Posted in reflections

6 lessons from a climb

My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North
My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North

It’s an exaggeration to call it a climb. Ascending to the top of Mt. Longonot (2,560 meters above sea level) in Kenya’s Rift Valley is more like a steep hike. While you may not need any gear beyond a good pair of running shoes or hiking boots, plenty of water in your backpack, and a camera, reaching the summit of Longonot yields some rich life lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned from three times up-and-down this fascinating dormant volcano:

  1. Walking alone is O.K., but having companions is better. Conversation along the path helps pass the time, and when you get tired, an encouraging word from a friend can do wonders. Sometimes, you can even lend a steadying hand when the path gets too rocky for a fellow-traveler.
  2. Be willing to guide another hiker on to the right path. A seasoned hiker on the way up saw that I had taken a wrong turn on the way down, that I was heading for a dead end. He spoke up, warned me of the danger, and voice-guided me back to the right path. I was grateful.
  3. You need nourishment on the trail. Even if you’ve eaten a good breakfast, the hike is a long one. Make sure to eat something along the way. I shared a bag of raisins – one of my favorite healthy snacks – and others shared their snacks with me.
  4. Stay together. One of our group got a burst of energy and blazed ahead. When he realized several of us were taking too long, out of concern, he doubled-back to check on us. We need people like that for whom “winning” is less important than making sure every one is still making progress.
  5. Carry a walking stick. Especially on the way down, your legs will weaken since the path is steep and you feel like an 18-wheeler braking as it descends. The stick helps you balance and takes some of the weight off your legs. And if a snake should appear – always a possibility in Kenya – at least you have a weapon for defense! I always carry my four iron. I’ve never hit golf balls far with it, but it’s plenty useful on Longonot.
  6. The scenic summit makes the tough ascent worth it. On the way back down, hikers verbally spur on those still struggling to ascend: “Keep going! It’s beautiful at the top.” In the case of Longonot, successful hikers are rewarded with the sight of a massive crater lined with verdant trees. The air is fresh and the view of the Rift Valley is breathtaking. All the effort pays off.

As in hiking, so it is in walking with Christ. It’s not “Jesus and me.” Rather, because we are part of a community of faith, it’s always “Jesus and we.” Take spiritual nourishment along the way and stay together.

Paul reminds us: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:9, NIV). The goal for every follower of Christ is eternal fellowship with the Triune God, resurrected life together in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-5). This is the “view from the top” and it’s worth every sacrifice.

Posted in sermons & addresses

An address to the graduates of NTC and NTCCA

Greg_grad_NTCI was honored to deliver this address to the graduates of Nazarene Theological College (South Africa) on April 23, 2016 and the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on May 7, 2016.

———————————–

WE ARE GATHERED TODAY in this place for a celebration. During these moments together, we pause to thank the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for his grace upon the lives of these graduates. In one way, today marks an ending, the finish line for a race that these women and men have been running, some for as long as the past 3 years. Graduates, as you cross that finish line this morning, I add my voice to the chorus of voices and say: “Congratulations! Well-done.”

Yet if today is an ending, in another more important way, it is also a beginning, or – to use the traditional word for a graduation ceremony – a commencement. It is the start of the rest of your life as those who seek to be ordained ministers, leading the flock of God in one capacity or another. At such a high and holy moment, what would our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, be pleased for us to consider?

Because this is a graduation address and not a sermon, I will not take a single biblical text and expound it. That is an essential skill for a preacher and one that your teachers have taught you well. But like a preacher often does, allow me to give you a Trinity of ideas, 3 words of advice as you either launch out in ministry or else continue in that path:

1) Defend the flock fiercely;

2) Hold your position lightly;

3) Cling to Jesus tightly. Continue reading “An address to the graduates of NTC and NTCCA”

Posted in sermons & addresses

“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.

Europeo_Carreras_de_Montaña._Rep_Checa_2006
Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44533966
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.

Posted in autobiographical, reflections

Last-place finish

cross_countryThis essay, based upon a cross-country meet in the autumn of my first year in high school, appeared in the Standard for August 9, 1992. I have no photo from the event, but this pic from a recent Pennsylvania meet evokes my own experience as a young man in Spencerport, New York.

