannot run a marathon. More to the point, you cannot run a marathon even if you try really, really hard. If you are serious about seizing the gold and standing on the winner’s platform, you will have to enter into a lifetime of training. You must arrange your life around certain practices that will enable you to do what you cannot do now by willpower alone.

Do you realize the number of hours Olympians train? The average Olympian trains four hours per day, 310 days per year, for six years before succeeding. That translates into more than 7,000 hours of training for an event that may last less than sixty seconds.

This need for training is not only for athletes; it is required for playing a musical instrument, learning a new language, or acquiring a new skill. In fact, it is mandatory for any significant challenge in life—including becoming a spiritual champion.

The single most important principle for running the race toward becoming a spiritual champion is: Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely. The apostle Paul encouraged his young protégé Timothy to “train yourself in godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7 HCSB). This thought lies behind Paul’s advice to the church at Corinth: “Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor. 9:25 HCSB).

When it comes to running marathons or becoming a spiritual champion the need is not to try harder but to train wisely. How many times have you heard a sermon or listened to a Bible Study or read a book about following Jesus and said to yourself: “I’ve got to try harder to be a better Christian”? That’s like me saying, “I’m going to try really hard to compete in a triathlon.” It won’t happen by an act of my will. I would only be able compete in a triathlon by training for a triathlon.

We arrange our life around certain disciplines that help us gain power and strength to become more like Jesus each day, to live a life as Jesus taught and modeled. The activities of prayer, Bible Study, worship, service, evangelism, stewardship are among the needed the disciplines for running the spiritual race.

The secret to winning the race, to truly live a Christ like life, is to order our lives around those activities, disciplines, and practices that were modeled by Christ, in order to accomplish through training what we cannot now do by trying.

Returning to the notion of running a marathon in the next Olympics, you begin working out; you quickly understand the need for intentional training. The Olympic Committee enlisted you to run, not a sprint, but a 26.2-mile endurance competition. In a sprint, you run a short distance as fast as you can. Speed is of utmost importance. But in a long distance contest such as a marathon, endurance is the key. You want to make it to the end.

I’m told that two critical times exist in a marathon race. The first one is at the beginning. As you leave the starting line, you feel so good that you believe that you can keep up this pace throughout the race. The temptation is to run too fast too soon. Energy is expended and none is left for the end of the race. The second critical time in a marathon is at the halfway point. You suddenly realize that you still have as far to go as you’ve already run and you’re already very tired. Runners call it “hitting the wall.” You’ve come to the end of your stamina and you’re not sure you can put one foot in front of the other anymore.

Races are not always won by the fastest. But rather by the one that keeps hanging on, who refuses to give up. Those who persist prevail.

D.H. Groberg in his poem “The Race” describes a young boy who ran a race, falling many times, yet finishing. He wrote in one stanza,
And to his dad he sadly said,
“I didn’t do too well.”
“To me, you won,” his father said.
“You rose each time you fell.”

Likewise, the great need for spiritual races is persistence. Time and time again The Scripture exhort us to persist and endure. The apostle Paul prayed for the Colossians “May you be strengthened with all power . . . for all endurance and patience” (Col. 1:11 HCSB). Paul reminded Timothy, “if we endure, we will also reign with Him” (2 Tim. 2:12 HCSB). Then the writer of Hebrews states, “For you need endurance, so that after you have done God’s will, you may receive what was promised” (Heb. 10:36 HCSB).

In the spiritual race you are running, don’t quit. Never give up. Keep going. If you have tripped and fallen, don’t stay there.

Maybe life has thrown you some curve balls. Maybe in your race you’ve been knocked off your feet a few times. You are thinking since you’re already on the ground, there’s no point in getting back up. Rather than getting up you’re planning on hanging it up.

The movie, Chariots of Fire, is the true story of Eric Liddell, a man who ran in the 1924 Olympics for Scotland, then went on to become a missionary. Before his run in the Olympics, Eric Liddell ran in a meet between England and France. He ran the 100-, 220-, and 440-yard events. (The video clip from Chariots of Fire may be shown here or just tell the story.) In the 440, he got off to a bad start. When the gun sounded, there was a lot of shoving to get in front to the inside land, the advantageous position. Liddell tangled feet with J. J. Gillies of England and tumbled to the track. He sat there dazed for a moment, not knowing whether he could get up, when the official screamed, “Get up and run!” He jumped to his feet and took off after the pack, which was now a full twenty yards ahead of him. In a quarter mile, that’s a long distance to make up. In his unorthodox style of running he took off after the pack. He pulled into fourth place ten yards behind the leader, J. J. Gillies. With forty yard to go, he pulled into third place, then second. Right at the tape he passed Gillies, stuck his chest out, won the race, and collapsed to the track in total exhaustion. Medical personnel had to assist him off the track that day.

An article appearing the next day in The Scotsman newspaper said, “The circumstances in which Liddell won the race made it a performance bordering on the miraculous. Veterans whose memories take them back thirty-five years and in some cases longer in the history of athletics were unanimous in the opinion that Liddell’s win in the quarter mile was the greatest track performance they had ever seen.”

There is something noble and honorable about not quitting—about getting back up and dusting yourself off and continuing to compete. Remember it is not about finishing last or finishing first, but simply about finishing. Don’t give up on God because he hasn’t given up on you. You can do this. You can finish the race. You can bring home the gold.

Back to your home, the Olympic Committee leaves. You are left pondering their proposal. It all comes down to one question: Will you engage in the training so that you will have the endurance to run the race? Will you get off the sofa and get in the race?

The same question is apropos for the spiritual race: Will you engage in the training so that you will have the endurance to run the race? Will you get off the pew and get in the race?

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Lose the Weight

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The author of Hebrews wrote, “Therefore since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that lies before us” (Heb. 12:1 HCSB). Hebrews 12 begins with the word “Therefore.” When you see the word therefore in the Bible you ask what’s it there for? The “therefore” of Hebrews 12:1 is a reference back to Hebrews 11, the great hall of fame of faith. The champions of Hebrews 11 have run the race victoriously and now encourage us to become spiritual champions, too. The men and women of faith listed in Hebrews 11 were not perfect people. Look at the list. Noah was a drunk. Abraham, a liar. Samson, a person of passion. Rahab, a prostitute. Moses had a temper problem. Gideon was distraught with fear. David, an adulterer and murderer. Not only were these people not perfect, they weren’t even close to perfect. But they progressed toward the finish line of Christ-likeness.

