Ninety Minutes

After a three-year hiatus from the soccer field, I recently laced up my cleats once again. I started during the summer when a good friend of mine talked me into joining an “over forty” league.  It was five-on-five play with no goalies and a small field, so it wasn’t quite the same as full scale.  However, it was just enough to get me to take the plunge and sign up for this year’s fall soccer.  It was a new team for me, as well as several others that showed up the first game; many of us had never met, certainly hadn’t practiced together, and found ourselves scrambling to identify positions and put together a functioning squad with only moments to go before kick-off.  It wasn’t the prettiest start, but much to my surprise, the years of soccer experience represented on the field quickly started to show, and we began to play well together.  After ninety minutes of play, we had learned each other’s skill sets, bonded more as a team, and finished strong with a win.

This all may sound wonderful, but the details of those ninety minutes weren’t all so pretty.  Without boring you with a play-by-play, let’s just say that for every completed pass, there were several that missed the mark; for every shot scored, there were a dozen that went wide; and for every beautiful run down the field with finesse, there were several moments spent picking ourselves off the ground and brushing off.  What’s interesting though is if you were to poll everyone who was either playing or watching that game about what they remembered most, it would be the finish.  Starting is a “must have” critical first step in anything we do, and we need brave people to begin new things, but what the world really needs is more finishers – especially in the church.

In last week’s message I spent my time diving into the purpose of God’s church.  This included clear markers from Scripture to help identify whether or not a church is following their Biblical mandate.  I feel it’s my responsibility to help people understand what the Bible actually says on this matter because years of man-made tradition have clouded people from the truth.  In some cases, it has become so severe, that a church can be unrecognizable from what God intended.  I don’t believe this is the intended fate of something that the Bible refers to as Jesus’ bride, and with that said, I am in love with the church, and I long to see her healthy and spotless (Ephesians 5:27).  I wouldn’t have started Mended if this wasn’t my heart.   

When I say church, I’m not talking about what happens in a building on Sunday morning.  That’s only a small portion of its function and one I think a disproportionate amount of focus has been given.  What I’m referring to is the entirety of God’s people, seven days a week.  The church Christ began had a clear goal in mind of spreading the message of hope to the ends of the earth through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).  It was comprised of people who were so touched by his love, they professed their faith as a lifestyle, and remained hopeful in the midst of whatever came their way. 

I want to see today’s church do the same, but few can contest that it has lost influence in our culture.  Many people I talk to don’t understand its origin, nor have they ever given a second thought as to how it started.  What I find interesting however, is despite this indifference, people are still paying attention to what the church is doing with their “ninety minutes,” and have a vested interest in their position at the finish.  Don’t believe me?  just watch the media anytime a church experiences moral failure, especially from a highly visible leader.  The world takes note!  This example alone is enough for me to understand the extreme importance that must be placed on upholding integrity until the end.  As the team at Mended has discussed this topic at length in order to avoid the same folly, we’ve identified that it’s the inability of God’s people to finish what they’ve started that diminishes their influence.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing a multitude of people come to faith in Christ.  There is nothing like seeing the joy of someone experiencing his love for the first time.  Often times this leads to an immense desire to want to give back and do something in return.  This is a completely normal, understandable, and awesome response.  I would never consider dampening this spirit coming alive in someone!  But how do you prepare someone for the road ahead, for the bumps and bruises, and missed passes or shots, without putting out the fire?  How do you tell someone experiencing something so incredible, that few will remember their starting moment, yet nearly everyone will remember their finish?  Herein lays the challenge that every church must face head on; and it’s done by raising up finishers.  I can’t think of a more crystal clear way to explain how to raise finishers than to use Jesus’ own analogy of soil. 

Two years ago, when my wife and I designed and started our garden, we brought in extremely rich, organic mushroom compost as our base soil.  The one crop I can’t forget was the carrots we sowed directly into the ground.  We didn’t really know what we were doing, but the seed responded to the nutrients that were supplied and we had a bumper crop, not only in size, but volume too!  Fast forward to this last year, and we couldn’t have experienced a more extreme flip-flop.  We sowed the same type of seed in the same location with zero results!  We soon realized after just one year of growth, the soil was completely depleted of nutrients.  Our oversight on thinking the soil would still contain what the carrots needed lead to no growth.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9), he explains this exact phenomenon in relation to our spiritual growth and ability to thrive in relationship with him until our finish.  He says:

“Study this story of the farmer planting seed.  When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn’t take it in, it just remains on the surface, and so the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of that person’s heart.  This is the seed the farmer scatters on the road.  The seed cast in the gravel – this is the person who hears and instantly responds with enthusiasm.  But there is no soil of character, and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it.  The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the kingdom news, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.  The seed cast on good earth is the person who hears and takes in the News, and then produces a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.” (Matthew 13:18-23)

“Good earth” doesn’t happen by accident or some passive system, but there must be an intentional replenishing.  Once again, the life of Jesus explains and models exactly how this is done.

“As often as possible Jesus withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer” (Luke 5:16).

I love this Scripture because it hits the nail on the head for what is a realistic and achievable way to become a strong finisher that is not part of a mindless routine.  Very simply put: spend as much time with God as you can.  Don’t beat yourself up when you go hours or days without conversing with God when life gets crazy, but intentionally refocus in His Word, in prayer, or with others in a group when possible.  I often wonder why we make it more difficult than it really is.

It’s apparent that God is an impressive creator and a starter, but He’s an equally brilliant finisher.  As Christ hung on the cross, moments before he gave up his spirit, he declared with on final breath, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  If I had to pick one Scripture to write about or teach about for the rest of my life, this would undoubtedly be it.  I can’t think of three other words taken from the full breadth of human language, when put together tell more of God’s heart than what Christ expressed in that moment.  His plan to create an unbroken pathway back to Himself, accessible to every person unfolded in that moment.  It wasn’t partially completed or mostly done – it was finished.  What amazes me even more is that it’s never been undone up to this day.  No matter what one particular church or person “representing” God chooses to do or not do, they can never unravel what Christ accomplished on that day – setting us up perfectly with everything we need to be strong finishers in the church he started thousands of years ago.