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Pastor Tom's reflections on a life well lived - Billy Graham

As some of you may know (and some of you have already reached out to me today which was very kind), Dr. Billy Graham went to heaven today.  I was working out at the Becker Community Center when the breaking news came across the TV screens announcing his passing, and while I was too far away to read the closed captions (and there is no sound, either), I was able to see the photos, videos, and read some of the larger graphics as a retrospective was presented.

 As many of you also know, Dr. Graham has had an enormous influence on my life and ministry.  As a child, I remember my parents often watching him on TV.  He kind of unnerved me back then as I watched him preach and saw people walk down to the front and commit their lives to Jesus.  I didn’t really understand this as my church background didn’t have this type spiritual challenge and practice.

On my journey to saying “yes” to Jesus as my Lord at the end of my junior year in high school, God used Billy Graham in a significant way.  It was again with him on TV, but not a crusade.  He was a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  And as I watched this interview with my own questions about what to do with Jesus swirling in my head, Johnny Carson asked him, “Billy, what makes Christians better than other people?”  I remember vividly Billy Graham reacting with a look of surprise on his face at the question, and then he said, “Johnny, Christians aren’t better than anyone else.  I’m not better than you.  I’m no better than a drunk lying in a gutter.  Christians are just forgiven.”  I went to bed that night under deep conviction, and it was probably within a week that alone in my room, I got on my knees and asked God to forgive me and have my life.

 As a follower of Jesus, I now looked at Billy Graham with a renewed mind!  I could hardly wait to watch him whenever he came on TV.  As I sensed God leading me into full-time ministry, Billy Graham was a role model and in some ways a real mentor for me.  His passion to reach people with the greatest good news ever was a challenge and an inspiration to me.  I even wondered if God might make me an evangelist one day, too.

Gwen and I got married, and after a year, Gwen got a job working for World Wide Pictures, the movie arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  She worked there for a number of years and was on the team that helped launch the TV movie "The Hiding Place" and also helped on the team which worked on the movie about Joni Eareckson Tada’s accident, paralysis, and life (she got to meet Joni personally, and I also did briefly).  I had the chance to sometimes visit Gwen at work (his headquarters were in downtown Minneapolis for many years) and got to tour the facilities, too.

In my first senior pastorate, I received an invitation from the BGEA to attend what they called back then one of their “Schools of Evangelism”.  Because of the generosity of a donor, pastors and their spouses could attend for free.  It was just the cost of transportation, lodging, and meals that had to be covered.  This was the first national conference (outside of C&MA Council) that I ever attended.  It was always done back then at a crusade he was doing.  The one Gwen and I attended was in Spokane, WA.  During the day there were seminars and sessions, and at night, you went to the crusade meetings.  There are things I heard Billy Graham teach about evangelism and making an invitation to people to say “yes” to Jesus as Lord that have stuck with me ever since and that I have incorporated at some level in my own ministry.

I remember sitting in these crusade meetings and watching people all around us getting up to respond to his invitation to say “yes” to Jesus as Lord and hardly being able to move as it was such an incredibly poignant moment where God’s presence and power was so real.  I had prayed shortly after saying my own yes to Jesus as Lord that if I could spend my life helping other people experience God’s great love for them as I had, I would count that a privilege.  Billy Graham was one of the people God used to fan that flame for all these years in my life.

Every summer the BGEA would have an employee and families picnic.  They would rent an outdoor venue for their exclusive use, and every year, everyone wondered if Billy Graham would make an appearance.  I’ll never forget the year he came.  I had always hoped to meet him and share my story with him about how his appearance on Johnny Carson had been a significant part of my own conversion experience.  But he was surrounded by people and I didn’t think I’d get the chance.  But suddenly we turned around and there he was…with no one but some of his aides with him.  We walked up to him, we shook his hand, and I had the chance to share this story with him.  He was genuinely interested and thanked me for telling him this.  Later when everyone was gathered together to hear him speak, he started to share our encounter and asked “if the young man who told me about when I was on Johnny Carson was still here…please raise your hand.”  And so I did and he went on to say that while he was sometimes criticized by some people for making these types of appearances on TV shows, he always thought they were opportunities for the gospel to be shared in a context that would never happen in any other way.