These champions of yesterday testify to us today. Noah is telling every drunk you can stop. Abraham reminds every liar that you can tell the truth. Samson acknowledges that God’s power can enable you to win over your passion. Rahab informs you that you can break the chains of promiscuity. Moses jogs your memory that with God’s help you can control anger. Gideon testifies that you can face your fears. And, David beckons that you can overcome the worst things a human being can do.

In your race, what would be presently keeping you from being the disciple you would like to be?

Is your weight addiction? What do you think you can’t get along without? We may condemn or pity the alcoholic and the drug abuser, but the truth is that we all tend to form addictions of some sort. How jealously do we guard certain little habits? Our paper in the morning. Coffee on the way to work. Uninterrupted time watching our favorite television show. Addictions, large and small, gross or petty, can be overcome. Call out of the stadium Moses who struggled with drunkenness. He will tell you that our little “dependencies” are actually crutches; how can we run a race hobbling along on them? Addictions weigh us down. God says lose the extra weight.

Is your weight lying? Lying seems such an inconsequential sin. Who does it really harm? You and God. There are no little sins to God. God abhors dishonesty. If you are struggling with tongue issues call Abraham down to help. Abraham twice lied to a king by claiming his wife was his sister. He was a deceiver and a liar, but he overcame it. He was a man of faith who had to come to trust in God not only in his walk but also with his talk. Foul mouths are dirty little weights. God says lose the extra weight.

Is your weight passion? Maybe you struggle with issues of your heart. They come in the form of ambitions, prejudices, obsessions, infatuations, and zeal. Passions are not necessarily evil, that is, until they get you off track and cause you to lose focus. Passions misdirected can destroy a life. Just ask Samson. Call him down from the stands. A man blessed with passion. But it ruined him. He will tell you, “Don’t substitute a passion of people and things for God. Passion is an obtrusive weight. God says lose the extra weight.

Is your weight promiscuity? Are you struggling with your sex drive? Have your sexual relations overflowed the God-ordained boundary of marriage? Nothing will weigh a person down heavier and be harder to break than sexual sin. Talk to Rahab, a former prostitute who assisted the children of Israel in their campaign to take the Promise Land, but now residing in the stadium of spiritual champions. Rahab will tell you that the sin of promiscuity can be broken, forgiven, and you can be restored to wholeness and wellness. But first you must let go of this ball and chain that is holding you down. Sex sin is a razor sharp trap that will ensnare and wound you. God says lose the extra weight.

Is your weight anger? Do you have a temper? Can you ignite in a split second when some of life’s inconveniences and frustrations are blown your way? The more we allow sources of offense to preoccupy us the less time and emotional energy we have left over to run the race. Are you weighed down by anger? Call down Moses. He struggled with his temper, but now resides in the heavenly grandstands. He will tell you to forgive quickly and go on with the race. Anger is an encumbering weight. God says lose the extra weight.

Is your weight fear? Fear can be paralyzing. The race for spiritual champions meanders through some unfamiliar terrain and threatening situations and dangerous environments. It’s an adventure. At times we will be anxious. Sometimes we will freeze. At other times we will want to refuse to go any farther. When fear strikes its chord call upon Gideon. Gideon, God’s warrior, will remind you of the time he led his soldiers into battle. Though outnumbered and death seemed imminent, Gideon trusted God and won the battle. Gideon would say that your fear is a weight that will hold you back from running your full potential in the race. Give it up. Give it to God. Trust in his presence. Fear is a needless weight. God says lose the extra weight.

Is your weight your past? Have you committed a horrendous act for which you can’t forgive yourself? Did you do something so awful that the Devil says you are not eligible to run the race? You can never run a race if you are always retracing your steps. What ghosts from yesterday are haunting your todays, distracting you, weighing you down? Call David down for encouragement. David was guilty of an illicit affair and a murderous cover-up. Such heinous crimes would have disqualified most people. Yet God met David in his sin. God forgave him. Restored him. Cleansed him. Remade him. David would say, “Sin is sin, it must be dealt with. But don’t hide it in the closest of your mind. Take to Jesus. He already knows your sin. Confess it so he can forgive you. And in doing so he will put you back in the race to.” Past mistakes and sins are a painful weight. God says lose the extra weight.

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What’s Holding You Back?

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The finish line of faith is a life that is more Christian today than yesterday. The goal is not perfection, but progress. Hence, the Christian life is not like a tourist strolling in the park or a vacationer meandering along a beach. The Christian life is more like a marathon

By the way, are you any farther along toward that goal today than you were yesterday? This is not a question of longevity but of likeness. It matters little how long you’ve been on the track; it matters greatly how far you’ve progressed from the starting line.

If you aren’t making progress what is holding you back? What is tripping you up in your spiritual journey? What is slowing your progress toward Christlikeness? In other words, in the race set before you, what would God say is presently keeping you from being the follower he would like you to be?

The author of Hebrews wrote, “Therefore since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that lies before us” (Heb. 12:1 HCSB). Hebrews 12 begins with the word “Therefore.” When you see the word therefore in the Bible you ask what’s it there for? The “therefore” of Hebrews 12:1 is a reference back to Hebrews 11, the great hall of fame of faith. The champions of Hebrews 11 have run the race victoriously and now encourage us to become spiritual champions, too. The men and women of faith listed in Hebrews 11 were not perfect people. Look at the list. Noah was a drunk. Abraham, a liar. Samson, a person of passion. Rahab, a prostitute. Moses had a temper problem. Gideon was distraught with fear. David, an adulterer and murderer. Not only were these people not perfect, they weren’t even close to perfect. But they progressed toward the finish line of Christ-likeness.

These champions of yesterday testify to us today. Noah is telling every drunk you can stop. Abraham reminds every liar that you can tell the truth. Samson acknowledges that God’s power can enable you to win over your passion. Rahab informs you that you can break the chains of promiscuity. Moses jogs your memory that with God’s help you can control anger. Gideon testifies that you can face your fears. And, David beckons that you can overcome the worst things a human being can do.

Like the champions who have gone before us, we aren’t perfect either, we all carry a lot of weight with us throughout life that tends to impede our spiritual progress.

