Rev. Billy Graham fell asleep in the loving embrace of Jesus on February 21, 2018. His name conjures up so many images for so many different people. Obviously he was best known as the dignified everyman evangelist who led numerous “crusades.” This was a man who could fill a sports arena to get people to hear about the good news of Jesus Christ, a subject most of us would feel timidity about bringing up at the water cooler.
He was also the moral conscience of this nation in more ways than one. Three days after the darkest hour in modern U.S. history, Graham was asked to address our entire country from the Washington National Cathedral. On September 14, 2001, he said these words:
We come together today to affirm our conviction that God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religious or political background may be. The Bible says that He is “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles”…The Bible says, ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.’
But how do we understand something like this? Why does God allow evil like this to take place? Perhaps that is what you are asking. You may even be angry at God. I want to assure you that God understands these feelings that you may have. We’ve seen so much that brings tears to our eyes and makes us all feel a sense of anger. But God can be trusted, even when life seems at its darkest. What are some of the lessons we can learn?
First, we are reminded of the mystery and reality of evil. I have been asked hundreds of times why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I do not know the answer. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and that He is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering…The lesson of this event is not only about the mystery of iniquity and evil, but, second, it’s a lesson about our need for each other.
What an example New York and Washington have been to the world these past few days! None of us will forget the pictures of our courageous firefighters and police, or the hundreds of people standing patiently in line to donate blood. A tragedy like this could have torn our country apart, but instead it has united us.
So those perpetrators who took this on to tear us apart, it has worked the other way—it has backlashed. We are more united than ever before. I think this was exemplified in a very moving way when the members of our Congress stood shoulder to shoulder and sang, ‘God Bless America.’ Finally, difficult as it may be for us to see right now, this event can give a message of hope—hope for the present and hope for the future.
The anti-religious often claim that clergy peddle easy answers to hard questions. That’s not an easy claim to make about Graham. If Billy didn’t think he knew the answer, he simply said “I don’t know.” But he never let what he didn’t know change what he did know. That is honest conviction, the sort our nation needed after experiencing the greatest terror attack in history.
More important than his selection to speak after 9/11 was why he was a natural choice for an event of that magnitude. Billy was a personal advisor and friend to 10 presidents in a row. According to Grant Wacker, who wrote the definitive book on Graham’s relationship to the United States, Graham only fell short of that relationship with 11 presidents because he bungled a meeting with Truman and was never forgiven for it.
Graham went golfing with Richard Nixon more than 100 times. Wacker claims that, aside from personal associates, LBJ may have been Graham’s closest friend. By the time Barack Obama came to power, Graham had essentially left public life, otherwise he assuredly would’ve become good friends with him as well. In fact, Obama dined in his home.
A Man Greater than Hate
Sadly, Obama drew considerable ire from the tweetsphere when he honored the fallen friend of the White House:
Billy Graham was a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 21, 2018
You can find a road map of this hate at the Washington Times if you need a Lenten exercise in forgiveness. Of all the evil responses to Graham’s passing (and there were some epically horrible responses), Lauren Duca easily wins that unfortunate race.
The big news today is that Billy Graham was still alive this whole time. Anyway, have fun in hell, bitch.
— Lauren Duca (@laurenduca) February 21, 2018
"Respecting the dead" only applies to people who weren't evil pieces of shit while they were living, thanks.
— Lauren Duca (@laurenduca) February 21, 2018
She was right about one thing: Billy will burn, but not in separation from God. Like Elijah and Eric Liddle before him, Billy Graham rides in a “chariot of fire.”
Graham would have forgiven Duca if he had the chance, because he believed in the Good News. That message begins with the idea that all people are corrupted and sinful. All people require redemption. When we are wronged, we look to the crucifixion to remind ourselves of two things: we were forgiven for our wrongs, and justice is coming for evil. It is easy to give up our wrath when those truths take up space in our hearts.
It Was Always About His Audience and Jesus
But Billy is beyond all this now. He has begun the journey to the next life. Not even the great and terrible Washington Post, the slayer of presidents, can touch him anymore. A critical piece they unwisely published on his death day ended with this quote: “She writes of the difficulties of being part of an often idealized but still quite human family and assures her audiences, ‘God doesn’t love Billy Graham or his family any more than he loves you.’”
Billy would be the first person to say a hearty amen to that. That was the message Graham took to the world for six decades. On those days following 9/11, he also said, “Here in this majestic National Cathedral we see all around us the symbol of the cross. For the Christian”—And I’ll never forget this part. He interrupts himself, and you can see it in the video, even though it’s not in the official transcript. Graham interrupts himself to say, “I’m speaking to Christians now.” “The cross tells us that God understands our sin and our suffering, for He took them upon Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. From the cross God declares, ‘I love you. I know the heartaches and the sorrows and the pain that you feel. But I love you.’”
It wasn’t about him. The crusades may have bore the name Billy Graham, but it was never actually about him. It was always about you, whoever you happened to be. It was always about you and Jesus.
One of my heroes is Tom Landry. He was a regular on Billy Graham crusades, during the off season when he wasn’t coaching the Dallas Cowboys. Several years ago, I visited his grave in Dallas. His austere gravestone says just: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Vice President Mike Pence tweeted out those words for Graham:
Billy Graham's ministry for the gospel of Jesus Christ and his matchless voice changed the lives of millions. We mourn his passing but I know with absolute certainty that today he heard those words, "well done good and faithful servant." Thank you Billy Graham. God bless you(2/2)
— Vice President Mike Pence Archived (@VP45) February 21, 2018
Now Landry and Graham, along with a host of others, are reunited in rest awaiting the resurrection. Their service is over, and they rest in peace. As an evangelical, like Graham, I would be remiss if I didn’t end this as he did every crusade: with an altar call.
We’re All Going to Die. Then What?
Graham lived to be 99. That’s a long life, yet his earthly life came to an end. One day you, whoever you are, will also die. That is why I visited Landry’s grave, to be reminded that in death we are all equal. Nothing we do in this life lasts. If you find this truth terrifying, there is a solution.
“The story does not end with the cross, for Easter points us beyond the tragedy of the cross to the empty tomb,” Graham said after 9/11. “It tells us that there is hope for eternal life, for Christ has conquered evil and death and hell. Yes, there is hope. I’ve become an old man now, and I’ve preached all over the world. And the older I get, the more I cling to that hope that I started with many years ago.”
“Several years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, Ambassador Andrew Young closed his talk with a quotation from the old hymn, ‘How Firm a Foundation.’ This week we watched in horror as planes crashed into the steel and glass of the World Trade Center. Those majestic towers, built on solid foundations, were examples of prosperity and creativity. When damaged, those buildings plummeted to the ground, imploding in upon themselves. Yet, underneath the debris, is a foundation that was not destroyed. Therein lies the truth of that hymn, ‘How Firm a Foundation.’”
“‘Just as I am – without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
-O Lamb of God, I come!’”
“Just As I Am” was the hymn that played during Reverend Graham’s altar calls.