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Accept No Substitute

One of my favorite scriptures got national attention last week.  It is an inspiring passage with the imagery of a race and acknowledgement of the need for endurance in this difficult life, but that we are not alone and that Jesus leads the way.  This passage has been an inspiration, a comfort, a reminder of what is most valuable, with Jesus at the center.  It has left an indelible mark on my life as I return to it again and again in difficult seasons of my own life, including as I looked for joy in this season.  

Perhaps when Vice President Mike Pence adapted it as part of his speech for the Republican National Convention, he was simply driven by similar inspiration.  Unfortunately, he not only left out Jesus, the Vice President substituted Jesus with "Old Glory", our national flag.  While this made for a memorable address, it was a gross misuse of the scripture and, in fact, the very definition of idolatry: the worship of something or someone other than God as if it were God.  Again, I cannot know the heart or motive of the Vice President (or his speech writers), so I just want to share a few things this passage actually says and why I find it such good news.

I don't need to be perfect.  The opening lines of Hebrews 12 follow a list of faithful believers at the end of chapter 11.  These men and women, flawed and broken, nevertheless were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect (Hebrews 11:39-40).  These men and women of faith, still awaiting their promised reward, are the great cloud of witnesses.  They did not start out perfect, flawless, already mature.  In fact, this passage says no one will reach that full potential until we are all together: their lives of faith not complete apart from ours (Hebrews 11:40 MSG).  More than not needing to be perfect, perfection is not even possible on my own--what a relief!

We are in this together.  Not only is that end reward celebrated all together, we are in the race together too.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12:1).  Even though it feels like a marathon, is it possible that life is more like a relay, with everyone doing their part and also working together so that we can all complete the race?  A few lines later, the author of Hebrews quotes Proverbs 4:26 in a way that encourages not just personal responsibility, but also aid to those around us: "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed (Hebrews 12:13).  It is good to know that throughout our lives we will likely experience comfort as we are assisted by others, but we will also have opportunities to contribute and help others.

Hard does not mean wrong.  It is the flawed but faithful example of those witnesses and the collaboration of others in the race that make it seem possible for a woman like me to join in, to shed my entanglements, and to run, but not without Jesus.  It is Jesus himself who we run toward, and his example we are meant to follow, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:2-3).  So many voices (including our own) often try to tell us that if life seems too hard, then we might be in the wrong job or with the wrong spouse or wrong in some other way.  Instead, the author of Hebrews says that we follow Jesus and his life was not easy, so don't get discouraged if your life is hard too.  

As I mentioned, this is a passage I have returned to time and time again, especially when feeling weary.  The honest assessment of life, full of obstacles and critics, is a comfort to me.  The image of a crowd cheering me on and of teammates clearing the path is encouraging.  There is joy in picturing the ultimate celebration, with all those I love and who love the Lord, when the race is over.  I find a way to keep going, one step at a time, as I follow Jesus.  That is what is most important: that we keep our eyes on Jesus, accepting no substitute for inspiration or hope, for love or belonging, for security or wisdom, for salvation or victory or joy, accepting no substitute for Jesus.

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