• The Weight of Outright Sin.
Sometimes that weight is outright sin—things that we know are wrong but we have simply been unwilling to let go of them. Outright sin entangles the feet so that the runner trips and falls, often repeatedly. How may people have you seen get tripped up in their Christian walk over bitterness, lying, envy, idolatry, and sexual sins?

• The Weight of Besetting Sin.
Sometimes that weight is besetting sin—things that we have tried to get rid of, but they keep coming back time and again, like a cancer. Memories of past mistakes, bouts with addictions, wrongful habits that we can’t break are among the many besetting sins that encumber our advancement

• The Weight of Distractions.
But sin is not the only thing that keeps us from being spiritual champions. Sometimes those weights are things that are not necessarily sinful, but they are distractions that keep us from progressing spiritually. The author of Hebrews also speaks of “laying aside every weight . . . that so easily ensnares us.” These are the many things in life that are not particularly sinful in and of themselves, but they have the potential to become weights that slow us down, hold us back, and impede our progress. They are pursuits like ambition, socializing, decorating, golf, tennis, surfing the web, movies, music, talking on the phone too much, playing too many video games, reading too many unimportant books.

How do you go about losing the extra weight? Admittedly, it will not be easy because most sins are stubborn, and many weights involve years of habit. It’s like training for an Olympic event that takes years of practice, work, discipline, and dedication. Follow these steps.

• Identify the sins and weights.
The first step is to identify the sins and weights that are tripping you up. We are very aware of our outright sins and besetting sins. The distractions, however, are sometimes a little more difficult to identify.

• Confess and repent of your sins.
The next step is to confess and repent of what is weighing you down. Confess means “to speak the same.” In other words, it means to call it like God sees it. Confession accepts the responsibility for our actions and acknowledges what God already knows. Our holy God also demands that, in addition to confessing our sins, we repent of it, or forsake it. Repentance says that we turn our backs on the way of sin and turn instead to God. The farther we progress toward being a spiritual champion the more sin does not look good. We turn from sin not only for what it does to us, but also because of what it does to our Holy Father.

• Be filled with God’s Spirit.
Once sin has been confessed and forsaken, God forgives and gives us his Spirit to enable us to live victoriously over it. So the next step for us is to be filled with God’s Spirit. Trying to live above sin without God’s power is like trying to drive a car without gasoline. When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us his Spirit to empower us spiritually. Through the Spirit’s power we are given the resources that break the chains of our sin and remove the weights that hold us back so we can run the race to become a spiritual champion.

Our part is to identify the sin, confess it, repent of it, and then seek the controlling influence of God’s Spirit. Once we do this then God can do a miraculous work. This process may take but a moment or many years. While hard to describe in words, let me see if I can illustrate it visually.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest was a mentally slow and physically challenged child. While wearing braces on his legs he moved painfully slow until one day a miracle occurred. As we was walking home from school with his friend Jennie a group of bullies road up on their bicycles and began throwing rocks at Forrest. Jeannie instructed Forrest to run. As he ran away his braces came off and he ran so fast that the boys on bikes couldn’t catch him.

In the race set before you, what would God say is presently keeping you from being the disciple he would like you to be? Do you feel like Forrest Gump before his braces came off? Are you trying to run your spiritual race with leg braces? Is sin tying your down? Are distractions holding you back? What sin have you identified? Will you confess it and repent of it? Will you allow God’s Spirit to control you so God can do a miracle in your life? Then you can run unencumbered the race God has set before you.

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Are You A Quitter?

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Some years after both of my parents had died, I drove to Alabama to handle some business matters with my family. After our meeting, my oldest sister, Ann, told us she had come across a note Daddy had written her many years ago, that she thought we would like to read. The note was hand-written on a homeowner’s insurance invoice that my Daddy had sent to Ann and her husband.

Daddy had worked for many years in the local bank and sold insurance on the side. The year before the note was written, the bank had been sold and the new owners in the process of taking over had accused my Daddy of embezzlement. He was arrested by the FBI and formally charged. In waiting for the trial, Daddy was without work. To make ends meet he continued to sell insurance and peddled fruits and vegetables in an old truck we affectionately called “Moses.”

Mother and Daddy had five children. Ann, the oldest, was married and had two daughters at the time. Next was Linda, she was in college. Jerry, the oldest son was fifteen, a freshman in high school. And my twin brother and I were four years old. Times were difficult for my mother and daddy. As the hardships and disappointments loomed over their heads, the note dated September 12, 1960 read:

Dear Ann,
We are still having bad luck, Jerry got his arm broke and his lip busted in the first football game, but he is feeling good today. We don’t think it will keep him from playing and we are not quitters.
Daddy

Daddy’s words “and we are not quitters” appear almost an afterthought in reporting Jerry’s injury. Perhaps, using this phrase was his way of encouraging my sister. Perhaps, it was his way of reminding himself of what he had taught and demonstrated for us kids. Either way, my Daddy did not quit. The charge of embezzlement was eventually dropped. Daddy began a new business. He would not give up. He continued in the race. In fact, he finished strong.

Our human tendency is to quit too soon. Our human tendency is to stop before we cross the finish line. Our inability to finish what we start is seen in the smallest of things: A partly-mowed lawn. A half-read book. Letters begun but not completed. An incomplete landscaping project. An abandoned diet. Or, it shows up in life’s most painful areas: An abandoned child. A job hopper. A course to finish a degree. A wrecked marriage.

Am I touching on some painful areas? Any chance I’m addressing someone who is considering not finishing the race? If I am, I want to encourage you to look at Jesus.

The author of Hebrews urged. “Keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2 HCSB). The star in this race is Jesus. The rest of the runners in the competition are people who are being beaten up; they are discouraged and downcast; and often, they are on the wrong end of whips and chains suffering from overt persecution. They are counting the cost of the tough life of faith and are considering quitting. They are looking back and wanting to go back, but the Hebrews’ author is exhorting them to finish the race. Don’t quit. The writer is encouraging them to look at the star runner—Jesus.

Jesus was not a quitter. Did he ever want to quit? You bet. Tempted by Satan. Burden by the needs of the masses. Frustrated by his closest friends. Plummeted by the words and tortures of his enemies. But he did not quit. He finished the race. That is why his last words spoken from the cross are so fitting, “It is finished!” (John 19:30 HCSB).

Stop and listen. Can you imagine the cry from the cross? The thunder has silenced the crowd. The lighting has raised their eyes toward Jesus. Then drawing his last breath, pushing his feet down on that Roman nail, he shouts, “It is finished!”

