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End Of An Era

I am writing this article as Billy Graham preaches the final crusade he will ever conduct in North America. At the age of 86, his body can no longer keep up with the demands and pressures that mark crusade preaching. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is (literally) weak. Hundreds of thousands people will hear Graham give his familiar Gospel message in New York City this weekend.

I have heard Graham live twice. Both times were at conferences. The first time was in 1987 at the Urbana missions conference in Illinois. In the months preceding his appearance, the evangelical world had been rocked by the sexual misdeeds of both Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

As Graham took to the podium, the 18,000 college students in attendance greeted him with a thunderous standing ovation. His reply was classic Graham: “My old nature appreciates that, my new nature is trying to stay humble.” Our enthusiasm for Graham was surely motivated by the pillar of integrity that his life and ministry had come to represent.

Graham has managed to preach the Gospel live to more people than anyone else in human history. His crusades have brought previously unknown unity among the churches of the cities in which they are held. It would be quite difficult to overstate his influence on contemporary evangelicalism. I have often wondered why his appeal has endured. His sermons are often quite simple, and his delivery in his later years was hardly captivating. Why did God choose a North Carolina farm boy to be His ambassador for the Gospel in the latter half of the 20
th

century?

I think one reason is the stark humility that has constantly marked Graham. Although he has been a confidant to presidents and other world leaders, he has never become intoxicated by the power that pervades the lives of those people. He has always been aware of his dependence on the Holy Spirit. He recently appeared on Larry King and shrugged off any notion that he was responsible for George Bush’s conversion. He noted that only God has the power to convert anyone.

Another reason is his focus on the Gospel. So often Christians in the West have felt compelled to wage a culture war over divisive issues such as abortion and homosexuality. In the midst of our rhetoric, the Gospel message often gets drowned out. Graham stands as an example of someone who was never distracted from the simple message of God’s love for a sinful world.

Finally, I would have to say that Graham has been so well respected for the reason I gave earlier—his integrity. It is remarkable that he has never even had the scent of scandal during his 50-plus years of public ministry. The closest notion of improper conduct was his negative comments about Jews in a taped conversation with President Richard Nixon in the White House. When the tapes surfaced a few years ago, Graham expressed shock at his words. He contacted prominent Jewish leaders and expressed his regret and begged their forgiveness. He didn’t need to beg. The Jewish leaders who knew that Graham loved people of all faiths roundly forgave him. This one misstep was not enough to chip away at his exemplary image in the world.

The question of a successor to Graham’s legacy is often discussed. His son Franklin is currently the president of the organization. Franklin is a strong public speaker, but some feel he lacks the gracious sensitivity that is so loved of his father.

Other famous preachers that may take his mantle include T.D. Jakes or Rick Warren. But my feeling is that there may never be someone who will have the range and depth of Graham’s ministry. I think, instead, God wants to use “ordinary” believers in the everyday rhythm of their lives to carry on (at a local level) what Graham has done at an international level.

What I mean is that we have all been entrusted to share the Gospel message with those around us. We may never reach even 1 percent of the numbers that Graham reached, but that doesn’t matter. We are only responsible for what God entrusts to us. My prayer is that my generation will be found as faithful as Billy Graham has been in sharing the Gospel faithfully, humbly and with integrity.

In the world of popular music, we often see unlikely pairings: Eminem and Elton John or Johnny Cash and Glen Danzig. The most recent “odd couple” that I have heard of is Bono and Pat Boone. Boone recently wrote a song called “Thank You, Billy Graham,” which is a song of gratitude for Graham’s life and ministry.

Bono gives the introduction to the song with the following heartfelt words:

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At a time when religion so often seems to get in the way of God’s work, with its shopping mall sale pitch and its bumper sticker reductionism, I give thanks just for the sanity of Billy Graham—for that clear empathetic voice of his in that Southern accent. Part poet, part preacher. A singer of the human spirit, I’d say. Yeah, I give thanks for Billy Graham. Thank you, Billy Graham.

Along with Bono and Pat Boone and so many others, I too thank you, Billy Graham.

[Santosh Ninan is a stay-at-home dad to his 10-month-old son, Adam. He has written several articles for RELEVANT magazine. He blogs at dreamsunlocked.blogspot.com.]

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