Faithful to the End
Exploring the Tension of Ambition and Faithfulness
Sitting across the table from my 96-year-old Great-Grandmother was always a distinct joy. It never took long to catch on that she was once a young fiery redhead, a crackle in her eye and an extra pep in every step she took.
I once told her I wanted to be a pastor and was called to the ministry. Makes me laugh these days because I think I said it just because I wanted to make her proud. I also believed in that moment as a younger man that the only way to make an “impact” in the world was from behind a wooden pulpit facing rows of hard pews or interlocking chairs.
I had a lot to learn.
My Great-Grandmother grew up in a charming small town in Illinois. The whole family took her back there while she was in her late 80s to relive all the memories of the past. The once bustling municipality had a faded main-street, an old abandoned factory once at the heart of commerce, and little brick churches on just about every corner.
She traveled to the big city of Chicago to attend Bible school. She was engaged, broke the engagement, and married a pastor — who also broke his engagement to be with her. She and my Great-Grandfather served in churches from Mississippi to Maryland. Her stories range from the hilarious to the somber and devastating.
I’ll never forget sitting around in my grandparents’ formal room, full of slightly stiff couches and chairs — cream with little flowers, with mint green velvet stitching I’d run my fingers over to slightly alter the color. I still wish I could go sit there and listen to this wonderful woman twist another tale with that twinkle in her eye.
Whenever she finished the often hilarious recollections of childhood hijinks in Illinois, I couldn’t resist asking her about the hard times. Her face would darken as the months and years and decades of difficulty and sorrow flashed through her mind. Like the day the family home caught fire and burned down during a church service, an evil act perhaps taken out by a parishioner and attributed to some kind of deep-rooted hatred for the pastoral ministry of my Great-Grandfather in that small backwoods Mississippi town.
I could imagine my Great-Grandmother being dragged away from the wreckage as she watched through tears all that she owned burn to the ground.
“But you know what, Tim? It couldn’t have been better for us,” she told me. “We kept serving, and that tragedy brought us closer to the community. We ended up in an even better house.”
Hardly anyone knew my Great-Grandmother. She did not command attention when she entered a room. At the end of her life, she was frail and forgetful. But I wouldn’t dare for a moment say that this woman was not used in incredible ways.
She stands as an actual spiritual giant in my mind, despite her lacking résumé and speaking schedule. Or perhaps I should say because of her lack of resume, she stands for me as completely ordinary. A real human being that wrestled, struggled, faltered, even failed.
The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:27 that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are so that no one may boast before him.”
Paul wraps up his thought by saying, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
That’s too often not my mentality, which usually begins with God using big people for big things. It’s certainly the mentality of most — we define success through the eyes of others, therefore success can be defined by many as fame, notoriety, or simply being known. It’s fundamental to want to be known as a human being, but taken to its extreme it’s a dangerous and destructive creator of the idol of fame.
Francis Schaeffer noted that our ordinary thought in the Christian life is this: “It is wonderful to be a Christian, but I’m such a small person, so limited in talents — or energy or psychological strength or knowledge — that what I do is not really important.”
It’s simply not true.
Faithful to the End
On Dec. 4, 2006, Pfc. Ross McGinnis’ platoon had been ordered to enter back into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad after having just returned from a three-day patrol. As the convoy entered the neighborhood, the men in McGinnis’ Humvee heard a “tink” sound.
“Grenade!” McGinnis yelled. “It’s in the truck!”
“There was only about two seconds for everybody to get out,” his superior officer Sgt. Thomas recalled. “I had a full vehicle that day, so there were a total of five of us in the Humvee. There was no way we were all getting out.”
Thomas remembers McGinnis standing “as if he were swatting the grenade away.” The 19-year-old private then “leaned on the grenade, pushing his back up against it. When it detonated, his body shielded the rest of us from the blast,” Thomas said.
The other soldiers in the Humvee quickly poured out of the vehicle, not realizing until later that McGinnis was dead.
“Without his sacrifice, I would not be here today,” Thomas said.
In recognition of that sacrifice, the family of McGinnis was given the Medal of Honor on June 2, 2008.1
McGinnis didn’t do his job because he wanted fame. He did it because he was faithful to the very end. True greatness shows itself not in the grandeur of lights, but in the obscure thickness of the battlefield.
I don’t want to compare the ordinary daily life of one’s life to the heroic efforts of a Medal of Honor recipient by any means, but what I want to point out here is that real “heroes” aren’t famous or known in the warped reality we live in these days.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
I think of my Great-Grandmother in the same way I think of McGinnis and other heroes. They didn’t start their days as heroes, but they ended their lives that way.
God doesn’t ask for anything more from us than faithfulness.
A “long obedience in the same direction.”
The pace of God.
This beautiful documentary called Godspeed: The Pace of Being Known had a quote that said, “We have to be willing to give up control, to let go of our own agendas, and to trust that God is at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.”
I’ll admit it, to this day, I struggle a lot with this concept. I can work and feel like I’m completely wasting my time. My heart still is full of unfulfilled dreams. I have always had an innate desire to “make a change in the world.” I want to “impact” people. In my mind, I can play a part in turning and affecting the culture around me.
