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Christian Excellence: The Alternative to Worldly Success: Keeping Your Head In The Clouds And Your Feet On The Ground

Philippians 2:12-18

Oren began life behind the eight-ball. The odds were stacked against him. He was born in 1947 in a San Francisco ghetto. Early on, he contracted rickets, a poverty-related disease caused by malnutrition. His deficient diet caused his bones to soften and his legs began to bow under the weight of his body. The family was too poor to seek medical help for Oren’s worsening physical condition. The only thing Oren had going for him was his mother. She had her head in the clouds—she dreamed great dreams for her son. But she also had her feet firmly planted on the ground—she knew it would take hard work to make those dreams come true. The first thing she did was to rig up a homemade contraption to keep her son’s legs and feet from becoming even more badly developed. How? By reversing his shoes: right shoe, left foot, left shoe, right foot. Then she fastened a metal bar across the tops of the shoes to keep his feet pointing straight. It didn’t work perfectly, but it was good enough to keep the boy on his feet. In time, his bones hardened, though the disease left his legs badly bowed, his feet pigeon-toed, his calves unusually thin, and his head disproportionately large. Because of that, the other kids began to taunt him. By age thirteen, he compensated for the ridicule by acting tough. It got him into trouble with the law. He was arrested. His mother bailed him out of jail and continued to set before him her dream of excellence in life. She wouldn’t quit—and she wouldn’t let him quit either. She built into his life the elements needed to achieve that excellence. And what happened to Oren? Well, his legs are still bowed and malformed from the rickets. His head still appears oversized. He still remembers the embarrassment of being bailed out of the slammer by his mother. He still recalls the taunts and the ridicule. But Oren doesn’t have to act tough anymore. He is tough, tough enough to be secure and gentle, like his mother. Her dream of excellence for him has come through. You see, Oren’s full name is Orenthal—Orenthal James Simpson. We know him as “O. J.”

O. J. Simpson’s mother built into his life the elements of excellence. I believe that in Philippians 2, Paul is trying to build the elements of Christian excellence into your life and mine. Taken together, those elements provide the formula for keeping our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground. And that’s a great way to live! Let me show you what I mean…

The first element in the formula is: Be faithful!

Paul writes in Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” In other words, be faithful. Trust in the Lord in your life. He is at work in you.

I heard about a big Methodist camp meeting up in Georgia, featuring some of the finest preachers in the state. Midway through the week, one of the preachers was stricken ill and could not deliver his assigned message. The bishop then called aside one of the young ministers who was attending the camp meeting and said: “I want you to step in and preach right after lunch today.” The young preacher was a basket case. He responded: “But, Bishop, I am not prepared. I don’t have a sermon with me. What am I going to preach?” The bishop said very piously: “Just trust the Lord, young man; trust the Lord.” The young man was desperate. As he was trying to figure out what to do, he noticed the bishop’s Bible on the table. He picked it up and began thumbing through it looking for a text. Tucked in the pages, he found some note cards on which were typed a sermon. Relieved that God had answered his prayer, the young man took the notes and preached the sermon. It was a thundering success. Afterward, people flocked around the young preacher to commend him. Suddenly the bishop burst through the crowd and cried out: “Young man, you just preached the sermon I was going to preach at the evening session tonight. Now what am I going to do?” The young preacher replied with dignity: “Just trust the Lord, Bishop, trust the Lord!”

Well, Paul wants us to understand that being faithful and trusting the Lord doesn’t mean doing nothing and expecting God to provide everything for you. Trusting the Lord does not mean that you can approach life unprepared and still expect to experience excellence. Trusting the Lord means that you do everything you can, develop a vision of who and what you want to be, and discipline yourself to good habits. Then you can trust God to make good on His promise.
Notre Dame and Army were playing. Notre Dame was down by six points. Knute Rockne was the coach. Just minutes were left in the game. Rockne called a player from the bench and said: “I want you to take this play into the huddle and then I want you to score a touchdown and win this game. Will you do it?” The young man said: “I’ll try, Coach.” Rockne said: “Go sit down. I’ve already got eleven people out there trying. I’m looking for somebody to do it.” People who do achieve excellence in life are the people who go forward in the power of God. That power comes only from being faithful and trusting in God. That’s the first element in achieving excellence: be faithful!

The second element in our formula is: Be honest!

Paul writes in Philippians 2:15, “Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” In other words, be honest. Build integrity into your life. Set a shining example to others.

I get by in this business of preaching with a little help from my friends, and just recently one of my friends shared with me a column written by Zig Ziglar. This is what he wrote: “In 1776, three million Americans produced Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, and the list goes on. Today, more than 250 millions Americans have produced—whom? Question: Why? Answer: Could it be what they were taught? According to the Thomas Jefferson Research Institute, in 1776, over 90% of our educational thrust was of an ethical or religious nature. By 1926, the percentage had dropped to 6%. By 1951 the percentage was so low it could not be measured. Think about it. To become a leader a person must start with a solid ethical foundation. Without integrity no one listens and without trust no one follows.”

