95: Don Wilton

95: Don Wilton

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 95 •

Billy Graham’s personal pastor and President of The Encouraging Word television ministry

With most people in the world who have great influence, the closer you get to them, the more you understand they have clay feet. However, my long and very close personal relationship with Dr. Billy Graham has had the exact opposite effect on me. The more I am with him, and the closer I get to him, the more I find myself deeply moved by the incredibly beautiful feet God has given him. I am referring to the passage in the Book of Romans: “And how can they preach unless they are sent? How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.”

How much I love to think the Lord Jesus had Mr. Graham in mind when the Holy Spirit inspired those words. My friendship and association with God’s servant bears testimony to this fact. I am his pastor and spend days on end with him. It is a very humbling thing for me, especially over the last ten years or so, to have the privilege of sitting at his feet. We talk together, laugh together, share endless stories together and spend many hours studying the Bible and praying together. I just love Dr. Graham so very much. Whether in his bedroom or around the kitchen table eating hot dogs and yogurt or playing with the cat who crept in demanding attention or sitting outside looking across the beautiful mountains he loves so well, Mr. Graham bleeds out his God-given passion to see people have peace with God through Jesus Christ. It’s as though God in His divine goodness, and only in His grace, has allowed me to link arms with His choicest of all servants and to accompany him on his journey of life after death.

And it’s in that journey that I’ve come to understand that for this man, Billy Graham, as it was for St. Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” The greatest privilege that God has given to me in my life, other than that of being able to tell people about Jesus Christ, is that I have been allowed to see this truth through the lens of a man whose legacy will never go away. I believe that what God has done through Billy Graham will be spoken about and read about long after he goes to heaven. He is going to become part of the historic fabric of the world that is and the world that is to come. And because of the message he preaches about the Savior of the world, I think Billy Graham is already firmly etched in tomorrow’s world.

The hand of God rests on his shoulders. I think God reached down from the portals of heaven and placed His hand of grace upon this man by the name of Billy Graham and appointed him for this hour and set him apart in a unique and striking way. And in my conversations with him over the years, I have been amazed at the number of events that have taken place that can only be attributed to the hand of God. The life and testimony of this man can only be explained and understood through the eyes of God’s loving grace.

Let me provide an example. On one occasion many years ago, when he was a fairly young man but had already become easily recognized in evangelical circles, he was playing golf. While he was playing, a lady came running onto the golf course wanting to speak to him. His playing partners very politely asked her if she would mind waiting until they got back to the clubhouse where they would certainly accommodate her. When Billy had finished his round of golf and was in the clubhouse, this lady said to him, “I do want to talk to you about spiritual matters but I also want you to meet my son.” Sometime later Billy was in Hollywood and met the son, whose name was Ronald Reagan. Amazing when one realizes Mr. Reagan had not yet been elected governor of California. I think this shows that God, only by His grace, had His hand upon Billy Graham. God knew there would come a time when President Reagan would sit in the White House and that he and Mr. Graham would have such a meaningful and lasting friendship.

There is another story about Mr. Graham and Mr. Reagan after the latter had become president. Mr. Graham and his wife Ruth were at a meeting in Washington, D.C., and at about ten o’clock at night, the telephone rang in their hotel room. Mr. Graham picked it up and heard the voice of President Reagan. The president said something to the effect of “Billy, what are you doing in Washington staying at that hotel? This is preposterous. Your bedroom is right here, the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. I’m sending a car to come and get you immediately.” So late at night the President’s entourage arrived, packed up Dr. and Mrs. Graham, and drove them to the White House, where they were greeted on the portico by President and Mrs. Reagan in their pajamas! The four of them ended up having late-night tea as they sat on the balcony at the White House overlooking the Lincoln Memorial.

Needless to say, President Reagan was not the only U.S. President with whom Mr. Graham had a strong association. He was a close friend to many presidents. These men who had such awesome responsibilities found in him not only a friend but a spiritual counselor who was a tower of strength. It was the hand of God at work again.

As I continue to hear incredible stories about Mr. Graham’s wonderful ministry, the impact he has had on so many, I must confess there have been times I have tried to remind him of “just how special” he is! But it seems he always deflects any and all accolades away from himself. Billy Graham’s life is about God, not about Billy Graham. If you are with him, and you happen to mention his greatness, without making you uncomfortable he is quick to remind you that it is only about Jesus. It’s almost like he looks at me and says, “Now Don, do you think we could just stop talking about me?”

Every time I am with him, there is something incongruous about it, because I always feel — and this is entirely due to his humility — as though I’m the important one. Now, is this not the most ridiculous thing you have ever heard? Here is a man with all his accolades and accomplishments and achievements. He is a man consulted and sought after by presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, famous athletes, and so on. Just recently a Gallup survey found that he was in its annual top ten list of “most admired” people for the fify-fifth time since 1955! And yet there you are — you stand with him, sit with him, talk with him, and eat with him and feel constantly and continually that you are the important person.