A cry of defeat? Hardly. No, this is no cry of despair. It is a cry of completion. A cry of victory. A cry of fulfillment.

He “endured a cross and despised the shame” (Heb. 12:2 HCSB). His track led him to a cruel Roman cross unjustly accused for crimes he did not commit, but running his race taking our place instead. Credit his strong sense of mission. He knew why he had come to earth and what he had to do to finish his race. Take a hard look at him. “Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever” (Heb. 12:2-3 Msg). He has set the standard. Study his performance. He ran straight through the tape at the finish line. He died in our place.

Why did he do it? “So that you won’t grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3 HCSB). He has provided a model and an example for us to follow. He has run the extra mile, endured the hardships, faced the pain, felt the scorn, heard the ridicule. When the going gets tough, he comes alongside of us and says, “I know the pain, the hurt, the agony, but you can continue, you can finish. I am with you.”

Where is he now? He is seated “at the right hand of God’s throne” (Heb. 12:2 HCSB). He has finished the race marked out before him. He is seated in a place of honor alongside God, the Father. He has finished the race victorious. Only after he completed his race did he sit down when and where it was appropriate to sit: at the right hand of his Father.

With Jesus’ run to the finish line the history-long plan of redeeming man was finished. The message of God to man was finished. The works done by Jesus as a man on earth were finished. The job was finished. The song had been sung. The blood had been poured. The sacrifice had been made. The sting of death had been removed. It was over.

Jesus was not a quitter. What he began, he finished.

What about you and me?

Are you close to quitting? Please don’t do it. Are you ready to give up on a relationship? Give it another try. Do you feel like calling it quits with a child? Tell them you love them and offer a new start. Are you pessimistic about your job? Roll up your sleeves and go at it again. Can’t resist temptation? Accept God’s forgiveness and go one more round.

Remember Jesus selected you for the race. He doesn’t want you to quit. He is beside you to encourage, he is before you to model, and he is behind you to support. Listen to the chorus of the committed testifying from the stands that you can finish.

An amazing story came out of the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico City. The closing ceremonies had just been completed. The spectators and athletes, still warm from the euphoria of the celebration, were gathering their belongings to leave the stadium. Then the announcer asked them to remain in their seats. Down the boulevard came the whine of police sirens. From their vantage point, many in the stadium could see motorcycles with their flashing blue lights, encircling someone making his way toward the stadium. Whoever it was, he was moving slowly.

Everyone remained seated to see the last chapter of the Olympics take place. By the time the police escort got to the stadium, the public address announcer said that a final marathoner would be making his way into the arena and around the track to the finish line. Confusion was evident among the crowd. The last marathoner had come in hours ago. The medals had already been awarded. What had taken this man so long? The first sign of the runner making his way out of the tunnel and onto the track told the whole story.

John Stephen Akhwari from Tanzania, covered with blood, hobbled into the light. He had taken a horrible fall early in the race, whacked his head, damaged his knee, and endured a trampling before he could get back on his feet. And there he was, over 40 kilometers later, stumbling his way to the finish line.

The response of the crowd was so overwhelming it was almost frightening. They encouraged Akhwari through the last few meters of his race with a thundering ovation that far exceeded the one given the man who, hours earlier had come in first. When Akhwari crossed the finish line, he collapsed into the arms of the medical personnel who immediately whisked him off to the hospital.

The next day, Akhwari appeared before sports journalists to field their questions about his extraordinary feat. The first question was the one any of us would have asked, “Why, after sustaining the kinds of injuries you did, would you ever get up and proceed to the finish line, when there was no way you could possibly place in the race?” John Stephen Akhwari said this: “My country did not send me over 11,000 kilometers to start a race. They sent me over 11,000 kilometers to finish one.”

He was running for himself; he was running for his country; he refused to quit.

When you are tempted to throw in the towel remember that you are not running for fame or fortune, but for your God. It doesn’t matter that you may set no world records. It doesn’t matter whether you finish first or last. God has called you to run this race and he expects you to finish. Here’s the secret with God: Everyone who finishes gets the gold.

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5 Truths about God’s Discipline

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The role of suffering and hardship is one of the most neglected issues in life, because we do not arrange for it to happen. Instead, life inevitably arranges it for us.

Have you ever considered that the tests, trials, and sufferings that you are facing may be for your benefit to help you grow and become stronger?

The writer of Hebrews stated, “Endure it as discipline” (Heb. 12:7 HCSB). In this case, discipline is not the spiritual practices like scripture memorization, prayer, solitude, simplicity, or fasting; rather, the discipline is hardship or spiritual conditioning that comes in the form of testing, suffering, trails, and affliction.

Discipline means training. The word is used in reference to a father training his children, or training in righteousness, or God training his children. The writer of Hebrews is saying that God lovingly disciplines his children to train them to become spiritual champions. It is meant to draw us away from what will cause us harm and lead us into the likeness of Jesus. It is a spiritual maturing process that God allows us to experience to become like Christ. It is God’s effort to realign our will to his.

Discipline is not punishment. Sometimes when hardships and calamity fall upon us we think that these sufferings are the punishments for our sinfulness. Hardship and suffering are not God’s way of getting even. Neither is it his means of retaliating for the wrongs we have committed. God’s discipline is not the sentence for our sin. The punishment for our sin was laid on Jesus at the cross, once and forever.

When God disciplines us he is not getting us back; he is drawing us back. He seeks to bring us back to his will, from that which will destroy us, and toward his likeness.

God filters the events of life through his sovereign fingers so that we might become more and more like his Son, Jesus Christ.

A novice once asked the great Michelangelo how he sculptured such beautiful statutes. Pointing to an angel he had just chiseled out of marble, he said, “I saw the angel in the marble, I chiseled until I set it free.”

In a similar vein, yet not as eloquent, a southern artisan had completed sculpting a horse out of rock. Bewildered by the transformation, a spectator said, “How in the world did you do it?” The artist replied, “I knock everything off that don’t look like a horse.”

Likewise, God wants to free us to be all that we can be. He has to knock off the rough edges of our sinfulness, chisel away the wrongful attitudes, and sandpaper our character flaws. For that to happen he disciplines us.

Here are five truths to remember about God’s discipline.

1. God is a disciplinarian.
He is like a coach who practices, drills, instructs, and corrects his players so that they can be in top shape for a game or a race.