I look at men like McGinnis who sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, men and women who stand up in front of thousands and deliver life-altering speeches that leave me shaken, or authors and writers powerfully communicating and influencing thousands — and think that this is what God wants me to do.
What a Chicken Taught Me
There was a time in my life when I was working at the front counter at a fast-food chicken restaurant, serving customer after customer, and despite my best efforts, I was burning out. Handing out chicken sandwiches to moms with their whiny kids and construction workers with grimy hands wasn’t making a true difference in the world.
That’s when the restaurant owner sat down with me one day, and we began to talk about his journey through Chick-fil-A over the years. Mike had started as a young teenager just like me, working one day at a time. He always did his best, going the “second mile.” Year after year, sometimes and mostly without any kind of recognition or promotion, he clocked in and served his customers, and he built strong relationships with the team members around him. He eventually built one of the most successful organizations in the chain.
Mike told me I had the opportunity to do the same thing: I could make a difference for Christ right where I was. I could talk to thousands of customers and hundreds of team members over time just like many people have the special opportunity to speak to thousands on the weekends at conferences or in their books. I just needed to be faithful with what the Lord had given me (see Matthew 25:14-30.)
I was inspired by Mike’s words to me. I thought that Jesus wanted a book or new engaging message for my generation.
But all He wants from me is faithfulness with the gifts he has given me.
Hope Today, Hope Eternal
I had a friend ask me recently, “If all you can have is your wife, your family, and your current job, can you be content?”
I had to stare him directly back in the face and admit it.
I was sucked in by the worldly temptation to rush out and get ahead of God, unwilling to find any contentment in what God had given me and what He had called me to. To slow to His pace.
What I failed in, and still wrestle with, is failing to put my hope in God.
Eugene Peterson says in his wonderful book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction that “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulation, of scurrying and worrying.”
If we do not love Christ supremely, we do not love Him at all. Faithfulness is an all-in, total surrender type of action. It is the call of Christ on each life: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21, NIV). We must be willing to lose it all, push all distractions aside, to remain faithful to the Lord right where we’ve been placed by His sovereign will.
When the house burns to the ground, we are faithful. When that heartbreaking phone call comes, we remain faithful. When we receive the promotion at work, we remain faithful. Through the tears, the laughter, the joy, the pain, we lean totally and completely on the One who will never leave us nor forsake us.
And when that day comes, as any beauty left on our faces is consumed by wrinkles and blemishes, we will raise our hands and worship, an example to the next generation of believers who are walking behind us.
Kevin DeYoung sums up the message that I need to hear so well in his article “The Glory of Plodding Visionaries“:
We have dreams of changing the world, and the world should take notice accordingly. But we’ve not proved faithful in much of anything yet. We haven’t held a steady job or raised godly kids or done our time in VBS or, in some cases, even moved off the parental dole. We want global change and expect a few more dollars to the ONE campaign or Habitat for Humanity chapter to just about wrap things up.
What the church and the world needs, we imagine, is for us to be another Bono — Christian, but more spiritual than religious and more into social justice than the church. As great as it is that Bono is using his fame for some noble purpose, I just don’t believe that the happy future of the church, or the world for that matter, rests on our ability to raise up a million more Bonos (as at least one author suggests) … Until we are content with being one of the million nameless, faceless church members and not the next globe-trotting rock star, we aren’t ready to be a part of the church.
What we need are fewer revolutionaries and a few more plodding visionaries. That’s my dream for the church — a multitude of faithful, risk-taking plodders. The best churches are full of gospel-saturated people holding tenaciously to a vision of godly obedience and God’s glory, and pursuing that godliness and glory with relentless, often unnoticed, plodding consistency.
When I stood to leave my Great-Grandmother that day, I imagined my own life, stretching out like a long highway in the desert. I could see in the distance some hills, mountains and rough terrain. Most of it was hidden. But what I could see was right around me, in all its glory and splendor. It was there with my Great-Grandmother that I decided: I want to be a plodding visionary.
One step at a time.
I won’t quit.
Faithful to the end.
Further resources listed below. 2
Holbert, Tim, Washington Times, “Behind the Medal of Honor,” Thursday, May 28, 2009.
For further instruction, read the article “No Little People,” read passages such as Isaiah 11:5 (Christ as the faithful), research Hosea (Israel as unfaithful, God as faithful), and read Zechariah 4:10 (whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice), Lamentations 3:23 (His mercies are new every morning, and great is His faithfulness), Matthew 13:31-32 (the smallest of seeds, when it is grown over time, is larger than all the other garden plants), Luke 16:10 (one who is faithful in little is also faithful in much), 1 Corinthians 1:9 (God is faithful to us, sustaining us in Christ to the end), 2 Timothy 2:13 (even if we are faithless, He remains faithful), 1 Thessalonians 5:24 (He who calls you is faithful), 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (the Lord is faithful as He guards us from the evil one), and Revelation 2:10 (God tells the church at Smyrna to be faithful to the end, and they will be given the crown of life).