In those days he came preaching in the Desert
and saying "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near."
These words were written about a great preacher who lived not long ago. They were written about a man who drew thousands of people to his fiery declamations about God's power and might and sovereignty and salvation. People from all walks of life and all segments of society came to hear the man who preached these words. They were, of course, originally preached by John the Baptist who lived in the first century in the country of Judea. But they were made more famous in recent years by a man named Billy Graham who lived in the latter part of the 20th century and preached to millions and millions of people. This blogpost is a tribute to Billy Graham's ministry and impact on my own ministry and life.
Billy Graham passed away last night at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He was 99 years old.
Like Billy Graham (not my namesake, though many have asked if I was named after Billy Graham), I was raised in a Presbyterian home. Graham hailed from Presbyterian stock on both sides of his family. Graham's late wife was Ruth Graham (nee, Ruth McCue Bell, whose father was Dr. L. Nelson Bell a prominent Presbyterian missionary to China). Graham's own family were Reformed Presbyterians from Scottish stock. The New York Times this morning wrote that, "Though the Grahams were Reformed Presbyterians, and though his father insisted on daily readings of the Bible, Billy was not an enthusiastic Christian." The same might have been said of my early Christian upbringing. I went to church each Sunday morning mostly because that's what our, "family did" on a Sunday morning. It is not that my faith wasn't real growing up, it was, it was just that the way that it was practiced and experienced was not necessarily highly emotional, or flashy or fiery.
The church I grew up in was named Trinity. And potlucks, church family camps and children's sermons were, in many senses, my own personal Holy Trinity.
When I was about 12 years old, I went with my local congregation to the Billy Graham Crusade to be held in the Boise State University Basketball Arena. I had never been to a religious (or a non-religious event for that matter) of this ilk. Thousands gathered in that arena to listen to the mass choir, a few members of which came from my own local Presbyterian congregation. Then Billy Graham began to preach. What struck me, surprisingly, was not his fiery oratory, but rather his magnetism and kindness. Even from a pulpit in the center of a huge arena, I felt like Billy Graham was speaking to just - ME. He seemed like the kind of person who you wouldn't mind having in your home, sitting beside your bed, or holding hands to pray with.
At the end of the worship service in BSU stadium I found myself, for some inexplicable reason, walking forward to pray with one of the attendants at the front of the arena. After the prayer, like Graham has said of his own similar conversion experience, "I can't say that I felt anything spectacular. I felt very little emotion. I shed no tears. The Lord did speak to me about certain things in my life. I'm certain of that, but I can't remember what they were."
Later when I went to college in Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota, I would visit friends in downtown who lived right next to the International Headquarters of the Billy Graham Association. Because I was going through a bit of an agnostic stage in my own faith walk at the time, I was less enamored by the magnitude and size of the ministry organization, but still felt an innate power in their presence and Spiritual footprint, even as I walked around their buildings on snowy, sub-arcticly cold days.
As the years have elapsed, and my own ministry has unfolded, I have become aware of how different I am as a pastor and a preacher than Billy Graham. I don't preach about evil very often, though I do believe in it. I don't align myself with political causes, though, as a student of Poly Sci, I know that everything in life is inherently political. I don't try or want people to feel bad about their lives after they hear me speak. And perhaps most of all, I realize that the intoxicating, and more often wearying chimera of public life isn't really real, and doesn't last. In the end, perhaps I realize that I am more PRESBYTERIAN than I ever realized.
However, I am grateful for the life of Billy Graham and his ministry. And the world seems, somehow, more vacant and empty on this chilly February morning, now that it no longer has Billy Graham within it. Graham's favorite hymn to have his congregation's sing after one of his sermons was the great, "Just As I Am." Aptly, Graham's greatest contribution was that he was a pastor, "Just As He Was." And now, Billy Graham is in heaven, and it might be said that he has gone there, "Just As He Is." But thankfully, those who listened to Graham, and were impacted by him will never again be able to say that we are, "Just As We Were..."
All For Now,