2. God’s discipline is a sign of a personal relationship.
God’s discipline is compared to a parent’s discipline of a child. A parent only has jurisdiction over his or her own children. Because of the relationship, the parent has an intimate concern and understanding of that child. As a result, a loving parent administers the discipline with an eye on helping the child become all that they can become.

God’s discipline flows out of his love for us. We are his children. Unlike human parents, he never disciplines in anger. If he did he would destroy us, reducing us to nothing (Jeremiah 10:24). He may have to discipline us severely at times, but he would never kill us (Psalm 118:18).

When faced with the hardship of God’s discipline, we should accept it as God’s method of training and as a token that we are beloved children of God.

I remember scuffling home from a basketball practice one day, defeated and discouraged.

“What’s the matter?” my older brother, Jerry, asked.

“The coached yelled at me the entire practice. It seemed that I couldn’t do anything right.”

Then, Jerry gave me an insight that I had never thought of before. “Rick, don’t worry when a coach yells at you, worry if he stops. As long as he is correcting and instructing you he sees hope and potential. When he stops offering advice and is silent toward you he has given up on you.”

God loves us just the way we are, but he refuses to let us stay that way. He wants us to be just like Jesus. Don’t take his discipline as anger toward you, take it as affirmation that you are his child, that he believes in you, and that he wants nothing but the best for you. He’s a loving parent that refuses to give up on you.

3. God’s discipline is oftentimes painful.
I remember the switching I received from my mother. I can’t forget the paddling I got from a teacher. It hurt. Discipline is rarely painless. But, a double meaning exists in the word painful. Discipline hurts the receiver and the giver. I had to become a parent to understand the words my parents said before enacting a punishment, “This is going to hurt me as much as you.” Discipline hurts—God and us. God doesn’t like it any more than we do.

4. God disciplines for an ultimate purpose.
Never is the hardship and suffering sent our way capriciously. His ultimate purpose is to make us like his son (Romans 8:29). In order for that to happen, he has to change us. Ultimately, that is the purpose of all discipline, whether it is from a parent, or a coach, or from God. God seeks to change our behavior, our actions, our thoughts, and our motives.

It has been said that God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. God sacrifices our comfort to make us conformed to his character.

5. God’s discipline seeks a finished product.
God wants us to break through the tape by becoming a spiritual champion. The signs of that occurring are: sharing in his holiness, displaying a harvest of righteousness, and living a life of peace. Upward we are holy—set apart like God, outward we are righteous—acting like God, and inward we have peace—the calmness of God.

Don’t you want that kind of life—one lived right that has a profound tranquility? It all hinges on your response to God’s discipline.

What is our reaction when our loving Heavenly Father disciplines us? We have three possible reactions.

• We can resent God’s discipline bitterly.
My trusty thesaurus offers the following synonym for resent it recommends dislike, hate, take exception to, rail against. Yet many people do just that when the hardships of life come. As a result, they become bitter, hardened, scornful, and filled with hate.

Discipline not rightly received sours rather than sweeten the character.

• We can accept God’s discipline grudgingly.
When the pain and hardships come on our lives we can endure them but not be happy about it. In this scenario, we often question God, “Why are you doing this to me?” We know that we are God’s children; we just can’t understand why he would be putting us to the test. Somehow we have the attitude that as believers we are above the painful realities of life. That in some way our Christian credentials give us a primary status that is to protect us from the hurts and heartaches. Instead of asking God, “Why?” we would be better off asking, “What are you teaching me?”

• We can embrace God’s discipline willingly.
Discipline is always preparatory to blessing and can bring nothing but blessing when rightly received. To embrace God’s discipline is to understand that a loving God will never chastise his children capriciously. His discipline is to prune every branch in our lives that does not bear fruit so that our lives can increase its yield. His discipline is purposeful and brings us life.

When our attitudes are right, God can use those hardships to change us more like his son. When that happens we will cross the tape becoming a spiritual champion.

During my college tennis days, the running and practicing the team endured paid off. Our teams won the conference then the region earning a births in the National Tournament.

My parents were drove down to watch us play in Florida. While in Ocala in a conversation with my parents, my coach paid me a tremendous complement. My parents told me later that the coach had said, “If I ever have a son I would like for him to be like Rick.” All the running and hardship that I went through not only made me a better tennis player; it made me a better person.

Don’t you realize that God makes a similar statement concerning you? “For all my children, I would like for them to be like my Son—Jesus.” And to accomplish that purpose he disciplines his children. And for us his children to become like Jesus we must embrace his discipline willfully. Again and again.

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Why Discipline Is Important

 

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Athletics—football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and summer—provided the competition with opponents and the camaraderie with teammates that I enjoyed as a teenager. What I did not like about competitive athletics, however, was the conditioning—repetitive calisthenics, endless drills, and habitually running.

A word that I came to dread in each of these running experiences was “Again.” Meaning we would run, all out to the point of exhaustion, thinking that was the last one only to hear our coach say “Again.”

Perhaps, you have forgotten that experience in your own life or maybe you have never had the pleasure. In the movie Miracle regarding the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team’s triumphant victory over the Soviet Union, Coach Herb Brooks handpicked a group of undisciplined kids and trained them to play like they had never played before. He broke them to make them. Following a tie with the Norwegian National team, Herb Brooks made his players stay on the ice and sprint “suicides.” He made them do it over and over, repeating the word “Again.”

I had a coach like Herb Brooks when I went off to college to play tennis. I was recruited to play at Martin College, Pulaski, Tennessee. Pulaski is an idyllic county seat town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Coach Johnny Jackson was determined that what we lacked in skill was made in conditioning. Every practice was concluded with running. Coach Jackson would have us run sprints, then run the lines of a tennis court, and to top it off, Coach Jackson mapped out a one-mile route for us to run through the streets of the college, into the neighborhood finishing with a steep hill that we affectionately called “Killer Hill.” The hill was about a quarter of a mile that appeared straight up. Some of the players could not make it all the way up without stopping to catch their breath and rest their aching legs.

Coach Jackson would often say, “If we get into a third and decisive set with our opponents, we will not lose because we were out of shape.”

Sometimes to foster his point, after running the mile concluding up killer hill, we would hear that gut-wrenching word—“Again.”

Coach Jackson’s tactics reminded me of Tom Landry’s definition of a coach. The former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys said, “The job of a coach is to make players do what they don’t want to do, in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.”

