50: Tim Keller

50: Tim Keller

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 50 •

Bestselling author and speaker; pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Manhattan, New York, New York

In the early 1970s, before my wife Kathy and I were married, we were both students at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Billy Graham was a trustee of Gordon-Conwell and a very dear friend of its president, Harold Ockenga. Billy Graham, Dr. Ockenga, and a couple of other people had just recently founded the seminary by merging Gordon Divinity School and Conwell School of Theology together.

One day Billy Graham came to campus to preach. At that time I would have to say that neither Kathy nor I had a high level of regard for Dr. Graham. Our impression, derived solely from television appearances, was that he was a nice but not terribly intellectual man. He wasn’t a scholar and he didn’t pretend to be one. At the time, that seemed very important.

As Kathy and I sat there, we were shocked at how powerful he was in person. He had an enormous authority. He didn’t rant or wave his arms and yell, although he wasn’t soft spoken either. His entire speech and manner conveyed the sense of This is the truth and you need to do something about it. It was very simple, it wasn’t scholarly, but it was very powerful.

Even though my background was not Charismatic or Pentecostal I recognized it as an anointing of the spirit. I thought, Wow, that is unbelievably powerful. Everybody else felt it, too.

Shortly after the service in the chapel, Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga were standing outside the front door entrance. A photo shoot was in progress. People were taking pictures that would appear in the papers the next day. Then a student who didn’t realize what was going on came out of the door while they were shooting and found himself in the picture. Dr. Ockenga, whom we called Doc Ock, was pretty irritated at the intrusion and said, “Did you not read the sign?” The student started to walk away sheepishly but Billy Graham said, “Wait, Harold.” Then he put the young man between the two of them and said to the photographers, “Take a picture.” They took several pictures, and he said to them, “Make sure this young man gets that picture.”

Back then, in the early 1970s, Billy Graham was every bit as famous as he is now, but he had no airs about him. He didn’t berate the hapless student. He was extremely kind. He didn’t want the student to feel bad or embarrassed, so he took action in an instant and no doubt made him feel proud instead.

Kathy and I went away saying to each other, “This is crazy! What a great man — no wonder he’s been so useful to God.”

We were also saying, like all the other students, “Why didn’t we walk through the door like that?”

As I reflected on the experience of hearing Billy Graham in person, I reassessed my idea that a good sermon had to be a very scholarly effort in which you show off your exegetical knowledge and your understanding of the philosophers of the time. Billy Graham’s preaching style made me realize that a guy can really be powerful without having to show off his learning. He reminds me of smart people in business. They are brilliant, insightful, and intuitive but they are not necessarily scholarly or intellectual. Someone once said that a twelve-year-old could understand a sermon by Billy Graham, and that is true. His simplicity was part of his appeal. In that sermon at the Gordon-Conwell Seminary chapel, he spoke simply but he didn’t lose my interest. His style was quite a contrast to my own preaching at that time. There was no way that a twelve-year-old could have understood me!

In addition to his simplicity, his genuineness had an impact on me. Although he does have a very ministerial style, it’s a natural extension of how he usually speaks, so it wasn’t like he put on a new persona when he preached.

You know how, when a tree is cut down, you can see the rings in the trunk, and that all those rings reveal the history of the tree? I think of a preacher’s work in the same way. As you develop and grow over the years you come out with a fairly unique voice, but if you were to look back at all your years of preaching and depict it as a tree, you would see what went into that voice. The other preachers who influenced you are the rings in the tree, and there is no doubt that over the years Billy Graham contributed a number of rings to the tree of my preaching.

And it all began in that chapel in Gordon-Conwell, when a young man and his soon-to-be wife felt the power of a great preacher in his prime: simple, genuine, and immensely compelling.

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