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Babe Ruth, a legend in baseball history, was once asked about the people who had influenced his life. He responded by saying, “Most of them were not famous. Few people likely ever heard of them.” He then continued, “I knew an old minister once whose hair was white and whose face shone. I have written my name on thousands of baseballs in my life; he wrote his name on other people’s hearts. How I envy him! He was not trying to please himself and win the plaudits of the world. So, fame never came to him. I am listed as a famous home run hitter. Yet, beside that humble minister who was so good and wise, I never got to first base.”

Babe Ruth is in baseball’s Hall of Fame; an elderly minister was in his Hall of Heroes. When I read Babe Ruth’s statement I began to think about the names I would place in my own Hall of Heroes. What names would you nominate to be in your Hall of Heroes? Few of them would probably be recognized by the world as either great or famous. They would likely be individuals whose singular ambition was to honor God by serving others – and you are one of the people whose lives they touched.

In my own Hall of Heroes, first of all, I nominate my maternal grandfather, John W. Lee. He was a grocer and postmaster in a small town in the state of Georgia. He was a dedicated Christian, a deacon in his church, a thoughtful neighbor, and a friend of all who knew him. When his children and grandchildren got together at Christmas for the annual family feast the entire family would gather around an old pump organ following lunch and sing. He often prayed that God would call one of his sons to be a minister. God answered his prayer by calling me, another of his grandsons, and one great-grandson to become Christian ministers.

My second nominee would be my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Ruth McClelland. Teaching was for her a calling, not just an opportunity to bring home a paycheck. She taught her pupils more than “reading, writing, and arithmetic” – manners, for example. The first fifteen minutes of every school day was devoted to memorizing Bible verses that began with every letter of the alphabet and end with prayer. No Bible verse begins with the letter “x”, so she selected Luke 13:3 – “Except you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Beginning the day in this way was not politically incorrect or illegal in those days. Judges did not interpret the “separation of church and state” to mean “separation of God and state.” Thank God for dedicated teachers.

My third nominee would be an elderly couple, Joe Perry and Susie Dominy, members of my first pastorate when I was attending Mercer University. Every Sunday night after the evening worship service we would drive fifty miles back to Mercer with vegetables, eggs, milk, etc. they had given us. This helped tremendously because my weekly salary in the early 1950’s was the enormous sum of $35 per week.

The fourth nominee for my Hall of Heroes is really at the top of my list – and it is my wife, Jessie. No minister ever had a more faithful or supportive wife. She was as committed to what God called me to do as I have tried to be. The job of being a minister and wife requires a willingness to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and in a way that both glorifies God and meets the spiritual need of individuals. She gave her spiritual gifts freely with both skill and dedication as a teacher of God’s Word.

After almost 65 years of service by my side serving six churches as pastor and wife, and then ten more churches as interim pastor and wife, she went home to be with the Lord on April 5, 2016. I have the joy of knowing that our story has not ended. At a time of God’s own choosing it will continue in “the city not made by hands, eternal, in the heavens” the city that John, in the book of Revelation, calls “the New Jerusalem.”

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Omnipotence is a word you aren’t likely to use all that much in everyday conversation. It is a word that can only be applied to God. Question: What does the awe-inspiring word omnipotence mean? Answer: God is all powerful. He can do anything. He can heal all diseases. He can eradicate all crime and stop the abuse of every innocent victim. He can make tornadoes and hurricanes nonexistent. He can extinguish wars and squash injustice. He can bring harmony within families everywhere, feed every person who is hungry, alleviate all problems, stop all physical pain, cure diseases, and even eliminate death.

Yes, God can do these miraculous things! Does He always do them? No! The logical question we then ask is: “Why doesn’t He?” The answer lies in another word that only applies to God – sovereignty. God is a sovereign God. If that for which we pray is selfish in nature (see James 4:3), or is not in keeping with His will, or is not in keeping with His character, He will not do it.

