By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
Volumes have already been written on the life and passing of Billy Graham, inarguably one of the finest men of faith the people of God have ever been able to claim as a “gift.” And while I am not sure that I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said, please let me use this space and time to express my thanks for his life and the impact it had on me.
I heard him preach once, and that was in 1976, in the Kingdome in Seattle. It happened to be the first event ever held in a building that was wracked by financial scandal, where people died in construction accidents, where lawsuits were abundant, and it was eventually torn down. I will never forget, even though I was already a Christian, the simplicity and the sincerity of his message, and how touched I was by the sight of people by the thousands streaming down to the altar to surrender to Christ. The music was classic and lofty, and the Crusade ended up being the most well-attended events in the history of the Kingdome. Seventy-four thousand people had the chance to choose for eternity, and by the time Reverend Graham knocked on the pearly gates, it is estimated that 2.2 billion people heard the Gospel message.
So, what was it about Billy? What made this simple country boy so special? Without question, the lion’s share of it had to be the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the choice of God to be a pure voice proclaiming the simplest message of love that changed the lives of millions. That cannot be quantified; as a former pastor of mine so wisely once said, “It is just better felt than telt.”
Some of it was practical, just good “walkin’ around sense.” He had a policy of having his security team make sure that any hotel room in which he stayed was secured and guaranteed to be empty before Billy ever went in to catch 40 winks. His ministry was not tainted by scandal, which was refreshing especially in the decades when it seemed that ministries were blowing up on a daily basis.
He loved his Ruth, and for her part, in 1941 she wrote the following before she ever met and married him:
“Dear God, I prayed, all unafraid
(as we’re inclined to do),
I do not need a handsome man
but let him be like You;
I do not need one big and strong
nor yet so very tall,
nor need he be some genius,
or wealthy, Lord, at all;
but let his head be high, dear God,
and let his eye be clear,
his shoulders straight, whate’er his state,
whate’er his earthly sphere;
and let his face have character,
a ruggedness of soul,
and let his whole life show, dear God,
a singleness of goal;
then when he comes (as he will come)
with quiet eyes aglow,
I’ll understand that he’s the man
I prayed for long ago.”
Now while I know that Billy (whom Ruth always called “Bill) needed a Savior just like the rest of us, I would say that God answered Ruth’s prayer abundantly. Billy mentioned that after he retired, and in the years before she died, it was as though they had the chance to be college sweethearts again. All those years of sacrifice were restored, all the years she had to function as a single mom for our sakes, all the nights they laid awake on separate continents praying for their kids and each other, were poured back out upon them in abundant reward.
As dear as the story of all this late-in-life marital tenderness is, my personal thanks for the life of Billy Graham has to do with the fact that Billy understood (back in the era which in church history is now referred to as the Jesus People Movement) that hippie kids like me could be reached and eternally changed. We really could choose Christ over cannabis, and his love for us made us want to come home. Billy loved everyone, and everyone, from presidents to plumbers knew it. Rest in peace, dear brother. By God’s grace, you made us better.