Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Finish Lines

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 (1 Cor. 9:25).

Last week my wife was out of town. My kids were out of school. Those factors alone would have made for an interesting Monday. Add to that the torrential rains that fell for most of that day, and my parental creativity was stretched to the limits.

So I opted not to be creative. We went to a Chick-fil-a and a movie, bringing along a couple of their friends so as to minimize the potential for sibling bickering that rainy days inevitably bring about.

The cheap-seat dollar theater was playing one of my favorite films from this past summer, the animated feature UP. I had seen the movie back in June, but I loved it then and knew it would easily be worth the $1.50 ticket price. And as for exactly why the “dollar theater” charges $1.50 for tickets, I have no idea. It’s still a deal.

UP tells the story of a man’s life and a dream that stands at the center of his life. The drama begins with his boyhood fascination with adventure and his love for a tom-boyish girl who becomes his wife and shares his love for adventure. They have a dream that is captured by a painting she places over their fireplace – a picture of their house at the top of Paradise Falls.

The years go by. Life happens. Paradise Falls never does. Until one day, elderly and alone, this man – Mr. Fredrickson – eludes those who wish to place him in a retirement home by taking his house aloft with thousands of balloons. He drifts to South America to pursue a dream that he and his dear Ellie never had a chance to pursue together.

Eventually he manages to place his floating house at the top of the Falls, just like Ellie painted many years earlier. As for how that comes about, you’ll have to turn lose of $1.50 and go see for yourself. It’s a great story – but the real drama isn’t in getting the house to the Falls.

Once there, Mr. Fredrickson realizes that the picture he had over his fireplace, the one he had held in his mind and heart for all those years really wasn’t the dream after all. The real dream was simply his life – all the small moments that had made up his life. That was the adventure.

Or to use Paul’s language, that was the real race.

Most of us live with a finish line somewhere in our heads. We have an idea, a picture of where w will be and what we will be doing and what life will look like when we know we’ve “won.” The finish line can be about what we achieve professionally or what we attain materially or how many candles we manage to gather on top of the birthday cake. For some the finish line is a large crowd of children and grandchildren who come back home for holiday meals at a long family table. And of course, many of us live with all of those finish lines in front of us.

While Paul speaks of the crown we receive when the race is won, many commentators understand Paul’s focus to be on the race itself – the running, the discipline. Paul is not telling the Corinthians, or us, to simply finish the race, but to run it well.

The grace is in the running. Sometimes our preoccupation with the finish line keeps us from truly enjoying the race and embracing all that it means to run hard and run well. Paul seems to suggest that when we run hard and run well, the finish line will take care of itself.

What finish lines do you hold in your mind today? Are you enjoying the run and living the adventure?

Gracious God, every day is a chance to train for the race. And every day, in very ordinary ways, we run the race to which you have called us. Grant us the grace to both train well and run well. Show us the joy that you have for us on the course, and not simply at the finish. Amen.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Race

Run in such a way as to get the prize (1 Cor. 9:24).

This past weekend was homecoming at Wake Forest University.

I didn’t attend Wake Forest. I was there this weekend by virtue of marriage. I’m an alum-in-law, if there can be such a thing. I walked the campus with my wife and kids, met some people she hadn’t seen in a long time, listened to things she remembered about how the place was back in her day and how this or that has been changed or renovated or removed altogether.

As we walked the campus I also listened to my son talk about what he would be doing when he goes there (my daughter is holding out for UNC). That won’t be until the fall of 2016 but the very prospect of it is enough to wake me screaming in the night.

The memories there were not mine. I didn’t know anyone we saw on campus – but I have a sense of connection to that place that’s hard to define.

My Dad is a graduate of Wake Forest. He attended the school when it was actually located in the town of Wake Forest. The campus re-located to Winston-Salem and my Dad did his senior year at the new location. In the meantime the “old” campus became a Baptist seminary, so after graduating from WFU in Winston-Salem my dad went back to his college campus to attend seminary.

Walking the campus this weekend, I felt like the story of my life is somehow connected to that place. I never took a single credit hour there, but the institution played a role in shaping me. The school was established in 1834 to train preachers for Baptist churches in North Carolina. One of the Baptist preachers they ended up training was my father.

The New Testament is fond of athletic metaphors for the Christian life. Among them, “the race” enjoys favored status.