If God wants to deliver the prophet Daniel from the salivating jaws of the hungry lions, or let James be decapitated, or give Peter an angelic escort out of prison, or permit thousands of Christians to be martyred in Roman coliseums, or allow His only Son, Jesus, to suffer the cruel death of crucifixion to satisfy His justice in providing redemption, He will. Whether God answers our prayers in precisely the way we ask or in a different way that He chooses, His answer, whatever it is, will both glorify Him and be in our best long-term interest.

Annie Kate Powell, a dear lady in Warsaw, North Carolina during the 1960’s, understood this. She contracted polio when she was very young. Both she and her family prayed that she might not become an invalid. Her brother, his wife, and their daughter were Christian missionaries in Nigeria. Surely God would answer their prayer and deliver her from becoming an invalid. It didn’t happen! She became an invalid!

Annie Kate might have succumbed to the icy grip of self-pity, or yielded to the whisper of suicide. She chose instead to bear witness to the love of God from her sickbed. She lived well into her eighties. No one ever had a brighter smile. Few people, if any, have ever given a more radiant witness of God’s love.

How easy it is to believe that God doesn’t love us, or that He has no power to heal, if our prayers are not answered in the exactly the way we ask. Prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts to believers. But how many of us would be much worse off than we are if God had given us everything for which we prayed? Since we know that God loves us, we can trust Him to answer our prayers in a way that brings glory to His name. If God existed only to meet our needs in the way and on the schedule we prescribe for Him, we would be His master and He would be our servant. Prayer has never worked that way. It still doesn’t. It never will.

One of the great Bible verses dealing with prayer is found in Matthew 7:7 – “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Yes, God answers every prayer we pray. Sometimes He says “Yes;” sometimes He says “No;” and sometimes He says, “Not now.” The daily goal of every Christian should be to submit to God’s sovereignty, for this keeps us in the position of being humble servants who are always available to serve Him in any way He chooses.

Any approach other than that of yielding to God’s sovereignty leaves us high and dry. Whether we drown in a pool of rationalized self-pity or become unrealistic in demanding that God serve us at our bidding, we can be assured that God knows our needs. He is working all things out in a way that will accomplish His purpose and meet our need.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” His observation, I believe, is an accurate one.

Theodore Watts, a nature enthusiast, was climbing a mountain many years ago when he overtook a gypsy woman on her way up the mountain. After greeting her, he began to elaborate enthusiastically about the beautiful scenery in every direction. The woman paid absolutely no attention to him.

He was provoked by the fact that she did not even respond to his question, so he continued, “You don’t seem to care for this magnificent scenery.” At this point she took the pipe from her mouth which she had been smoking, and said rather pointedly, “I enjoy it; I don’t jabber about it.”

“Men of imagination,” said Napoleon, “rule the world.” Imagination is only one of the many worthwhile results of being fired by enthusiasm.

David Livingston wrote: “I find I wrote when the emotions caused by the magnificent prospect of the new country might subject me to a charge of enthusiasm, as nothing good or great has ever been accomplished in the world without it.”

Writer Margaret M. Stevens, in one of her stories tells of three brick masons who were busy at work. When the first was asked what he was building, he answered without looking up, “I’m laying bricks.” The second replied, “I’m building a wall.” But the third responded with great enthusiasm, “I’m building a cathedral.” Enthusiasm makes all the difference in the world in how a person views and values what he or she is doing.

Those who are enthusiastic consistently give everything they have to life, holding nothing back. It is difficult to stifle the ardor or dampen the spirits of people who really believe in and are excited about what they are doing. They operate on full throttle. They are aware that years only wrinkle the skin, but lack of enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.

There certainly is no shortage of ideas, ideals, causes, or crusades available to enlist our allegiance or enthusiasm. But we often allow roadblocks to get in the way – such as lethargy and cynicism. Lethargy comes from lack or loss of interest. Cynicism takes over when we believe that what we are doing lacks meaning and purpose.

Enthusiasm has been described as being “one with the energy of God.” It comes from root words which contain the idea of being inspired by the Divine. There is something awesome about persons who possess and practice this spiritual quality. They are vibrantly alive, and they have the ability to inspire others.

There is genuine magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment, between success and failure. It incorporates warmth and energy into personal relationships because it is infectious, stimulating and attractive to others.

