Two things happened in the year 1918 that changed the course of world history:
The first was November 11th, when, in a train car deep in a forest 37 miles north of Paris, an armistice was signed ending World War I. The second was four days earlier on November 7, when a boy was born to a North Carolina dairy farmer and his wife. They named the boy William Franklin Graham, Jr.
The world would come to know him as Billy.
When Billy died near Charlotte, North Carolina early on Wednesday morning, February 21st, an outpouring of eulogies, observations, and reflections began to flow. Pundits and private citizens for some days now have responded or reacted in huge numbers. I join that number today.
Billy ended his earthly life three and a half months into his 100th trip around the sun. Statistics don’t do his life justice, but they are stunning.
No one has spoken to more people in the history of mankind (215 million). It was estimated that one-in-six Americans had heard him speak personally. He traveled to 185 countries to share the Good News. His radio broadcast The Hour of Decision lasted 66 years (1950-2016). More than 3 million people made “decisions for Christ” in response to his preaching.
I only knew him through his speaking and writing. My limited, but very real, experience of Billy Graham started in San Francisco in 1959 and ended in Washington D.C. on a Friday in September, three days after 9/11.
I had heard him on the radio, but never seen him in person until April of 1959. That’s when, in my senior year of high school, Billy came to the Cow Palace in San Francisco. I don’t remember any details, except trying to get there early to get a decent seat. What I DO remember was the moment he gave the invitation to follow Jesus. The mass choir and thousands of attendees began to sing Charlotte Elliot’s words, “Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me….!” I can hear it still.
Five years later, December 31, 1964, I heard Billy again. Ruth and I sat with 9,500 university students in the University of Illinois Assembly Hall sharing Holy Communion to welcome in the new year. It was the closing gathering of the 1964 Urbana Conference, an inspirational conference hosted by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. I don’t remember his words. Only his presence.
It would be more than 30 years before I actually met and spoke with Billy. Then, I would meet him twice within six years. The first was the Thursday night closing dinner for the National Prayer Breakfast on February 1, 1995 at the Hilton Washington.
He had been asked to come not to preach, but to be interviewed by my boyhood friend, Missouri Senator John Ashcroft. It would be an evening of storytelling following the meal. We sat at a round table. Billy was, across from Ruth and me, flanked on his left by Drs. Lloyd Ogilvie and Richard Halverson (in-coming and out-going Chaplains of the United States Senate, respectively). John Ashcroft was to his right. Then, Japanese economist Koji Yamazaki, and us. And, to Ruth’s right, the Prime Minister and his wife from the Fiji Islands. Ruth and I were way over our heads socially!
Billy, however, was struggling to eat his food. Person after person would come to introduce themselves with some anecdote of a family member coming to Christ in one of his meetings. Certainly understandable, but it made it impossible for Billy to finish his meal. Finally, a leader of the event came and asked John and me, “Can you stand and have a conversation behind Dr. Graham, so that people will be blocked from interrupting him?” We agreed. Billy was grateful and said to us, “You know this (the interruptions) is what television has done.” There is a downside to being known around the world.
Later, when he conversed on the platform with John, he didn’t seem like an orator on stage before hundreds of thousands. He seemed like a boy from Charlotte at the dinner table.
Six and a half years later, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 our world exploded. Wednesday afternoon I got a call from the White House asking if I could come to assist in composing a guest list of religious leaders to attend the Friday prayer service to be held at Washington’s National Cathedral in this moment of national crisis. As a result, Ruth and I were invited to the service ourselves. It was a moment.
We arrived an hour early. Rain was falling and security was extraordinary. As hundreds entered the cathedral, about 30 minutes before the service started, I thought it wise to visit the restroom. We were toward the front, so I walked the side aisle all the way to the back on the right. As I reached for the door, it swung open away from me. There I stood, face-to-face with Billy Graham. He smiled, reached out for my hand, and simply said, “I’m so glad you could come.”
That phrase captured the heart of the man. Billy was an inviter. He spent his entire life inviting people to the Kingdom of God. Inviting people to follow the King.
What a profound and solemn service it was. The weight of tragedy and thousands of lost lives sat heavy in the cathedral. We sang, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Several prayers and several speakers later, it was time for Billy.
White-haired at 83, and a bit unsteady, he was assisted in climbing the stairs to the pulpit. He began to speak, and was anything but unsteady. His words resounding through the cathedral and around the world brought comfort and prophetic power.
He finished and was being helped down. All was silent. Until the Dean of the Cathedral, seated at the foot of the stairs, spontaneously began in a slow rhythm to clap his hands. That’s all it took. Four thousand people were on their feet in a standing ovation. One more time, Billy’s words rooted in the Scriptures had reached deep into hearts.
In his first few sentences, Billy had spoken the preface to so many of his words over 50 years of ministry: “The Bible says…!” His rootedness in the Scriptures, his choice of Ruth as his wife, and his choice of a band of brothers early on---Cliff Barrows, Ted Smith, Grady Wilson, and George Beverly Shea--- shaped the trajectory of his mission and life.
Throughout that life he was called lots of things including “America’s Pastor.” When he turned 75, in November of 1993, TIME magazine put him on the cover and called it “A Christian in Winter.” It’s one of my favorite pictures of him.
I think for me, though, I’d like to stick with “The Great Inviter.”
In my mind’s eye, those few mornings ago, when he “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” I can see the Father welcoming him to the Throne Room.
I see Him smile and reach for Billy’s hand and say, “So glad you could come!”