By Thomas Lambrecht –
It may seem out of place to talk about finishing well when the year has just begun. The senior pastor at the church I attend just announced his planned retirement. He is the founding pastor of this church and has served well for over 43 years (all at this one congregation)! He is in a good position to finish his ministry well.
The lesson last week at our men’s ministry was about King Saul and the fact he did not finish well. Blessed with physical stature, good looks, God’s anointing, and being filled with the Holy Spirit (twice!), he still ended up unfaithful to God and defeated in leadership.
There is an old saying that one must begin with the end in mind. Before one sets out, it is important to know where one wants to end up. I’m sure King Saul did not want to end up as a paranoid, unfaithful leader who failed his people. But he took his eye off the goal and became preoccupied with what people thought of him and with exalting his own image and power. (You can read his story in I Samuel chapters 9-31.) He did not keep the end in mind.
What is the end we should have in mind? Our goal is to live up to what God created us to be. He created us to enjoy complete fellowship with him and to bring glory to him by our lives. It is easy for us to lose track of that goal in the ups and downs of everyday life. Our culture tells us that personal happiness is what we should strive for.
But God knows that we will only find happiness in relation to him. Jesus said, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Jesus is not saying we should literally hate our life, but that if we focus on this-world happiness, we will miss the purpose for which God created us. Whereas, if we focus on loving and serving God, we will actually find happiness in this life and experience eternal relationship with God. “’Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life’” (Mark 10:29-30).
So it is possible to start out well, to begin a faith-filled relationship with Jesus Christ, and then to finish poorly. Like all good Wesleyans, we believe it is possible for a person to turn away from God to such an extent that they forfeit the gift of eternal salvation. That is why Wesleyans emphasize perseverance in our walk with the Lord.
“Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that none of you have an evil, unfaithful heart that abandons the living God. Instead, encourage each other every day, as long as it’s called ‘today,’ so that none of you become insensitive to God because of sin’s deception. We are partners with Christ, but only if we hold on to the confidence we had in the beginning until the end” (Hebrews 3:12-14, CEB).
We do not abandon God in a sudden shift of perspective. Usually, it takes a period of time to fall away. We become deceived by our sinful desires and the constant message of an unbelieving world that encourages selfishness. We gradually lose our sensitivity to God and the nudging of his Holy Spirit in our everyday choices. Deception, selfishness, and sin gradually grow into unfaithfulness, which leads us away from God.
That is the story of King Saul. It is also potentially our story.
That is why the author of Hebrews warns us to “watch out!” We need to keep our focus on our proper goal: union with Christ. There is nothing more important than forming and growing our relationship with Jesus. Anything that gets in the way of that – even good things – ends up being at least a stumbling block and perhaps even an idol in our lives.
We are distracted and tempted by our own selfish, sinful desires. We want what we want when we want it.
We are also distracted by growing weary. Many of us have become weary of following all the pandemic protocols. We started out well and sacrificed a lot in lockdowns and other mitigation measures that drove down the virus. But we have become weary and careless, so that our virus and death counts are now reaching record levels. My wife and I lost a good friend of ours to the pandemic when she attended a concert where there was little mask wearing. Perseverance is called for in order to save our own life and the lives of people we love, as well as strangers.
In the same way, Paul says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). I have been walking with Jesus for over 45 years. There are times I get tired of doing the right thing or I get careless about my spiritual life. We cannot let that happen! I cannot imagine spending all these years growing in faithfulness, only to throw it all away at the end of life.
That is why we need each other in the body of Christ, to remind and encourage each other to keep going. Daily Bible reading and prayer, weekly worship and participation in a small group or Bible study, serving others. These things keep me on track with the Lord. We all need them, the consistent practices that build our spiritual strength and lives of faith. We call them “spiritual disciplines” because they require discipline, intentionality, and consistency in order to bear fruit in our lives. If we keep doing them, we will indeed reap a harvest. We must not slack off on these practices because we grow weary.
Many of us have grown weary with the situation in our beloved United Methodist Church. We thought by now we would be part of a new Methodist denomination that would be headed in a direction we could enthusiastically support. We are not there yet.
It is tempting to give up at this point, to just leave the UM Church and become a Baptist or a non-denominational Protestant, or a Bible church member. But the promise remains, “at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” God has something good in store for us, if we persevere to the end. No matter what happens over the next several months with the pandemic and with General Conference, I believe God will get us to the place he needs us to be, and we will get there together.
We need to finish this season of our life in the UM Church well. Good News has been in the struggle for 54 years. I personally have been in this for 38 years. Let us not throw away all those years of invested faithfulness by prematurely giving up or abandoning our goal of a faithful Methodism.
We can finish well on a personal spiritual level in our relationship with the Lord. We can finish well in our struggle against the coronavirus. We can finish well in our struggle for a faithful Methodist church. By God’s grace and our own perseverance, we can finish well, together.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
I wrote a letter to this topic but feel it important to say again: assigning ministers to a church is not helpful. If you think of all the reasons this is true, that has surely happened in the 40 years I have attended a small UMC church. Higher ambitions, disappointment in being given such a small(unimportant) church, inexperienced, working on a doctorate or other outside job are some of the roadblocks to being effective. We even lost a beloved minister in the early spring because another church needed him. I am not sure I want to be a part of a denomination that does not address this problem when I move in a few months.