2 Timothy 4:6-8
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Drew Brees is a great quarterback not only because of his physical ability, but because he is a great motivator. He not only knows how to win games, but also how to win hearts and minds. His spirit, character, charisma, his encouragement, his famous cheer have all served to unify and galvanize the soul of the Saints, especially the mantra: Finish Strong. Because nothing is more demoralizing to football fans than to see their team start a game like champions, go into half-time with a comfortable margin of points, but only to see that momentum fizzle by the fourth, ending the game with a pathetic whimper. It makes you wonder what happened at half-time. Did they celebrate too soon? Count their chickens before they were hatched? check out mentally? When it comes to football it doesn’t matter if you are ahead at the half. It matters if you are ahead at the whole, when the whistle blows, when all is said and done. You cannot fizzle in the fourth quarter. You have to finish strong.
So it is in life. It is one thing to start something, quite another to finish it. To make a promise and keep it. To make a commitment and honor it. To accept a challenge and follow through. To start a project, and finish it. What it takes is staying power. Starting power is a good thing to have, but staying power is what it takes to finish strong. Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “Good starters and good stayers are not the same people. Flare and excitement are enough to get people going, but when the going is hard, they are not enough to keep people going. They soon stick in the sand or stall on a high hill. Sticking with it requires another kind of moral energy which is not as common as the first. Starting power is not the same as staying power.” Like the little boy who fell out of bed one night. He said, “I guess I fell asleep too close to where I first got in.” How many times have I done that?–fallen asleep, dropped out, given up, quit—too close to where I first got in. Staying power is what makes it possible to do what we set out to do, to follow, and to follow through to the finish.
I just don’t want to get to the end of my life, flat on my back in a hospital bed, hooked up to IV’s and monitors, knowing my number is up, with a load of regrets, unresolved conflicts, unfinished business, unreconciled relationships, unforgiven sins, wishing I could roll back the clock and do things differently. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But you will be there. And if ever there were any emotional fences to mend, unspoken words to be said, apologies to be made, promises to be kept, commitments to honor, it will be too late. If you want to finish strong, now is the time to start. And stay.
This is not to say that it is always right to stay. Clearly there are situations, especially when there has been abuse or betrayal, or when you realize you’ve been wrong, when it would be more wrong to stay than to go, let go, move on. How do you know? Many times people have come to me asking me for help in making a difficult decision. Of course I cannot make it for them or tell them what to do. But often I refer them to Ignatius Loyola’s three steps for discernment, the first of which is this: imagine yourself on your deathbed someday in the future. See yourself lying there about to die. Looking back on your life, what decision would you like to have made? What decision would make it possible for you to know your best and true self?
Imagine yourself on your deathbed. We don’t like to do that! Tony Campolo once addressed a large of graduates and said, “You young people, you may think you are not going to die, but you are. One of these days they’ll take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face, and go back to the church and eat potato salad.” That day will come. But before they get to the potato salad, many things will be said about you. What would you want people to remember about your life? One of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to begin with the end in mind, for if you don’t have a destination, you will never have direction. He invites us to imagine our own funeral: what would you want people to say about you? what difference would you like to have made? Begin with the end in mind.
When Paul wrote these words to his 20 year protégé, Timothy, he had come to the end of his life. He was in prison, waiting for trial and execution. Someone once pointed out that “most of the Bible was written by people in jail, on their way to jail, or just out of jail, or captivity…” The life of faith has never been a piece of cake. If you think you have hit a rough patch trying to keep the faith, just remember, this letter was written when Christians were being burned at the stake and thrown to the lions. He might have bailed on his mission years ago and saved himself a whole lot of trouble. But he didn’t quit. He stayed the course. And now, with no regrets, he was able to look back on the course of his life with a deep sense of satisfaction, his mission accomplished, and say, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” That’s why we call him a saint. Because he finished strong.
But I think it is just as important to remember that he didn’t start out so strong. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every saint has a past, every sinner a future.” Paul had a past—back in those days when he was still Saul–a hot-headed, narrow-minded, prejudiced, hard-shell, legalistic Pharisee who held the coats of those who stoned the first Christian martyr. But by the grace of God what mattered most was not how he started, but how he finished. The Bible is full of stories about people who started wrong, but finished strong. Mary Magdalene: she too is a saint, but she had a past–the first half of her life possessed by 7 demons. But by the fourth quarter, she would become the 1st witness to the resurrection, the first one to say, “He has risen, as he said.” I think of Peter, first a fisherman, then a follower, but who did not follow through, who bailed on Jesus, denying him 3 times. But before the end he would become the solid, steady Rock Jesus always knew was his truest and best self. The same is true for you and me. Every saint has a past. Nobody lives life perfectly. But by the grace of God, we have a future. What matters most is how we finish. By the grace of God you can finish strong.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that when Jesus breathed his last breath on the cross, that he died with a great shout. John does not mention the shout, but tells us what his last words were: “It is finished.” Some scholars put all that together and say that these were the words he shouted–not a weary whimper of defeat, but a cry of victory. In Greek it is: tetelestai— comes from the verb teleo, which means “to bring to an end, to complete, to accomplish.” In modern English, it means finish strong.
This is the word you would use if you ran, swam, rode an entire Iron Man and crossed the finish–tetelestai.
It’s the word you would use when you finally pass the BAR exam—tetelastai.
It’s the word you use when you turn in the final copy of your dissertation;
when you make the final payment on the house you raised your kids in,
when you stand at the top of whatever mountain you are climbing,
or come to the end of your life holding the hand of the person to whom you have been faithful and true
just as you promised—tetelestai.
This is the word I give to you today to carry in your heart,
as you stay the course, as you run the race,
as you fight the good fight, as you keep the faith,
so that you too can finish strong.