Echoes From the Upper Room

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)

As Easter approaches, I find myself being drawn once again to John’s account of the Upper Room Discourse where Jesus shares his most intimate thoughts with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. As John chronicled the events of that night, he had very little to add to the words of our Lord. How they must have echoed in his heart for years before he sat down to preserve them for all eternity.

Like John, I find anything I have to offer in the way of commentary completely unnecessary. As we remember and reflect this Easter weekend, may this sampling of our Lord’s words from the Upper Room echo in our hearts as well and, more importantly, may they reverberate through our lives.

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (13:14)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (13:34-35)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (14:1-3)

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (14:6,9,10)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (14:27)

“I am the vine: you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (15:5)

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” (15:26-27)

“You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. … Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (16:20,22)

*”I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (16:33)

Indeed he has overcome. Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen!

Jesus gave us a model for the work of the church at the Last Supper. While his disciples kept proposing more organization – Hey, let’s elect officers, establish hierarchy, set standards of professionalism – Jesus quietly picked up a towel and basin of water and began to wash their feet.” – Philip Yancey, Church: Why Bother?

*Note: All Scripture from the New International Version (NIV) of the Gospel of John.




The Theory of Everything

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20 NIV)

The renowned physicist, cosmologist, and author, Stephen Hawking died last week at the age of 76, living more than fifty years longer than expected after being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the age of 21. When I heard the news, this verse from Romans immediately came to mind.

Just a few months ago I wrote about my first conscious awareness of an awesome Creator in a post titled Stargazing. (Click here to read)  As I gazed into that clear, starry night sky from the field behind my house so many years ago, I sensed a creation that is seemingly infinite and complex beyond my ability to understand.

“Pillars of Creation” (NASA Hubble Image)

When Stephen Hawking gazed into the heavens, he resolved to discover the scientific explanation for the creation of a universe which I find incomprehensible without acknowledging the divine Creator whose fingerprints I sensed that night in the scene above me.

Through the years, Hawking also seemed at times to be drawn to the likelihood of intelligent design. In his best-selling 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, he wrote of his goal to develop a “theory of everything” that would fully explain all physical aspects of the universe from its point of creation through today and on into the future.

Speaking of this theory of everything, Hawking closed the book with this statement:

“However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.”

That last sentence teased many into thinking that Hawking was suggesting a divine Creator, undoubtedly increasing the popularity of his book. In a later work, Black Holes and Baby Universes, Hawking revealed that he almost removed that last statement during proofing and acknowledged, “Had I done so, the sales might have been halved.”

Whatever hope he may have generated that he would eventually conclude the existence of a divine Creator was crushed in a book he co-wrote with Leonard Mlodinow in 2010, The Grand Design. It declares that Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

In a 2014 interview, Hawking further added:

“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is that we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”

Stephen Hawking was a brilliant scientist. His knowledge of the cosmos certainly far exceeded my own. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2014 movie about his life, appropriately titled The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Hawking was masterful.

With great interest I have read A Brief History of Time, The Grand Design, as well as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest book, Astrophysics For People In a Hurry, which I found more readable, compelling, and understandable for “ordinary people” such as myself than any of Hawking’s works.

But rather than cause me to question the existence of God, those books just increase my sense of awe and wonder over the universe that we inhabit. While they offer some interesting theories, I disagree with Hawking that science offers a more convincing explanation for the creation of the universe than the book  that begins with this clear declaration – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

Why do I believe that statement in place of any theories Hawking or Tyson offer concerning the creation of the universe? First of all, it just makes more sense than Hawking’s theory of “spontaneous creation”. Paul’s observation in Romans 1:20 that creation has God’s fingerprints all over it is much more plausible, indeed leaving us without excuse.

More importantly, I believe the book I trust was written under the inspiration and guidance of the Creator himself. That’s why we commonly refer to it as God’s Word.

And lastly, I live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7) – a concept that, in spite of all his brilliance and imagination, Hawking seemed unwilling to consider.

“The fact that the universe had a beginning is a very striking thing. How do you explain that unique event without God?” – Charles Townes, 1964 Nobel Prize winner, Physics

A Life of Impact

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NIV)

Upon hearing the news last week that Billy Graham had died, my mind immediately took me back to my childhood when I first heard his clear prophetic voice declaring the good news that God loves me, desires a relationship with me, and sent his Son to die that I might live eternally with him.

In those days, there was only one black and white television in our house and only three channels to choose from. When the family gathered in the living room after supper, our viewing choices were very limited. The child sitting closest to the television served as the remote control, but the decision as to which program we watched was usually made by my father.

But when a Billy Graham crusade was on, Mama controlled the dial!

Much has been written since Graham’s passing about the estimated 215 million people who attended his crusades during his many years of public ministry. My wife and I were among the crowd when he preached in Tallahassee, Florida in 1986.

He has long been loved by people around the world, named to Gallup’s Top Ten Most Admired List last December for a record 61st time.

But his greatest personal impact on me occurred over fifty years ago, gathered with my family around that black and white television.

Billy Graham possessed exceptional oratorical skills and personal charisma, presenting the gospel with unsurpassed simplicity, clarity, and conviction. Like the Apostle Paul asserts in the verse that heads this post, he understood that his effectiveness as a preacher depended on the power of God working through a faithful servant.

In my lifetime, I don’t believe there has been a more faithful servant of God or anyone who made a greater impact for Christ. I can still picture the lines of people moving toward the stage at the end of each service as the choir sang “Just As I Am” and as he encouraged the crowd with two simple words, “You come.”

Mama never pressed us afterward about responding to that call at the end of each telecast. I think she trusted that in God’s perfect time and when our hearts were ready, each of us would eventually take that step of faith.

