75: Thom Rainer

75: Thom Rainer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 75 •

Award-winning author, researcher, speaker, and president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources

For me, Billy Graham has always been a model of evangelism. When I think about his influence on my life, I look back to the personal encounters that left such a lasting impression on me.

One of these occasions was at the Louisville Crusade in 2001. At the time I was the dean of a new graduate school called the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Seminary. Dr. Graham came to the dedication of that school and of course had a vital interest in its health and its future.

Shortly before he preached at Cardinal Stadium, I went to speak with him in the green room. One of his daughters was there and she introduced me: “Dad, this is Thom Rainer. He’s the dean of the Graham School.”

His response just floored me. “I am so honored to meet you finally,” he said.

I thought, This is crazy. This is absolutely wacky. In terms of historical importance, I’m nothing, and this man is everything, and he’s saying, “I’m so honored to meet you!”

He was not being disingenuous. He really meant it. His humility made me look at my own lack of it, and it served as a constant reminder to me, like that in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Dr. Graham was a man who lived by those words.

Although that meeting in Louisville was an inspiration, probably the most meaningful encounter I had with Dr. Graham was shortly after he turned ninety years old. I was in North Carolina and asked if I could visit him at his home, and he kindly agreed. So my wife Nellie Jo and I made a visit to the cabin up on the mountain near Montreat and got to spend some great time with him.

He was, as I knew he would be, very gracious. He asked about my family and about mutual acquaintances, and as usual we talked for a while about various topics. But on this particular occasion, there were also two things I wanted to ask him.

“Dr. Graham, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?” I asked. “I have been wanting to ask you these questions for years, and I’ve never gotten around to it.”

“Certainly,” he said.

“What would be the single greatest advice that you could give me? I know that’s a big, big thing, to ask, but here I am talking to one of the greatest leaders and Christians of our era, and I want to know what’s the single greatest advice you can give me.” I didn’t know what to expect in reply.

He simply said, “Don’t turn ninety. It’s a bad age.”

I thought that was absolutely hilarious.

One thing I learned from Dr. Graham was to keep a sense of humor.

We were in his bedroom during our talk, and he was sitting up in his bed. At the foot of his bed was a picture of his late wife, Ruth, and he pointed to her and said, “There are so many things that I want to get to heaven for, and that’s close to the top.” It was clear how much he missed her. I saw how he had kept a perspective, even in his old age, when his health was failing and he could no longer preach. What remained most important to him was the memory of his loving wife, his caring friends, and the love he had for his family.

My other question was much more pointed. “How do you deal with all the critics that you’ve had?” I asked. “So many have had accolades for you, but there have also been people who have taken pot shots at you, who have criticized you over the years.”

He simply said, “I have to ignore most of them, or I don’t keep a healthy perspective.”

Of course, I’m not as high profile as Billy Graham, but he reminded me that although there are times when we should listen to our critics, given my position in Christian leadership I cannot live my life constantly listening to them.

I came away from that visit uplifted by Dr. Graham’s simple teaching: perspective. I had been listening to a man who had counseled presidents and kings and who had lived nine decades, who is recognized as one of the most influential leaders in the world, and will be for many years to come, and yet he showed me the importance of keeping things in perspective. His wisdom was basic but profound: family is so vitally important. Critics come and go, so don’t lose your focus. And there is more to life than life — there is the eternal life.

When you come to the end of life, what’s really important? I saw that for Dr. Graham, it is remembering his wife, his friends, loving his children, and looking forward to eternity. This is the wisdom that he offered me that day: keep life in perspective. And have a sense of humor.

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