As other coaches have said, “No pain, no gain.”

Similarly, to become what we want often requires doing things that we don’t want to do, in order to achieve what we’ve always wanted to be.

Welcome discipline. It’s the way to becoming the best you can be.

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5 Actions to Take When You’re at a Crossroads

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Transitional moments come with growing up: the changes from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood. At other times these transitions are artificial. The ages of 16, 40, and 65 have significant implications. Transitional moments can be forced upon people—divorce, relocation, early retirement, loss of job.

Transitional moments impact a community: Growth and expansion or decline and decay. A community where significant racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic changes are taking place is in transition.

Chapters three and four of Joshua detail the children of Israel after decades of wandering in the wilderness crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. In this narrative the words crossing over is used twenty-one times. It marks a transition in their lives. It indicates an arrival in which they had been preparing for over forty years. It implies the entrance to a new beginning. The “cross over” required a new faith experience in order to occupy the new land God had in store for them.

Their experience will help us as we face the transitions in our lives.

1. Follow God.
Up until this time, during their time in the wilderness, the Hebrews followed the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. These two divinely instituted symbols now have been removed. The Ark of the Covenant takes the place of the daily cloud and the nightly fire. The ark symbolized God’s presence and power. It was the sign that God was leading them.

If we are to move confidently into new situations, we need to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord. We must follow him. He knows the way. He sees the road farther ahead than we could possibly ever see.

2. Purify yourselves.
Whenever we face new opportunities, God tells us “Consecrate yourselves” (Josh. 3:5 NIV). Then and now God calls his people to holiness, purity, and separation. For the Israelites on the edge of the Jordan, this meant washing themselves with water and practicing the ceremonial rites that would make them clean.

For us today, it means that we should come afresh to be cleansed by the precious blood of Jesus that washes away all sin.

Purification gets our soul in a position to be used by God.

3. Hear from God.
Often in our excitement, either from joy or worry, when undertaking new ventures, we fail to slow down and hear from God. We want to rush in, get busy, and move ahead. But, like Joshua instructed the people of Israel (v. 9), we need first to stop and to listen.

We live in a fast-paced, hurry-up world. If the devil can keep us busy and in a hurry, half his battle is won. We need to slow down and tune in to God. We need to hear from him.

4. Move ahead in faith.
After decades of wandering, the Hebrews were now ready to transition into the Promise Land. There was one minor problem—the Jordan River was at flood stage and there was no bridge, no boat, no ferry. The command from God came to Joshua to organize the people in a straight line behind the Ark of the Covenant and march directly toward the raging waters. And somewhere along the way God would intervene. First, the children of Israel had to step out in faith. In fact, only when the people in front stepped into the water did God miraculously part the waters.

Like the children of Israel, we want to move out toward our new opportunities, our new ventures. But doing so requires a step of uncertainty. Transforming faith happens only in the context of movement. The power of God comes to those who obey. Often God provides no solution until we trust him and move ahead.

5. Know that God keeps his promises.
Did God choose the time of the crossing when the river was at its highest to demonstrate his power? God never performs a miracle without a purpose. This miracle set the stage for the Israelites to take possession of the Promised Land. Can’t you hear some of those Israelites saying, “If God can dam the waters of the Jordan, he can surely help us defeat our enemies.”

This miracle showed that God keeps his promises. The transitions of life cannot hide our faces from God. The transitions of life cannot change the purposes of God. The transitions of life cannot destroy the child of God.

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This One Thing is Needed to Go Deeper in Your Relationships

 

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In many respects an elevator filled with people is a microcosm of our world today: a large, impersonal institution where anonymity, isolation, and independence are the uniform of the day. It shows us that people can be surrounded by other people in a crowded setting, and not experience community. We can be a part of a company, a club, or a church and not feel we belong or are accepted. We can share a car pool, an office, and even a home and not have significant relationships.

Perhaps an examination of the life of a man from antiquity, the apostle Paul, will shed light on our modern predicament. The modern corporate person who is upwardly mobile, with an emphasis on mobile, has nothing on Paul. He was born in Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem, lived in Damascus, spent formative time in the desert, moved to Antioch, and that was only the beginning. Professionally, he ventured out from Antioch on three extensive missionary campaigns, traveling from city to city. Yet wherever he went he established a band of people who huddled together in supportive and encouraging community. How was he able to create significant relationships even on the run, even in the midst of his mobility, even in his transient travels?

First Thessalonians, one of Paul’s most personal letters, identifies some of the key components for establishing and maintaining significant relationships.

1. Concede our need for others.
Just as a child needs a mother we need each other. This need for others is rooted deep within our souls. God planned it that way. That’s why God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18 NIV).

2. Cultivate deep relationships.
Healthy people do not take relationships lightly. They know that to survive in a cold and cruel world requires deep relationships. But those relationship do not just happen, they require effort. They know that they have to do more than just reach out to others; they have to share their lives with others as well.

This truth was one of the secrets of Paul’s establishment of supportive relationships. Here was a man that every time he wrote to a church, he would always call by name two, three, or four people that were very close to him. He had developed significant relationships with these people. Paul knew that to survive in a cold and cruel world would require deep relationships. But those relationships would not just happen; they would require an effort on his part. He knew he had to do more than just reach out to others; he had to share his life with them.

Found in verses seven and eight are three words—rhyming words—that form the basis for developing relationships which pass the test of time.

• Care—By practically getting involved in another’s life. Remember people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

• Share—By relationally getting involved in another’s life. The word picture of “sharing our lives” continues the mothering idea and paints a picture of a mother nursing her young. A mother cannot nurse her children without sharing a part of herself with her child. For us to share with others in deep relationship necessitates that we get up close and personal with another. One cannot share at a distance.

• Dear—By emotionally getting involved in another’s life. Paul loved these people. And when we love others we do not treat them as a means to an end, but rather as individuals of value. To communicate our love with others we must dare to talk about our affections. We must learn the gestures of love—a hug, a handshake, roughhousing, as well as many acts of kindness. May we never forget that love is something you do, not just something you say.

3. Commit to authenticity.
It is not enough to admit we need each other or say, “Oh, a few friends would be nice.” We must commit ourselves to getting beneath the surface talk and become interested and accountable to each other. Authenticity occurs when the masks come off, conversations get deep, hearts get vulnerable, lives are shared, accountability is invited, and tenderness flows. It is where believers in the body of Christ really do become brothers and sisters.

