55: Richard Land

55: Richard Land

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 55 •

President of Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; ordained Southern Baptist pastor

Billy Graham was the hero of my boyhood. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, and Billy Graham was like our pope. We never missed a crusade on television. Billy Graham played a particularly strong role in my life because my father was saved at a Billy Graham crusade at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, in the early 1950s, when I was about seven years old. It was about a year after I was saved, actually. As a result of the crusade, my father was referred to our church and was baptized. He became a devout deacon, a Sunday school superintendent, and a counselor for the Royal Ambassadors (the Southern Baptist equivalent of the Boy Scouts). He was a pillar of the church, and in our family, our whole life revolved around the church. When people ask me if Billy Graham crusade conversions last, I say, “I know one that did — my dad’s.” It changed my life. I grew up in a home with a Christian father because of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

The first time I met Billy Graham was in 1972. I had just graduated from New Orleans Baptist Seminary, and I was preparing to go to Oxford to do my Ph.D. During that Philadelphia convention I was asked to give my testimony and right after that Billy Graham was scheduled to speak. We were backstage together. I introduced myself to him and told him about my father. He was very gracious, very humble, everything you would imagine he would be. I asked him to sign my Bible, and he did. I still have that Bible. I treasure it.

I’ve met Billy Graham a couple of times since then. When you are around him you get the impression that he really means it when he says the first thing he will ask when he gets to heaven is “Why me?” I’ve thought about this. There are preachers who are better preachers than Billy Graham. From a technical standpoint, he’s good, but I could name you five that are better. So why Billy Graham? I think it is because he is one of the few men who has not let his popularity and fame go to his head. He is probably as admired as anybody in American history. People wanted him to run for president. And yet he’s the same humble man he always was. He is just Billy Graham.

The last time I met him was in a hotel in Washington, D.C. Ruth, who by that time was confined to a wheelchair, was being brought out, and Billy was supervising this. I said, “Dr. Graham, how are you?” He replied, “Well, I’m a little tired.” I said, “By the way, happy birthday!” He said with a big smile, “How did you know it was my birthday?” I told him it was because my birthday was one day before his. “You were born November 7th, and I was born November 6th.” He replied, “Well, happy birthday to you. They’re taking me out for my birthday and we’re going to have a cake!” That big smile again. He seemed pleased as Punch. Just a genuinely nice, nice guy — who happens to be the most influential preacher probably in the history of Christendom.

No matter what Billy Graham did, he had charisma. When he was a young man selling brushes for the Fuller Brush Company the summer before he left for college, he became the greatest salesman in all of the Carolinas that summer. He broke all the records. The man could sell snow cones in Alaska. Whatever charisma is, Dr. Graham’s got it, and that’s a spiritual gift. The Holy Spirit has touched him. I’ve talked to several close preacher friends about this. We have all admitted to one another that we couldn’t have withstood the adulation. It takes an extraordinary man to have lived the life he has lived and be as humble as he is. This is a man who walks very close to God and understands he is God’s instrument. Whatever success he has been given, he knows it comes from God. And he doesn’t confuse the two. He understands what’s Billy and what’s God. People who have known him all his life say he has never changed.

One of the things I have observed over the years is that the one inerrant sign that all people have who walk close with God is humility. The closer they are to God the more humble they are. The closer to God they are the more they realize their own human frailties and weaknesses. They know that whatever gifts they have are gifts from God. Billy is about God, he’s not about Billy.

He has influenced all of us in the evangelical movement. He is the father of the modern evangelical movement. Beginning way back in the 1940s, he took the fundamentalist movement and reengaged the culture. Because of this, even today, some fundamentalists don’t like him. They think he compromised with liberalism. They believe they need to withdraw from the culture to remain pure, whereas Billy Graham and the evangelical movement want to engage the culture.

In order to accomplish this, and also because he just wanted to share his faith, Billy Graham was willing to work with people with whom he was not in full agreement, to serve the larger cause. For example, he allowed people that were not conservative Christians to take part in his crusades and to sit on the committees that organized them.

In terms of Evangelical Christianity reengaging the culture, Billy Graham is the man who really did it, on a mass level. And he gave us, the Evangelicals, both the model for how to do it and the confidence with which to do it. There would not have been a modern evangelical movement without him. And I love the guy. He was a hero to me in my boyhood, and he remains a hero to me today.

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