Years later, as he lay on his deathbed, Daddy placed his trust in Christ. Three years after that, I made my own public profession and was baptized at Florence Baptist Church in Forest City, North Carolina, not far from where I live now.

While God surely used many people and circumstances to bring us both to those fateful decisions, I’m convinced that none of them influenced us more than Billy Graham, whose messages had continued to resonate in our hearts.

Over the last week, I have been rereading my copy of his 2006 book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, which includes a chapter titled Making an Impact. Recognizing how closely my teaching and writing over the past twelve years has so often echoed his own words from that book, it is clear that his impact on me continues to this day.

I invite you to share your own memories of Billy Graham and any impact he might have had on your faith journey.

As for me, I will be eternally grateful that whenever his crusades were being telecast in the days of my youth, Mama controlled our television dial.

“One of the Bible’s greatest truths is that we were not meant for this world alone. Death is not the end of life; it is only the gateway to eternity. … Some day this life will be over. I look forward to that day, because I know that beyond it is heaven.” – Billy Graham, The Journey

The Apostle of Chocolate

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV)

Taking a break from the winter cold of the North Carolina mountains, my wife and I spent last week vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico. As I reminisced on our flight home about all that we saw and experienced there, I began to consider which of those memories I might draw upon for my next post.

Certainly, we were greatly inspired by the beauty of God’s creation that was displayed everywhere we went – from the crystal clear teal-blue waters of the Caribbean Sea between Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula to the unique flora and fauna on the island. And those incredible sunsets God painted for us to view from our villa captured my attention each night!

But the experience that kept coming to mind as I pondered this post – the experience that looms largest in relation to the Gospel I proclaim – was our tour of the Kaokao Chocolate Factory in Cozumel. Allow me to explain…

As the only male among our group of six, I was probably the least excited about this tour. But any disinterest I might have felt beforehand was quickly dispelled by the passion of our tour guide, Eduardo. Whatever his official job title might have been, in my mind he should be called the Apostle of Chocolate.

Eduardo (Photo by Sallye Martin)

Eduardo’s knowledge of all things chocolate is undeniable and his enthusiasm is contagious. He shared with us the history of chocolate, from the Olmec people to the Mayans to the Spanish. At his direction, we donned aprons and chef’s hats, ground the cacao seeds, mixed in various ingredients, and molded our own chocolate bars. We sampled more than twenty flavors of chocolate manufactured at the facility.

He engaged with us personally, responding to every question we posed, seemingly never rushing his answers to make way for the next group. By the end of the tour, Eduardo’s passion had become my passion. Rather than being glad the tour was over, I had a desire to know even more about chocolate.

As I reflected on all that, the verse from 1 Peter that heads this post came immediately to mind:

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV)

Eduardo is always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks him anything about chocolate. And his passion for the subject has surely generated many inquiries through the years.

I can’t help but wonder what the impact would be if more Christians echoed the same kind of passion for the Gospel when they interact with those outside the faith. More importantly, what if I did? The thought that I have the opportunity to make an impact for Christ with the way I reflect him astounds me and convicts me at the same time.

To generate those questions about hope implied by Peter’s words, people must first see that hope in us. While I trust that passion comes through in my writing and in my interactions with fellow believers, the scarcity of such questions being posed to me suggests that it doesn’t always come through in my interactions with unbelievers.

May that change going forward. And when it does, I’ll think of Eduardo, Cozumel’s Apostle of Chocolate, and smile.

“What others most need is to see in you a reflection of what God is like and of the transforming power of the Gospel. Your life can create hunger and thirst for God in others’ lives and can be a powerful instrument in the hand of the Holy Spirit to draw their hearts to Christ.” – Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Holiness, The Heart God Purifies


On The Other Hand

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18, 24)

Dr. Charles Stanley once used an illustration that has stuck with me through the years. I have cited it often in lessons I’ve taught and was reminded of it again last week when my morning devotion brought me to Romans chapters 7 and 8.

Hold your hands out in front of you, putting one in front of the other, focusing intently on the hand nearest you. Notice how the other hand subtly fades from view in your mind.

Now imagine that one hand represents your circumstances, while the other hand represents the promises of God. Do you see where I’m going with this?

In the midst of life’s inevitable difficulties, disappointments, pain, and struggles, we can easily allow life’s circumstances to cloud our view of God’s promises. When you find yourself in that situation, it is important to figuratively change the position of your hands, view your circumstances through the lens of God’s promises, and watch the gravity of those circumstances fade in comparison.

There may be no better Biblical example of that dynamic than that provided by Paul in chapters 7 and 8 of Romans.

In chapter 7, Paul’s focus turns to his personal struggles with sin, lamenting that “nothing good lives in me” – that while he desires to do good, he often finds himself doing otherwise. (verse 18-19) While all of us can relate to those internal battles with the flesh, other circumstances often capture our focus as well – such as the loss of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, or the loss of a job – to name just a few.

Any of those situations can lead us to cry out with Paul in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” But notice how Paul’s focus abruptly turns to the promises of God, answering his own question in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

In chapter 8, Paul then proceeds to enumerate five (one for each finger) of the most profound promises of God contained in all of Scripture:

  • “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1)
  • “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:16-17)
  • “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
  • “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
  • “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

I encourage you to highlight these five verses in your Bible. And the next time life’s inevitable circumstances start to divert your focus to the wrong hand, allow the Spirit of God to redirect your gaze to these uplifting, unchanging, and unbreakable promises on the other hand.

You’ll be glad you did.

“If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God, you’ll be at rest.” – Corrie ten Boom

(All Scripture references taken from The New International Version, NIV)