Billy Graham, may he rest in peace

In 1998, Billy Graham came to Ottawa for was was no longer called a Billy Graham Crusade, but a Billy Graham Mission.  Even then, certain sensitivities were taking over.

For four or five nights twenty years ago, people packed Ottawa’s hockey arena—more than 20,000 people each night.  Many were Catholics.  And, as was usual for a Billy Graham Mission, thousands flowed down to the floor of the arena while a massive 2,500 voice choir sang, “Just as I am” to make a public commitment to receiving Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.

To an outsider, it might look like this:  a famous evangelist shows up in town and thousands of people came, presto!  Just like that.   But what that outsider did not see was the months and months of preparation and advance work Billy Graham’s evangelistic association put in to prepare the ground and to ensure local people were equipped to counsel those who came forward and provide them with materials to start them on their way to walking with Jesus and reading their Bible.

I was a Baptist at the time, and my parish was one of the hubs in Ottawa of pre-mission training.   Any of us who wanted to be a counsellor had to commit to this training, which was designed to teach us how to share the Gospel.  We even had homework, and one week it was to share a tract that had the typical four-step process in it—-God loves you and has a plan for your life:  Sin separated us from God’s plan;  Jesus Christ died for your sins on the Cross so your relationship with God could be restored:   Would you to repent—i.e. acknowledge you are a sinner and in need of repentance and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?

I dreaded doing this homework and I especially did not want to identify with those types of Christians who used tracts, like some kind of street corner evangelist.   But, I did my homework, and was amazed that those I asked went through the steps with me and were eager to ask Jesus into their hearts.  It astonished me.  At first the whole preparation seemed to me to be a huge public relations juggernaut, but once I was there on the floor with my materials and training, I could see the wisdom of it and how it opened my eyes to miracles taking place right before my eyes.

I remember when hearing Billy Graham preach several nights in a row, he stuck to the message of Adam and Eve, the fall of mankind, the need for redemption and Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the Cross.  I remember wondering at the time whether the whole idea of being a sinner would still resonate with people.   It sure resonated with me when it came my time to repent big time, but today?   It’s 20 years later and does a message about Adam and Eve fall on deaf ears?  

Another thing Billy Graham’s advance team did was insist on a kind of ecumenism on the ground.   They would not come to Ottawa unless the Catholics were on board, thus requiring Catholics and evangelicals to start meeting and getting to know each other years ahead of time.   The Catholics did get on board and the Mission to Ottawa was a success.

The legacy this left was this:   in Ottawa there was not the kind of knee-jerk antipathy against Catholics among evangelicals that I have experienced elsewhere.  Same thing in the reverse direction.  Because people got to know each other from working together, many prejudices fell by the wayside.

Twenty years ago, I welcomed this “mere Christian” message and was glad to see Catholics “getting saved” or becoming “born again” as we evangelicals would put it.

How differently I see things now!   How much more am I concerned about indifferentism and a loss of Catholic distinctives that I had to come to believe in my journey to becoming Catholic.  I would not use the same language, nor do I trace that inner, divine fire to my saying the Sinner’s Prayer for the first time, as wonderful as that experience was.

As great as it’s been to see Catholics re-incorporate a simple Gospel message and focus on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it’s been even better to see groups that have focused on that go deeper and deeper, to embrace in a new way Catholic distinctives concerning the Eucharist; Adoration; Marian devotion and more.

I love this quote from Billy Graham:

“I am not going to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds or read the Bible many times. I’m going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment: “Lord, remember me.”

I remember going to Confession as a Catholic and telling the priest I didn’t get this whole thing about counting up my sins in kind and number.  I said maybe I still had a kind of evangelical understanding of myself as having a sin-self that is hopelessly drawn towards sin—that counting up individual sins seems pointless since I had this nature that was selfish and hellbent.  I shared this verse of Rock of Ages:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

I’m going to close with these verses of Just as I Am because I believe it is a beautiful grace to be able to pray this and mean it— a grace of contrition so appropriate to Lent.  In fact, what are the good of all our Lenten disciplines if they do not make us aware of our need for God?

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt;
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

How can we evangelize today to those who have lost a sense of sin?   May Billy Graham rest in peace.