I realize for some of you under 50 (and especially under 40), Billy Graham might be a name you know something about, but perhaps you don’t fully comprehend the incredible influence and scope of ministry God gave to this man.  He transformed the role of evangelists (which previous to him were mostly considered backwoods hicks who yelled at people and had some sketchy ways of handling money) to a respected position.  His name was synonymous with integrity (in how his organization functioned, how he was paid a salary and not just taking whatever was given in love offerings; how he handled himself personally…never a hint of scandal either in his ministry or personal life).  When evangelicals were looked upon as a small, fringe group in our society, God used Billy Graham to help the culture see there were a lot more evangelical Jesus followers than perhaps people realized, and that they were a reflection of all of society.  He was the confidant of Presidents of every party from Truman to George W. Bush (and was visited by President Obama and honored at his 99th birthday by President Trump).  He was invited to speak in the Communist Soviet Union and Communist China, both of which persecuted Jesus followers, and there he declared the message of Jesus as Lord without hesitation…but with tact.

When racism was actually encoded in law in our nation and at even more extremes in other nations, Billy Graham, as a Southerner, insisted that he would not conduct any crusades if people were discriminated against.  Everyone had to be welcomed and people would have to sit together at his crusades who had never sat together anywhere else in their lives!  He had no tolerance for racism of any kind.  When we lived in Australia, a very secular nation, I was amazed as again and again when many of the Jesus followers I would meet in my churches and in other churches shared how they had said their “yes” to Jesus as Lord at Billy Graham crusades there.

He preached the gospel live to more people than anyone else in history, and through his televised crusades (which was cutting edge thinking and use of technology 50 years ago), movies produced by World Wide Pictures, his radio program (“The Hour of Decision”), and other books he wrote and articles he composed (he had a national column in most major newspapers for many years), he probably communicated the great good news of Jesus more than anyone except for the Apostle Paul (whose writings continue to impact millions of people every year).

When there was a rash of scandals of TV evangelists in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Billy Graham remained untainted by any scandal.  For many, many years he was voted the most respected person in America in national polls.  He helped form a national organization that still exists today to ensure financial integrity by churches and religious non-profit organizations.  When America was attacked on 9-11-01, even though his age (he was 82) and health (he struggled with Parkinson’s in his old age) had mostly forced him to retire from public speaking very much, he responded to the request of President Bush and spoke at the National Memorial service a few days after the attack.  There was no one else that would have been able to fill such a role in our nation at that time.

He filled stadiums and counseled Presidents.  He could speak to people no matter what their backgrounds and education were.  He was able to give lectures at Harvard and Yale and Oxford, and also speak to those who didn’t graduate from high school.

His impact in Minnesota was significant, too.  He was President for a while of the University of Northwestern (St. Paul) and started KTIS radio.  His headquarters were in Minneapolis for many years, and people would hear him invite people to contact him there…thousands of letters from all over the world came to him…some simply addressed “Billy Graham, Minneapolis, MN”.  Some simply had his photo pasted on the envelope and made it to his headquarters.  He conducted some major crusades here, as well, and many people across our state said their own personal “yes” to Jesus as Lord at one of these crusades. 

Dr. Graham was not a perfect person.  He admitted that many times.  He was sometimes an absent father as he was traveling all over the country and world preaching the gospel.  He got lured into taking sides politically with the Nixon Administration, and he was shocked after Nixon resigned to hear the language and things Nixon said on tape recordings…while he never made that mistake again, he also still cared for Mr. Nixon as a person and spoke at his funeral.  He was a human being and he knew it was the grace of God alone that saved him and sustained him.

For many years now I usually watch 3 services on Saturday nights as I prepare for Sunday ministry.  Billy Graham’s messages have been one of those three services.  I thank the Lord for using Billy Graham to deeply impact my life.  He was a servant of Jesus and is an example of a life surrendered to His will and purposes.

While his passing is a loss to our world, his legacy is one that will last well beyond his years on this planet.  And his passing is not the end of Billy Graham.  As he himself said more than once:

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.

Thanks for taking time to read these reflections about someone who has been a special spiritual influence in my life.  God bless you all.

Pastor Tom