I just heard the News that Billy Graham died. I am sad that a man of his stature has departed, but then, in reality he has not been the force in Christendom, that he once was, for some time, now. From all I heard over the last few years, he has been but a fragile shell of the man he once was. His dear wife, Ruth, died some years ago. A long time ago I read a book Dr. Graham wrote about heaven. I rejoice at his transition; now he can check things out to see how much of his book is right.
As far as my spiritual upbringing, I grew up a Fundamentalist. I am thankful for my heritage. Men like my pastor in my formative years, Rev. Eugene Marsceau, who later became my father-in-law, the President of Appalachian Bible Institute, Dr. Lester Pipkin, my Theology prof. Dr. Joseph Pinter, and my pastor during the last two years of my college career, Rev. Victor Decker were/are all Fundamentalists. All of them were gentlemen. Though Lester Pipkin was one of the strongest, most effective preachers I ever heard, and all of these men were men of strong conviction, none of them had the fire-breathing, eat-nails-for-breakfast-and-spit-out-tacks-at-lunch persona for which Fundamentalists are famous. All of them were but one generation removed, though, from the Fundamentalist battles of the early and mid-20th Century. For them, to be called an “Evangelical” was not a good thing. To be called a “Neo-Evangelical” was even worse. Graham was both. At the famous (in my circles) Madison Square Garden Crusade, he sold out his more conservative comrades. At least that was the view in my camp. They wanted to maintain a higher degree of doctrinal purity. Graham, and his core associates, wanted to be as inclusive as possible to gain a broader hearing for the Gospel. (You can do your internet search to read the history.) Fundamentalism never forgave Graham. Graham not only continued on to become the most prominent, widely-heard evangelist in the history of the church, he also became the visible representative of the Evangelical movement.
I remember early in my pastoral ministry, The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was holding a Crusade in a city not far from my home. A delegation from Bob Jones University, at the time a bastion of militant Fundamentalism and a school where Graham was once a student, set up a picket line outside the auditorium where the crusade was being held. I was impressed with Billy Graham’s humanity when I heard that he quoted Dr. Bob, Bob Jones I, “If a hound dog is howling for Jesus, I’m on the hound dog’s side.” I suppose that became my statement about the matter. I didn’t and still don’t agree with all the decisions the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has made over the years. There were times when Evangelist Graham reached too far in his attempt to be inclusive. Still Graham preached the John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 15, Romans-Road Gospel. I knew people who had clearly come to know the Lord through his ministry. I might not be able to offer wholehearted support for everything, but I sure didn’t want to oppose what God was doing through Billy Graham. I wasn’t alone in my discomfort about “Fundamental” opposition to Graham.
I’m guessing it was about 30-35 years ago. Another Billy, a good pastor friend of mine, and I attended a pastor’s meeting with an old Fundamentalist warhorse evangelist, who was holding meetings at my friend’s church. After the meeting, we sat for maybe two hours in my van and talked. That two-hour conversation was the equivalent of a semester of 20th Century Evangelical/Fundamentalist church history. Our older companion was close enough to Graham that they still exchanged Christmas cards. Rev. John was well aware of the Madison Square Split that had taken place between Graham and those who objected to his inclusiveness. Rev. John remained firmly on the side of those who felt the famous evangelist had gone too far. Yet, Rev. John was convinced that Billy Graham was a man that God had greatly used, and was using. He told a story about being on the platform in a meeting where Graham was preaching. He was not impressed. He leaned over and whispered a comment to the person sitting next to him, “This isn’t going anywhere.” Almost as soon as the comment was made, Rev. John said a change took over the meeting which he could only explain as the power of the Holy Spirit. I thought it was a statement of rare transparency. Here was a man of God who concluded that Graham was wrong, yet was convinced that the hand of God was on him. When those who differ with you praise you, that is powerful praise.
That lesson, about being on the side of the canine who howls for the Lord is but one of the lessons I learned from Billy Graham’s long an effective career. He helped me see that one is contaminated not only by what one approves but also by what he opposes.
· One cannot look at the evangelist from a farm family in North Carolina and not believe that God can accomplish great things through a life given to Him. Several years ago I read Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am. Not only did it help me make sense of Rev. John’s history lesson, it bore eloquent witness to the old adage that “the chief ability is availability.”
· Billy Graham was the gold-standard in ministry purity. He lived through the era when many notable pastors, evangelists, and leaders in Christian ministry brought shame to the cause of Christ. He was like Job, “Have you considered my servant Billy?”
· As one who is at the far end of his ministry, I think Graham, by and large, set a good example for aging and stepping out graciously. There were a few times when in later years he said some things that caused some of us to wonder, mostly, though, he was content to let others be out front, while he stayed in the background where the ravages of aging had compelled him to sit.
I didn’t know the famous evangelist, but seeing him from afar has not only caused me to rejoice in what he did, but to be thankful for the impact his ministry had on me. I’m confident that he was greeted in heaven with a “Well done.”