Reflections on a Great Evangelist
I still remember where I was when the news came over the PA system about John F. Kennedy’s assassination: in seventh-grade English class.
For whatever years I have left on this earth, I will also remember where I was when I learned that legendary evangelist Billy Graham had died: walking into concussion therapy early in the day.
I knew something significant must have happened when I saw NBC anchorman Lester Holt on the flat screen in the rehab center’s lobby.
Scenes of Graham flashed by amid Holt’s description of his many accomplishments.
Finally, after a while, the words flashed in the lower right-hand corner: “Billy Graham dies at 99.”
It wouldn’t surprise me to see a round of “100th anniversary of Billy Graham’s birth” coverage follow this November.
Whether folks liked the idea of an evangelist getting so much attention, the fact that he laid in state last week for two days at the U.S. Capitol is evidence of his impact.
The day he died, I couldn’t help remembering the first time I saw Graham in person. It was at Mile High Stadium (since replaced by a more modern edifice) in Denver in August of 1987.
Actually, I’d seen him preach from a distance six days earlier, after our car’s fuel pump broke down and we spent an extra three nights in western Colorado, waiting for repairs.
We were in a town so small we could literally walk everywhere. The church we visited that Sunday mentioned that a closed-circuit telecast of Graham’s Denver meetings would be shown at the nearby elementary school.
As we sat listening to him that auditorium, he started to wrap up his message. Instantly I thought, “Don’t stop now. You’re just warming up.”
Depth of Coverage
Having written for magazines for years, I was impressed with the depth of the coverage that appeared the day Graham died.
I never interviewed Graham. But I saw him preach again 15 years later in Cincinnati, as part of a newspaper coverage team.
I also saw his son, Franklin, preach at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, again while writing for a newspaper.
A little over two years ago, I saw Billy’s grandson, Will, preach in Huntington, West Virginia.
All these experiences leave me with several reflections:
- The power of focus
Billy Graham knew how to keep the main thing the main thing. As a result, he crossed all kinds of denominational, racial, and other barriers.
That focus helped leave a stirring legacy. The fact that a third-generation preacher will be around for years—and Will sounds nearly like his grandfather—warms my heart.
- The power of beliefs
While I had heard about Charles Templeton about 15 years ago, I forgot his name until World mentioned Graham’s former compatriot in its posthumous profile.
Templeton was a more polished speaker and in great demand, but questioned the validity of Scripture—to the point that he walked away from his faith.
Graham faced such doubts, too. World recalled the story of how Graham walked outside one night and prayed: “Oh, God, I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith.”
Graham died with attention from presidents, popes and world leaders. According to writer Ed Plowman: “Templeton died in 2001, broken in body and mind.”
- The power of marriage
Billy Graham never could have made the impact he did without his wife, Ruth, back home raising Franklin and his four siblings. They included the powerful evangelist, Anne Graham Lotz.
In its profile, World recalled the answer Graham gave at his final crusade, when asked how he wanted to be remembered: “I want to be remembered as a person who was faithful to God, faithful to my family, faithful to the Scriptures, and faithful to my calling.”
I doubt he could have remained that faithful without Ruth’s help.