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The runner who wouldn’t hand over the baton

Updated: Jul 4, 2018

It’s important to understand that in the grand scheme of things life is a relay race and a team event, not an individual time trial. The apostle Paul said, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

The answer, of course, is nothing, absolutely nothing. Everything you are and everything you have, you owe to other people. You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for an act of love on the part of your parents. Your genetic makeup, your complex personality, your distinctive temperament, your unique talents, your particular abilities are the product of generations.

You, in turn, are a link in the chain, a connector of the past and future, a person who will make an undeniable contribution to the next generation. You are not here by accident. Your life is a part of the continuum of God’s purpose in human history. You are here to receive and to give – to receive from those who have gone before and to give to those who will follow after. You are a runner in a relay race carrying the baton; when your stage of the journey is completed, you are responsible to hand it on to others.

The apostle Paul continually thought in terms of ‘generational exchange’ which is one of the reasons why he was such an effective leader. Consider, for example, his admonition to Timothy, the leader of the church in Ephesus: “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Here we see four generations of spiritual leadership, or four stages in the relay race of God’s kingdom: Paul-Timothy-Faithful men-Others.

Paul was also acutely aware of the brevity of life and the limited tenure of ministry – even his ministry! “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6-7).

He could see that his stage of the race was coming to an end and that it was imperative to hand over the baton to another runner with fresh legs. To this end, he admonished Timothy: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching … Be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:2,5).

Hezekiah: hero or villain?

Hezekiah was one of the greatest kings of Judah, who famously cleansed the temple, restored the Davidic order of worship, re-instituted the observance of Passover, and instigated a spiritual and moral reformation. All these exploits notwithstanding, the day came when Hezekiah was ‘sick and near death’. Isaiah the prophet went to him and said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order for you shall die and not live’” (Isa. 38:1).

Not willing to accept the verdict, Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, wept bitterly, and cried out to the Lord. Merciful as always, the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will add to your days fifteen years’” (Isa. 38:2-4).

Growing up in a Pentecostal church, I often heard preachers eulogize Hezekiah as a champion of faith who refused to bow to sickness, and who, through intercessory prayer, managed to extend the term of his natural life. And the implication was always the same: ‘Go and do thou likewise’. Of course, this kind of message appeals to the ‘faith culture’ which has made an idol out of healing and longevity.

However, the longer I have walked with the Lord, the more I have come to understand that the issue is not ‘how long’ a person lives, but rather, ‘how’ a person lives. It’s all about quality of life and effectiveness of service, not how long you’ve spent on the pitch. One of the fathers of the Pentecostal movement and a great healing evangelist in his own right, Dr Charles Price, prophesied of an impending worldwide outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He said to his friend, Demos Shakarian (founder of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International), “I won’t live long enough to see it, but you will. And Demos, when you see it, you’ll know that the time of Jesus’ coming is very near.”

Demos Shakarian commented: “Dr Price spoke often of Jesus’ return to earth these days. He talked about his own approaching death, too, though he was only sixty two. I started to protest but he raised a hand to silence me. ‘Let’s not be sentimental, good friend. There are simply things which I know. I have another year, more or less. And then, Demos, what a privilege for a Christian to go to his Lord!’” (The Happiest People on Earth: Chosen Books).

In hindsight, I’m sure that Hezekiah wished that he had accepted the umpire’s verdict and gone home to be with the Lord in honour and glory. Because those extra fifteen years were nothing short of a disaster. His heart was lifted up in pride; he showed off the treasures of the house of the Lord to the Babylonian envoys; and his legacy to the next generation was an unpaid debt of judgment and retribution. The state of his heart is revealed in his last recorded words: “At least I’ll be dead before it happens” (paraphrased).

It would seem that after all his faith and obedience, Hezekiah had succumbed to that most human of conditions – sticky fingers. Or, to put it another way, the reluctance to let go of power … the delusion that you are irreplaceable. This kind of messianic complex might appeal to the ego, but it hinders the growth of God’s kingdom. The fact is, in the grand scheme of things, you’re supposed to be replaceable. Your life represents just one stage of a long relay race that involves lots of other people. The only one who is ‘priest forever’ and has an ‘unchangeable’ or irreplaceable ministry is the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:21,24).

History is replete with examples of people who stayed in the job too long – whether politicians, football coaches, business executives, or Christian pastors. Runners who wouldn’t hand over the baton when they were supposed to… I’m not just talking about dying and going to heaven, but rather, moving on when God says to move on, letting go when the Spirit says to let go. I’m talking about training up a successor and really handing the reins over to him or her at the appropriate time – not sitting in the back row as ‘President Emeritus’ and overshadowing the business or church like the ghost of Christmas past.

The curious case of Sir Basil Embry

Wing Commander Basil Embry was the leader of a Blenheim bomber squadron, based at Wattisham in the early days of World War Two. Like most C.O.’s, Embry was totally dedicated to the men in his squadron – a dedication that had been forged in the crucible of combat. And it was precisely because of this dedication that he was reluctant to accept his new posting to West Raynham and promotion to Acting Group Captain.

On the day he was to officially hand over the squadron to Wing Commander Stokes, a signal came through from Group that a general stand-to was ordered, due to the rapidity of the enemy’s advance towards Dunkirk. Embry said to Stokes, “I’ll have time to do this last job and get to Raynham on time as well. So I’ll brief the chaps, and then we’ll just wait for the whistle to go. And after it’s all over, then I’ll really say goodbye.”

At four o’clock in the afternoon, the Squadron of twelve aircraft took off, with the new C.O. Stokes flying immediately behind the former C.O. Embry’s ‘v’ formation. After dropping his bombs on a German military column near St. Omer, Embry’s plane was hit by antiaircraft fire amidships directly under the gunner’s turret. As the aircraft stalled and commenced a slow spiral spin towards the ground, Embry jumped from the hatch and pulled the ripcord on his parachute.

Five thousand feet above and several miles away, Wing Commander L. R. Stokes gathered his brothers around him, fought off the swarming German fighters, and led the remnant of his Squadron safely home. In the words of biographer Anthony Richardson (Wingless Victory: Odhams Press), “the hand-over had been completed”.

The moral of the story: Don’t wait to get shot down before handing over the reins to your designated successor!

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