Billy Graham: Three Lessons He Taught Me

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed thousands of tributes from around the world expressing admiration for Billy Graham and his evangelistic ministry which had such a profound impact on the world. I would like to share a few memories and how Billy Graham helped shape my life.

1) The “Boston Photograph”

One of my favorite pictures of Billy Graham is one I saw at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I once served on faculty (1998-2009). It was a picture of Billy Graham preaching in the Boston common in January, 1950. This was after the Los Angeles breakthrough revival which went on for weeks. But, his critics said, “anything can happen in southern California.” If Billy Graham was truly anointed by God, he had to prove it in a hard, cold place like Boston.

Preaching in the open air Boston commons during January was truly a test of faith. Remarkably, over 50,000 people gathered to hear the gospel preached. This crusade was before they had the organizational team fully in place, so there was no “center aisle” or roped off areas for people to come forward to respond to the gospel. So, Billy Graham told those gathered to wave their handkerchiefs as a sign of surrendering to God. It is that moment which is captured in the photograph—thousands of people waving handkerchiefs as they gave their lives to Christ. (Historical note: In 1950 men and women in the professional world all carried handkerchiefs. In fact, it is truly amazing to see this picture from 1950 with everyone wearing suits and ties, etc.).

That picture, for me, represents the life of faith. It has inspired me to step out in faith. If Billy Graham was willing to preach the gospel in the open air in Boston during January, then I can step out and trust God in my life.

2) Preaching in the Soviet Union

Billy Graham spoke at a peace conference in the Soviet Union in 1982 and later returned in 1984 for a full slate of revival services where he preached in dozens of churches and in Red Square. It is hard to imagine today how controversial this was. Rather than rejoice, the media was filled with bitter accusations that Billy Graham was being used and co-opted by Soviet propaganda to prove that there was “religious freedom” in the soviet-bloc countries.

I had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham when he flew back from the Soviet Union, because his first stop was in Boston where he spoke at Gordon-Conwell where I was a student at the time. The media was everywhere. I will never forget his response when asked about his being used as a part of Soviet propaganda. He said, “I don’t care about Soviet propaganda. All I know is that I preached the same gospel in Red Square that I have preached all over the world.” This was a defining moment for me. It taught me to not worry about all the naysayers and critics who will inevitably be there to discourage you. We must keep our eye on the mission. We must keep our eyes on Jesus. I have attended Billy Graham crusades. I have served in the “phone center” and had the privilege of leading dozens to Christ who called in on the telephone during his crusade. But I think his fearlessness in preaching in the Soviet Union despite all the critics did more for me than I can fully express in this short tribute.

3) Billy Graham’s Funeral

I was honored to receive an invitation to Billy Graham’s funeral which took place on Friday, March 2. We had to arrive early at the Samaritan’s Purse headquarters and go through security before being transported by bus to the revival tent on the grounds of the Billy Graham library in Charlotte, just a few miles from where Billy Graham was born. As I sat there and listened to the service I was reminded that Billy Graham had been intimately involved in the planning of his own funeral. The funeral was clearly not a tribute to Billy Graham. It was a tribute to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Every speaker—including all of his children—emphasized the gospel. It reminded me of the saying which my mother always had (and still does) on the wall of the kitchen in the house where I grew up: “Just one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” This is the legacy of Billy Graham. It will soon be the test of our legacy as well.

It doesn’t matter what we do, or what we accomplish. What finally matters, is the glory of Jesus Christ. Even at his funeral, Billy Graham was still teaching us that great lesson. Praise God for a life well lived. Praise God even more for Jesus Christ, our Savior!