Billy Graham was, with C.S. Lewis, one of the 20 th century’s most influential figures in evangelicalism. I never had the honor of session Lewis, but I did know Billy, who died last week at 99. He changed my life.
I first met him on my grandmother’s porch in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1985. In her 80 s, she was frail but sharp. They sat together and Billy held her hand while talking about the Bible. Later she described it as one of the most peaceful days of her life.
Soon after, I had my own personal encounter with Billy. As I wrote in “Decision Points, ” he asked me to go for a walk with him around Walker’s Point. I was captivated by him. He had a powerful presence, full of kindness and grace, and a keen intellect. He requested information about my life in Texas. I talked to him about Laura and our little girls.
Then I mentioned something I’d been thinking about for a while–that reading the Bible might help attain me a better person. He told me about one of the Bible’s most fundamental lessons: One should strive to be better, but we’re all sinners who earn God’s love not through our good deeds, but through His grace. It was a profound theory, one I did not fully grasp that day. But Billy had planted a seed. His thoughtful justification attained the clay less hard, the brambles less thick.
He told me about one of the Bible’s most fundamental lessons: One should strive to be better, but we’re all sinners who earn God’s love not through our good deeds, but through His grace.
Shortly after we got back to Texas, a package from Billy arrived. It was a copy of the Living Bible. He had inscribed it and included a reference to Philippians 1:6: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his run until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”
God’s work within me began in earnest with Billy’s outreach. His care and his teaches were the real beginning of my faith walk–and the start of the end of my drinking. I couldn’t have given up alcohol on my own. But in 1986, at 40, I eventually find the strength to quit. That strength received from love I had felt from my earliest days and from religion I didn’t fully discover until my later years.
God’s work within me began in earnest with Billy’s outreach. His care and his teaches were the real beginning of my faith walking — and the start of the end of my drinking. I couldn’t have given up alcohol on my own.
I was also fortunate to witness Billy’s remarkable capacity to minister to everyone he fulfilled. When I was governor of Texas, I sat behind Billy at one of his crusades in San Antonio. His powerful message of God’s love moved people to tears and motivated hundreds to come forward to commit themselves to Christ. I remember thinking about all the crusades Billy had led over the years around the world, and his capacity to open up hearts to Jesus. This good man was truly a shepherd of the Lord.
Perhaps his most meaningful service came on Sept. 14, 2001. After the 9/11 assaults, I asked Billy to resulted the ecumenical service at Washington National Cathedral. It was no easy task. America was on bended knee–frightened, angry, uncertain. As only Billy Graham could, he helped us feel God’s limbs wrap around our mourning country.
“We come together today, ” he began, “to affirm our conviction that God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religion or political background is a possibility. The Bible says that he is’ the God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our troubles.’ ” God comforted a nation that day through a very special servant.
In a difficult moment, Billy reminded me–and us all–where we can find strength. And he helped us start to mend by offering three lessons: the mystery and reality of evil, our need for each other, and hope for the present and future. “As a Christian, ” Graham said at the 9/11 service, “I have hope , not just for this life, but for heaven and the life to come.”
A final tale: One night while dad was away on a trip during his presidency, mom and I had dinner at the White House. Eventually we got to talking about religion and who gets to go to heaven. I stimulated the point that the New Testament says clearly that to get to heaven, one must believe in Christ. Mother asked about the devout who don’t believe in Jesus but do God’s work by serving others. She then took advantage of one of the benefits of being first lady. She picked up the phone and asked the White House operator to call Reverend Graham.
It wasn’t long before his reassuring Southern voice was on the line. He told us, as I recall, “Barbara and George, I believe what is written in the New Testament. But don’t play God. He chooses who goes to heaven , not you.” Any doctrinal certitude dedicated route to a soothe trust that God had this figured out better than I did.
Those of us who were blessed to know Billy Graham benefited from his deep convictions and personal instance, his wisdom and meeknes, his grace and purity of heart. We knew that their own lives was a gift from the Almighty. And I exult that he is now in the company of God, whom he loved so much and served so well.
George W. Bush was the 43 rd president of the United States .
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