R.I.P. Billy Graham

Yesterday we lost a humble giant in Christianity — Billy Graham, age 99.

There are just a few people through history, from the death of the last Apostle through today, who have received and expressed such a tremendous God-given gift of ministry — none for such a long period of time with personal and media access to so many people worldwide. Nobody in the entire history of Christianity as preached in person to more people. Yet through all that fame he remained profoundly humble. Millions have come to know and love Billy Graham, and millions have been led to accept Christ by his ability to make the Word clear and hopeful.

For decades Billy carried God’s message of spiritual rebirth and redemption to people all over the world through his public “crusades”, while more quietly visiting with orphanages, areas of poverty, and individuals at all strata of society in need of spiritual aid — all in a way that was personally genuine and free of financial and sexual scandals that afflicted other famous ministers. Billy opposed racial segregation, proclaiming (correctly), “There is no scriptural basis for segregation”, under the ideal that God created humans of all races and cares for all people the same. Indeed he bailed Martin Luther King out of jail on several occasions in the 1960s. Billy also founded the influential magazine Christianity Today.

Whether Billy was meeting with a world leader, his personal physician, or a little child in Africa, he reflected the love of Christ just as well. Billy truly lived the life he preached, proclaiming often: “I have one message: that Jesus Christ came, he died on a cross, he rose again, and he asked us to repent of our sins and receive him by faith as Lord and Savior, and if we do, we have forgiveness of all of our sins.”

There are a lot of great tributes flowing from fellow ministers, ordinary citizens he influenced, and several former Presidents of both parties (he was a confidant and trusted spiritual advisor to Presidents from Truman to Obama). Yet, one of the most powerful personal testimonies I’ve seen comes from a friend of mine who is Jewish by heritage, and who served as Billy’s medical doctor for a short time. He writes:

    “I had the honor to be Rev. Billy Graham’s physician for 5 months back in 2007, and a friend of his since. He and I had many intensely personal and spiritual discussions. By the time I became his physician, Bill showed intense humility and a deep desire to better know God’s will for him. Our discussions were some of the most profound I’d ever had and paved the way to my eventual acceptance of a higher power in my life, though I’m not a Christian. What struck me most about him was his presence.

    “I loved listening to some pretty intensely personal stories of his. And, he actually told President Bush that he would call him back when I was in examining him one day. That is definitely one of the watershed moments in my career, lol.

    “I miss him already, though I know he was ready for death. Thank you, Bill–for everything you and I walked through. Thanks for your humor and guidance. Godspeed…”

When I was but a little kid, and Woodall Rodgers Freeway across the north side of downtown Dallas was a swath of open land recently cleared but not yet paved, my mom took me by bus to see a Billy Graham crusade. [Klyde Warren Park occupies that spot today, above a tunneled version of the same freeway.]

Until tonight I didn’t recall the date (more below), but it was a mild and cloudy day with southerly winds, probably springtime. Return flow! A stage was set up in the clearing with the nearby downtown skyline as a backdrop, and lawn chairs and towels upon which people sat to see and hear Billy preach. To this day, I’ve had dreams of the Lord’s word being delivered from the clouds above those skyscrapers. As a bonus: music from Johnny and June Carter Cash prior to Billy’s taking the stage. It was both the first religious experience I remember and the first country-gospel concert.

We were out there a long time and I don’t remember much, except that Billy was a very passionate and persuasive speaker who inspired my mom a great deal. She spoke of that experience often in the first few years afterward, always in reverent and grateful ways. I credit his conveyance of Jesus’ message for keeping her afloat during some otherwise dark times for her mentally, physically and financially — stuff you wouldn’t wish on a worst enemy, much less one’s own mom.

Though I strayed through minefields of multiple denominations, other religions and even atheism in some of the years that followed, seeds of early spiritual influence, planted by the Billy Graham experience I barely remembered, grew into trees greening a forest of faith today. I am still grateful for what that did for my mom, then in turn and in time, me.

Billy once stated: “Someday, you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” And now he is. R.I.P. Billy Graham, after a very long and well-lived earthly life.

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The Internet is good for something. Shortly before posting, on a whim, I just searched for the first time in 15 years or more. For the first time ever, I just found the date: 17 June 1972, with a photo! The show on the future freeway slab was a daylong culmination of “the largest Christian music festival ever recorded.” My mom and I are in this picture somewhere.

I hardly recall it, but for the weather scene (of course), having to navigate the crowds with her to find a place to pee, fleeting mental footage of Johnny Cash onstage, and another short mental movie of Billy’s powerful oratory about Jesus…but nothing specific that he said. Yet isn’t it amazing how such a feeble and fuzzy and far-back event can exert such a strong ripple effect? God works in mysterious ways.



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