I was travelling south on Interstate 85 last weekend, returning to my home in South Carolina from speaking at a men’s conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I noticed the northbound side of the highway was empty. I suspected engineering works were to blame.
Then I noticed there were emergency vehicles on the bridge over the highway with their blue, red and yellow lights flashing. There must have been a major incident of some kind. Then as I continued south the next bridge was also crowded with police cars, fire engines and ambulances. The next bridge was the same. Then I noticed cars parked on the entrance ramps, people outside their cars watching the northbound side of the interstate, others lining the interstate standing in silence, watching and waiting.
As I drove on, the reason became clear. There was a motorcade moving north on the highway. A squadron of black vehicles was preceded by a police escort with blue lights flashing, and more bringing up the rear. The emergency vehicles had gathered as some sort of informal tribute to the passing motorcade. I wondered who the important person was. Could it be that the President was visiting the area? But he would fly into the nearest airport and wouldn’t travel by car up the interstate highway.
Then it dawned on me. I was driving through Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from evangelist Billy Graham’s home in Montreat. I soon learned that the motorcade was his cortege, heading from his home to lie in state in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, and after that he was to be given the honour of lying in state in the nation’s capital – an honour never before given to a clergyman.
Billy Graham was called “America’s Pastor”, and in this, the most religious of countries where we value both freedom of religion and separation of church and state, Billy Graham was the closest we will ever get to a universally admired national religious leader.
When I say “universally admired”, one of the many remarkable things about Billy Graham was that nobody had anything bad to say about the man. He had critics, of course. Intellectuals said he was intellectually naïve. Liberals said he was a fundamentalist. Fundamentalists said he was a liberal. Atheists may have disliked his religion, but nobody could fault the man himself. Although he was not a poor man, he studiously avoided all the flashy trappings of the crass television preachers. He maintained a simple dignity, and never deviated in his loyalty to his wife, Ruth. The crowds did more than love him. They believed him. He had an unmistakeable charisma through which he oozed integrity, radiated honesty and glowed with sincerity.
In a memorable episode from the recent Netflix series The Crown, the Queen meets Billy Graham and invites him to preach at Windsor Castle. The episode neatly captures the qualities the door-to-door brush salesman shared with the simple woman who wears the crown. Both had a mystique of integrity and goodness rarely gifted to anyone else. Both were, at heart, simple believers who shouldered the responsibilities Providence had given them. Both, in their own way, were royalty and evangelists. Billy Graham was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – about as close in our land to receiving a knighthood or being made a peer of the realm. He was held in the same senior status and esteem as a royal or a retired Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen for her part, speaks more and more openly about her own faith and what it means to her – thus using her own platform to preach the same simple message in her own way.
Although I am now a Catholic priest, after spending many years in the Anglican Church, my own roots are in the world of Billy Graham. I graduated from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, which Graham attended before moving to the more mainstream Wheaton College. His world of a simple appeal to a certain faith was the one in which I was brought up, and it is a good, solid and respectable world of decent, faithful, down-to-earth Christian believers.
After his death last week I watched a video of Graham’s 1971 crusade in Chicago, and what impressed me most was not only the man’s dynamic charisma and powerful preaching, but the simplicity of his message. This was the “old, old story” of a human race alienated from God by selfishness and sin. It was the story of the “old rugged cross – the emblem of suffering and shame”. It was the story of God’s love for a rebellious child and his willingness to give his only begotten Son so that we might be forgiven and set free. It was a call to repent and turn from our sinful ways and accept that everlasting love.
Billy Graham unashamedly “preached Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It is a message rarely heard today in this age of prosperity preachers, social justice warriors, New Age gnostics, politically correct preachers and the feelgood gospel. It is a forgotten message in a world that has too easily forgotten the hard words of the Gospel, such as “If you would be my disciple you must take up your cross daily and follow me.”
But it is a message we need to hear again loud and clear, and I predict that before too long another preacher will be raised up to tell that timeless story, and that Billy Graham will be right behind him urging him to invite the people to “Get up out of their seats and come forward to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour.”
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a parish priest in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit dwightlongenecker.com
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