Finally Home! Billy has been longing to depart this tent of a body for years–ever since his beloved wife Ruth died. And this morning, the Lord has “promoted him to glory” (as they used to say in the Salvation Army). He’s finally home.
I never met Billy. So, I shouldn’t call him by his first name. But don’t we all kinda feel like we can? He was a prince of a man, but humble and down home. I think he wouldn’t mind “Billy” from a stranger like me. Yet, not a total stranger – I’ve long been thankful for God’s work in and through him. On this day of his freedom, here are some reflections:
I heard him preach in Ottawa in 1998 at the Crusade there. He was already showing signs of age. They used a lift to get him on the platform, so he wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs. He was not on the platform for the entire service. He only came near to the time for him to speak. And yet, when he preached, he had power. Conviction. Energy. Fire. Love. Hope. Urgency. And the Spirit of Christ. He was not an old man then. He was simply the vessel of God’s Gospel. “We hold this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power comes from God, and not from us.” People have said the same thing all through his ministry: when he preaches there is fire.
When I read his autobiography, Just As I Am, I was taken with the chapter “Marathon in Manhattan” about the 16 weeks they spent in NYC in the late 50s: Every night at Madison Square Garden, most nights an extra time on the street for the folks who couldn’t get it. They hadn’t planned to go 16 weeks; but folks just kept coming. What impressed me was this: several on the planning team thought they should “quit while they are ahead”–that is, end the crusade after 3 or 4 or 6 weeks and the crowds are still strong. But, Billy and several others thought they should keep going, even if they fail or the crowds dwindle: better to look dumb but get the gospel out, than look like a success and limit God’s grace. So they kept going, night after night, preaching and singing, inviting thousands to surrender to Christ, the only healer! And, when they ended after 16 weeks with a rally at Yankee Stadium, what a joy it was.
They continued to step out in faith, and God continued to build the bridge under them! A marathon in Manhattan… an example to us all.
[Note: When I was about 20, I found a postcard in our family’s home – a postcard from the YMCA in Times Square. Written by my dad to his girlfriend (who became his wife!), telling of how he and a buddy jumped in their car and drove to NYC from Montreal to hear Billy. I still have that postcard – what a link to God’s work through Billy, and God’s work in my own history.]
(3) Partnership and Purity
Though his name is on the door of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, that’s only for marketing purposes! He believed in and lived “team” as long as I’ve known anything about him. Who could think of Billy without also thinking of Cliff Barrows and Bev Shea? Where would Billy have been without the Wilson Brothers (Grady and TW) leading, helping, administrating behind the scenes. Billy was smart enough to see that God works through teams, and he lived into it. Early on in their ministry and growth, Billy and his team met in Modesto, CA, to make sure they didn’t go off the rails by sin. They developed (and then held to) the Modesto Manifesto for ministry with integrity: Never alone with a woman, never handle donations, never over-inflate publicity (and ‘responses’), and always work with the local church (because that’s where God is working in each locale).
(4) Kingdom, not Empire
Billy was a preacher, but more than that: he was a strategist.
- He deployed evangelists by the dozens and hundreds through the BGEA.
- He helped to found Christianity Today–for decades the premier magazine for the evangelical movement.
- He helped to found Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (my alma mater) to bring world-class theologians together to train generations of pastors/evangelists, and to bring it to New England, which needed this lighthouse in the late 60s.
- He gathered thousands of evangelists and church planters and pastors and theologians to Lausanne Switzerland in 1974 that together they might better understand the biblical mission, and coordinate their efforts so that the world might hear of Christ. That spawned the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, a group that has hosted 2 further congresses (Manilla in 1989 and Cape Town in 2010), along with countless smaller gatherings. Billy didn’t control it with an iron first, but helped steer that snowball down the mountain, as God added the increase!
- In the 1980s, when his brother-in-law and VP of the BGEA, Leighton Ford, sensed the call to invest in the younger generation of leaders, Billy blessed him and helped to start that ministry of mentoring/leadership development.
There are many other examples. He simply didn’t care to “run a huge organization”, but he loved to be a spark-plug for ministry endeavors. He didn’t want an empire; he wanted to build the Kingdom. Thanks be to God.
About 10 years ago, I was talking to some kids in our youth group. And, I mentioned “Billy Graham” as an example of what God can do through someone devoted to the Lord. Blank stares… uncertain looks… “who?” from the kids. Wow. A man who was such a public and positive force in the last half of the 20th century was barely known to Christian kids from a strong church in 2010. Scripture says: “as for man his days are like grass.” Billy wasn’t even gone, and yet he was gone. I can tell you what isn’t gone: the millions of people who came to Christ through his ministry, and the tens of millions of people who met Christ through his associates and all the others he encouraged, deployed, resourced, and opened doors for.
What also isn’t gone is the Christ-centered influence he brought to the 50 years of his public life–that’s intangible and unmeasurable, but just as real. He stood with Christ, for Christ, in a Christ-like way for a given time in history.
As one Christian Leader said years ago, “God may bury the workman, but the work marches on.” We remember and rejoice in Billy’s life and release. But the work marches on. Who will carry the flag? Who will take up the banner? Who will step into the fray? Who will die to self for the sake of the lost, the sake of the kingdom, the sake of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Here am I, Send me.
That’s all Billy ever said to God: Here am I, Send me.
May we echo that from our hearts.