Work with the end in mind

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“WORK WITH THE END IN MIND”

Rev. 2:18-29

I.  INTRODUCTION

Eric, a first year college student, moved into the dormitory. Once he had arranged his things inside his room, he cut a large golden letter “V” out of paper and posted it on his door. Others often would ask what the “V” meant, but Eric never would say. When his friends went out to party, he instead spent long hours in the library. He made friends for sure, but he kept his priorities straight. The four years passed quickly, and graduation day came. The Vice Chancellor of the school introduced him as the valedictorian. Eric came to the podium, then opened up his folder. Carefully, he took out what was inside. With a huge smile on his face, he held it up a large golden “V” as his classmates burst into applause.

Eric is a good example of what Steven Covey, the leadership guru, identified as one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here it is: WORK WITH THE END IN MIND. And that’s exactly how our passage today is structured. Revelation 2:26-29 is a description of the golden letter “V,” a picture of the conqueror, the overcomer, the victor. God desires a wonderful outcome for each of us and in Jesus’ words to the church in Thyatira we find solid advice on how best to work with the end (or the goal) in mind. Allow me to paraphrase that advice as follows:

  1. Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.
  2. Avoid pitfalls.
  3. Persevere!

II. CELEBRATE AND KEEP DOING WHAT IS WORKING WELL

In Rev. 2:18, the Son of God, Christ himself – whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet like burnished bronze – congratulates the church in Thyatira.

That’s a lesson in and of itself. It seems like if you steal something or shoot somebody, you get mentioned in the news. How often, though, do we as a church celebrate the achievements of our own people? Maybe one of our children won a dance contest. Celebrate it! Or perhaps one of our brothers got a promotion at work. Can we celebrate that? There are dozens of good things, wholesome achievements that fly under the radar. Maybe we don’t know about them, or maybe we do, but do we praise God for what he is allowing us to achieve both as a church and as individuals in the church?

Jesus says in verse 19: “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” Those are high words of praise! Who at the end of their life when the believers gather for the funeral would not want that kind of praise?

“Sister so-and-so was loving and faithful.”

“Brother so-and-so served us well and didn’t quit.”

In the same way, take inventory of your life. What are you doing well? Are you a good provider, showing up at work on-time and giving your best to your employer? Then you need to tell your spouse: “Good job! Keep up the good work.” Maybe your children used to leave their toys lying around the house, to the point where they were a hazard. But now, they’re doing better. Or maybe last term they had a “D” on their report card but this time they raised it to be “B.” That’s worth celebrating. Perhaps someone at school said a very hurtful thing to your daughter, but instead of getting bitter, she prayed and God helped her forgive them. Parents, take a minute to celebrate your daughter’s forgiving heart. It will serve them well throughout life.

It’s important to identify what we’re doing well. Several times, I’ve taught a course on preaching. One student would preach and the others would have a handout where they could write comments. After the sermon, no matter how poor, we would always before suggesting improvements take time to affirm the things the preacher had done right. Perhaps they had lots of zeal when preaching. We affirmed that. Or maybe the volume was plenty high so that everyone could clearly hear what was being said. We affirmed that, too. It was important that we sincerely praised what was worthy of praise.

God looks at you, my brother, my sister, and God sees lots to praise. You are making spiritual progress! Celebrate that in yourself and celebrate that in others.

Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.

Continue reading

Church of darkness or church of light?

squeers

Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

hathaway

Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

well

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
uncle

Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator

  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

No resurrection? No Christianity

sproutI like Good Friday. There’s something about the love of God that you can’t miss when you look at the Cross.

Last week, I entitled my blog: “No Cross? No Christianity.”

But let’s imagine that Jesus had died but not risen. Would Christianity even exist?

The Apostle Paul didn’t think so. Writing to the Corinthians, he insisted:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV).

No resurrection? No Christianity.

Pondering the resurrection yields many truths. Here are a few:

1. Resurrection reminds us that “good” and “evil” are not to be confused.

People looked at the life of Jesus Christ and saw the loving goodness of God. Yet a handful of religious leaders refused to acknowledge that goodness. Instead, they called it evil and nailed it to a Cross.

God will not tolerate calling what is good, evil. That was the essential point of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (Acts 2:27b). God had vindicated Jesus, the righteous one.

Good is good and evil is evil. The resurrection is God’s warning to not confuse the two.

