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)

Love Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

“Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question, ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.'” (Matthew 22:34-40 NIV)

Upon encountering these verses in a morning devotion earlier this week, I found myself wondering how many times I must have read or even quoted Christ’s reply to this question without stopping to consider its full implications and duly examining my own heart in response.

Our familiarity with this passage tempts us to casually pass over it as though Christ might have answered, “Love the Lord your God and love others as yourself. Next question?” Or even “Love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, and mind and love others likewise.”

But given that Jesus said these are the greatest commandments and that all the Law and the Prophets hang on them, it certainly behooves us to ponder that sticky little word, all, which adds tremendous gravity to our Lord’s reply.

At first glance, one might easily assume that loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul might come at the expense of our love for others as though our capacity to love might be limited somehow. But love is not a zero-sum game. In fact, when love is properly directed, just the opposite is true.

Scripture tells us that God is love. (1 John 4:8) As our love for God increases, his love actually expands our heart’s capacity to love others. I believe that is why Jesus links the two in this passage. I have seen this truth manifested in my own life. As my wife and I have grown closer to the Lord through the years, it has only deepened and enhanced our love for each other.

After wrestling with this passage and confessing “Lord, I do love you with all my heart, mind, and soul”, the echo I hear in response is “Now channel that love to others.”

When I truly examine my heart, I’m well aware of how far short I fall of God’s glorious standards (Romans 3:23), whether it be in this, the greatest commandment, or any other area of concern to him. But that only increases my love for the One who is perfect in his love for me – so much so that he sent his Son to live the life I cannot live and to pay the debt I cannot pay.

It is that love that compels me to pay closer attention when I encounter these words of my Lord, to strive to make loving God my first priority every day, to love him with all my being, and to be mindful of anything in my life that hinders that wholehearted devotion.

“No love of the natural heart is safe unless the human heart has been satisfied by God first.” – Oswald Chambers


Finding Hope Through Affliction

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV)

This verse came to mind this morning on the third anniversary of my brother’s passing through the gates of Heaven. While my grief certainly remains, it comforts me to know that he is enjoying a peace and rest that surpasses all earthly experience and human understanding.

As many of you know, Ronnie suffered for many years with diabetes and other complications that stemmed from that. Through those years I offered up countless prayers on his behalf.

But there is one prayer that I especially remember. It happened during the worship service one morning at our church in Fredericksburg, Virginia – Spotswood Baptist Church.

As we sang the hymn of invitation, I was overcome by a sudden burden to pray for Ronnie. I don’t remember the details of that prayer – perhaps it was that God would miraculously heal him. But I do vividly recall God’s response that morning and the incredible warm feeling of peace that coursed through my veins when I heard a still, small voice say, “Ronnie is going to be all right.”

Little did I understand that morning what God meant by that assurance. But looking back through eyes of faith, I realize now that God did not mean he would heal Ronnie of diabetes – not in this life anyway. He did something even better. He revealed himself to my brother in ways that Ronnie might never have experienced had it not been for the affliction he suffered through all those years.

As I reflect on that, I can’t help but imagine how differently things might have turned out if God had answered my prayers through the years and miraculously healed Ronnie. While it might have eased his pain and suffering in this life, it might also have removed the catalyst God used to draw Ronnie to himself.

Just before I left his bedside on the morning before the Lord called him home, after a difficult night, Ronnie briefly rallied. When our nieces, Elaine and Teresa, stopped by on their way to work and asked how he was doing, he raised both arms in the air and declared, “I’m all right!”. Eighteen hours later he passed into eternity.

Only as I was drafting this post did it dawn on me that those words from Ronnie’s lips that morning echoed so clearly the words spoken to me by that still, small voice in that church pew over twenty years before.

Indeed he is all right – as “all right” as he has ever been, resting safely in the presence of his Savior. And for that I rejoice, knowing that there will be no goodbyes when I join him there one day.

“The idea of heaven can be a consolation for suffering, a compensation for the life we have lost. But resurrection is not just consolation – it is restoration. We get it all back – the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life – but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength.” – Tim Keller