Enthusiasm is contagious, but so is the lack of it. This is especially true in the life of a Christian. The gap between enthusiasm and indifference is easily recognized in every area of a person’s life. You can quickly recognize the difference between a sports team that has a record of success and a one that merely goes through the motions. A contemporary way of describing enthusiasm would be to say that it is faith with a tin can tied to its tail.

We are the persons we are because of the investments others have made in our lives – parents, teachers, ministers, leaders, and friends. The individuals I remember and appreciate most, and who have had the greatest impact upon my life, have always been those who possessed a surplus of enthusiasm. I do not even remember the names of most of people I have known who were listless, dull and predictable.

Enthusiasm enlivens any relationship, and pumps zest and meaning into leisure, creativity, community, and service. Though it is a good engine, it needs intelligence for a driver. Parents consistently single enthusiasm out as one of the important gifts they want to pass on to their children.

Enthusiasm will never go out of style. No organization or group is likely to reach its maximum potential unless it is part of the picture. Nor will they be likely to achieve their objective if those who hold positions of leadership in them are less than fully committed to achieving that objective.

Nowhere is enthusiasm more needed than in a Christian church, yet it is sadly lacking in many churches today. That is a needless shame, for nowhere is enthusiasm more possible.

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A missionary in China several years ago was living a defeated life. Everything he touched seemed to bring him sadness. Although he prayed regularly to gain victory over his depression and discouragement, his life remained the same. He left his ministry position and went to his denomination’s Interior Station in order to rest and spend time asking for God’s help. Following his arrival he was entertained in the home of a fellow missionary. On the wall he saw a plaque containing a two-word motto: “TRY THANKSGIVING.” 

The words gripped his heart, and he thought to himself, “Have I been praying to God all this time and not praising God?” He immediately began to concentrate on the things for which he had legitimate reason to be grateful. In other words, he began praising God for His goodness. He was so uplifted that instead of hiding away to pray and agonize for days and weeks about his attitude, he immediately returned to his waiting congregation to tell them that praising God for His goodness changes things.

What had caused the missionary to be depressed? He was concentrating on his liabilities rather than his assets, on his problems rather than his blessings. If you, like him, are so preoccupied with your problems that you are unaware of the ways your life is blessed, I recommend that you “try thanksgiving.” You will never learn how to offer genuine praise to God until you begin to count your blessings. As the psalmist reminds us: “It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High” (Psalm 92:1 NIV).

Thanksgiving” and “praise” are members of the same family. In fact, they are twin brothers – maybe even Siamese twins, for they are joined together. There is a sense in which no gift is ours until we have thanked the giver. Gratitude is the heart’s memory.

It is definitely a good thing to “give thanks to the Lord” . . . “and to sing praises.” It is not only good for us, but it is also good for everyone around us. When we concentrate on our problems rather than on our blessings we become perennial grouches with a sourpuss disposition. We make life miserable for those with whom we live and work. But when they hear our expressions of thanksgiving to God they are challenged to do the same. Let me list a few of the things which cause my life to overflow with gratitude and praise:

First of all, I am grateful that God is the kind of God He is. Words that characterize His nature and actions are: Creator . . . omnipotent . . . holy . . . just . . . loving . . . trustworthy . . . forgiving . . . always willing to hear our prayers and supply our needs.

Second, I am grateful for the church – the church universal and the local church. As a part of the universal church I have been made one with people from all nations and of all races. We are spiritual brothers and sisters. Though different in many ways, we have all things in common. As part of a local body of Christ I have the opportunity to love everyone, and also to be loved by them. That is worthy of offering thanksgiving and praise. No Christian is perfect, but we are in the process of becoming more like Christ each day.

Third, I am grateful for my family – a wonderful wife for almost sixty-five years until the Lord called her home on April 5, 2016, a daughter and grandson and their families. I am also thankful for numerous friends, and for being a citizen of the United States. These are only a few of the things for which I am deeply grateful.

The attitude of gratitude doesn’t happen by accident. It must be chosen and practiced. I’ve given you my own list of blessings. Why not make your own list? Once you have done this, try thanksgiving!

