Thank you, Billy Graham

Sunday, October 16, 2011

In Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium (which no longer exists), I got saved during a Billy Graham revival as a child. I remember it was cold and that our seats were far, far away from where Dr. Graham was speaking. My recollection is that my coming to Jesus was mainly a flight from the devil. I recall Dr. Graham's words as the lakefront wind chilled me to the core: "If you would die tonight, do you know where you'll spend eternity?"

The immaturity of my childhood has given way to an understanding that is not motivated by fear -- but rather of God's love. I like John Calvin's image of God's grace being boundless. As the 16th-century Genevan reformer put it, God offers us "an inexhaustible fountain of grace."

Still, I am grateful for Billy Graham bringing a sense of urgency to me -- like a dash of freezing water -- all those years ago. I needed it.

Nearly 93, a widower, he rarely leaves his North Carolina home. His children jealously guard his privacy. They take turns carefully screening those who make a pilgrimage to Graham's mountaintop retreat -- hoping for an audience with a man whose name is more famous than the hottest rock star or actor. Graham's progeny worry that their father -- whose hearing has been compromised -- may say something to a guest that will end up in print and embarrass him and taint his legacy.

This coming week, Dr. Graham's final book, "Nearing Home: Life, Faith and Finishing Well," will be released. In the book's opening pages, he confesses that his "nearing home" metaphor comes from baseball -- and his thrill at seeing a favorite player cross the plate with a run.

The section of Graham's last published work that I've seen contains a slight bit of bitterness: "The days when the aged were admired, looked up to and respected are gone." But being Billy Graham, he doesn't stay in that negative place very long -- and as you continue to read, it's clear he's much more concerned about the reader than he is airing his own annoyances.

In the contemporary pantheon of famous religious leaders, for me, Billy Graham long has been at the top. As some evangelists got fabulously wealthy, Graham took a straight salary from the evangelical association. While it was far from a pittance, his finances were never an embarrassment to him or to his work. He was the only -- and I mean the only -- well-known evangelist who submitted his association's finances to a group known as the ECFA -- the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. If you have nothing to hide, you don't mind if someone looks at your books. At the end of his revival broadcasts on TV, Dr. Graham would look at the camera -- after inviting folks to receive Christ while singing "Just As I Am Without One Plea," and say: "If you don't have a church, find one in your community." Billy Graham was not in competition with churches; he was their biggest booster. That, too, set him apart.

I've never found Dr. Graham's preaching or his books to be particularly inventive. He had one basic message, and he spoke it over and over to crowds all over the world. Creative he was not. But he was a master at getting his point across -- as he did to a little boy in the 1960s who had ridden a bus to a northeast Ohio stadium one chilly Sunday night: "You need Jesus -- and you need him now."

What a magnificent life -- and what amazing work he's done in God's name. When he goes -- an era will pass. Thanks be to God for William "Billy" Franklin Graham. We'll not see his like again.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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