Op-Ed

Billy Graham celebrated Easter 365 days a year

Evangelist Billy Graham meditates before preaching during his eight-day crusade in Tacoma in May 1983, one of the first events held at the new Tacoma Dome.
Evangelist Billy Graham meditates before preaching during his eight-day crusade in Tacoma in May 1983, one of the first events held at the new Tacoma Dome. News Tribune file photo

This weekend, as the world celebrates its first Easter in a century without Billy Graham, his charismatic presence is missed but his message of redemption lives on.

Graham, perhaps the greatest evangelist since St. Paul, filled stadiums in major cities (including Tacoma and Seattle) with the undiluted Good News of Jesus Christ that is the essential core of Christianity.

Before his death on Feb. 21 at age 99, Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and reached millions more via television, radio, film, magazines, books, a newspaper column and the Internet. In the end, he likely preached the gospel to more people than anyone in history.

My family experienced his ministry on many occasions, participating in many of the emerging technologies, the crusades and the Youth for Christ rallies. While dating in high school, my wife Karen and I experienced regularly the Saturday night rallies in Tacoma by Youth for Christ International that Graham co-founded.

The messages spoke directly to both mind and heart, with crusades and rallies concluding with invitations to follow Jesus, accompanied by the hymn “Just as I Am.”

As a long-time orthodox/evangelical Christian, I continue to look to Graham as a model to hold to the essentials. His simple adage could be said to be: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Rarely do message, impact and character abide so perfectly in one person. A single-minded man and model of integrity, Graham early on called together his inner circle and asked them to recall every stumbling block that had tripped up evangelists. The list included financial misdeeds, sexual immorality, inflated reports of success, and non-cooperation with local churches.

Thereafter, all team members were put on a straight salary, never met alone with women, used conservative attendance reports and involved local churches both before and after crusades.

Whatever scandals were associated with famous preachers, Graham never had these problems. Yes, as is human, he made mistakes along the way. His dislike of conflict and division led him to regret his closeness to President Nixon, as Graham himself later admitted.

Paradoxically, he was the epitome of humility among people who spent long lives in the public spotlight. Though he dined with kings, queens, premiers and presidents, he preferred a simple life back home in North Carolina.

He was unfailingly modest but lavish in praise of others. Everyone was treated with dignity, respect and kindness, even his antagonists. When the famous American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr published one of his condescending attacks, Graham simply replied: "When Dr. Niebuhr makes his criticisms about me, I study them, for I have respect for them."

Though he was the friend of presidents back to Eisenhower and up to Trump, he valued everyone, and wanted to help all save their souls.

One president greatly influenced by Graham was George W. Bush; in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column, Bush wrote of Graham’s powerful presence, kindness and grace, keen mind and capacity to open the heart to Jesus. Bush said God’s work in his own life began in earnest with Graham's outreach.

Graham’s approach was strongly ecumenical. He invited members of the National Council of Churches to sit on crusade platforms. Catholic leaders and families admired him, and he them.

With the same “Mere Christianity” as C.S. Lewis, another great defender of the faith, Graham reached across the depth and breadth of Christianity and spoke to its core.

It is noteworthy that Graham and Lewis met at Cambridge in 1955 when Graham was conducting a mission to students. Not surprisingly, Lewis was fond of him; he thought Graham was “a very sensible man and I liked him very much indeed.”

Graham, like Lewis, was a 20th century model of celebrating the very thing we celebrate today on Easter Sunday: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Michael H. Macdonald, emeritus professor at Seattle Pacific University, is a Tacoma native and graduate of Stadium High School, Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington. He has published widely in languages, cultures and philosophy, and is the author of "Europe: A Tantalizing Romance."

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