Tributes have been pouring in since news broke of the death of the Rev. Billy Graham less than nine months from his 100th birthday.
Part of me really hoped the Rev. Billy Graham would see his 100th birthday.
There’s something special about reaching that age, but I imagine it’s a lot more special to people my age than it is to someone in their late 90s. In Graham’s case, he was hard of hearing, had poor eyesight and had nearly lost the ability to communicate, according to his family.
His beloved wife of more than 60 years, Ruth, died in 2007. The two, I like to think, are now reunited.
He was known as “America’s Pastor,” becoming a counselor and confidante to every American president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. But he was quick to deny that he took part in making policy.
“I don’t advise them, I pray with them,” he said.
In 1934, a 16-year-old Graham walked forward at a Charlotte revival to accept Christ. It would be 14 years later that he held his first crusade, preaching to a total of some 40,000 people.
I had seen Graham on special broadcasts of his revivals as a child. It was 1987 when he came to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, when I got to see him in person.
If you’re not a religious person, you’ll never understand this. If you are a religious person, you probably already do.
You didn’t feel as if you were being assaulted by a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher threatening you with eternal damnation. Despite his insistence on Christ, there was something easing about Graham.
Granted, by then, of course, he had mellowed from his earlier, more animated days at the pulpit. Over the course of his career, Graham moved steadily toward more moderate positions.
If you listened to him in person, he talked about what the Bible said, but unlike many other evangelicals, he wasn’t out to judge others. He was trying to convey the peace that comes with knowing Christ.
You were listening, but it felt like you were having a conversation.
Throughout his career, Graham made a determined effort to stay on message. Though conservative in his theology and pious in his personal life, he was reluctant to pass judgment on others.
“He did not think it was his job to criticize other traditions within Christianity, or outside Christianity for that matter,” Duke Divinity School professor Grant Wacker said. “He insisted that his sole job was to proclaim the Gospel.”
It wasn’t the frenetic, frantic preaching style you might have expected. More than anything else, there was a welcome sense of calm and belonging.
And unlike some evangelicals, when Graham did preach what the Bible said, it wasn’t from a position of hate, but concern.
There’s a great difference between using the Bible to “beat up” on people and using it to shine a light on the path.
The kinds of preachers I admire belong to the latter category.
But no matter how much you agree or disagree with his faith, you have to respect his integrity. He was a man who tried his best — and succeeded far more often than most of us — at living the kind of life a Christian should strive to live.
The “Billy Graham Rule,” which some might scoff at for bordering on paranoia, was an example of this desire to maintain integrity. The rule was that Graham would never allow himself to be alone with a woman other than his wife. Following the rule would not only prevent a woman from making unfounded claims but more importantly, would prevent him from making untoward advances.
I once visited friends in Northern California and found myself being asked to ride with a pastor and a female staffer. I was visiting with a different pastor and didn’t know either of the two people I’d been asked to accompany all that well. It was later, when I asked the pastor I’d gone out to visit about it, his explanation made it clear this was the Billy Graham Rule in practice.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me to suspect anything between the two, but the point was their determination to protect their integrity.
It came from Graham’s commitment to remain faithful, a good servant, and an example.
You just have to admire that. You have to respect a life that dedicated to serving.
“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,” Graham said at his final Crusade in June 2005.
The ravages of time were not all that kind to Graham in his last few years. He battled Parkinson’s Disease and other maladies.
But still he hung on. Yes, part of me wishes he’d made it to 100. But I’m reminded that for Christians, this life is merely temporary. The length of time we’re here isn’t nearly as important as we make it out to be.
“Death is just a transition — it is not the end,” he once said. “I know that when I reach heaven I will meet Jesus.”
I have no doubt that he has.