Friday, June 01, 2007

GETTING REAL ABOUT BILLY GRAHAM

Yesterday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association dedicated a library that will archive the amazing life and career of this great evangelist and hero of my youth. Three former presidents joined Dr. Graham and his long-time team on stage for the service held appropriately in a tent on the sprawling lawn of the new facility outside Charlotte, North Carolina.

In my late teens and as a newly baptized Christian, I wanted to be like Billy Graham. I watched him whenever he was on television. When I later enrolled in Bible school to prepare for ministry, I studied Graham’s preaching style, attempted to emulate it, and even got to know his director of crusades who gave me priceless advice. When Graham announced his first International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists, I immediately signed up, praying earnestly that I’d get one of the limited slots for Americans. I did and I went to Amsterdam—Praise God! During that week in Holland, I was even assigned to do street preaching on the same team that Graham was on, but because he was in disguise, I never got to personally meet him.

Years later, I will admit I was envious when my brother, Paul, then the pastor of a leading church in western New York State, was asked to serve on the steering committee for the 1988 Greater Niagara Billy Graham Crusade. He has a picture with Graham and I don’t. I still begrudge him that.

Still, my early and na├»ve hero worship of Graham sobered over the years. It has never been jaded, but it has been tempered by a more realistic assessment of the man. Graham has his strengths—and, I might say, extraordinary strengths. Throughout his more than 60-year preaching ministry, he has remained laser-focused on the simple Gospel, rarely, if ever, straying into extraneous subject matter. He’s also stayed above the tawdry scandals so many other television and celebrity preachers have perpetrated. But Graham does have his weaknesses and as the years passed, I saw more and more of them.

You may recall that I caused quite a stir when I publicly walked out of Graham’s last full-blown crusade in New York City a couple of years back. That was after he surrendered the microphone to former President Bill Clinton who stood next to his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, in the crusade pulpit. Had I lived 150 years earlier, it would have been like watching abolitionist preacher Charles Finney allowing a pro-slaver to speak at his tent revival! There was no more fiendishly pro-abortion administration than Clinton’s. I also spent six years of Clinton’s terms in Washington watching as he weekly paraded a new homosexual appointee to his administration. His official Liaison for Gay and Lesbian Affairs once attended my Bible study. And nothing more need be said about Clinton’s behavior in the Oval Office.

While I appreciate Graham’s acceptance of all no matter their failings, Clinton’s spectacular and very public moral collapse had enormous consequences in the culture. Graham needed to speak clearly to that. People look for particular traits in their spiritual leaders and moral certainty is one of them. Graham failed the country on that score by, among other things, excusing Clinton’s adultery as due to the ladies going crazy over him. And, while I am always quick to tell my audiences that God is neither Democrat nor Republican, it’s hard for me to understand why Graham says he’s remained a “life-long Democrat.” Today’s Democratic Party has as its platform policies that directly contradict Biblical and historic Christian moral instruction.

There are, or course, many other failures on Graham’s list: From his questionable conversation with Richard Nixon on Jews in the media to his equivocation on the sanctity of life in an interview with Larry King.

We all give up something in exchange for something else. I won’t say Graham has made his deals with the devil, but he’s come awfully close.

With the passage of time and experience, I learned my style was not Graham’s style, and so I preach very differently than I did those 30 years ago. I still admire this extraordinary servant of Christ and I do plan to visit his library. But these days my assessment of him is closer to the assessment I have of myself: He has tried his best and given his most to faithfully proclaim the Gospel, but he’s done it far from perfectly. And while we’d all like to think someone, somewhere, is the paragon of Godly virtues, we just won’t find him or her on this side of eternity.

With Graham now in his dotage, I’ll likely never get personal time with him before he goes home to be with his Lord. But when I see him over there, I won’t bother to ask how I could have been a better preacher. Instead, I’ll ask him how and what he learned from his failures—for, like me, he has plenty.

Thank God He uses imperfect human beings to do His work—or none of us would have anyone to emulate. Congratulations Dr. Graham on the dedication of your library—and thank you for managing your weaknesses so well.

Back later . . .

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