2. Resurrection affirms that our bodies are to be joyfully celebrated.

Gnostics taught that only spirit is pure; matter – including our bodies – is corrupt and must merely be endured. Resurrection, on the other hand, reminds us that our bodies are good creations of a good God;  they are to be celebrated! In fact, our bodies are so important that God will one day give them back to us in new-and-improved form. Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of the resurrection of all (John 5:28-29). The joys of this life are bodily joys. They will be restored in the Kingdom of Heaven.

3. Resurrection is the promise that God will one day right all wrongs.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Theologians have sometimes solved the riddle by either claiming that God is not all good or that God is not all powerful. Both of these solutions fail to satisfy because they leave out Christ, more specifically the Cross, the Empty Tomb and the Second Coming.

There is no greater example of a “bad thing” happening to a “good person” than when the religious leaders had Jesus crucified. Sometimes we forget that the story doesn’t end with the resurrection. The end of the story is the return of Christ! It is only then that the dead are raised and final judgment takes place (2 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Cor. 5:10).

The resurrection of Jesus is a past event but one that points us forward. Because Jesus lives, we too shall live. Because God through a specific resurrection righted the terrible wrong done to his Son, so we believe that God will one day through a general resurrection right the wrongs suffered by many across human history.

Summing it all up

Resurrection Sunday is indispensable to the Christian faith. No resurrection? No Christianity. Good and evil are not to be confused. Further, we celebrate our bodies as God’s good creation here on earth and – one day – his new creation in the Kingdom of Heaven. And while we mourn that evil can triumph over good in this life, the resurrection teaches us that God will one day set things straight.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed.

——-

Image credit: HDWYN.com

No Cross? No Christianity

11138657_10153316219233408_5909867169481489133_nSomething strange is happening to Christianity. In our accent on God wanting us to be happy, are we losing the Cross? No little loss would this be. No Cross? No Christianity.

The Apostle Paul knew the temptation of re-tooling the message to soft-pedal the shame of death on a Roman gibbet. A classic example is his discourse in Athens (Acts 17). Instead of talking about the death of Jesus and what it meant, he spoke in philosophical terms of the “unknown God.” It wasn’t a total failure. Luke reports that “some of the people became followers of Paul and believed” (17:34). Yet this was hardly the rousing success he had envisioned.

In Acts 18, Paul travels to Corinth and changed his strategy. Gone was the debate over Epicurean and Stoic categories. In its place stood Golgotha:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, NIV; bold added).

When we reflect on the Cross, what vital lessons about Christian faith come into focus?

1. The Cross symbolizes the death of self-centered living. The weed of “me first” thinking sprouts in the shallow soil of individualism but cannot grow in the healthy garden of interdependence. Jesus went to the Cross because he understood that our destiny depended on it. Romans 5:8 (NIV) teaches: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus understood that to claim his prerogatives as the Son of God would have meant prioritizing himself above us. When a companion drew his sword to protect Jesus at the moment of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him:

Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matt. 26:53, NIV)

When marriage grows difficult, when “what’s in it for me?” appears a legitimate question, the Cross offers an eloquent rebuttal, a testimony that “it’s not about me” nor should it be.

2.  The Cross demonstrates that God’s love is stronger than humanity’s hate. Sometimes we mistakenly attribute hate to God when we say that the Cross was a manifestation of God’s wrath against sin. But the only wrath that day at Calvary was human anger obvious in the mocking tone of the religious leaders:

Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God! (Matt. 27:40b, NIV).

Instead, Paul extols the love of God “that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). And what was his  definitive proof of divine love? Divine sacrifice. God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all…” (8:32). To overcome hate, God did not resist it but – in a kind of cosmic jujitsu – with love, pinned hatred to the ground.

3. The Cross insists that suffering has meaning when it’s endured for a greater good. Athletes working out in the gym surround themselves with motivational posters with sayings like:

No pain, no gain.

What the athlete stands to win – a trophy, a laurel wreath, a medal – makes the agony of training worthwhile. John the Baptist was a living “no pain, no gain” sign for Jesus. When the Lord came for his baptism, John announced: “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NIV). It was a reminder to Jesus of his mission, that because of his atoning death just 3 years later, people would be reconciled to God, that forgiveness of sins and cleansing from our moral pollution were possible (Hebrews 13:12). That positive outcome was worth all the trials Jesus would endure.

4. The Christ of the Cross demands our highest allegiance. Peter – who himself suffered martyrdom on a upside-down cross – urged his readers to follow in the steps of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 2:21). Ralph Hudson’s hymn captures this thought:

I’ll live for him who died for me!