My friends, we need some heroes in our time. I mean genuine heroes. I mean authentic women and men who are admired for their splendid achievements, their noble qualities, their unwavering courage. I mean people who even with their human flaws and failures stand a cut above the rest. I mean people who pursue excellence in their lives when no one is looking, or, for that matter, when the whole world is looking.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn comes as close to a modern-day hero as anyone I know. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, he concluded his magnificent acceptance speech by quoting an old Russian proverb: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” Absolutely correct. But you know I’d like to change two words in that proverb, for then it would say what I believe about heroes like Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “One person of truth impacts the whole world.”

In a world where brokers turn stocks, and builders use inferior materials, and employees cut corners on the job, and executives seek to dominate and intimidate the work force, and teachers keep rehashing the same old lesson plans, and pastors step into the pulpit without having readied both mind and heart, and politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths, and doctors pilfer hospital supplies, and lawyers bill a whole hour for a five-minute glance at a file—in a world like that, we need people whose lives are built on integrity. One person of truth can impact the whole world. That’s the second element in achieving excellence: be honest!

The third element in the formula is: Be persevering!

Paul again. Philippians 2:16. “Hold fast to the word of life so that in the day of Christ, I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” In other words, be persevering. Build a spirit of tenacity that will allow you to stick-to-it in the business of living.

If you know sports and business, you will know the name Mark McCormack. He is a best-selling author, an internationally-known business consultant, and the head of the huge IMG Corporation. Sports Illustrated recently tagged him “the most powerful man in sports.” He is a sometime resident of Orlando and a sometime visitor to this church. To be sure, he has attained worldly success. But much more importantly, as far as I am concerned, he knows a lot about what it takes to excel in life. Many of the principles outlined in his writings are worth noting, but, for now, focus on just one. He says: “80% of all business comes through old doors.” What he means is that most business comes, not through new contacts, but through contacts which have been developed over time by perseverance. Perseverance, you see, is important not only in the world of business, but also in the world of the spirit.

Some years ago, a husband and wife team, Mildred and Victor Gretzel wrote a book called Cradles of Eminence. They looked at 300 people who had achieved excellence in life—people like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and Albert Schweitzer and Clara Barton and Mohandas Ghandi, people like that. They traced their lives. They discovered that three-quarters of those 300 had come from broken homes or homes where there was great poverty. Half of them had undergone some major trauma in the early years of their lives. 25% of them had some physical disability. For example, there was one who stuttered terribly and he stuttered until the day of his death. But he persevered in doing the things he could do. As a result, he wrote 20 novels, 30 plays, and countless stories and essays. His name was W. Somerset Maugham. These people, you see, achieved excellence in life because they stayed at it in spite of the difficulties of their circumstances. They persevered. That’s the third element. As one wag put it: “When you slide down the banister of life, you occasionally pick up a splinter; but, hang on, it’s worth the ride!” Be persevering!

The fourth element in the formula is: Be generous!

Paul in Philippians 2:17 put it like this: “If I am to be poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” In others words, be generous. It is as we give ourselves away in life that we find our greatest joy.

Just the other day, I had the pleasure of sitting down with a young couple from our church. They are barely thirty and they are beginning to experience success and they are worried about it. They wanted to talk to me about the kind of home they should live in, what kind of example they should set for their children, how they can best use the abundance which is apparently going to be theirs to help build the kingdom of Jesus Christ. That young couple, with a wisdom beyond their years, understands that success can paralyze and ultimately defeat, so they are getting ready for that right now.

How many times we see individuals who are successful, and then what happens? Well, they become tyrants in their own homes. Or they are not around the home very much—they stay at the place where they are receiving all of their applause. They are too busy to come to church and Sunday School anymore—their responsibilities are too vast. And somehow selfishness kicks into their experience, so that no matter how much they have, it’s not enough! Write this on your heart. You can never be so successful in life that you can stop being obedient to the God who made you who you are, that you can stop being loving toward the people God has brought into your life, and that you can stop being a generous steward of what God gave you in the first place.

I shall never forget being asked once to have the invocation at a local running of the Special Olympics. The first event after the opening ceremonies was the running of the 400 meter race. A young lad with Down’s Syndrome was leading coming into the last turn. His little legs couldn’t carry him in a straight line so he kind of zigzagged back and forth across the track. But he was still leading and he was giving it all he had. Suddenly, he tripped and fell—fell flat. Do you know what happened? Everyone of the kids running behind him, who had been trying to overtake him and win themselves—everyone of them stopped and they helped him up. I learned that day that the one who runs the race of life best is the one who cares the most. The finish line isn’t the big thing; the fellowship is. Therefore, in the pursuit of Christian excellence, be generous.


Those are the elements which make up the formula for keeping our head in the clouds and keeping our feet on the ground in life. Now I’d like to tell you how to put that formula to work in your life. I want you to drink, steal, lie and swear!

I want you to drink—drink regularly from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Read that book at least once a quarter.

Then I want to encourage you to steal—steal a few minutes at the beginning of every day and remind yourself to be faithful, to be honest, to be persevering, and to be generous.

Next, I’d like to see you lie—lie down on your bed each night and before you sleep thank God for all He has given you.

And then swear—swear your allegiance to Jesus Christ and swear that you will pursue His excellence in your life….

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