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P.V. Rochelle during the 1960’s was only one of the alcoholics in the town where I was serving as pastor. His wife, who was a member of our church, had lots of health problems and was unable to attend worship services. In my periodic visits to the home, I became interested in and concerned for P.V., and on each visit I would try to share the message of Christ with him. Ultimately, with God’s help, I was able to lead him to surrender his life to Christ. The transformation in his life was dramatic and total.

He began attending church regularly, and his spiritual growth became evident. Each summer we were carrying our teenage youth to Topsail Beach for a retreat. We tried to deal with the issues facing teenagers today – including the need to be good stewards of our bodies. Knowing that our youth would be tempted to try alcoholic beverages, this is where P.V. came in. Each summer he would come to the beach and talk frankly about how alcoholism begins – the social drink, the peer pressure, and later, addiction. He did a superb job – much better than I could have done. In the matter of three or four years, P.V.’s spiritual growth was so noticeable that he became the Superintendent of our Adult Sunday School Department.

The difference between the old P.V. and the new P.V. was amazing. You may wonder how such a dramatic change can take place in a person’s life. The apostle Paul gives us the answer: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). When you read this verse of Scripture you get the idea that Paul was more than just mildly excited. The old in Paul’s life – his persecution of Christians – was gone. The new – a total embrace of Christ – had come! He probably wanted to shout it from the rooftops. This, in fact, is what he did throughout the entire Mediterranean world.

“Hold it, you say, “isn’t this the same guy who got into a tiff with one of his fellow workers (Acts 15:39)? And you say he was a new creation?” Yes he was! And so is everyone who has been born anew into the family of God. Becoming a new creation does not mean we become perfect. But we begin to grow in Christlikeness. What has become new is our perspective – our way of looking at life, our way of thinking, acting, and being.

The power of the Holy Spirit gives new life to every believer at the very moment he or she first responds to God’s offer of salvation. The new life that Christ gives is what makes possible an increasing conformity to the image of Christ. The former belief system, values, lifestyle, and plans are tossed aside in favor of a revised, godly perspective of life. Our motivation, behavior, attitudes – in fact, the very heartbeat of our life – increasingly become more like Christ. As newborn babies begin to grow physically, newborn Christians begin to grow toward spiritual maturity. It is a process that ideally continues throughout life.

So, if you are a Christian, and if there are days when you do not exactly feel like a new creation, take heart. It is a fact that you can experience the reality of spiritual growth every single day thereafter. It happens as you become gradually and continually conformed to the image of Christ. The old has truly gone, and the new has replaced it. Gradual growth will automatically take place if you stay on the right road, stay close to the Lord, and keep on traveling.

As you and I write our names on the flyleaf of the books we own, or stamp our initials on our valuables, so Christ has given us the name “Christian” as the proof of His ownership. He promises to continue to guide us as we grow in Christlikeness. Humans sometime forget to keep their promises – God doesn’t forget!

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Have you ever heard fellow church members constantly describe what is wrong with your church? Maybe this is a habit you have. If so, you need to realize that if it were perfect it wouldn’t allow you to be a member, for you are not perfect. After serving for 49 years as a pastor of six churches and 15 more years as interim pastor, I have noticed that those who perpetually criticize their church are generally the most cynical and the least involved when it comes to helping it fulfill the mission Christ assigns to every church.

When the members of your church, or of any church, have as their primary goal to glorify God through genuine worship, to enjoy meaningful fellowship, and to be faithfully engaged in carrying out the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20, it will be blessed with a sense of unity. When the members of a church spend energy and time focusing on what is wrong with their church, dissention and division will exist. It will not and cannot grow, and God will not be glorified.

Obviously no church is perfect, for all church members are human. There has been only one perfect person who ever lived – Jesus Christ. Every church has areas that can be improved. But, why spend needless energy and time focusing only on what is wrong with it. I propose a more important question that should be asked: What is right with the church? As a popular song suggested several years ago, accentuating the positive helps to eliminate the negative.