1 thought on “Billy Graham, may he rest in peace

  1. In the early 1990’s, a couple whom I knew through a Catholic charismatic prayer group discovered that one of the telephone centers that took calls from viewers during the televised crusades happened to be nearby, and was looking for committed Christians to collaborate in that ministry. Several of us completed the training and succeeded in establishing a Catholic presence in the center that was very welcome by the center’s leadership and the representatives who came to the center from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s headquarters during the televised crusades. I told our archbishop of this activity at the earliest opportunity after we started, explaining that we did not want to act behind his back but also did not want to miss the opportunity, and obtained his (at least tacit) approval. Thus, we were able to continue this ministry until a loss of local leadership and other issues compelled “relocation” of the call center to another state several years later.

    I still remember the first time that I attended the training session very vividly. Our instructor, a very elegant lady in her sixties whom I later learned to be a member of The Episcopal Church, stood up at the podium and asked very boldly, “Was there ever a time when you surrendered your life to Jesus and embraced him as your Lord and Savior?” — then paused, repeated the question, and paused again. She then went on to explain that this was “Question Number One” and that our first objective, whatever issue or smokescreen the caller may pose, was to segue to “Question Number One” as quickly as practicable because it would be foundational to addressing whatever other issues the caller might have had. During the course of the rest of the session, she covered everything that we would need — procedures and protocols, how to share the “Steps to Salvation” and lead a caller in the “Sinner’s Prayer,” how to fill out the call report form (one page, substantially completed during the call), offering the free gift (usually one of Dr. Graham’s books) that was part of every crusade (actually a vehicle for getting the caller’s mail address), how to use the Billy Graham Christian Worker’s Handbook (a phenomenal resource for orthodox Christian ministry — they issued a spiral-bound copy to each of us), how to use “Question Number Two” (“So, if you were to die tonight, would you be with God in heaven?”) to clarify the situation if the answer to “Question Number One” seemed ambiguous, and a whole lot more. And, much to my delight, she stated very clearly that we were not to attempt to lead Catholic callers away from the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church is doctrinally solid so there’s no reason for its members to leave. Nevertheless, it seemed like about half of the session focused on how to segue to “Question Number One” from a broad variety of situations. At the end of the session, we received an application form that we had to bring back, signed by a person in a position of pastoral leadership who knew us — which could be a lay bible or prayer group study leader if our pastors did not know us very well. I probably was the only counsellor in our center, and perhaps in all of the centers, whose recommendation form bore the signature of the abbot of a Benedictine monastery.

    This ministry brought many blessings, not only in the privilege of leading many nominal Christians to make a real commitment of faith but also in the opportunity for ecumenical collaboration in the spiritual realm. I had many delightful conversations with the representatives who came from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s headquarters for each of the crusades, and sometimes for our training sessions as well. These representatives worked directly with Dr. Graham and his inner circle, so they often provided us with an insider’s view of what was happening. The representatives remarked to me on several occasions that they worked very closely with the conferences of Catholic bishops and that they had many Catholic counsellors when they held crusades in other countries, clearly implying some disappointment that the Catholic Church was not as supportive in the United States — a disappointment that, on some level, I share. And during that period, the ministry began the transition to the leadership of the Reverend Franklin Graham, Dr. Graham’s son. It was very interesting — when Franklin preached, we got more than a few calls from confused callers expressing elation over what they thought to be Dr. Billy Graham’s early crusades.

    Some years after the relocation of the telephone center, it was announced publicly that Dr. Graham was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and would no longer be able to preach crusades. Soon after, The Pilot, our archdiocesan newspaper, published an editorial that was very laudatory, acknowledging Dr. Graham’s humility and sincerity as he preached the gospel truth to millions. I would like to supply a link to that editorial, but I have not been able to locate it on the Internet. A search on the newspaper’s web site seems to produce the same links as a normal Google search rather than limiting itself to the web site, so that editorial would be a needle buried deeply in an awfully big haystack if it’s available on line at all.

    Let us remember Dr. Graham’s family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Dr. Graham’s vision and legacy, in our prayers. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has contributed much to the cause of ecumenism and to reconciliation among Christians, and I pray that it will continue to do so.



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