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CELEBRATION: Reflections on 35 years

CHICAGO (BP)–I’m on my run. The sun warms my face. I’m making tracks down the parkway that flanks the Boulevard. I follow a path through the grass. Back when I started running here, there was no path.

This summer I’m reflecting on God’s goodness as I mark 35 years as pastor of the Armitage Baptist Church in this world class city, Chicago. When I began, there was no path. I marvel at supernatural strength for every step. I ponder God’s grace for the race. My mind flits to my preacher father, 58 years the pastor of Ashburn Baptist here in the Chicago area. What an example!

Exodus 23 comes to mind. God gave me this passage in 1980 when we were trying to buy this big old Masonic Temple. We sealed the deal in ’81, exorcised the place and are still sanctifying it. In verse 20, God is telling Moses and the people He will send an angel before them. Then He says He will bring them to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the termites … you remember the passage. I understood the passage to say God would lead us to the enemy, to His enemies, in order to show His power over them.

God led us to face the gangs. In fact, we took over their headquarter corner when we bought this building. Every night 25 guys would be hanging out on our front steps. I spotted their former chief a couple of weeks ago, praising God on our front row. God led us to an eyeball-to-eyeball facedown with the Chicago political machine. We stood, they stumbled and backed away.

Oh yes, “through many dangers toils and snares ….”

I think of the days when my back problems wouldn’t even let me walk and then would only let me walk but not run. A ritual has evolved. As I begin my run, I think of the blessing of being able to run again. I lift my hands above my head, like a crazy man. You know, like the winner breaking the tape, only the passing traffic sees no tape and no other runners, just a skinny white man running down the parkway with his arms in the air and his lips moving. I’m thanking God for letting me run one more day, praising Him for His goodness and faithfulness, all these years — and miles — later.

Today I want to yell over my shoulder to all you servants behind me, running at the two-year mark, the eight-year mark, 17 years, 26 years, 34 years. God is good. He’s faithful. Oh, He will test you to grow you. He’ll turn up the fire to purify you. He’ll stretch you to within an inch of your life. But He will never, ever leave you. He’s running with you right now.

Many days when I thought I was trudging sluggishly, the fancy-shmancy sport tool my staff gave me told me I was running at a stronger, faster pace than it felt like. So many times, getting up to preach my third or fourth message of the day, I thought, “I’m not getting the job done.” A couple of months ago on a Sunday night, I asked all the men who were called to preach to come and sit in the front. About 20 guys came and filled the front row.

I’ve failed Him; He’s never failed me. I want to holler back to all those coming up behind me: “When you don’t think you can run one more mile, you can do all things through Christ. When you think you can’t go one more step, you don’t have one more sermon in you, one more service, one more counseling session, one more deacon’s meeting, not one more Bible study in you … when you don’t have one more tear, when you just know one more family leaving will break you, remember they that wait upon the LORD will renew their strength, they will mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not faint. The race is not given to the swift. Your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

He may not come when you want, but He’s always on time.

Charles Lyons is senior pastor of Armitage Baptist Church in Chicago.

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