By focusing on what is right with the Christian church in the world you will notice the following:

First, it is the one institution, the one society primarily concerned with and dedicated to the worship of God. Worship is the submission of our entire nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of our minds with His truth and the purifying of our imagination by His beauty; the opening of our hearts to His love; and the surrender of our will to achieve His purpose. And all of this is gathered up in the spirit of adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.

Second, it is the one society around the earth that is not only supernatural, but super-national. It is found in every part of the world. In other words, whether we are black, or brown or white or any other color, we are all members of God’s family. We have all things in common. When any church, including yours, achieves this ideal it will be because it is emphasizing what is right with the church.

Third, it is the primary instrument God’s Spirit uses to transmit the good news of God’s reality, of His love and compassion and justice and truth. It is through the living church that individuals can experience the presence of the living Christ, and become members of His spiritual body.

Fourth, It accepts us as we are. However dark or numerous our sins may be, it accepts us as sinners and helps us move forward to become all that God through His grace can transform us into becoming. At its best the church says in God’s name: “Any person, however sinful, can come to the Son of God who said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’” and be brought into loving relationship with the Creator of the universe.

What is right with the church? That is the proper question for you to ask about your church. If you will do that, and give freely of your time, talent, energy, and material means, it will become in your community a living witness of God’s love. There is certainly nothing wrong with that!

Those who spend time focusing on what is wrong with their church should first go look into the mirror.

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Sidney J. Harris once said, “The personality of the church is not an apple to be polished, but a banana to be peeled.” It is a very perceptive statement, and it grabbed my attention. He is saying that too much of what goes on in our churches today is devoted to the polishing process, and too little to the peeling process.

Is it true, as he claims, that too much attention in churches today deals with the surface, treating symptoms? Do appearances, buildings, budgets, order of service, cosmetics, consume most of our energy and time? We have been so bombarded on television and out in the business world with the Madison Avenue approach that we have adopted this approach in our churches. We sell the package and not the product.

The package, of course, is important: our church building, our Sunday School, our age group ministries, our church staff, etc. Our primary job, however, is not to sell the package. It is to share Christ with our world. Shall we be content with polishing the apple? Or shall we get on with the peeling of the banana?

Our Lord during his ministry on the earth had trouble with one of history’s most famous bunch of apple polishers – the Pharisees. We tend to forget that they were a very religious and dedicated people. They were patriots, for they helped organize the resistance against Rome in the struggles under Emperors Vespasian and Hadrian. They were devoted to God’s Law. They said, “O how I love thy Law! It is my meditation day and night” (Psalm 119:97). They prayed every day and tithed their wealth. But Jesus accused them of being hypocrites (see Matthew 23:-36). They were polishing the apple, but their core was rotten.

Jesus still has trouble with apple polishers today. We Southern Baptists have our share of apple polishers, but we don’t have a monopoly, not by any means. The mission of all Christian churches and denominations is to keep the task of sharing the good news of Christ with a lost world as priority number one. In other words, we are not to spend our major energy and time polishing apples.

A church or denomination that is dynamic knows its job is to peel the banana. It knows its essential purpose for existence is to reach out and make contact with others on a person-to-person basis and on a life-changing level. Peeling the banana strips away the package and gets down to the fruit.

We stop asking, “How many were in church last Sunday?” and start asking, “How many found God’s will for their lives?” We stop asking, “Why didn’t ‘so-and-so’ come to church?” and start asking, “Why doesn’t my neighbor who is lost or unchurched come?” We stop asking, “How much money was given?” and start asking, “How many people were blessed by the spirit of giving?”

What is it that keeps churches from peeling bananas? Why is it so hard for us to strip away the superfluous and get down to the fruit? Our Lord would probably say that it is due to five things: lack of commitment, living with unconfessed sin, unwillingness to make sacrifices, spiritual blindness, and lack of understanding as to what the primary mission of the church is.

Those who walk in darkness all around us – your neighbors and mine – need for us to stop polishing apples and start peeling bananas. In other words, we need to stop going through the motions, doing only what is expected of us as church members, strip away the package, tell them that Jesus Christ died on the Cross for their sins, and that He offers eternal life to everyone who will believe and follow Him.

The only way to be saved is to repent, acknowledge our spiritual needs, surrender, and follow Christ.

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