47: Karen Hughes

47: Karen Hughes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 47 •

Worldwide Vice Chair at Burson-Marsteller, former Counselor to President George W. Bush and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

I was fortunate to grow up in a Christian home, with parents who had me baptized and took me to church and Sunday school. I remember pastors and Sunday school teachers who had an important impact on my life, and I attended confirmation classes to become a member of my church.

Nonetheless, attending the Billy Graham Crusade with my high school youth group in the early ’70s at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas, was a major turning point in my life. I vividly recall the moment when Reverend Graham invited us to walk down to the floor of the stadium, step forward and publicly accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. I remember feeling that I wanted to stand up and be counted among those who came forward, and then realizing, perhaps for the first time, the deep meaning of a public response to God’s saving grace. I wanted to walk down that aisle, in front of friends and others who knew me, and make my life a visible response and commitment to God.

The Texas crusade may have been the first time I felt the need to express my faith so publicly outside of church, but many other such moments have followed. Faith is not something that we are supposed to reserve for Sunday mornings or keep hidden inside. If you truly believe that God sent His Son to willingly bear the penalty for our sins, to reconcile us to Him, that amazing gift requires a response that should shape our entire lives — the way we treat people, act, make decisions — the way we do everything. Over the course of my life, I have often felt the need to speak out about the way I approach my life and decisions because of my faith, and I trace much of that back to that moment of realization at Texas Stadium.

Many years later, I read Billy Graham’s book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, in which he explains that becoming a Christian takes only a single step, but being a Christian means walking with Christ the rest of your life. That insight speaks to me every day, because I believe being a Christian is a daily process of trying to walk with Christ, recognizing our failure to do so, then asking Him to help forgive and restore us.

The Journey also includes a powerful reminder from Reverend Graham that we should never let anything or anyone rob us of our confidence in Christ. Reverend Graham emphasizes the important truth that our salvation depends on what God has done for us, not on what we do or try to do for Him. It isn’t our hold on God that saves us; it’s His hold on us. And I cling to that hope, summed up in one of my favorite New Testament verses when Jesus says, “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me… no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27). I’ve always been a stubborn sheep, so Reverend Graham’s reminder that even my strong will is not stronger than God’s hold on me resonates deeply.

I had the privilege and opportunity to meet Reverend Graham in person when he was speaking at a public event in San Antonio, Texas, during the time when my boss, former President George W. Bush, was Governor of Texas. Governor Bush graciously invited me backstage with him to say hello to his friend, Reverend Graham. Many times during my work with President Bush over the years, in the Texas Governor’s office, during his campaigns, as Counselor to the President and as Under Secretary of State, I heard him speak fondly of Billy Graham’s visit to his parents’ house in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the meaningful and loving conversation that ultimately became the inspiration for his decision to quit drinking.

I heard Reverend Graham speak in person again at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, at the national prayer service following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Watching him deliver a powerful sermon from that podium, it struck me that in so many ways Reverend Graham is really our nation’s pastor. He was realistic about the shock and horror of 9/11, yet optimistic and confident about the future. He acknowledged the revulsion we felt, but ended his message with hope because he knew that beneath the rubble was a foundation that could never be destroyed, and that foundation was our trust in God. At that moment, he gave voice to the grief and hope of a nation.

Billy Graham has a way of speaking so clearly about God and God’s love. I remember him telling people that God wants to be our friend, to walk with us. He radiates the invitation of God’s love in a way that truly calls us to respond as I did, by stepping forward and walking down. Reverend Graham’s message is so powerful, yet he is always gentle and respectful. That struck me again during the 9/11 service, where he spoke as the Christian he is, but also reached out with respect to those of different faiths.

Billy Graham is both compelling and humble, as evidenced in his address at that 9/11 national prayer service. He shared, “I’ve been asked hundreds of times why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I really do not know the answer totally, even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept by faith that God is sovereign, and He’s a God of love and mercy.” For someone of his stature to acknowledge those questions was disarming. To publicly express that he didn’t have all the answers, yet he had believed and lived by faith throughout his life, was an act of profound humility. When I struggle and question the many injustices we see in this world, I am reminded by Dr. Graham’s example that we can’t answer all of the hard questions here on earth, but we know through God’s Word and Christ’s sacrifice that God loves us and wants what is best for us.

In his books, Reverend Graham describes how inviting Christ was to people, and how they wanted to be around Him, to be near Him, and respond to Him. In many ways, that’s how Billy Graham is, too. People want to be around him, to learn more about him and hear from him. He is a wonderful representative of the Savior.

As someone who spent my career advocating mostly for other people, specifically for President Bush, I cannot imagine a better advocate for God and the message of the saving grace of Jesus Christ than Billy Graham, not only through his words but also through the way he lives his life and embodies the invitation to God’s love.

His book, The Journey, is a powerful summation of his ministry; he shares with us what he knows about God. I loved reading it, and return to it often. I’ve highlighted a number of places that are good reminders for me. For example, he writes, “Not only has God put us on our journey, not only does He want to join us on the journey, but God calls us to a new journey, to a new path.”

Many evangelists talk about the moment of accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior. I think Billy Graham understands both the tremendous importance of that moment where we choose to repent of our sins and accept Christ as our Savior — and the truth that this moment is the beginning, not the end, of a lifelong journey in which we often fall and often fail, but trust in God to help pick us up and get us back on the path again.

We are all on a journey through this life, but it is not our final destination. We are so grateful to have had Billy Graham as a teacher and guide on our journey through his preaching, his writing and his powerful example. And we owe Reverend Graham our thanks for so powerfully and effectively sharing the invitation to the journey with the Savior that we know leads to life everlasting for all who love God and are called according to His purpose.

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