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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Finishing Well

When the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, among the myriad of signs, posters, and phrases that literally cover the region, one caught my attention more than the others: “Finish Strong.” That became a mantra of sorts for quite some time. The dust has settled, but I still am musing over the phrase, for reasons I’ll explain later. This is certainly not a new phrase or new idea, since years ago when Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective Leaders was dominating the scene. He encouraged everyone to begin with the end in mind, to literally think of what you would want people to say at your funeral. Although thinking about your own funeral is not a subject upon which many would want to dwell, his point was well taken: you will be what you have been actively working to become. Perhaps another way of saying this is: “the best time to plan your trip is before you start; the best way to arrive at your destination is to know where you’re going before you leave.” Few of us would get in our car and drive without any thought of where we would end up. Yet, one of the greatest dangers in worship leadership, in any leadership, is not looking ahead and not finishing well.

My journey in Scripture thus far this year has brought me to 2 Chronicles and the sad reminders of so many that started well and failed to persevere to the end. Solomon, the wisest man on earth, starting so well, building the Temple, claiming the promises of God given to his father, David, yet toward the end of his life he abandoned the worship of God, and allowed himself to be overtaken by his own image of self importance and the local culture around him. Maybe he lived just to fulfill his father’s dreams and leaned on his father David’s relationship with God and never continued to develop one of his own, but whatever the reason, he did not finish well. David had failed as well, but his response was one of repentance after failure, in both the affair with Bathsheba as well as with the census. There is no biblical record of Solomon following in his father’s pattern of humbling himself before God for his sin.

Solomon’s great grandson, Asa [2 Chron. 14-16] is another prime example of starting, but not finishing well. He led a revival of worship back toward Jehovah, defeated an army much larger than his own and God brought peace to the land until the 36th year of his reign when the king of Israel began to threaten him. Rather than seek God’s help as he had done in the past, Asa takes of the treasures from God’s house to pay off the pagan king of Syria to seal a treaty. His trust in God had been traded in for the acceptance of how business was done by the cultures around him. To make matters worse, he imprisons the very prophet of God that attempts to correct him. He even refuses to seek the Lord when he contracts a disease in his feet and dies in the 41st year of his reign. He started so well, but did not finish strong.

Joash followed the Lord faithfully as long as the High Priest Jehoiada was there to guide him, but abandons the Lord after Jehoiada's death, even killing one of Jehoiada’s sons who confronts him with God’s truth.[2 Chronicles 24] Uzziah’ reign was one of the better times in Israel’s history, yet Scripture records in 2 Chronicles 26:16: “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense.” He began to see himself above the law of God and was struck with leprosy and banished for the rest of his life, holding the kingship in title only. Hezekiah’s reforms were legendary, and God even extended his life for 16 years, yet as he grew older, pride dominated his life: “But when envoys were sent by the rulers of Babylon to ask him about the miraculous sign that had occurred in the land, God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.” [2 Chron. 32:31] Not only does he flaunt his wealth to the Babylonian envoys who would later carry everything they had seen and conquer the land, but he gives birth to Manasseh during this time who was Judah’s most wicked king.

The New Testament also gives examples of those who started well but finished in tragedy: Ananias and Sapphira in the church in Jerusalem, Demas forsaking Paul, and perhaps the most famous, Judas, who betrayed the Lord Jesus, to name a few. Jesus gave a parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32, one who after being told to do something agreed, but didn’t go and the other who also was asked to do something said no, but later went. Jesus commends the later, who though started out poorly finished well, but condemned the first, for though he started out well, did not finish in obedience.

Recent events have been influential in helping me in this focus. As I was attending the Baptist Church Music Conference in Houston this past week, I was amazed at how many times and how many of the participants pointed back to the importance of an individual in their lives as being instrumental in their growth and encouragement and walk with Christ and ministry. Most of those about whom these individuals were talking were retired, having invested their lives in the ministry and God was gracious to allow them to see just a glimpse of what He had done through them. With the background of last week and the reading in Chronicles, God has been working in my heart to focus on “finishing strong.” There are always be distractions and setbacks, but we need not lose focus and give up in discouragement. Scriptural examples should help us and urge us in this process. Paul tells the church at Corinth that “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.” [I Cor. 10:11].

So what do these examples from Scripture mean for us that lead worship and what are some red flags that should be warnings for us? Here’s a few that I’m using as reminders to help me:
1. Past victories are encouragements and reminders of God’s grace and power, but not vaccinations against future failures.
2. Spiritual disciplines can become routine, so that the doing of them replaces the changes that must come to reflect God’s nature and character.
3. Pride in what we do and have done and self confidence in our own abilities as well as refusal to admit error will certainly lead to failure.
4. We can do so much that we begin to act as if we are above God’s laws, that the rules are for some, but do not apply to us in our circumstances.
5. We begin to assimilate the patterns of culture and society, rather than following biblical principles.
6. We begin to compartmentalize our lives between sacred and secular activities, rather than have the truths of Scripture mandate every area of our life.
7. Worship ceases to be the dominating motivation in how we relate to one another and others.

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