I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.2 Timothy 4:7 NRSV
In early July, I made my annual pilgrimage to my mom’s church, Green Spring Presbyterian in Abingdon. I began pastoral ministry as a student intern at this church. My son used to crawl on the carpet. My father, a long-time Pentecostal minister, left that tradition behind and, along with my mother, joined the church soon after my internship. He ended up becoming a Presbyterian lay pastor. Of course, this was after a couple years of theological wrestling with him.
I’ve preached there on numerous occasions and have counted its last two pastors my friends. I presided over my dad’s funeral service at that church. I still remember the warmth and kindness of the congregation that day as they prepared an enormous meal for us. Too bad my unwieldy family decided to act like a herd of cats and do their own thing. A plaque bearing my dad’s name is attached to the piano in the choir room. When I go, I enjoy reconnecting and listening to my mom in the choir.
All in all, I genuinely enjoy my annual visit to Green Spring. Every time I go, “precious memories … flood my soul.” After this last visit, we all decided to visit my father and my grandfather at their burial site in Forest Hills Memorial Garden in Abingdon. The kids really don’t remember my dad; they were too young. They may not have the memory, but I know that they were adored and loved. I told them so.
I hate to wax a bit too personal. I usually try to make a point, reinforce a lesson, or cheer you up. Today, however, I want to talk about expectations.
What is it that you expect from life? What is it that we expect from the sum of our days? What is it that we expect life to give us?
Is it success? If we die with enough wealth and accolades to “earn” a trust in our name, bestowing lavish gifts annually, will it have all been worth it? How about a building in our name, complete with a large portrait in the lobby? If lots of people show up to my service, will the attendance record serve as an indicator of my success?
Is it comfort? If we never had to face too hard a time, or if we always had access to what we wanted, will our expectations have been met? If we make it in life without having suffered too much pain and loss, will our lives be well lived?
As I stood outside my grandfather’s and father’s vaults, it’s funny, none of those things came to mind. All I remembered is that I missed them, and I would give a hefty sum to talk for just 15 minutes. Even if no one else were to ever remember they existed, I would remember. They lived, I would tell myself. They loved and were loved. They were there when I needed them. I wouldn’t have made it without them.
So what is it that you expect, and what is it that we ought to expect from life? I can’t answer that question for you. You must examine your own heart.
All I can give you is what Scripture tells us. I think Paul gives us three great markers to measure our expectations: he struggled in the noble fight, he finished the race, and he, to the ability granted him by God, kept the faith. He fought, he finished, and he clung to God. How is that for an epitaph?
For all of us, life and the evils we must endure will deal each of us a losing hand. Give it enough time, and your body will betray you. Those you adored will experience the same, and the time will come when they leave you behind. I wish I had a more comforting answer for you than “That’s life.” Honestly, it doesn’t help to say that this is life under the conditions of sin. We know we are sinners, but it still hurts.
No, what we ought to expect of life, of ourselves, and of others is that we will be granted the grace to have done as well as Paul. With everything that we were, we entered the fray. We struggled. We had our hearts broken. We got up and dusted ourselves off. We bore the wounds. Time healed slowly. Actually, we never fully healed in this life. Yet we ran anyway in the hope that we would finish the race, and finish it well. We loved. We were loved. We shared in others’ burdens. Sometimes, we took their wounds onto ourselves so as to spare them the pain.
If we are given the grace to do this, then we will have lived well, and we will not have done it in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). You see, in Christ, we will have done it all sustained by God’s grace. If we have done it well, it will have been by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). Our expectations may have been muted by this kind of realism, to be sure, but in a way our eternal hope will have promised us more than we could ever begin to imagine. We will have kept faith with the One who promises to “further clothe [us], so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). All our struggling, our eventual finishing, and all our clinging will be made more alive, more real than it is now. It will be transformed by God’s grace, and with “eager longing” all creation will finally sing the praises of God as we take our rightful place at God’s side as God’s children and adopted heirs (Romans 8:19).
Fight. Finish. Faith.