Finishing Well

Last week on this blog, my husband Warren wrote a post on the late-in-life calling of the Christian wherein he touched on some of the more common struggles of coming to Christ with a hefty load of baggage from your past life of rebellion. You can read that post – The (Late in Life) Calling of the Christian – for more background information, if interested.

Of all the points he made, the one that hit closest to home for me was the idea that I need to surrender my past – along with all of the poor choices that filled it – to His good and perfect will and to trust that His timing in calling me is replete with purposes I will never begin to understand this side of heaven.

But it’s easy to say and hard to live out.

There is one idea that keeps coming back to me over and over – an idea which has helped me to more consistently turn away from my temptation to regret the fact that I lived a terribly selfish, sinful life into my late 30’s and only then came to Christ – and that is the idea that it’s far more important how we finish the race than how we began.

Gary Long

This past September, a dear friend of mine, Gary Long, lost a long battle with cancer and began his long walk with Jesus in eternity. I was asked to speak at his funeral, and as I thought about what I knew of Gary, I kept coming back to how very well he finished his race.

Though I’d come to care about Gary and his wife Eileen very much, I’d only known him two years when he died. Having lived 71 years, then, there was a lot I didn’t know about Gary; the vast majority of his life was lived before I ever had the privilege of meeting him.

But what I did know about him speaks to the very heart of this idea of finishing well. The end of his life has come to be very instructive for me, and I hope for you too, as I share it with you.

I met Gary a couple years ago when he approached me and volunteered to lead The Crossing’s hospital visitation team, one of the Care Ministries I oversee. From the beginning, Gary was a humble learner. The former leader of that team was significantly younger than he was at the time, and while I’m a good deal older than she is, he had a few decades on me, too. What’s more, Gary had retired from a long and impressive career as an engineer in the oil and gas industry, and I can confidently say that he had forgotten more than I’ve ever known in my life by the time we met. However, his approach was one of a humble servant, willing to learn from women decades younger than himself, and wanting only to make sure he was doing a thorough job of caring for people who found themselves hospitalized and in need of medical attention.

Because Gary led a large team of volunteers, his role could have been entirely administrative. He could have made it his job to get volunteers to visit folks in the hospital, then set aside this volunteer role and get on with his life.

But he didn’t.

Oftentimes, Gary was the first visitor to see those in the hospital. He played an active role, choosing to be the hands and feet of Christ Himself in the lives of people who needed it. He had a real heart of compassion for those going through serious, chronic illness, and was genuinely motivated to ensure those folks knew that their brothers and sisters in Christ cared about them.

Finally, Gary led this care ministry team for two years, and as I came to find out, he was battling his own serious illness for a great deal of that time. Toward the end, I knew Gary wasn’t well enough to make those trips to the hospital himself, but he insisted on continuing to lead his team until early in August, just a few weeks before he died.

Eileen and Gary Long

Gary remained outwardly focused to the end, using what little remaining energy he had as long as possible in the service of others; from my perspective, he beautifully fulfilled Paul’s exhortation to run the race with endurance (Philippians 3:12-14).

Maybe the way Gary ended his life was not much different from the way he lived most of his years, having been faithful to Christ from his childhood. Or maybe he made some selfish choices in his early years, like me. Whatever the answer, I trust that everything in his life was used by God to bring Gary to Him in His perfect timing and plan, and I firmly believe that the way Gary finished the race pleased his God, and that he found that he had a crown of righteousness laid up for him in Heaven (2 Timothy 4:8).

It would be easy for me to be discouraged by my history and to think that the best I might be able to do, having started out so badly, is to limp toward the finish line and hope God has a crown left for me in his stash – a very small one, perhaps with a few dents, even, would be entirely appropriate and far more than I deserve. But this kind of thinking denies the complete and total forgiveness of God offered to me by the blood of Christ.

Because of Christ and His righteousness, which covers the entirety of my life, including my history, I don’t have to limp. I can confidently run, like Gary did, right to the very end, until I’m all used up. Gary left big shoes to fill in this regard, but he did so only by the grace of God. It’s true that I did not start out well, but I can finish well in the strength He provides (1 Corinthians 15:10). We all can! God’s mercies are new every day (Lamentations 3:22-24). May we lean into that grace and ask for the endurance to finish well.

John 13:12-17 (ESV)
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, [Jesus] said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

2 Timothy 4:5-8
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Hebrews 12:1-3
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

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