Billy Graham died last week. Up until now, there has never been a time when Billy Graham was far from my life. He began his crusade ministry before I was born. When I was a small child, I remember watching, along with my parents, his massive crusades broadcasts on black and white television. I didn’t really know who he was but he had an ability to capture one’s attention and keep it. Later, as a teenager, I would listen to Graham’s Hour of Decision radio broadcast (which was only half an hour in length) as I lay in bed at night. Often times, I would be listening to a rock station but, when it was time for The Reverend Graham, I would switch channels and listen to his sermons.
Graham was a Southern Baptist, but, in my world at the time, everyone was either a Baptist or a Methodist. He was a Southerner from North Carolina so I felt a kinship and had an idea that he spoke my language. And he was a communicator. I felt that he knew people, understood them, and wanted to reach them. More importantly, I believed that Billy Graham knew God—I mean really, really knew God.
When, at the age of 23, I became, as a senior in college, the pastor of N. G. Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church near Johnson City, TN, it didn’t talk long for me (and the small but patient congregation) to realize I couldn’t preach. A high school speech class and a college speech class just wasn’t going to cut it. So, I struggled. I was pretty certain that I was the poorest and most ineffective preacher this congregation had seen in decades. I wasn’t at all certain that I was cut out for this kind of work.
One day, while browsing in a used book store, I came across an old book of Billy Graham sermons. I bought it immediately and took it home to begin reading. As I read the sermons, I could “hear” Graham in my mind telling the stories, driving home the points, making eye contact and holding up his Bible. That day I determined to do what any desperate, inexperienced young preacher would do in my circumstances. I decided to preach his sermons.
And so I did. Every Sunday I recopied his sermons into a note book and preached them as though they were mine. In a couple of months, I switched to outlining his sermons and began to use illustrations and stories of my own. After about three months, I ran out of Billy Graham sermons. Back to the bookstore I went and found a second volume of Graham sermons.
By the time I preached my way through the second book, I felt confident enough to do my own outlines, consult the scriptures and commentaries on my own, and, basically, present my own thoughts and ideas. My delivery improved as I continued to recall how Graham delivered his messages. It is doubtful I would have made it through that first year without the Graham sermons books. It is no exaggeration to say that “Billy Graham taught me to preach,” though we never met.
Dr. Graham also influenced me in other ways. Unlike many of our modern “famous ministers,” Billy Graham lived modestly. That is to say, if he had money, he didn’t seem to flaunt it. He was a courageous man where many others weren’t. In the early 1950’s in Chattanooga, TN, he tore down a barrier erected at a Crusade site designed to keep the races separate, He told the local leadership that if they put the barrier back up, that they would have the Crusade without him. Graham also strove to hold himself morally accountable, making an early decision to never travel alone And, his messages were simple. No one ever went away from Billy Graham thinking that he preached either “over their heads,” or “down at them.” He finished well, something that many ministers do not do.
There has never been the hint of a scandal around Billy Graham. He remains one of the top most admired men of the 20th Century in the U.S., and the world. Graham’s influence was global and, along with Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, was one of the most recognized and respected religious figures in the world. Over his lifetime, he preached to 2.2 billion people and 3.2 million people made what Graham called, “decisions for Christ.”
A graduate of Florida Bible Institute and Wheaton College, Graham was the author of over 30 books, most of which I read as an adult. He became known as “America’s Pastor,” and was a spiritual counselor to 13 U. S. Presidents. He received a number of honorary doctorates (including from a Catholic University in Poland) and Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an honorary knighthood.
If Protestants had “saints,” Billy Graham would undoubtedly be named an American Saint. But all of this would have meant little to Graham. His one goal in life was to preach that God offers salvation to anyone through the cross of Jesus Christ. He believed in a big God and he believed that anyone, however lost and wretched or rich and powerful, needed a relationship with Jesus Christ. He did not live for himself but for Jesus and for those he came to save. Billy Graham was 99 when he died. We are not likely to see his kind again in our lifetime.
Near the end of that first year of my first church, one of the elderly men lingered after service. He smiled, shook my hand, and said, “You keep it up, Son. You’re going to be a fine preacher some day.” If that, indeed, has happened, much of the credit goes to Billy Graham. In 1995, in his late 70’s, Rev. Graham said, “I’ll be happy the day the Lord says, ‘Come on. I’ve got something better planned.’ ”
Welcome home, Billy. You will be missed.
David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at email@example.com.