13: George W. Bush

13: George W. Bush

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 13 •

43rd President of the United States, and co-founder of The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund

Until I met Billy Graham, religion had always been part of my life, but I really wasn’t a believer. I was baptized in Yale’s nondenominational Dwight Hall Chapel. When I was young my parents took me to First Presbyterian in Midland, St. Martin’s Episcopal in Houston, and St. Ann’s Episcopal in Kennebunkport.

I went to church at Andover because it was mandatory. I never went at Yale. I did go when I visited my parents, but my primary mission was to avoid irritating Mother. Laura and I were married at First United Methodist in Midland. We started going regularly after the girls were born, because we felt a responsibility to expose them to faith. I liked spending time with friends in the congregation. I enjoyed the opportunity for reflection. Once in a while, I heard a sermon that inspired me. I read the Bible occasionally, and saw it as a kind of self-improvement course. I knew I could use some self-improvement. But for the most part, religion was more of a tradition than a spiritual experience. I was listening but not hearing.

In the summer of 1985, we took our annual trip to Maine. Mother and Dad had invited the great evangelical preacher Billy Graham. Dad had asked him to answer some questions from the family after dinner. So there we sat, about thirty of us — Laura, my grandmother, brothers and sister, first and second cousins — in the large room at the end of the house on Walker’s Point.

The first question was from Dad. He said, “Billy, some people say you have to have a born-again experience to go to heaven. Mother [my grandmother] here is the most religious, kind person I know, yet she has had no born-again experience. Will she go to heaven?” Wow, pretty profound question from the old man. We all looked at Billy. In his quiet, strong voice, he replied, “George, some of us require a born-again experience to understand God, and some of us are born Christians. It sounds as if your mom was just born a Christian.” [I don’t think Billy meant this literally. It seemed to me that he was saying that some people find their faith through a dramatic “born again” experience, while others come to it more gradually over a lifetime.]

I was captivated by Billy. He had a powerful presence, full of kindness and grace, and a keen mind. The next day, he asked me to go for a walk around the property. He asked about my life in Texas. I talked to him about the girls and shared my thought that reading the Bible could make me a better person. In his gentle, loving way, Billy began to deepen my shallow understanding of faith. There’s nothing wrong with using the Bible as a guide to self-improvement, he said. Jesus’ life provides a powerful example for our own. But self-improvement is not really the point of the Bible. The center of Christianity is not the self. It is Christ.

Billy explained that we are all sinners, and that we cannot earn God’s love through good deeds. He made clear that the path to salvation is through the grace of God. And the way to find that grace is to embrace Christ as the risen Lord — the son of a God so powerful and loving that He gave His only son to conquer death and defeat sin.

These were profound concepts, and I did not fully grasp them that day. But Billy had planted a seed. His thoughtful explanation had made the soil less firm and the brambles less thick.

Shortly after we got back to Texas, a package from Billy arrived. It was a copy of The Living Bible. He had inscribed: “To my friend George W. Bush, May God bless you and Laura always.” He included a reference to Philippians 1:6: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

I am blessed to know Reverend Billy Graham, and I am forever grateful to this remarkable, humble, decent man.

Adapted from Decision Points by George W. Bush © 2010 by George W. Bush. Used by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

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