So many others are going to write better articles today about the ministry of Billy Graham. I have read many already. There is a sense in which I feel foolish for writing. You will read better articles than this one. However, since writing for me is something of a therapeutic experience, perhaps I write more for me than I do you, my reader.
Billy Graham shared my mother’s birthday. (The day, that is, November 7, not the year.) He would have been 100 this coming November 7. My earliest memory of Billy Graham was watching the Billy Graham Crusade on television as a small child with my mother. For our family, this was “must watch” tv. Indeed, he was the most famous preacher of my lifetime and second place is not close. And yet, the quality that I admire most about Graham is that he never set out to be famous, just faithful.
As I reflect this morning on what Billy Graham has modelled for me as a preacher, I note these characteristics.
1. He was a man of impeccable integrity.
Perhaps you have heard of the Modesto Manifesto. Graham and his team of Cliff Barrows, Grady Wilson, and Bev Shea were holding a crusade in Modesto, California. They were discussing the problems associated with other evangelists and covenanted together to build their ministry on four principles: secure money for their crusades in advance through local committees rather than through love offerings at the meetings, never be alone with a woman not their wife, support the local church, and not emphasize numbers in their publicity.
2. He was a man of honest humility.
I say honest humility, because I have witnessed some occasions where the humility is fake in order to be thought to be humble. What an incredible irony that is! But the humility of Graham always seemed to be truly genuine.
One of my favorite stories about Graham comes from his brother-in-law, Leighton Ford. Ford tells the story of his being on a flight. Ford settled into his seat and closed his eyes to get a little rest on his trip. The attendant approached him with a 95 year old woman. The attendant said, “Sir, would you mind looking after this dear woman? She’s 95 years old. Make sure she doesn’t need anything.”
Ford, now interrupted from his nap, thought to himself, “Well, I might as well make the best of it.” He decided to engage the woman in conversation. He began, “Ninety-five years old, wow, you must have had a lot of wonderful experiences?”
“Yep,” she said.
“And you must have met a lot of interesting people?”
“Yep, she said,”
This went on for a few more questions and all he could get this woman to say was “Yep.” He decided to change his tactics. He asked, “In 95 years, what’s the most important thing you have ever learned?”
She answered, “I guess the greatest thing I’ve ever learned is the Lord sure has been good to me.”
At this point, Ford, an evangelist, deciding to have a little fun with this woman said, “Surely, you don’t believe in God. Surely you’ve learned something besides this.”
Ford, at this point says that the little old lady, who to this point had said so little, looked at him and lit into him. “Let me tell you, sir, what the Lord has done for me. He’s the only reason I’m here today. He’s the one who helped me raise my kids.”
Ford began to laugh and explained to the woman that he had just said that to get a response. He explained that he was a traveling evangelist. “Actually,” he said, “my brother-in-law is the famous Billy Graham. You ever heard of him?
“Nope,” the old lady said.
“Oh, sure, you know him. He’s been on television,” Ford offered back.
“I must not have had the television on the nights he was on,” she said.
Ford, of course, couldn’t wait to call his brother-in-law and rub it in a little bit. He told Graham about the lady he met. They both had a good laugh. Graham ended the conversation this way.
“You know, isn’t it great, that not everybody knows us, but God knows everyone. He is a faithful God.”
3. He kept the main thing the main thing. He preached the Gospel.
On May 2, 1996, Congress awarded Graham the Congressional Gold Medal. What do you think Graham did for his acceptance speech? He preached as clearly as I have ever heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I listened to that message again this morning.
I have shared my favorite Graham story, now let me share my favorite Graham quote. When asked what was different about preaching when he started and at the end of his public preaching ministry, Graham noted:
“Nothing has really changed in terms of the needs of people. Whenever or whatever you preach, you must remind them of their sin, speak to them about Heaven and Hell, show them to the cross, and urge them to come to the Savior.”
4. He seemed to balance better than most preaching the same Gospel in changing times.
This morning, as I listened to that message in front of Congress from 1996, I was amazed at how Graham spoke the unchanging Gospel in the changing times. He spoke of “guns in schools.” In light of last week, I got chills when he made that reference. He mentioned the rock group Nirvana. Those his age should not have known the band Nirvana, but Graham wasn’t necessarily speaking to those of his age. And, yet, (and sorry I can’t resist) Graham didn’t feel the need to ditch the suit and preach in a t-shirt, skinny jeans, and bare footed to reach a younger generation. He preached the message of Jesus to changing cultures without becoming unbalanced in his methodology. I think my generation of preachers has much to learn in this area.
5. He seemed to balance better than anyone ever of my lifetime that right engagement with politics.
He had a hearing with every president from Truman to Obama. He influenced the influencers, but never made politics the focus of his ministry.
All of this causes me to pray….Oh, Lord, in your mercy, give us another Billy Graham!
Editor’s note: In our Midweek Service tonight at 6:00 p.m., we will view the message mentioned in point three of this blog.