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March Madness and a long obedience in the same direction

Four weeks, sixty-eight teams, sixty-seven games, and a national championship.  I love the first three things but must confess I have a limited amount of enthusiasm/appreciation for the last item.  Why?  At this point in the season, teams have played well over thirty games (almost twenty conference games), and yet an overall champion will be chosen on the basis of six games.  It seems to me that rather than determining the best team over the course of the season, we’re choosing the best team over six games. 

Now winning the tournament is no small feat and I don’t wish to minimize that, but is winning six games at the end of the season a superior criterion in determining a champion than a consistently great level of performance throughout the course of a season?  If you limited the tournament to just the regular season conference champions, wouldn’t you end up with a true championship team --- one whose performance excelled in the regular season as well as in the tournament?
I’m just asking in the abstract here --- we all understand that the swollen number of teams in tournament is due to the revenue it generates.  Nonetheless, when a team like Connecticut (last year’s “champ”), gets hot and wins six games at the end of the year (eleven counting the Big East Tournament), despite losing half of their regular season conference games --- is excellence being recognized and rewarded or just streakiness?  Or what about a Western Kentucky team being in despite a losing record?

What if we extend this discussion into other areas of life? Is it better to consistently exercise and eat well or to do so in flourishes?  Would you rather do business with a company that is consistently excellent or one that has flashes of greatness?  Would you rather have a friend who is constant or one who isn’t?   

The writer of Hebrews was pushing for continued excellence from the disciples he wrote when he said:

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. (Hebrew 6:10-11).  

In appealing to them to finish well the writer wants them to know that God isn’t going to forget their earlier deeds.  In their push toward the end, he wants them to know that their regular season will be remembered by God because He is just.  We should learn from this that placing too great a value or too much emphasis on a strong finish inevitably marginalizes the hard work and noble efforts of the past and discourages those with a long record of faithfulness.  In effect, it lowers the bar and places a false value on finishing strong. 

Showing up on game day willing to anything to win is commendable, but it is not the same as showing up at practice day after day with the willingness to do anything to prepare to win.  Finishing well is what we should all desire and encourage everyone to do so (regardless of how they might have started), but to say, “It doesn’t matter how you start, it only matters how you finish,” is to overstate the case.  Starting well is commendable!  Can you imagine a coach during the first part of the season not having practice or telling his team before a game that it didn't matter whether or not they played their best?

None of this is meant to discourage anyone who has come to Christ late in life or those who for others reasons can only look forward to finishing well. This piece has more in mind disciples who are in the early stages of their journey and are facing the temptation (reinforced by the false value and over acclaim of finishing well), to look at their struggles and ask, "What's the point?" Then they see a lukewarm follower "cutting corners" in their walk and seemingly prospering. They're told by someone not to get to serious about their faith or they will burn out. It's not hard to see how they can be deceived into thinking there is no point --- that there will be plenty of time later in life to get serious about their walk with the Lord.

Just as the best team is one that pursues excellence through the season, the best life is the one that pursues Jesus.  Samson had a great finish, but his regular season left a lot to be desired. On the other hand, it was said of Enoch that "he walked faithfully with God" (Genesis 5:24). We'll celebrate all who finish with a flourish (and hope the same for ourselves), while remembering that our Father is honored by a long obedience in the same direction.
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