By Tim Harlow
In his book Who Switched the Price Tags? Tony Campolo tells of an African-American pastor who was preaching to some students who were about to graduate. He said, “Children, you are going to die! One of these days the hearse is going to take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole and everyone’s going back to the church to eat potato salad. When you were born, you were crying and everyone else was happy. Here is the question, ‘When you die, will you be the only happy one with everyone else crying?’ The answer depends upon whether you lived to get titles or testimonies.”
It’s a good question, even in church leadership. I’m in a season where the church I serve is fruitful. It’s taken 23 years to get to this point, but I would have to say I’m enjoying ministry as much as I ever have. But it’s not because of titles. It’s not because of numbers. It’s because of stories . . . testimonies. A marriage saved, a life changed, an addiction broken, or eternity altered. As I stay close to the testimonies, none of the rest of it needs to matter.
When I was in the harder seasons of ministry, I’ll admit part of my frustration, as a young minister, was the obscurity. Sometimes it just felt like no one noticed anything I was trying to do—not even God. There was no title.
I felt like the prophet Isaiah, who said, “My work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose” (Isaiah 49:4).*
In those moments I had to remember it was never about titles—it was about testimonies. The individual stories of salvation and life change were what gave me the fuel to keep pressing toward the prize. In some ways, it’s like the old story of the girl who was throwing starfish back into the sea after a big storm; she couldn’t save every starfish, but her efforts made a big difference to each one she did toss back to safety. It’s about focus, on a few stories instead of the crowd.
I believe the advantage of focusing on the testimony instead of the title is that stories are about what God did. Perhaps we had a part in this life-change story, but the power for transformation came from God. I don’t ever read a testimony and think I’m awesome. I think God is awesome and I’m grateful to be in partnership with him.
As with all of the areas that cloud our focus, it comes down to the issue of who is on the throne. I read an interesting article about Michael Jordan turning 50 in ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” The writer keyed in on how difficult it is for MJ to quench the “insatiable drive to prove himself.”
I moved to Chicagoland in the middle of the 1990 basketball season. As hard as the ’90s were for a church leader trying to transition a 40-year-old church to have an outward focus—I always had the Bulls. I got to see MJ play several times, and there was nothing like it. The “drive” was amazing. I think the game against Utah in the 1997 NBA Finals when he scored 38 points despite suffering from the flu was the epitome of his greatness as a player. The world watched Scottie Pippen literally carry Jordan off the court after he just willed himself the power to win the game.
But now what? Now he’s a mess. He was the greatest basketball player of all time (he would smoke LeBron James), but he was all about titles, so he is never going to find fulfillment.
The ESPN article said, “There’s a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them whispering in their ears, ‘All glory is fleeting.’ Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn’t have known that the closest he’d get to immortality was during that final walk off the court.” So true, and all you have to do is watch Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech to see the problem with “titles.”
Contrast that with the gathering of ministers I attended recently, where we recognized several who are stepping down from their assignments this year. We noted many who weren’t there, but at this gathering we had Alan Ahlgrim, Dick Alexander, Bruce Templeton, and Don Hinkle, who are all “walking off the court” this year. These are some of the all-stars of our movement. They will continue in ministry in other capacities, but not on the big stage. And they will be fine. They will be great. They don’t need anyone walking behind them to remind them that “glory is fleeting.” It was never about their glory.
They could say with Jesus, “I brought glory to you [Father] here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4, author’s emphasis).
Whose glory is it? Interestingly, members of Michael Jordan’s personal security team have code names. Michael’s code name is “Yahweh.” (I guess Michael didn’t read The Purpose Driven Life.) That pretty much sums it up. All glory is fleeting—except for Yahweh. The real one.
The prophet went on to say, “Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand; I will trust God for my reward” (Isaiah 49:4).
As long as it’s about God’s mission and his salvation and his light, we can “leave it in his hands.”
And at the end of my days, I will not look back at my life and rejoice at how many people we had at Easter or which places I was asked to speak; I will look back and remember the stories. When I get to Heaven, I won’t be wishing I were down on earth living for titles, I will have eternity for testimonies.
You can go on and eat your potato salad.
*All Scripture verses are from the New Living Translation of the Bible.
Tim Harlow serves as senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois.