7: Tony Blair

7: Tony Blair

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 7 •
TONY BLAIR

Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Middle East Peace Envoy and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation

I remember my first spiritual awakening. I was ten years old. That day my father — at the young age of forty — had suffered a serious stroke. His life hung in the balance. My mother, to keep some sense of normality in the crisis, sent me to school. My teacher knelt and prayed with me. Now my father was a militant atheist. Before we prayed, I thought I should confess this. “I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God,” I said. “That doesn’t matter,” my teacher replied. “God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return.”

That is what inspires: the unconditional nature of God’s love. A promise perpetually kept. A covenant never broken.

And in surrendering to God, we become instruments of that love.

I was, of course, to become a Catholic.

Blessed John Paul II wanted the Second Vatican Council to “transmit doctrine, pure and whole, without attenuations or misrepresentations” so that “this sure and immutable teaching… is elaborated and presented in a way which corresponds to the needs of our time.” I have sometimes wondered if, perhaps, he should have consulted Billy Graham, who had been doing just that from within the Evangelical tradition since the Second World War. Perhaps he did. The number of famous men influenced by Billy Graham has been prodigious and it would not surprise me.

I shall always think of Billy Graham as the master of communication, radio, television and the evangelical mass rally. He has the right voice and the kind of delivery that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. A politician would give his right hand for that voice and those skills. He was one of the founding fathers of the quite extraordinary growth of the evangelical churches around the world and modern techniques for preaching the Gospel in the twentieth century.

Today we are barely surprised that the daily Focus on the Family radio show reaches 220 million listeners or the Campus Crusade for Christ operates in 190 different countries. But Billy Graham’s sermons topped them all, according to some sources reaching 2.2 billion people in his three score and ten years of active preaching.

I remember his Mission to England in 1984. Huge crowds in football stadiums in one of the more secular countries in Europe, large numbers coming forward, and the well-honed harvesting of converts that was the hallmark of his Evangelistic Association. But despite this global outreach he is quintessentially American, growing out of the great Southern Baptist traditions, fighting the good fight throughout the Cold War against communism.

Most important for me was his ability to develop his theological thinking and respond to the demands of simple justice, pulling away from the conservative attitudes of his southern background on civil rights, refusing to allow social action to be marginalized in the expression of his faith, but with a clear vision of the dividing line between faith and politics. His own spiritual journey reflected that of the wider evangelical community, accompanying and sometimes leading it, forging the Christian culture of countless Americans and others around the world.

Billy Graham, for all those who love America, is a living expression of what is best in its Christian traditions. We all stand in awe of his commitment, perseverance and skills, a Christian life lived full of the energy and spirituality that faith can bring, a global voice that spoke to the needs of our time.

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