22: Jim Cymbala

22: Jim Cymbala

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 22 •
JIM CYMBALA

Bestselling author and pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle Church, a multi-racial congregation with 10,000 members

I saw Billy Graham when I was growing up, and I heard him preach. Like millions of other people, I saw his integrity, his humility, his faithfulness to the Gospel. But I had never met him until the spring of 2012, when his grandson Will took me to see him. That meeting had a profound effect on me. I didn’t say twenty words to him, but something happened that explained to me in one single sentence why God used him in such a profound way over all those years.

I had been invited by the Billy Graham Association to speak at some pastors’ conferences and prayer rallies in four cities where Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, was to go that summer. I went to Rochester and Buffalo, New York, and the Association let me minister as I saw fit. They wanted me to try to bless and encourage and unify the pastors and give an inspirational word.

A day after I had been to Buffalo and Rochester, I flew down to Asheville, North Carolina, where I was to be the speaker for a couple of days at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove. It was an honor for me to do that. While I was there, Will Graham was my escort. I’d never met him before, but I knew that he was Franklin’s oldest son, an evangelist in his own right, doing all kinds of things, keeping up the great, godly, blessed family line.

The first night I spoke, Will was in the front row. I noticed as I was speaking that he was taking notes, which sometimes people do. I sure hoped I would say something productive to bless him.

I preached from Mark 3 about how Jesus called His first disciples. Jesus called the twelve disciples to Him — just twelve. He had dozens, maybe hundreds of disciples. We know He had seventy others He sent out, but He appointed these twelve that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach and to have authority over evil spirits (Mark 3:14). My point was that the first calling on our lives as pastors and as Christians is that we might be with Him, not do anything, not preach, not write a book, not travel. The first thing the disciples were called to do was be with Him. That meant eating meals, walking on the roads, talking, unloading their hearts, listening to His words, many thousands and thousands of words that we don’t have in the Bible. They were with Him for three and a half years.

We know Christianity is about relationship. That’s what Dr. Graham has done all these decades, called people into relationship with Jesus Christ, to make Him their personal savior. But this was what relationship should lead to — intimate communion and fellowship with Christ.

The day after preaching that message, I was in the bookstore signing a new book I wrote called Spirit Rising. The Association was nice enough to say, “We’re going to sell it. Would you autograph it?” There was a long line in the bookstore. Suddenly, Will came in and said, “You’ve got to leave now. Folks in the line, you go back. He’ll get you later tonight.” I said, “Will, these people have been waiting a long time.” He replied, “No, Pastor Cymbala, you come with me. We’ve got to do stuff.” So I said, “Okay, Will, you’re running the show.”

As we were walking out, Will said, “My dad thinks it’s important and so does my grandpa. You’ve got to meet Grandpa Bill. You’re representing us, and he wants to meet you.” But knowing that Dr. Graham was somewhat failing and that his wife had passed away, I felt uncomfortable with the thought of bothering him. I said, “Will, I don’t really feel like doing that.” As much as I wanted to meet him, I felt it would be an imposition on him. I’m no one special to be meeting Dr. Graham. What if he was not having a good day? But Will was determined. “No, come on,” he said.

We drove to Montreat. Inside the house a lunch and cake-cutting ceremony was in progress for a long-time employee. I think it was being held at the house because they wanted to bring Dr. Graham out of the bedroom so he could be around people, just to enliven his day.

I walked in with Will and a friend on my staff. We met everyone. Dr. Graham was in a wheelchair, sunglasses on, white hair. Next to him, also in a wheelchair, was George Bev Shea, who told me quickly, “Oh, I know who you are. Your wife’s choir has sung with us. Tell her I’m still singing and I’m 103.” It was surreal. I thought, Where am I? What’s going on here? The man is 103 and he still wants to sing for Jesus. Dr. Graham was quiet.

After a while, Will thanked everyone and people started leaving. Eventually, I was left alone with Will and Dr. Graham. I said hello, but I felt awkward, so I didn’t say much. I just sat in a chair next to him. I didn’t want to bother him, and didn’t feel like saying much beyond “Nice to meet you and let me get out of your way so you can get on with your day.”

Will spoke very loudly so Dr. Graham could hear: “Daddy Bill, you know Pastor Cymbala is at the Cove speaking. He was up in Buffalo and Rochester helping Daddy with those events up there.” Dr. Graham looked at me and said, “Thank you.” I said it was an honor to do it. Will continued, “You know, Daddy Bill, Pastor Cymbala preached a message last night that really touched my heart. I needed to hear that message. That was an important message for me.” Dr. Graham looked up and asked, “What did he speak on?” Now it was getting ridiculous. Will Graham is explaining to Billy Graham my message.

Will continued, “Well, he preached on our first calling, everyone, especially ministers’ first calling.” Dr. Graham looked up and said, “What’s that?” Will continued, “He preached from Mark 3 and said that Jesus called the disciples that they might be with Him, that He might send them out to preach and that they would have authority over evil spirits, but, see Grandpa Bill, he said the first calling — and I need to hear it as a young evangelist because I’ve got so many things happening — is to be with Him, not to preach, not to travel, just to be with Jesus. I needed to hear that, Grandpa Bill.” Then came the words that explain everything. Dr. Graham’s head bolted up and he said, with a broken voice, “No, I need to hear that, because I need more of Jesus, and I’m ninety-three years old.”

He could have said, “Yeah, I know that. I can preach better than this man over here.” He could have said a lot of things, but in his humility he said, “No, I need to hear that. I need more of Jesus.” His words struck a deep chord within me.

After that, we left, and I contemplated those words of Dr. Graham’s that were so full of meaning for me. In the ministry today, a lot of people think it’s about them and the spotlight is not always on Jesus. Dr. Graham has been so different in that respect, and I realized that is why God used him, because he’s small in his own eyes. It’s like a surprise to him that God used him.

When you’re conscious of Jesus it’s very hard to walk around full of yourself. When we lose contact with Jesus and don’t fellowship with Him our lives slide quickly into the flesh. Thank God that Dr. Graham has maintained that simplicity and humility. You’d see it even when he would preach. Sometimes his tie wouldn’t have been tied the right way. The knot wasn’t right. I would notice that and say, “He’s sure not into a perfect image.” It was rather, “Hey, I’m here to tell you about Jesus. So let me get to it.” Amazing.

Dr. Graham was never a prince of preachers, a great orator. He was a simple man preaching from his heart. God blessed him and the Holy Spirit anointed him because he believed what John the Baptist said, speaking of Jesus: “I must decrease, and He must increase.” For Dr. Graham, it’s always been about Jesus.

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