The hand of God is seen also in the content of the message Mr. Graham has preached for generations. Mr. Graham’s ministry has spanned six decades. Times have changed since those early crusades in the late 1940s, and Mr. Graham recognizes and understands shifts in time and culture in a very beautiful way. He sees the relevancy of growth and change and he knows how to relate that growth to the human heart. He has a deep, God-given spiritual understanding of the intricacies of the human heart as created by God.

Despite all the changes in society and culture, however, his message has always been the same in its simplicity and power. It is grounded in his God-given understanding of the human heart in relation to God and the unique individuality with which God has made each one of us. Mr. Graham celebrates individuality and has an incredibly warm embrace for every single person in his or her uniqueness: men, women, boys, and girls, and every race and creed under the sun. All are precious in God’s sight, and Mr. Graham’s message is the same: God loves you. And because God loves you, He sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ to die for you.

Wherever Dr. Graham was in the world — from Soviet Russia to Cairo, Egypt; from Jerusalem, Israel to apartheid-era Johannesburg, South Africa; from England to South America, or anywhere in the United States — you would see the same response. Thousands upon thousands of people came to hear him. And when they did, they heard the message about Jesus. Only God knows the extraordinary numbers of people who became reconciled to a holy God as a result. His message to such diverse people and societies was always the same. Mr. Graham did not need to adapt or change. His ministry was not a chameleon ministry, and he himself always remained the same person. He was very true to his God, to himself, to his family, and his calling. From my perspective, if I have ever been around someone who I can say is genuinely genuine, I’m talking about Dr. Billy Graham.

His profound love for his family is an example. Many years ago he was preaching in a crusade in Argentina. In crusades like that, he would be gone from his home for up to six months at a time. On this occasion he was in the Amazon Basin, doing a wonderful ministry reaching some of the most remote tribes in the world. Word came to him that Mrs. Graham, who was building a swing for her children, had fallen from a tree and had broken her back. So he was stuck in the jungle thousands of miles from home and she was in the hospital with a broken back. They managed to get a shortwave radio and Mr. Graham requested that plans be made for their immediate departure so he could be at his wife’s side. He loved her always, so much. Gigi, the Grahams’ eldest daughter, was standing at Mrs. Graham’s side when Mr. Graham called, and she reported back to her daddy, “Mommy says that ‘under no circumstances whatsoever are you to leave what God has given you to do, in South America, to come back to my bedside. After all, I have only broken my back, but there are millions of people down there who don’t know Jesus.’”

The story illustrates Mr. Graham’s passion to be the husband and father that he knew he needed to be even though the call of God and the demands of his ministry made that so extremely difficult. He knew this at a very deep level. He understood the sacrifices and the cost of being appointed by God for this purpose. When Miss Ruth passed away and went to be with the Lord Jesus, Mr. Graham said, “The music has left my house.” There is hardly a time I am with him when we don’t talk about Ruth in some way or another.

Just as his family life is animated by love, so was his ministry. He was never motivated by rancor, anger, or condemnation but only by the love of God in Christ Jesus, without compromise. He didn’t present another Gospel. He never betrayed the truth of God’s Word. He never lowered the bar of expectation. He embraced human individuality while recognizing that Jesus Christ died for all people. This was a message of hope for all people. There were times when he was roundly criticized by various factions for associating with people whom they regarded as unacceptable. He went to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, for example. Many warned that his visit would be misinterpreted as fraternizing with the enemy, but he went nonetheless. At a conference in Moscow, a member of the politburo got up and roundly castigated him. When Mr. Graham’s turn came to speak, he didn’t even respond to the criticism. Instead, he shared the message of Christ. He spoke with a heart of love and tenderness and warmth. His message had a warm embrace from the heart of God. For many years after that, he preached in the Soviet satellite states and even there, behind the Iron Curtain, scores and scores of “communist” people would come to his crusades and hear the message of the Gospel.

Mr. Graham has a very deep theology. His knowledge and understanding of God is profound, and in everything he does he gives the honor to God. Many years ago, for example, he had just completed a crusade in London, and there had been an incredible response, with hundreds of people stepping forward. Two of his close associates, Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, were celebrating with the team in the hotel room after one of the major outpourings. Cliff Barrows tells the story of how they suddenly realized that Mr. Graham was sitting rather quietly and wasn’t participating in the celebration. They said something like, “Billy, wasn’t that fantastic, wasn’t that incredible?” And he looked up, and said, “Only God gets the glory, boys, only God gets the glory.” It was entirely typical of him.

To God goes the glory indeed, and we can only be thankful that we have all been blessed by the long, Christ-centered life of Dr. Billy Graham.

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