“The people’s pastor,” Billy Graham is dead. Or is he? He ranked decade after decade as one of the most admired people on the planet, and yet he was the first to admit his flaws. And that, perhaps, was the key to his strength: he was us. Unlike other admired leaders, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Billy Graham seemed to represent all of us:
- He prayed at the National Cathedral for the victims of 9/11, and in New Orleans for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
- In the American south he refused to “preach Jim Crow,” insisting on speaking to all of God’s people. In my own adopted city of Cincinnati, he brought black and white people together in large numbers for the first time after the riots of 2001. Black and white leaders still speak of the changes that began that day.
- He counselled world leaders, not politically but personally—trying for political influence at one point, then abandoning it and asking God’s forgiveness. He spoke of that same forgiveness at Nixon’s funeral. He convinced President George W. Bush to renew his faith and quit drinking. President Bill Clinton said, “When he prays with you, you feel like he is praying for you, not the president.” He was the only preacher the contentious president of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, was willing to listen to.
Real humility can’t be faked. It comes from knowing who you are, and who your Creator is. Billy returned again and again to the message of John 3:16, a message displayed so frequently that we forget how cosmically important it is: We were created for a love relationship with God, but have turned away from that purpose, bringing death (alienation from Him) upon ourselves. And so He has reached out to do what we could not–restore us to eternal life with Him and one another (in the original language “eternal” refers not only to infinite time but infinite quality of life).
The Apostle Paul said that if the message Jesus’s followers embrace is false, then they are to be pitied (I Corinthians 15:9). But if it’s true, it’s everything: “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
Billy Graham never forgot that.
“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.”