Authenticity is becoming absorbed in the lives of others as an active participant, relating to, sharing with, and caring for others. The apostle Paul describes authenticity in five words, “We imparted our own lives” (1 Thess. 2:8 NASB). Paul did not erect barriers. He was not aloof. He opened his life to others. Reuben Gornitzke said of the need for authenticity, “We can’t simply cheer people on and give them our best wishes. We have to make room for them in our lives.”

It is when we make room for others in our lives that the walls of indifference and apathy come down. It is when we make room for others that we discover the best of others and the best in ourselves.

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The One Distinguishing Feature of a Real Man

 

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What is a man? It seems like a simple question, but many men don’t know the answer. Read the poem written by a young man to pastor and author Robert Lewis:

What is a man?
Is he someone who is strong and tall,
Or is taut and talented as he plays ball?
Is he someone who is hardened and rough,
Who smokes and drinks and swears enough?
Is he someone who chases women hard?
With a quest to conquer, but never dropping his guard?
Is he someone with a good business mind,
Who gets ahead of the others with his nose to the grind?
Or is he someone who tries his best,
Not really caring about any of the rest?
What is a man? Does anyone know?
TELL ME!
Who is the prototype? To whom shall I go?

Society? Current culture can’t make up its mind about men. Society has spent the last thirty years redefining masculinity into something more sensitive, safe, manageable and, well, feminine.

History? History has displayed a caricature of manhood from tyrants to pirates. Occasionally a great man, like Socrates, Plato, Luther, or Lincoln, will ride onto the screen of time, but they seem to be few and far between.

Television? According to my wife, since Tom Selleck left the airways, there hasn’t been a real man on the screen in sometime. Instead we see a proliferation of whiners, and self-promoting and self-reliant types in every reality series.

Corporate America? Have we not produced a whole generation of people who are clamoring and clawing for a pot of gold that does not exist? Many are greed-filled, immorality-justifying, family-absent, ethics-lacking. They are hardly the models we desire.

Athletics? The world of sport produces the fastest, the strongest, and the fiercest of competitors. Their massive biceps are equaled only by their massive egos. Many athletes will readily admit that they want the lime light but refuse to be role models.

Church? “Christianity,” according to John Eldredge in Wild at Heart, “as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men. When all is said and done, I think most men in the church believe that God put them on earth to be a good boy. The problem with men, we are told, is that they don’t know how to keep their promises, be spiritual leaders, talk to their wives, or raise their children. But, if they will try real hard they can reach the lofty summit of becoming . . . a nice guy.” What man wants to grow up to be a really nice guy? Eldredge invites us to walk into most churches and what we will find is that most Christian men are bored.

Remember the questions: What is a man? Who is the prototype? To whom shall I go?

The Path a Real Man Takes
The confusion about manhood is laid to rest in the person of Jesus Christ. Take a look at him. Jesus was tough and tender, compassionate and committed, beautiful and bold. He was a man’s man. He is the prototype—God’s model for manhood. Like any great man, we want to trace the path that led to his greatness. Christ’s path to being a model for manhood was not a typical one. He traveled from highest to the lowest and back to the highest again. He left heaven and came down into this world to return again—from top to bottom to top.

A Road Less Traveled
We live in a world of self-promotion, defending our own rights, taking care of ourselves first, winning by intimidation, pushing for first place, and a dozen other self-serving agendas. That attitude does more to squelch our joy and destroy our manhood than any other.

God’s model of manhood understands that humiliation comes before promotion. Humility is a radical concept in America manhood. Our culture is full of people who think they are better than everybody else. We have elevated selfishness to an art form. True humility is not thinking lowly of ourselves, but thinking accurately of ourselves. Humility is not self-hatred of lack of confidence. Neither does it imply that a person becomes the proverbial doormat. Humility is thinking true and realistic thoughts about God and ourselves. A real man sees himself as he is—flawed, sinful, and inadequate. And they see God as he really is—majestic, sovereign, omnipotent, and gracious.

Real men eventually follow the path that Jesus followed. We may begin our journey with pride, confident that we can do anything. We shout out like Jack Dawson in the movie Titanic, “I am the king of the world.” But eventually we get knocked down—either by an iceberg or the sheer reality of life. Every man may begin the life journey with pride and arrogance, but eventually we will be brought down. The low points define us and make us.

The Barrier to Greatness
When I was in the Rotary Club, often at our luncheons a junior or senior from the local high schools would come and tell about their dreams and aspirations. They would speak with such passion and conviction and confidence about college plans, major course of study, and how eventually they would become a success. Their desires were noble; their attitudes were repulsive. One day, as a young man was waxing arrogantly about his future exploits, an older Rotarian leaned over to me and said, “Give him a few years, let him have a little taste of life, a few failures, and some things not to go the way he planned, and let’s see if he will be so cocky.”

Pride gets in the way of real manhood: the thinking that we don’t need anyone. Self-made men are determined to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps even if they land on their backsides.

Not too long ago, there was a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who pulled into a service station to get gas. He went inside to pay, and when he came out he noticed his wife engaged in a deep discussion with the service station attendant. It turned out that she knew him. In fact, back in high school before she met her eventual husband, she used to date this man.

The CEO got in the car, and the two rode off in silence. He was feeling pretty good about himself when he finally spoke: “I bet I know what you are thinking. I bet you were thinking you’re glad you married me, a Fortune 500 CEO, and not him, a service station attendant.”

“No, I was thinking if I’d married him, he’d be a Fortune 500 CEO and you’d be a service station attendant.”

Eventually we learn through the message of others, and our own mistakes, failures, disappointments, and death that we aren’t kings, but lowly servants. We can’t make it alone; we need the hand of another to lift us up, gets us on our feet, so we can move in the right direction. And this is what God does for us. He reaches down once we realize that we need his help, and then he sets us on the upward path. When we realize that, then, maybe, just maybe, we will be men.

In Jesus we find answers to the questions: What is a man? Who is the prototype? To whom shall I go? Jesus is the prototypical man that willingly humbled himself forsaking his pride for the sake of others. If you want to find answers for what it means to be a man go to him. Jesus is the answer.

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When There’s No Hope, What Then?