Recent events in our world prove that the words of the hymn can be involuntarily transposed into a higher key: “I’ll die for him who died for me.” Would such a sacrifice be possible if Christ had not taken the lead, laying down his life for us? 1 John 3:16 (NIV) affirms:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

These are some of the lessons that we learn at the foot of the Cross. Christianity without a Cross would be incomprehensible. No Cross? No Christianity. This Good Friday, let us together thank God for the Cross.

 

 

 

 

 

Love, or holy love? Why it matters

03202011-transcendentThere’s a conversation in Wesleyan circles about God’s nature. Thomas Jay Oord insists that the unadorned noun, “love,” is sufficient when talking about the character of God. Kenneth Collins, on the other hand, prefers to add an adjective, describing God as “holy love.” I side with Collins, and here’s why:

1. The biblical evidence – Two key New Testament passages come to mind. In 1 Peter 1:16, quoting Leviticus 11:44, God calls us to holiness in simple terms: “Be holy, because I am holy.” The verse is preceded by a call to avoid the “evil desires” that typified us when we “lived in ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14, NIV). Holiness is presented as the opposite of evil, i.e. righteousness. God is saying: “Pay attention! This is something crucial about who I am. Because purity is part of who I am, so it should be part of who you are.”

Yet if we stop there, we have only one half of the equation. 1 John 4:8 (NIV) teaches: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” There is no hatred in God. Rather, God seeks the well-being of all creation. In fact, love does not exist where a genuine and prioritized interest in the well-being of others is absent.

2. Immanence and transcendence – Christian theology teaches that – in relation to creation – God is both transcendent (over and above) and immanent (close by). Isaiah 6:1 is the prophet’s vision of the LORD who is “high and lifted up.” This is the picture of transcendence, that the LORD is the Other, the Creator not to be confused with the creation. Yet this coin has two sides. In Jesus, Immanuel, we also encounter God with us (Matthew 1:23), the immanent one, close by and alongside all that God loves. This is a tension in our view of God, to be sure, but not unlike other tensions that we accept, such as Jesus being wholly human and wholly divine.

So where does this leave us?

If we say only that “God is love,” we are favoring part of the biblical revelation over another; it is an incomplete picture of God. Balanced doctrine takes into account what John Wesley called the “whole tenor of Scripture.” Though this brief essay has cited only a few passages, a more thorough study of Old and New Testaments would confirm that these dual emphases as related to God’s nature – holiness and love – exist side-by-side. Like a double helix strand of DNA, stability comes when the two remain joined together.

Danger lies in either extreme. Should we speak of God as only holy, inevitably our concept of God would be that of a distant, even harsh deity unable to identify with our weaknesses. On the other hand, if we only speak of God as love, we risk making God a doting grandfather who cares little about the moral quality of our lives. To maintain the transcendence/immanence tension – of the exalted, righteous God and the God who showed his affection for us through the incarnation of Christ – then speaking of God’s nature as “holy love” maintains equilibrium in our vision of who God is and who we are to be in response.

May the God who is holy love be our exemplar. May Jesus Christ – who is the very image of God – inspire us to lead lives that are simultaneously unpolluted by the world and selflessly poured out in loving service to others.

——

Image credit: aboutfbc.org

“Running well” – an address to the graduates of NTI-Liberia

IMG_8324Here’s a graduation address that I gave on October 21, 2012 to Liberian pastors receiving their Diploma in Theology from Nazarene Theological Institute.

————-

“Running Well” (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

Introduction

To the graduates of the NTI-Liberia class of 2012, families, friends, honored guests:

The Bible talks about the Christian life using several images. It speaks of birth and growth. At other times, it says we are buildings under construction. But the image that has always fired my imagination is running.

From one race to another

The Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27 (NIV) likewise draws lessons from sports. He encourages us:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Today, the day of your graduation from the Nazarene Theological Institute of Liberia, marks the end of a race. You have completed an academic race, a race that when you began you thought would be a 5k but it turned out to be much longer! You have crossed the finish line, and everyone here today pauses with you to reflect on your achievement. To you we say with sincerity and good cheer: WELL DONE!

Yet we are here today for another reason. We, your family, friends, colleagues, and members of the larger Liberian community, have gathered not only to congratulate you, but to cheer you on. For we know that while one race has finished, another race continues, and that is the race we are all running, the race of Christian faith. And for you, those called to full-time Christian ministry, there is the race of vocational service to Christ, his church, and the world.

