I was privileged to touch just the edges of Billy Graham's life. He touched mine all the way to its core.
There are many who knew him intimately. What he taught me often came just by watching his life. And sometimes through connections at Billy Graham events where I had the opportunity to speak over the years.
But the Jesus-power and Jesus-presence reflected in Billy Graham's life radiated far and wide. I probably learned more about a Christ-honoring life from him than any other single person I've known. Sometimes you have to see it to be it. In Billy Graham, I got to see it.
Billy Graham has left some priceless lessons as a legacy in my life. By embodying some powerful principles of a Christ-honoring life.
1. Never encumber the Gospel.
Serving as chairman of the 1991 Northern New Jersey Crusade, I saw reporters relentlessly trying to get a Billy Graham quote on the hot button issues of the day. He never would go there. In one press conference, pursued by politically divisive issues, he smiled and said, "Back home in the mountains, we have lot of kinds of birds. But I've noticed one thing about all of them - they all have a right wing and a left wing. And it takes both left and right for them to fly." A knowing smile. Then back to Jesus.
You could not get Billy off on a detour - not political, not theological, not religious, not cultural. Appropriately, this evangelist, who had once wanted to be a baseball player, always kept his eye on the ball. The Gospel. Unedited. Unencumbered. Uncompromised.
2. Be all about Jesus.
It didn't matter where you put him - a Larry King interview, the Tonight Show, a press conference, commenting on a natural disaster, speaking to the nation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. With wit and charm and warmth, Billy Graham would always bring it back to Jesus and His Cross. Because that's the only message that can enable a person to "cross over from death to life" (John 5:24). And because we are called to "make the most of every opportunity" (Ephesians 5:16) to tell about Jesus.
3. Always make it about others, not about you.
Any time I was with Billy Graham personally, he just wanted to talk about me, never about himself. He was that way with everyone. No sense of self-importance. He embodied how to "in humility consider others better than yourselves" and how to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit" (Philippians 2:3).
4. Never steal the glory.
"I am the Lord; that is My name! I will not give my glory to another" (Isaiah 42:8). I sometimes joked that Billy must not have gotten the memo about how important he was. He just always seemed amazed that God was using him. The word you keep hearing from people who knew him intimately or just casually is: "humble." He really was. In a world obsessed with celebrity and stars, Billy Graham refused to be one.
5. Never compromise your integrity.
It was a stroke of godly brilliance that motivated Billy Graham and his key leaders to commit to what they called their "Modesto Manifesto." Prayerfully developed in a motel room early in their ministry, it committed them to the high road in everything from how they handled money to avoiding even the appearance of inappropriate behavior with the opposite sex. And for more than half a century, "the integrity of the upright" guided them (Proverbs 11:3). When the wife of a dear friend came to pick him up at the airport, he politely declined because of their rule to never be alone with a woman. Again and again, journalists tried to find financial wrongdoing in Billy Graham's ministry. Again and again, all they could find was an evangelist who would not get in a position where it would even be possible for him to be out of bounds financially.
6. Never be afraid to use new things to tell the old, old story.
When radio was new, Billy Graham grabbed it as a Gospel multiplier. When TV was young, Billy Graham began televised crusades. Internet evangelism - he was there with the Gospel. "That by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:23). When Billy became concerned that they weren't reaching enough young people, he accepted the counsel of younger staff to move from a conventional "youth night" program to a contemporary music concert. Where Billy Graham would speak for just twenty minutes between the Christian bands. The new format - controversial to some - broke venue attendance records and brought amazing harvests.
Two weeks after their first such "concert for the next generation," I heard him tell about it to a gathering of some 2,000 evangelists, many of whom were quite conservative in their methodologies. He said: "When the first group was playing, I was in my trailer, listening with the printed lyrics they had provided me. And I said to myself, 'This may not be my style of music, but I recognize this message. This is the Gospel of Christ I've been preaching my whole life!'" Billy Graham wasn't afraid to change the package to reach more people - so long as the Message was Christ's unchanging Gospel!
7. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.
I saw the power of that when Billy Graham convened 10,000 evangelists from 200 countries for Amsterdam 2000. Virtually every language, every culture, every denomination imaginable - together under the banner of our crucified and risen Savior. I doubt any other person on earth would have been able to convene such an historic gathering. But Billy Graham knew it was the Cross and the Resurrection that was the ground on which all true Christians meet. And that's the ground where he chose to stand his whole life.
8. Prayer is the deciding factor in any work for God.
When Billy checked with his Crusade directors for a progress report on an upcoming crusade, his first question was always the same: "Are they praying?" He told us that the three keys to an effective crusade were as follows: #1 - pray; #2 - pray; #3 - pray! Sometimes associates wondered why he was taking so long to make a ministry decision. The reason was simple: Billy Graham would pray until he had God's answer.
9. Be transparent about your shortcomings.
When his relationship with President Nixon compromised his witness for Christ, he openly confessed his mistake and his commitment to never wander into politics again. In explaining one of his main reasons for building the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, he expressed his lifetime regret over not having studied the Bible more seriously and deeply when he was younger. We respected him even more because of a humility that wasn't afraid to say, "I was wrong."
10. Share Christ boldly, but always with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
At a time when Jesus' followers are often perceived to be angry and condemning, Billy Graham leaves us a model that builds bridges, not walls. However lost, however hostile a person might be, he always treated them with dignity and respect. And that is probably why so many people from so many backgrounds respected him. And listened to his eternity-deciding Message.
A man who has been one of the most powerful men in Washington shared his memory of meeting Billy Graham. As a young man, this man's job was to guide Mr. Graham through the passageways of the state Capitol and to the inauguration at which Billy was to speak. It was only a few minutes. Seemingly, nothing very special. But this young leader, who would come to great political power, said: "I know I was just with a human being. But I felt like I was in the presence of the Eternal."
What more could any follower of Jesus ask than that? To walk so close to Jesus that, when people have been with us, they feel like they've been with Him.
Yes, Billy Graham talked with Presidents. More importantly, he walked with Jesus. And brought countless millions with Him.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for this life well-lived. From whom we still have so much to learn.
And as we remember Billy Graham's life, it's important that we take a moment to look at the impact of our own life. Not on multitudes, but on the people in our personal world.
Because our mission from Jesus is the same as Billy's - to be "Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us" (2 Corinthians 5:20).
And our message is the same. God loves you. So much that He sent His Son to do the dying for our sin.
We all know someone who doesn't know our Jesus. For them, you are God's chosen messenger. In these turbulent, divisive, disturbing times, you have the Anchor someone close to you desperately needs.
And the life and death of God's best-known messenger of His love is opening doors and hearts for you to tell them about your Jesus.
This is a moment of opportunity, my brother or sister! Opportunity to help change someone's eternal destination.
If you're ever going to tell them about your Jesus, do it now.