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FIRST-PERSON: Running the race

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LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the last runner to finish in the marathon was an athlete from Tanzania. He’d had a difficult race, to say the least. He’d stumbled at one point and ended up bruised, bloodied -– and with a broken leg!

But he didn’t quit. Even though everyone else had already finished the race and gone home, he kept at it. Finally, at 7 in the evening, he straggled into the near-empty stadium. There were still about 7,000 people on hand to witness his finish, and all 7,000 stood, giving this battered athlete a standing ovation as he finished his last lap.

When this dedicated marathoner was asked, “Why didn’t you quit?” he simply said, “My country did not send me halfway around the world to start the race; they sent me to finish it.”

When you became a pastor, you clearly entered into an Olympic-level race. Unfortunately, some of your peers will never finish the marathon. They’ll get waylaid, sidetracked or distracted or they’ll get disqualified. For one reason or another, they’ll die with unfulfilled dreams and an unrealized ministry, and they’ll fall short of their full leadership potential, never discovering the fullness of their God-given S.H.A.P.E. There but for the grace of God go you and I.

(S.H.A.P.E. is an acronym I developed years ago to explain the five elements that determine what a person’s ministry should be: Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, Experiences.)

We need to always keep before us the fact that we were made for a purpose. Pastor, God created YOU to fulfill a holy mission here on earth!

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So, how do you avoid being distracted from running — and finishing — the race?

Hebrews 12:1 exhorts, “Let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back … and let us run with patience the particular race that God has set before us” (Liv).

Note the word particular — that means you have a race in life that is unique to you and your S.H.A.P.E. You’re not meant to run someone else’s race, and they’re not supposed to run your race.

If you don’t run the race that God intended for you, it will NOT get run!

So, one critical step toward finishing the race is to make sure you’re running the race God wants you to run. There are people who want you to run their race and to become like them. They want you to establish or accept certain traditions, certain methodologies, certain attitudes that are politically correct.

If you allow it, these people will add to your life all kinds of expectations and additional jobs and responsibilities that God never intended for you to have. That’s why we all start off as originals, but then many of us end up in life as carbon copies. We get distracted, and we add all sorts of things to our lives and our ministries that God never intended for us to carry. You wouldn’t try to run an iron man triathlon in Hawaii while wearing a heavy parka meant to be worn in Antarctica; you wouldn’t try to run a long-distance marathon while wearing a suit of armor.

The Apostle Paul teaches that you’re to strip off anything that slows you down, eliminate all the unnecessary baggage, simplify your life and do ONLY those things that really count. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted by things you were never, ever meant — or S.H.A.P.E.D. by God — to do.

What are the types of things that can distract you from your life mission?

The opinions of other people can distract you — What will people think if we change the way we do this part of the ministry? How many people will I offend if I preach this sermon? If I tell them about Jesus, will they stop visiting the church? Will they fire me if I wear a Hawaiian shirt during the Sunday morning service? Ha!

The desire to have things you cannot have could distract you — I know of one pastor who became addicted to Internet gambling because he thought he could make a little extra money; it cost him his ministry. How many pastors have been pushed from the race because of pornography or an affair?

A hobby — even a good one — could distract you from the race — Beth Moore, a gifted Bible teacher, stopped playing tennis not because it was bad, but because she realized it was distracting her from the ministry God had called her to complete. I’m not suggesting you can’t play tennis — or have a hobby — I’m simply saying that God wants you to carefully consider how you use your time and energy in light of His eternal plan. As pastors, we must live what Oswald Chambers called “the maimed life,” meaning we cut away anything that distracts us from our godly purpose.

But I’ll tell you, after 30 years as a pastor, I’ve come to the conclusion that the number one thing that keeps people from becoming what God wants them to become is their past.

Frankly, many people in ministry are stuck in the past, and the problem with that is it’s impossible to get on with the future while they’re holding onto the past.

There are two things that stick you in the past: guilt and bitterness: guilt from things you’ve done wrong and still feel bad about and bitterness over things others have done to you. If you want to get on with the future — if you want to finish the race that God S.H.A.P.E.D. you to run — then you’ve got to stop rehearsing your past. You’ve got to stop being manipulated by memories, and you’ve got to release your regrets and hurts.

You need to give up your guilt and forgive yourself because God has already forgiven you based upon your relationship with Christ. You’ve got to give up your grudges, and you’ve got to give up your grief. You need to get on with your future, the one God intends for you — the essential and eternally important one that God assigned to you and you alone.

If you don’t strip off your entanglements with the past, then you’re living your life like a man trying to drive a car while constantly staring into the rear view mirror. Eventually, he’s going to crash!

“Do not dwell on what happened long ago” is a wise word from the Prophet Isaiah (43:18, TEV).

If any minister had reason to be filled with regrets, it was the Apostle Paul. Before he became a believer, he persecuted Christians, even participating in the murder of one man. Yet, Paul says in Philippians 3:13-14, “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race” (Liv).

Paul knew the critical importance of removing all distractions that kept him from his appointed task, and he also knew the kind of struggle a pastor must go through to toss off those distractions. We can all be encouraged to see that Paul — a man of flesh and blood — was able to discern God’s direction, eliminate distractions and run a race of epic proportions. Because we are S.H.A.P.E.D. by God, we are no less capable of running such a grand race!

In Acts 20:24 Paul says, “I consider my life worth nothing to me if only I may finish the race and complete the task that the Lord Jesus has given me” (NIV). And in what was likely the last letter Paul wrote before his death, he told Timothy, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7, NIV).

Are you going to be able to say that about your life? That you completed your unique mission, the one God created you to accomplish?

My friend, you may have stumbled; you may have fallen, but God still chose you to run the race set before you. He is not ashamed to call you His own.

You may have been knocked out of the race dozens of times, but you’re still God’s choice. Get up and get back in the race. Keep your eyes on the finish line and keep running!
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