To Finish Well
Kay and I have been praying for ourselves and for many of our companions that we would “finish well”. Frank Consalvo asked what that means. My initial response was that I was going to let the Lord decide what that was, but then decided maybe God wanted me to think about it some more. The way I think about things is to get a few thoughts from the Word that might give light on a subject and then ask others, who are thoughtful, to expand on those ideas. The following are some observations that I, and others, have on the subject.
One of the ideas that came out in early discussions is that this is a subject that is actually more useful to younger men and women because they can make the decisions earlier in life that will result in ending their days in a good way. We make a major mistake if we wait until the end of our lives to begin to think about what it means for us to finish well. If we are not building into our lives the character of Jesus throughout our lives we will not be able to be what God and we want us to be in the last phase of our lives.
Surely Jesus must have finished well. However, I don’t think we would think we had finished well if were both a refugee at an early age, homeless during our years of service to others and then at the age of 33 we were falsely accused of a crime, sentenced to death, and then crucified. Jesus has a different measure than our human standard which includes things like stress-free living and long and prosperous lives. His perspective as recorded in John 17 indicates the following things were the important things in his finishing well.
- I have brought the Father glory here on earth.
- I have finished the work the Father gave me to do.
- I have revealed the Father to, and equipped, those you gave to me.
Then there is the case of Moses: from a position of power at age 40 he tried to help his people but fled from Egypt when he failed. He spent the next 40 years in exile. He then led his people for another 40 years but did not even get into the Promised Land. That looks to me like he never accomplished his life’s goal. Ruth Haley Barton, in her book strengthening the Soul of Leadership summarizes his finishing well in these words,
“The season of letting go is the time when we might give our retrospective, as Moses, did in the book of Deuteronomy, summarizing lessons learned and battles fought, telling stories that inspire, offering wisdom and instruction from years of leadership experience. It is time to give blessing to those who will go on without us and to encourage and empower those who will lead.”
“This is what I have come to see most clearly in the life of Moses: for Moses the presence of God was the Promised Land. Next to that, everything else had already paled in significance”
Thus Moses finished well in discovering that the presence of God in his life was more important than any earthly accomplishments. And he was helped in this process of relinquishment by equipping, encouraging and empowering the next generation of leaders.
The summary of Paul’s life as he recorded it in 2 Corinthians 11 does not look like he was finishing well:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged severely and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
But Paul wrote some other things as well:
“I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace”. Acts 20:24“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” 2 Timothy 4:7
A similar example is seen in the untimely death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was executed by Hitler at the age of 39 – two weeks before the American soldiers freed the other prisoners in his camp. Bishop Bell spoke these words at his memorial service:
He saw the truth and spoke it with absolute freedom and without fear. Wherever he went and whoever he spoke with—whether young or old—he was fearless, regardless of himself and, with it all, devoted his heart and soul to his parents, his friends, his country as God willed it to be, to his Church and to his Master” Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas
The superb insights that come to us from his book, Life Together are a result of his bringing young men together in a discipline but clandestine seminary experience that was always being opposed and broken up by the Nazis. He was determined to teach the next generation.
One of the indications that we are finishing well is when we have understood and are practicing the biblical principle of stewardship. When we know that the reason God gives us health, energy, spiritual insights, and material possessions is for the purpose of using them as He, the Owner, wants – than we are living in ways that bring a strong finish.
Iral Barrett pointed out the passage in Ephesians 2:10 “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” And he then made the statement that as long as we are engaged in the good works that God has for us to do we are finishing well. Our life of faith and obedience in early years shapes our character so that we will continue to be obedient to the Lord clear to the end. That is finishing well.
But what do we do when we screw up? How do we deal with the debilitating power of sin and failure? I take some consolation in the fact that even the best of the people recorded in Holy Scripture were not perfect. In most cases their stories are more like the flight of the yoyo than a steady upward road that leads to perfection. And so that leads us to the necessity of confession and forgiveness that is so clearly taught by God throughout the Bible and certainly made clear by Jesus.
“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” Psalms 32:5
Thus finishing well is learning to be a Kingdom of God person in spite of human weakness and the attacks of evil people and evil systems that often afflict us. It is life worth living both because of and in spite of.
If we are following the example of Jesus, Moses, Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others in living a life that: gives glory to God; finishes the work He gives us to do each day throughout our lives, and builds the next generation of godly women and men then we can traverse the difficulties of the last phase of our lives in ways that will keep the life of the Kingdom flowing in us and spreading to others.
In November of 2011 Jack Murta, Tom Cooper, Albert Cooper and Wes Anderson and I met for a time of discernment about our lives. As we thought about our lives in our sixties and seventies these thoughts about finishing well surfaced. (Some of which are in other parts of this treatise, but I like the way they put the ideas together.)
- Finances are an issue. Adequate finances provide freedom of choice regarding who we spend our time and energy with in the latter time of our lives. Discernment in this area needs to begin before we get to the latter phase.