In that race, you as graduates of NTI are pacesetters. You are leaders to whom not only the church but the nation looks for inspiration. To you, in both your relationship with Christ and in ministry, I say this afternoon: RUN WELL.

Let us look together in more detail at 1 Corinthians 9. Thankfully, not only does it say “run well” but it gives concrete advice on how to do so.

  1. Give the race your very best, together.
  2. Avoid disqualification.
  3. Remember the crown.

Give the race your very best, together.

Paul commands: “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” The Greek plural imperative indicates that Paul is not talking to one person, but to a group. He’s saying: “Run this race together.”

I was never an accomplished runner, but two years of high school cross-country taught me many things. My second year of running, we got a new coach. He didn’t just tell us to run; he strapped on his running shoes and led the way!

One day, he taught us what he called “Indian running.” All ten of us ran in single file. Each hundred meters or so, coach would yell “next runner!” The runner at the back of the line would have to speed up and pass all the others, taking his place at the front. Coach would refuse to let anyone else slow down so that the new runner could more easily get to the front of the line. Instead, he’d yell: “Come on, Crofford, you can do it!” And when I made it, he’d yell: “Good job!” Soon, we all understood and yelled out encouragement to each other, just like the coach had yelled out encouragement to us.

And so I ask our graduates: Are you running alone in ministry? If so, it’s time we did some Indian running. It’s time we encouraged each other.

John Wesley, our spiritual grandfather, understood this well. He grouped Methodists together in classes and bands. He knew that for us to give the race our best, we need each other. And so the movement that he and his brother, Charles, started eventually came to be called the Methodist connexion.

We are connected. In this connection we call the Church of the Nazarene, we strive to run the race the very best we can, and to do so, we stay connected. We run together.

Graduates, turn to the graduate on your left. Say these words:

“Brother, I promise to stay connected.”

Now, turn to the graduate on your right. Say these words:

“Brother, I promise to stay connected.”

As a young pastor, I was brand new in ministry. I had so much to learn! Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Once per month, I met the four other pastors on the zone and we ate lunch together. Those were times when we could share our victories and our struggles. What precious times those were!

Connection can even happen on the Internet. On FaceBook, a former student of mine invited me to join a closed ministry support group. One of the members posted this the other day: “Please pray for me. I’m struggling. This is a season of temptation for me.” Within 10 minutes, two other brothers in ministry had responded. “Here’s my phone number,” one of them wrote. “Call me, brother, and we can talk. I’m here to help you through your struggle.”

However you do it, don’t run alone. Give the race your very best, together.

Avoid disqualification

His name was Taoufik Makloufi. On August 6, 2012, at the London Olympic games, a race referee disqualified him during the first lap of the 800m race. What was his offense? Makloufi had already qualified for another event in which he was better, the 1500m, an event in which he was expected to win a medal. By not trying in the 800, event, Makloufi hoped to save his energy for the 1500m. The end result was that officials kicked him out of the Olympics and he never got to run his preferred event.

It’s a tragedy when someone is disqualified. Paul himself – though a great Apostle – guarded against this possibility. In verse 27, he says that he “beat his body” to “make it my slave.” Why did he do this? The verse continues: “…so that after I have preached to others, I myself might not be disqualified for the prize.”

A Chinese proverb says: “You can’t stop the birds from flying around your head but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.” There is not a person in this room who is exempt from weakness. The devil knows your weakness. The question is: Do you?

What is your plan of action when your day of temptation comes? And it will come. The saying is still true: “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”

Paul says to us today:

  1. Give the race your very best, together.
  2. Avoid disqualification.

Finally, he exhorts us:

Remember the crown.

Verse 25 of our text reminds us: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

Stephen Covey was best known for his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The second habit is this: “Begin with the end in mind.”

The Apostle Paul said the same thing: Remember the end; remember the objective. Remember the crown.

It seems like those who run shorter distances get more attention. We hear about Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, champion of the 100m and 200m distance. Many even know about Kenya’s David Rudisha, gold medalist in the 800m run in London. Fewer know the names of champion marathoners, names like Tiki Gelana, the female gold medal winner from Ethiopia.

Yet ministry in the church is more like a marathon than a 100m dash. To make it through this race, women and men of God, we have to remember the finish line. We have to remember the crown.