Paul uses the image one of his letters to Timothy and in his letter to the Galatians. The metaphor is used as Paul addresses the elders in Ephesus in the book of Acts, and the writer to the Hebrews makes use of it also.

To live life as a follower of Jesus is to run a race – and Paul told the Corinthians to run hard, to “run in such a way as to get the prize.” But how do we do that? How do we win this race?

One answer surely has to do with receiving the eternal “well done” when this life is finished. We live faithfully and do what we’re given to do here to the best of our ability. We use our gifts in the service of the God who gave them to us – and then when we cross the finish line of earthly life we are rewarded with the Master’s commendation and eternity in the Master’s presence.

But maybe there’s more to the race than that. Perhaps the race is much bigger than my own little piece of the course. I may be reading things into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9, but I’m certain this has to be true.

Our task is to run well while we’re here – and make sure that when we’ve finished the course set out for us there are others behind us with fresh strength to keep running. I think that’s what I sensed on the campus of a college I never attended. I felt my feet walking a piece of the course that wasn’t mine to run, but which nevertheless belongs to a race that I’m competing in. Together, we make up an enormous relay team.

I want to run well – so that someday in 2016, if and when my son walks the campus of WFU, he won’t simply be going to college. He’ll be running a race that his Mom and his grandfather ran on that very course. And hopefully he’ll sense me running with him too.

Give us strength to run our course well today, O God. And make us aware that there are others yet to run behind us. Use our lives now to shape the race that they will run then, to the glory of your name and the building up of your rule among us. Amen.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

When Wisdom Says "Let Go"

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor. 3:19).

“Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12)

There are things we cherish in this life. Good things. Our hearts knit to these things so that we cannot imagine life without them.

We can’t imagine life without our family, the children that wear us out or the spouse that continues to surprise us or the parents we once rebelled against. We can’t imagine life without meaningful work and the challenges and rewards that come with it. We can’t imagine life without the capacity to see the sky or walk on our own legs or swallow prime rib.

But sometimes we are asked to live without those things. We pay lip service to these things as “gifts’ or “blessings.” But when asked to give them up we feel angry and cheated, deprived of what was rightfully ours. We clutch at the gift and resent the giver.

Sometimes, however, wisdom asks us to let go.


The story is simple and yet almost impossible to understand. After much waiting and a few messes along the way, Abraham and Sarah had received the child promised to them. Sarah had laughed at the idea that such a thing would ever happen. But it did. The boy was born and named Isaac, meaning “laughter.” This boy was the long awaited fulfillment of a promise that had exceeded their capacity to believe.

And then we get a divine bait and switch. After all the waiting and messes, God appears ready to scrub the whole plan. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Go up on a mountain, place the boy on an altar, raise the knife, and give back what you waited so long to receive. Here’s the reward for your patient faith: sacrifice your child.

We’re stunned and even angry about this. Amazingly Abraham goes. It has been noted that the only time Abraham speaks in this story is to present himself obediently to God. ”Here I am,” he says. That’s it. “Here I am.” He listens and obeys, walking up a hill with his son, his only son (a significant phrase in the story) planning all the while to do what we could never dream of doing.


Abraham’s story has the kind of ending we always hope for. The tragedy is averted. Abraham raises the blade above his son but his hand is stayed, Isaac is spared, and God provides a ram for the sacrifice. They all go home together happy and relieved. But there’s nothing in this story that says our willingness to let go means that we will eventually be allowed to keep what we so deeply cherish.

Too many parents have wept over the grave of a child. Too many competent and capable people have been told they no longer have a job. Too many strong and able-bodied people have been incapacitated. Sometimes we let go and we are left empty handed.

This is foolishness to us. Maybe that’s why Paul quotes Isaiah 40:13 in his discussion about God’s wisdom and how it runs counter to our wisdom. “Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?”

Sometimes wisdom asks us to stand before God with open hands and say what Abraham said. “Here I am.” This means we hold every gift as just that, a gift: Our health, our work, our loved ones. All of it comes to us by grace. The world’s wisdom says that we have a right to these things. God’s wisdom asks us to offer them up – always careful never to worship the gift above the giver.

What are you being asked to let go of today?

We give you thanks, O God, for every gift you place in our life. Make us mindful today of what we cherish, and help us to cherish it rightly – ever thankful, humble before you, never allowing your gift to become a god that rivals your place in our heart. We would live every day with this simple prayer: “Here I am.” Amen.