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Begin at the End
June 11, 1989


It's graduation time in our schools: junior high, senior high, universities. Commencement is a more descriptive term than graduation. Our students may be graduating from a particular level of their educational experience, but they are commencing to begin their life journey.

One young man, when asked what his plans now are, stated simply, "I want to be the world's best trombone player." He is not being egotistical or boastful. His goal is to be the best. He will know when he has attained his goal when he plays first chair trombone in the Vienna Symphony. To reach his goal, he practices and practices and practices.

This young man has discovered an effective way to live: he is beginning at the end. He has decided what his end is, and is pursuing that end with all at his disposal.

Most of us are looking for satisfaction, a sense of fulfillment. Most of us want to believe, want to feel that we are living useful, productive lives. Most of us want to be rewarded for our efforts. We want to be successful. May I suggest that we begin at the end and work backward.

I admire the apostle Paul's courage, confidence, and sense of direction. The Epistle lesson this morning is from the opening of his letter to the churches in Galatia. Thank God for church fights! If it weren't for squabbling and fighting churches, we would not have much of a Bible to read. At least, we would not have much of our New Testament, for Paul's letters were largely written to churches that were being divided by controversy.

People were coming to the churches in Galatia from the mother church in Jerusalem, and telling the Galatians they were in error. The basic controversy that divided the church at that time was the question: how much of a Jew must a Gentile become in order to be a Christian? It was a perplexing question. Was Christianity a sect of Judaism? After all, Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jews. Paul was a Jew. Shouldn't a Galatian, or a Roman, or an Ephesian, who desired to follow Jesus first become a Jew? To become Christian, should a man be circumcised? Should they obey the dietary laws? What day should they worship?

The controversy is still alive. Whenever missionaries travel to other lands, preach the gospel, and receive converts, they have to answer the question: how much of an American must a convert become in order to be a Christian? In other words, how much of what we call Christianity is cultural, and not necessary to salvation? Contemporary missionaries realize that the church is enriched when people come to Christ, worship God and serve, within the framework of their own culture, using their native art forms and music.

Paul serves as our model, for Paul and Peter challenged the mother church of Jerusalem, believing that Gentiles could become Christians and receive the Holy Spirit without adopting the religion of Judaism. Paul wrote to Galatia, urging them to hold to the gospel he taught, rather than heed the visitors from Jerusalem. Paul wrote in 1:6, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel."

Now the people from Jerusalem were well-meaning and well-intentioned. They represented James. James was the head of the Jerusalem Church. James was not only the bishop of the Jerusalem Church, James was Jesus' brother, the head of Jesus' family. To oppose James was to oppose the brother of Jesus, yet Paul opposed him boldly and confidently. If you want to read the eye-witness account of the crucial church council, read Acts 15. Paul and Peter won their case, and Christianity flourished.

I admire Paul for his courage in challenging the establishment. What gave Paul such courage? Where did Paul get his confidence, his certainty? Paul was sure of where he was going. Paul had begun at the end. In Galatians 1:10, he wrote, "Am I now seeking the favor of people or of God? Am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I should not be a servant of Christ." Paul goes on to say he had been called by Christ. He did not check with anyone else for his authority or his message, because his call was from God, and his end, his goal, was to be a faithful servant, a faithful steward of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The rest of his life fell in line behind that banner. Paul desired to be a servant of Jesus Christ. He could oppose multitudes because he was not concerned about pleasing people, but pleasing Christ.

Begin at the end. All decisions are important, for each decision becomes a step to the next, like laying stones for a path. Each stone is placed in relationship to the one laid and to the next one to be laid. There are two ways to lay out a path. There are two ways to make decisions. One way is to lay out the path as you go, to decide after placing each stone, where the next stone should be placed. Vacations are fun when each day just happens with no plan. I like to start out in the car, and see where the car takes me, stopping when we are tired, eating when there is an interesting restaurant, looking at whatever seems enticing. Unplanned vacation trips are fun, but I don't recommend it for your life.

However, some folks do live their lives that way. They lay the stones for their path in whichever direction looks interesting at the moment. Each decision leads to a consequence, and each consequence leads to the next decision. A student may decide to go to a particular school, and then look to see what courses the school offers. Some college students select courses based on when they meet. I had a friend who claimed he picked courses that met Tuesdays through Thursdays after 10:00 in the morning. Such students then select a major based on the courses they have taken.

The other way to lay out a stone path is to begin at the end, and work back to the point of origin. Decide where you want the path to lead, and then lay each stone so that it will lead to the destination. We began our vacation at the end. We decided that we wanted to feel rested and refreshed at the end. I wanted my mind relaxed. So we, for the first time in our lives, stayed in one place for two weeks. We took short half-day trips occasionally, but we stayed in one place, sleeping, reading, sleeping, walking, sleeping, and eating. We began at the end, and it worked.

This idea may seem logical and practical to you. Of course, some of you may say, everyone needs a plan. How do you know when you get there, if you don't know where you are going? But, how many of us really practice this philosophy? Let's test it. I took a test once which asked this question: Imagine it is the end of your life, what is written on your tombstone? There aren't many cemeteries any more which allow you to have tombstone, much less have anything of substance written on it, but you get the idea. Imagine it is your memorial service, how is the minister summarizing your life? Many of the memorial services these days have a sharing time. At your service, what do you imagine your friends and family will say about you? What would you like them to say?

Begin at the end. For what do you want to be remembered? What kind of impact, what kind of difference, would you like your life to make? I'm afraid that too many people stumble along through life without ever asking that question. They flit from fad to fad, flower to flower, never quite landing anywhere, never quite belonging, never quite satisfied. Some even feel that life treats them unfairly because they are not quite sure where they are going. They haven't quite got it all together. There is no direction, and therefore, no end. What is your desired end?

Also, I'm afraid some people choose an epitaph, a goal, an end that is not worthy of them, not worthy of their devotion and pursuit. I followed an ancient truck one day, driven by an ancient man. There was a handwritten sign on the rear of the truck: Evil to they who evil do by word or deed. I immediately knew two things about the old gentlemen.

1) He couldn't write the English language (evil to they). Of course, that doesn't seem to make any difference anymore. TV ads, billboard ads, movies, songs all seem to delight in massacring a perfectly good language. Have you seen the bumper sticker: I (heart-shape meaning love) to get even? I love to get even. Such English. Love and revenge in my vocabulary are incompatible.

2) I knew the old man with his "evil to they" was not a Christian. Would you like that written on your tombstone?

I have been deeply moved and inspired by the young people in China who have died, and who are willing to die for freedom; willing to die, willing to stand in front of moving tanks because they believe in their country, and are willing to die in order to make a stand, to make their country democratic, where people are free to live, think, and be. They have an end worthy of them. I remember being very impressed as a youth by an old man who stood in a meeting and said, "I've always been willing to wear the uniform of a soldier and die for my country, but I'll never give my life for Standard Oil." He protested the use of the military to protect business interests.

What is your end? What are you living for? Is your path going anywhere? What are you willing to die for? In the final analysis, would you give your life for anything less than God's will? If God called you to give your life for freedom, would you do it, leaving a blazing epitaph like the Chinese youth who will, in the long run, make a difference in China? Paul's goal was to serve Christ. To the Philippians, in 1:21, Paul wrote, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote, "They who have a why to live for can bear with almost any how. Paul endured controversy, strife, squabbling, persecution, and martyrdom because he had a why to live for.

Begin at the end, and live backward.

© 1989 Douglas I. Norris