I don’t know how many tributes have been written, published, posted or tweeted this week about Billy Graham. I am not writing because I think there needs to be another one; sometimes the writing process is how we work through things. But in the process of thinking about it, maybe I can share with you some things to think about as well.
There will never be another Billy Graham. Franklin Graham has his own organization, Samaritan’s Purse, which collects and manages disaster relief funds, and he has also taken something of a leadership role in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in recent years. Anne Graham Lotz has a prolific writing and speaker career. But Billy Graham said himself in his autobiography, Just As I Am, that what he did throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s is no longer necessary today. He spent hours, days and weeks each year in transit around the globe. We live in an information age and no individual person need spent so many weeks each year traveling to different cities and nations, spending weeks in each one, in order to reach a global audience.
What made him America’s pastor? Why did he lie in state at the United States Capitol? Why is Sirius XM running a special Billy Graham channel in tribute to his life and ministry? I used the word phenomenon in my title. The definition I looked up for this word calls it “a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question.” [source] Ravi Zachariah has a brilliant mind and a wonderfully complex vocabulary. Joel Osteen has a big smile and tells wonderful stories. What is it about Billy Graham that has attracted millions of fans and followers, and led to thousands if not millions, of salvations over the years? That’s my real question.
I believe if asked this very question he would quickly tell you it’s nothing about him at all. He never set out to make a name for himself, or what we might call building a brand today. His message has always been the Gospel. Never the Gospel and anything, just the Gospel. He never considered himself an academic (despite serving as a Bible college president for four years). He didn’t use his early fame as a platform to launch something else. His heart’s desire from the late 1940’s until he retired in 2005 was to preach Good News. And God used him for that purpose.
It is estimated that Graham preached before a live audience of 215 million in total throughout his career, in 185 countries. He was simply the right man for such a time as this. My church members have often heard me say that God knows what he’s doing. That’s remarkably understated. He called Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt despite Moses’s objections. The Apostle Paul considered himself born out of his time but his unique ministry in the New Testament to carry the Gospel to gentiles was of God’s choosing. Joseph and Daniel were both known for interpreting dreams and both gave God the credit for giving the dream and providing the interpretation. Billy Graham made himself available for preaching the Gospel. Throughout his ministry there was never a scandal; no extra marital affairs, no money laundering, no skeletons falling out of his closet. What you see is literally what you get. Impeccable character and an unwavering desire to see God’s Word preached with integrity made him the perfect vehicle for God to use in a mighty way through most of the 20th Century.
Paul said that one plants, another waters, but God gives the increase. There are a few highly recognizable celebrity pastors but thousands of pastors, associates and youth leaders working in small to medium size churches across the land. Most go unnoticed outside of their community and local spheres of influence. Every now and then something special happens that defies explanation when a person or event suddenly rockets to fame or prominence. Sometimes an actor or politician comes out of nowhere and there is no explanation for why it was his or her time. Billy Graham was filled with boldness and wisdom that comes through the Holy Spirit. The long list of people and places influenced by him can only be credited as a God thing. Questioning why God chose him and not someone else will not get us anywhere. Am I available for God to use? What can I do today to do God’s will, to love a neighbor, to build the kingdom? These are the right questions for each of us to ask. A wise leader named Gamaliel offered this advice concerning the Apostles in Acts 5: So in the present case I tell you… if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. Let me suggest this: Little is much when God is in it. And if God is not in it, don’t even bother.