Thursday, July 26, 2012

It’s All in the Finish

This weekend Summer Olympic competition begins and many of us will spend hours in front of the TV – or online – watching hundreds of the world’s greatest athletes battle for gold, silver and bronze in their respective events. Most of these will be thrilling to watch, but whether it’s swimming, track and field, basketball, soccer, field hockey, synchronized swimming or some other sport, there will be a common theme:

All that matters is how you finish.

Often as we observe the events, we will see athletes make a fast start, leading the field of competitors whether in the 1,500-meter run, a sprint, 200-meter butterfly, marathon or cycling. The question will be, can the athlete maintain the pace and be there at the finish?

Watching the recent U.S. Olympic swimming trials, for example, commentators frequently spoke about a swimmer’s “strong finish.” He or she might not lead early in the race, but the athlete had the capacity to finish strong, many times coming from behind to win. A gymnast might look great at the start of her balance beam routine, but will she bobble and fall off, or fail to nail her dismount? To win, a good start must be followed by an equally good finish.

This blog is not about sports, but often the world of athletics provides good metaphors for everyday life. Finishing well is one of them.

Apart from the Olympics, we’ve seen other examples. Joe Paterno, legendary football coach at Penn State, was regarded by many as the sport’s best ever. But revelations he apparently had knowledge of a former assistant’s sexual abuse of young boys over many years will forever tarnish his image. His statue has been removed. Decades ago another exceptional coach, Woody Hayes at Ohio State, also had commendable life accomplishments diminished when TV viewers witnessed his final act on a football field, a frustrated punch thrown at a player from the opposing team.

In “real life,” we also see examples of people that don’t finish nearly as well as they started: Couples exchanging wedding vows, aglow with love for one another, filing for divorce a few years later. A promising young employee that initially seems an up-and-coming star for the company, whose job performance lapses into mediocrity. A respected business executive caught up in ethical shortcuts. A nationally known political leader’s moral failures being exposed.

It’s easy to start well. You’re filled with excitement, enthusiasm and energy, confident of success. But as weeks, months and years pass, the challenge of persevering, the reality the task at hand demands endurance and daily rededication, can discourage and dishearten. The temptation arises to compromise cherished values and principles. A strong finish is no longer assured.

That’s why, perhaps with a sigh of relief, the apostle Paul wrote at the end of his life, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). He wasn’t writing about an athletic competition – he was referring to victory in “the game of life.”

Through the years I’ve observed many people also start fast spiritually, but slow down as they near the finish line. Sometimes they drop out of the race entirely. But I’m thankful for many examples of men and women I’ve known that finished their race in the faith – and finished well. Every day they inspire me to do the same.

So as you watch some of the Olympic events over the next couple of weeks, take a moment: Ask yourself, “How am I doing in my own race? Am I doing what I need to do to finish well?”

Hopefully your answer will be a positive one. But if not, what needs to change?

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