Chris shows off his medal received for finishing the Marine Corps marathon, October 2014

Chris shows off his medal received for finishing the Marine Corps marathon, October 2014

My nephew, Chris, this year successfully completed all 26+ miles of his third Chicago marathon. Here’s what he wrote about the experience:

While running my 3rd Chicago marathon today, I started thinking about the psyche of the ‘casual’ marathon runner such as myself…1) Starting line: Ecstatic! 2) 13.1 miles: confident. 3) 16 miles: Worried – ‘Really, I have 10 more miles!’4) 20 miles: Self pity – ‘This is painfully horrible! Why did I sign up for this thing again!’and 5) 26.2 miles – Ecstatic! ‘I can’t believe I made it through!’

Best time yet. Looking forward to next year.

Though my nephew didn’t say anything about it, I also know that his wife, Erin, and his two young daughters were waiting for him at the finish line with a warm embrace. I know because Erin posted up a photo of Chris and the whole family after he had finished. Chris didn’t set any records, but he finished, and for him that day, his wife and daughters were his “crown.”

I suspect that there will be moments in your ministry – if you haven’t had them already – when you will have the same self-pity Chris did after 20 miles. After a sermon that you thought was excellent flops, when criticism from someone in the church stings, when you see your family on the edge of poverty and the devil mocks you by saying how stupid you are and how much richer you could be if only you’d do something else rather than pastor –

Like Chris at mile 20, you may think:

This is horrible! Why did I sign up for this again?

When that moment comes, as it surely will, I say to you this afternoon:

Keep running! Remember the finish line. Remember the crown.

You’ll probably never receive here on earth the recognition that you deserve. But Paul says: There is a different crown, a crown that lasts forever. Recognition in this life is fleeting; the reward of heaven is eternal.

CONCLUSION

And so graduates of the NTI-Liberia, you have come at last to the end of a race, an academic race, a Diploma in Theology. As Director of the NTI, I wish you my hearty congratulations for a job well-done. We honor you today on the occasion of this tremendous achievement. Yet if one race is over, other races continue. For each of us here today, there is the race of the Christian life, but for you, the graduates, there is the ongoing race of full-time ministry in service to Christ, his church, and your world. In that race, give it your very best, not alone, but together. In that race, at all costs, avoid disqualification, and in that race, remember the crown.

Heaven: Starting the song all over again

trumpet

Note: This week Bruce passed away. He was a very short man who – with tremendous grace and good humor – dealt with a physical lifelong disability. He loved the Lord, and he loved others. Well-done, Bruce!

The resurrection of the body is a crucial doctrine of Christian faith. We will be given new bodies, strong and eternal like the resurrection body of our Lord. Here we stake our claim; here we stand.

——————-

Mr. Taylor was my first band conductor.

Conducting a 4th grade band takes a special kind of patience. Every child is new at his or her instrument, be it the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums, or a dozen other things that make noise. And let’s face it, for 4th graders, about all we could do was make noise. Like my brothers before me, I played the trumpet, or at least I tried.

Our first concert came at Christmas time. By then, all of us had a grand total of 3 months of experience, practicing twice per week in the band room. Parents and siblings gathered in the cafeteria and waited for us to file in. At last, all of us were in our seats and Mr. Taylor stepped up to the small platform, took his conductor’s baton, and raised his arms. We all snapped to attention and raised our instruments, ready to play.

I’m not sure what happened, but only about half of us began playing when his arms came down, signalling the start of the song. Were some still trying to spot where their families sat in the audience? Maybe others were still adjusting their music on the stand or simply daydreaming, but whatever the reason, it was a poor start.

Mr. Taylor then did something that surprised us. He suddenly stopped directing the song, tapping his baton several times on the music stand. We all ground to a halt, not knowing what to make of it all. Slowly, he turned around and addressed the audience:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a very poor start to the song. Please forgive us. We can do better. Now, we are going to start all over again.”

And that is exactly what we did. I’m glad to report that the second time went much better, and when we were done, the audience applauded with gusto.

That’s what Heaven will be like. Heaven is New Creation. Heaven is God starting the song all over again.

The first time through, the song has been marred by sin, off-key. God knows we all can do better. One day, he will tap his baton on the music stand and we will all begin again.

John described it this way: :

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

More and more of those who have played their instruments with me in the band are now silent, awaiting that second chance to perform. On that day, the band will once again assemble. All who have played before us will be present, gloriously resurrected by the Lord in new, durable bodies. What a grand reunion that will be as Jesus raises the baton and we start the song all over again!

How about you? Will you be in the band? This life is only the poor beginning to the song, but a new, better beginning is coming. Don’t miss out on it. Keep your instrument in-tune. What a performance that will be!