billy and us

The other night it was Brooklyn, an emotionally-charged movie about an Irish lass immigrating to the USA. After a long day I love relaxing with a movie with Barby, just the two of us. Midway through this movie, however, I glimpsed a notification on my phone. Billy Graham had died. I told Barby. Barely a minute later our eyes connected, now a little moist and glistening - not because of Brooklyn, but because of Billy.

I was soon lost in the memories behind the glistening...

After trying to deepen a trans-pacific friendship by writing letters for three years, Barby and I decided to get together, at 20 and 19 years of age, at Urbana '79, a massive student conference in Illinois (USA). Every morning we heard John Stott open Romans and then on one evening we heard Billy Graham present the challenge of global mission. In those mornings, the quiet conviction settled on my life that God was calling me to be a preacher of his Word. There was even more drama going on in that one evening. As Billy spoke, Barby and I held hands for the first time. When he finished, he gave his appeal, inviting all those committing their lives to global mission to stand. It seemed as if the entire 17, 000 got to their feet. Billy must have felt uneasy about the motivation behind this mass up-rising. He came back to the lectern and said, "Some of you need to be seated".  Barby and I stayed standing - and then proceeded to stay in New Zealand for thirty years!

As with the Apostle, our callings, like our salvation, are 'a grace given'. Undeserved. That is what still overwhelms me as I remember those Urbana days. God was working through the two most influential evangelical leaders of the century to influence our little lives ... and now, forty years later, we find ourselves in that global context, training people to be those preachers of the Word of God. A grace given. By the way, here is 2 minutes of Billy preaching just a few months before that Urbana which so shaped our lives:

Four years later we were back in that same Illinois as a young married couple, living in a tiny upstairs flat in Highwood, with our Italian landlords, Frank and Louise, living below us. Our first year of marriage; my second year of seminary (at TEDS). At 10pm we'd often watch M*A*S*H together and then at 10.30pm, we'd cross over and listen/watch a recording of Billy preaching. It was so compelling. You couldn't leave the room. I remember thinking, 'how can that anointing, that unction, still be there in a recording coming to me through a screen in a completely different context?' Because it was there. Again and again, at the end of those sermons, I wanted to get up out of my chair as 'Just as I am' was sung and walk to the front - just a few feet in front of me!

As I became more integrated into Barby's family, the full realisation dawned on me that her parents, Charles & Anita, were at Wheaton College at the very same time as Billy & Ruth. Although it couldn't be said that they were close friends, Ruth and Anita were both missionary-kids, from either side of the Himalayas, and this gave them something in common. As is often the case with your peers from student days, you track them through their lives and ministries. This was certainly true in my new family, as I gained an even greater respect for Billy & Ruth - and, through marriage, felt grafted into this extraordinary Wheaton heritage. [NB: Jim & Elizabeth Eliot were commencing at Wheaton just as this other foursome was finishing]. My favourite story is of my father-in-law, Charles, preaching in a little chapel in Monaco on a trip home for furlough in the USA - and a tall man in an overcoat, wearing a hat and sunglasses, slipped into the church. It was Billy Graham.

Within hours of Billy's death I was in the classroom with the topic for the day being The Indispensables, where we consider the importance of character, the backstage of our lives, in the preparation to be a preacher on a front stage. It is the very session when all my favourite Billy Graham stories and quotations come out to play in peoples' imaginations and aspirations.

On Identity: the story of someone sowing seeds of doubt in Billy's mind about the authority of the Word of God. Wisely, Billy stopped his preaching, took time out to sort out his convictions about the Bible - and his calling. He came back into a lifelong, authoritative preaching ministry punctuated by the phrase, "the Bible says".

On Integrity: the stories, often mocked it must be said, around his refusal to ever be alone with a woman not his wife - be it over a meal, in a car, in an elevator ... wherever! And yet those who mocked were counted among those who found Billy to be a 'moral compass' for the nation because of this integrity - waiting to hear what he had to say about the issues of the day.

On Humility: in the midst of preaching, to testify that "I have often felt like a spectator standing on the side, watching God at work. I have felt detached from it. I wanted to get out of the way and let the Spirit take over."

On Industry: his regret that "I have preached too much and studied too little."

On Urgency: his modelling of the old Richard Baxter line about "as dying man to dying men". To pause before you preach - and to consider how this might be your last sermon, or this might be one of your listener's last sermons ... now how will you preach? With urgency and intensity and desperation - like Billy.

In this same session in the classroom (yesterday) I found myself pleading with students to be more spacious in their understanding of preaching and not split things into separate, self-contained categories: like 'preaching', 'teaching', 'evangelising'. It is not helpful. I am not convinced that the New Testament supports such thinking.

I reach for the same John Stott and Billy Graham to illustrate this point. We all know that the first was very much the teacher and the the second was very much the evangelist. Right?! But goodness deary me, you are on very shaky ground if you think that John Stott was not an evangelising teacher and Billy Graham was not a teaching evangelist ... and that both were not preachers! Under God, both of them were all three, in their own way.

In coming back to the Stott/Graham friendship and partnership which has so shaped Barby and I, the remaining thing to say is how annoying it is that the word 'evangelical' has been kidnapped by religious and political fundamentalists in the USA (including Billy's own son, which doesn't help), taking us back into the very world out of which Billy Graham and John Stott led us all those years ago, with the Lausanne Covenant and its more recent grandchild, The Cape Town Commitment. Once upon a time, after plenty of exasperation with a colleague who should have known better, I wrote a little piece called 'Mind your Es and Fs' - and it was in John Stott and Billy Graham that we saw the difference between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, one as attractive as the other is repellent. But now, as Indians like to say, they are 'no more' - and the distinction between E and F feels like it is 'no more' as well.

Is it any wonder that down through the years Barby and I have always bristled when Billy has been criticised? Big targets are easy targets. Sure, there are some things I never understood. The biggest of them all was in a disappointing autobiography where chapter after chapter seemed to be focused on Billy's friendships with successive US Presidents. It surprised me that such friendships were seen to be so significant. It seems contrary to the spirit of passages like 1 Cor 1.18 - 2.5. I've tended to give him the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the publishers made him do it! Later in his life Billy Graham is on record as saying that he regretted that those friendships were given such significance...

Billy Graham is 'no more'. It feels like a generation has passed. Under God, each of us needs to step-up a generation and step-into a life that helps ensure that there is 'lots more' of the gospel and of the truth that is spoken and lived by us.

nice chatting



Ben Carswell said…
Thanks Paul - a really helpful reflection too. Dad tells the story of visiting Times Square Church some years ago & he was introduced to "the man who wrote Billy Graham's autobiography" to which dad said "Don't you mean biography?" "No, his autobiography" came the reply. Maybe that answers some of the concern about the emphasis in his 'autobiography'. Hope you were able to finish or get back to Brooklyn, which is a great film too!
Paul said…
Yes, Brooklyn was an excellent film. It reminded me of another Irish lass crossing the waters.

Not sure Billy's 'managers' always had the instincts that he had - be it the influence of publishers and editors (as mentioned here) or maybe even the decisions of the BGEA. Under God's hand, something grew big that was unique and anointed - and then the pressure comes on to stay big and get bigger after Billy has retired. That makes a lot of assumptions about 'God's hand'...

A good win for Scotland, I see...

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