————————————

Dark clouds loomed overhead, threatening to turn the high school cross-country meet into an impromptu swimming competition. At last, skittish officials called runners to the starting line. A shot from the starting gun cracked the misty air. The race was on.

While we jostled for early position, my mind hurried back in time, even as my body advanced with smooth strides. Academically, the year was off to a good start. I ranked near the top of my freshman class, but my longstanding awkwardness in things athletic grated on my self-esteem like a coarse wool sweater. The previous summer, I determined to scratch the itch or die trying. An early day in September, I boldly laced on my factory-fresh blue Nike trainers and made for the locker room.

Friends had warned me of the rigors of racing, and their advice proved accurate. The first athletic “Everest” consisted of eight consecutive timed miles. Our drill-sergeant coach barked out impatient orders as he pushed our bodies to the edge of endurance. Hard work in practice paid off; my race times improved from meet to meet. Soon there were some on the team I managed to outrun. Still, I envied those runners who placed high in the standings and could cheer others as they entered the chute and crossed the finish line. Improvement notwithstanding, I usually got no more than a bird’s-eye view from the other end of things!

A sharp elbow from a teammate snapped me out of my daydream, and I set myself squarely to the task at hand. Two and one quarter miles later, the verdict was in. Unfortunately, the puddles turned out to be the only unique aspect to this latest effort. I crossed the finish line about two-thirds back in the pack.

Most runners quickly donned their sweat suits and headed for the buses, anxious to get warm and dry. Spectators became fewer, so no one seemed to notice one mother who stood at the mouth of the finish chute. Scanning the distant field with a hand over her eyes, her facial expression betrayed the worry she felt. Could there be someone still out on the course? I thought. For several minutes she kept up the vigil, starting at the slightest movement upon the horizon.

Moments later I spotted the object of her concern. In the distance, a bobbing figure was approaching. It became obvious from his halting stride that this youngster was in a great deal of pain. As he drew closer, the strained expression on his face bore eloquent testimony to the difficult run it had been. Drawing on all the strength he could muster, the boy’s determination was outdone only by the encouragement of his devoted mother. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she yelled through cupped hands: “Come on, Johnny! You can make it! You’re almost here!” Exhausted, he stumbled the final few yards, then fell headlong into the warm embrace of his mother’s arms. I overheard the tender words: “You made it, Johnny! I knew you would. I love you, son.”

Slowly, I walked toward the team bus and took my seat among my companions. The miles swept by while I replayed the scene in my mind’s eye. Soon I pondered a different type of race, but a race nonetheless. The apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 9:24 of the Christian race: “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” (NIV).

Children of God have a clear course marked out before them. For sure it is not all roses; the narrow way never is. There are swirling streams to be forded, jagged roots that must be sidestepped, and sharp inclines to mount. At the times the Christian runner even falls flat on his face, mocked by the elements around him. When you face lands in the mud, there is but one thing to do: Get back on your feet, and in God’s power, press on. The finish line is still up ahead.

By most people’s standards, Johnny was a lousy runner. No crowds lined the chute to cheer his last-place finish. No blue ribbons or “great job!” pats on the back awaited him. Yet somehow I sensed that for mother and son at that moment, nothing could be more of a reward than the unfeigned love between them.

The cross-country season ended, and with it my fleeting dreams of running stardom. But the lesson for life learned that rainy Saturday in October lives on. From the view of many I meet, I’m so far back in this world’s race you could even count me out. There will be no great accolades from dignitaries, no medals of commendation for a hasty “rise to the top,” no Nobel peace prize or prime-time television interviews. Last-place finishers don’t guest host “The Tonight Show.” However, with sheer confidence I can say I’m “running to win the prize.” And when I finally get to the finish chute, I suspect everyone will have already boarded the buses and gone home. Everyone except One, that is. His name is Jesus, and when I fall exhausted into his outstretched arms, he’ll put the first-place crown on this last-place finisher. That will be worth it all.

————————————–

Photo credit: The Patriot News