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In the fall of 1997 I found myself living outside of a Cardiac Care Unit. For seven nights I slept on the floor of the waiting room of a hospital in Huntsville, Alabama. I was not there because I was a pastor. Granted, I have spent my fair share of time at hospitals doing my duty. This time, I was there because I was a son, and my mother, eighty-three years of age, was lying in the bed of room six of the Cardiac Care Unit on the sixth floor with tubes running in and out of her body. She was dying.

For the prior three years, she had been in and out of the hospital every other month due to congestive heart failure. My two brothers and two sisters knew that this time was the most frightening. The night before I had left my home in Chicago to fly to Alabama. Her heart had stopped. Through the valiant efforts of the nursing staff it was restarted. She was in a most serious condition.

After several days of employing various drugs and treatments, Dr. Cash, the cardiologist, spoke with the family as he did each day. This time there was deep concern on his youthful face and his voice trembled. He described her present condition. She was weakening and not responding to the treatment. He spoke of how our mother had been very firm and clear in instructing him not to prolong her life through artificial means. He said very nervously, “There is still a slim chance for her recovery, but I am putting DNR on her charts.”

DNR. Meaning if her heart failed again the hospital staff was instructed Do Not Resuscitate.

DNR carries not only the overt meaning, but those three words also carry an unwritten message: There is no hope.

While I realized the severity of my mother’s condition, it still came as a jolt to hear those words and to understand their meaning.

A Man of Hope
The cloud of confusion and despair that hung over my family for the next several days is similar to the dark storm that pervaded the globe nearly two thousand years ago. The world was enveloped in a deep darkness.

Into that dark room of despair, there walked a Galilean carpenter, a miracle man, and a promise of hope. He proclaimed the stirring message of God’s love and God’s life. He demonstrated it by raising people from the dead. The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth instilled hope in the hearts of many. His presence gave birth to optimism. His actions righted wrongs and brought decency and order back to a crooked world. Perhaps, the future was not bleak after all. Perhaps, he was the one to resuscitate a dying world.

But the renewed optimism, the hope, was once again dashed. On a bleak Friday morning, Jesus’ enemies took him prisoner, and after a mock trial, soldiers nailed the hope-bearer to a cross. Once more, hatred and evil seemed to speak the last word. Do Not Resuscitate. Hope has died.

Three Words
On the cross Jesus’ final utterance was “It is finished” (John 19:30). Stop and listen. Can you imagine the cry from the cross? The sky is dark. The earth is rumbling. The other two victims are moaning. The jeering crowd is silent. Possibly there is thunder. Possibly there is weeping. Then Jesus draws his last breath, pushes his feet down on that rusty Roman nail, and cries three final words, “It is finished.”

I doubt that anyone on that hill with him would have disagreed with that observation.

Surely, the chief priests and scribes rubbed their hands together and agreed: “Finished indeed! No longer do we have to worry about this young upstart threatening the status quo of the religion of our fathers. He’s dead and gone.” The soldiers could see that it was finished. The distasteful duty of this execution was nearly over so they could return to their barracks. The friends of Jesus also saw that it was finished. Their hopes were dashed on the rocks of disappointment. Their dreams for a prosperous and peaceful tomorrow were finished. Hope had died. There wasn’t much to do but to go home and take care of the burial proceedings.

The disciples stood secluded, a far distance from the cross, like I stood with my family at the sterile nurse’s station, a short distance from my mother’s bed. The disciples heard the three words “It is finished.” I heard the three words “Do Not Resuscitate.” For both the disciples and me these words carried the same poignant meaning: There is no hope.

What was finished, though?

While the disciples heard one thing, Jesus meant another. What did he mean? The job of salvation for the souls of humanity was finished. The song had been sung. The blood had been poured. The sacrifice had been made. The sting of death had been removed. It was over. Finished.

Was it a cry of defeat? Hardly. John is the only gospel writer that recalls these three words of Jesus—“It is finished.” But the other gospel writers mention how he uttered them: with “a loud voice” (Matt. 27:46, Mk. 15:37, Lk. 23:46). In Greek the words are phone megale, which transposed and transliterated, begins to look familiar: a mega-phone. This was not a cry, but a cheer. Jesus was not proclaiming tragedy, but heralding triumph. His was a shout, not of utter despair, but of undying hope. Had his hands not been fastened down I dare say that a triumphant fist would have punched the dark sky.

Did he know something that the disciples didn’t? Yes. Jesus knew that while the world was in chaos, heaven was calm. While Satan seemed to have the upper hand, God was still on his throne. While death was dancing its final number, life was about to spring forth into a new beginning. While despair lingered over the disciples like a storm cloud, hope was about to break through like the sun after a thunderstorm. The Son was in the tomb, the Father was preparing for his glorious resurrection.

The Miracle of Miracles
And on Sunday morning, the miracle of miracles happened. The stone sealing the tomb’s entrance was rolled away. The tomb was empty. Mary Magdalene saw it first. Then Mary, the mother of James. Then Salome. They came to anoint his body with spices. Jesus was not there. He was gone. They were bewildered. What happened? Where was the body? Who had taken it? An angel provided the answer: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!” (John 16:6).

Three words: He has risen. But, oh, the impact of those words. In one grand “swoosh” the times were changed, B.C. became A.D. The impact of that moment can be felt like an earthquake through the centuries because hope came to life.

It is only three little words: He has risen. But because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and his finished work on the cross, we can be resuscitated. The empty tomb changes our pessimism and despair into optimism and hope. It reminds us that there are no hopeless situations; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them. In the end, the last words don’t belong to doctors or death; they don’t belong to soldiers and syncs. The last words belong to Jesus.

A Message of Hope
On Sunday morning, September 21, 1997, ten days after I had arrived in Alabama to be with my family, my mother died. Her heart stopped. The nurses, per their instructions, did not resuscitate her. She slipped through the chains of death and entered a new life in a glorious resurrection. It was her Easter. She met her Savior. She was ready, prepared, for she had faith.

As with any death, the days following were difficult. Yet my family and I weathered this storm with the same courage and strength that our mother fought her battle with death. My mother worked every day of her life up until her last year when the doctors ordered her to stop. The last half of her life was spent operating a small-town shoe store.

When my twin brother and I walked into the store a few days after her death, getting her affairs in order, we noticed a sign she had written. Somehow in all the cleaning and removing of things this one had been left behind. I spotted the hand-lettered sign, hanging a little unevenly, just as she had left it. It spoke her final words to us. The sign read: “Gone for a little while. Will be with you soon.”

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