- Understanding the present calling of God on our lives is essential. Is it the same one with which we begun? How has it changed over time? What is it to be in this latter phase of our lives?
- We have no control over many health issues that come in later life but we can be diligent in exercise, food discipline, and living with less stress - we have some control over these.
- One factor in what opportunities we have to serve the Lord in the later phase is to discover who wants to be with us. Have we lived in such a way that people are seeking time with us?
- It is essential that we come to agreement about a joint vision with our wives as to how we are to use our time, energy, and money. And especially on who are the people to whom we give priority in the our use of these resources.
- It is very desirable to have at least one other couple who can walk with us to help us discern and deal with the important issues in our lives. As an individual spouse we need one who speaks truth into our life and our marriage needs another marriage that brings truth to it.
- We are elders and we are to embrace the role of an elder. This will be reflected in various ways for each of us. It will certainly include our role as father and grandfather. It will probably mean less pioneering and innovating and more responding with wisdom and counsel to those who enquire.
- We will also continue to need a mentor or mentors who help us see our strengths, weaknesses and areas of needed change and growth. And the mentor does not be someone older – just someone we trust enough for us to submit our lives to them.
- We want to learn to live at a slower pace as energy lessens but at the same time refuse to plateau or to tread water spiritually.
Later I read a fascinating book by Richard Rohr, Falling Upward in which he describes some of the characteristics in the second half of our lives that would indicate we are finishing well. Here are a few of his thoughts:
“If you have forgiven yourself for being imperfect and falling, you can now do it for just about everybody else. If you have not done it for yourself, I am afraid you will likely pass on your sadness, absurdity, judgment, and futility to others.”
“You learn to positively ignore and to withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly. You fight things only when you are directly called and equipped to do so. Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself. Holier-than-thou people usually end up holier than nobody.”
“Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have.”
“So many people I know who are doing truly helpful and healing ministry find their primary support from a couple of enlightened friends—and only secondarily if at all, from the larger organization.”
“Dualistic thinking gets you in the right ball park. (You cannot serve both God and Mammon) but non-dualistic wisdom is necessary once you actually get in the right field. ‘Now that I have chosen to serve God, what does that really mean?’ In short we need both.” (Hotaling note: E. Stanley Jones wrote: But you can serve God with Mammon.)
“If your politics do not become more compassionate and inclusive, I doubt whether you are on the second journey.”
“If you are on course at all, your world should grow much larger in the second half of life. But I must tell you that, in yet another paradox, your circle of real confidants and truly close friends will normally grow smaller, but also more intimate.”
Learning to live with grace as we get near the end is a challenge. The following has been an encouragement to many to face some of the temptations at this stage of our lives:
“Lord, you know better than I know myself that I am growing older and will some day be old.
- Keep me from getting talkative, and particularly from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.
- Release me from craving to try to straighten out everybody’s affairs.
- Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details – give me wings to get to the point.
- Teach me that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken.
- Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a saint – some of them are so hard to live with – but a sour old woman is one of the crowning works of the devil.
- With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all – but you know, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.” Little Book of Prayers by a Mother Superior who wishes to be anonymous.
Health issues in the end of our lives have come up often in these discussions.
Rick and Orleen Baugh raised the point that often we need to discover the courage to deal with our deteriorating health in the later phases of our lives. I have observed several friends who have shown great strength as they have gone through painful things. I have learned the importance of relinquishment as I am losing the capacity to do certain things, but I have not been tested in any major way at this point. Is there a way we can prepare for it or is it another example of the manna principle” – I won’t have the resources (manna) to deal with these issues until I get to that day? I don’t know. Kent Aldrich suggested that if we spend time with people who are dealing with their deteriorating health issues we will have an opportunity to learn from them as we see their courage in the face of distressing conditions. And of course, in the transformation of our lives that Jesus brings as we follow him we are learning to access the resources he makes available to us. A key factor in this is our willingness to let go of things that we cannot control as we move through life because this makes us more able to let go of bigger things at the end of our lives.
Bob and Cindy Brinn talked about the difficult emotional decisions as we face terminal health. This is one of the more emotional issues that we face as we near the final part of our journey on earth. Dr. Timothy Johnson communicates well what Kay and I are thinking about for this time of our lives when he said that even though he is a medical doctor he wants to die at home rather than being kept “alive” through all the miracles of modern medicine. He has made this wish an open discussion with his family because he knows that our families are often the ones who find it the most difficult to let us die.
This is still a work in progress as I continue to talk with others about the subject but a pretty good summery at this point is to go back to the model of Jesus. We are to daily finish the work God gives each of us to do which becomes visible in thousands of ways throughout our lifetime. And we are to be equipping and empowering others to do greater things than we have done. And this brings glory to God and great satisfaction to us!
Kent Hotaling — March 2012