98: Philip Yancey

98: Philip Yancey

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 98 •

Bestselling author, twice-awarded Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Book of the Year

During my writing career I had two personal meetings with Billy Graham. The first was in 1986, in connection with an article I wrote about Cameron Townsend, who founded a mission called Wycliffe, which translates the Bible into different languages. Townsend was quite a remarkable man. I sent the article to Reader’s Digest, and they said, “Well, it’s a good story, but nobody’s ever heard of him. Is there any way you could get Billy Graham to work with you on this article?”

I contacted the Graham people, and they said, “Sure, we’d be glad to cooperate.” I flew down and spent a good, long afternoon in Billy Graham’s home recollecting stories about Cameron Townsend. One story he got a kick out of telling was about when he and Cameron Townsend had ended up in a taxi together, and Townsend spent the whole time trying to get Billy to stop being an Evangelist and become a translator of the Bible in a different country!

About twelve years later, I got called in to help gather some research when Billy Graham was writing his autobiography, Just As I Am. I spent weeks researching his life, reading everything I could, and then I went down to North Carolina and studied some of the papers that had been stored near his home. Some work had already been done on the book, and we met to go over it.

The Grahams lived on top of a mountain, and there was a long driveway on the way up. His wife Ruth had put together a series of old cabins, like log cabins, and it was very classic North Carolina, with the rocking chair on the porch. There was nothing pretentious about it.

When I was there Ruth served a bowl of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, with the everyday dinnerware. I was sitting there thinking, he’s dined with kings and in the White House and the Kremlin, but this is who he is. This is his identity. This is where he feels the most comfort. He’s just an ordinary guy.

We talked about the book. I said, “Mr. Graham, you can go one of two ways. You can either do a 1,000-page autobiography where you mention all the details of your life and give credit to the people that affected you and that you interacted with over the years, and that’s fine. That probably should be done. But I am much more interested in your doing something where you take certain highlights of your life and build a book around them — let’s say twelve to fifteen stories.”

As we discussed it, I soon discovered that indeed, he had many incredible stories to tell. I remember him speaking about one of the times he was in India. There is a large pocket of Christians in northeast India dating back a couple of centuries. In 1977, he was visiting the country, holding a series of crusades in several cities. During his trip, a terrible cyclone struck Southeast India, killing tens of thousands of people. Neelam Reddy was the President of India at the time and he provided him with a helicopter to survey the damage. He described very vividly what it was like. As the helicopter came along the shore, he could see brightly colored saris caught in the thorn bushes and the trees. He said the tattered traditional Indian dresses looked like Tibetan prayer flags. It was a scene of utter devastation. Each one of those saris represented the remains of a woman who had died.

There was also the time that he had gone to Moscow in the early 1980s, at the height of the Cold War. This was quite controversial because of course Russia was our enemy, and conservatives who were largely of his faith were saying, “Billy Graham needs to confront them and critique them because they’re persecuting Christians, and they’re doing all these terrible things.” But he did not do that and instead said in his very gracious way that when he met the leaders, all he insisted on was that they not censor what he said — and they didn’t.

The press was critical of him for not taking a more confrontational stance, and there was one story from the crusade in New York in which a Christian leader said to him, “You have set the Christian cause back fifty years.” Reverend Graham hung his head and said, “Oh, that’s too bad. I was hoping to set it back 2,000 years.”

He wasn’t a confrontational person. Jesus taught “Love your enemies.” Billy Graham took that seriously, and I think that’s probably what he had in mind when he made that remark. His attitude was that he was not a politician but a representative of God, and just as God loves everyone, we are taught to do the same. He was genuinely humble in that way.

There is a book by David Aikman, who was a bureau chief at TIME magazine, called Great Souls, in which he writes of six great souls of the twentieth century. Billy Graham is one of them. The others are Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and Elie Wiesel. Part of that greatness was that Billy Graham stayed so true to his mission, to his vision, and was able to conduct himself with such integrity that while one person after another in the public eye fell prey to scandal, he did not. He built in protection to keep him from having any taint of that whatsoever.

I once asked Billy Graham, “Of all the presidents, which one did you spend the most time with?” To my surprise he said Lyndon Johnson. “Really?” I said. “Why is that?” Johnson was a rather coarse character and I never thought of him as particularly religious. Billy smiled and said, “Well, I think with the life he lived he kind of always wanted to have a preacher around him.”

But it was more than that. Johnson, like other presidents, was surrounded by Washington people, and while everybody else was lobbying and manipulating, Billy Graham was someone he could trust when he bared his soul. Billy Graham wasn’t going to betray him, and it was that solid American trustworthy, good heartland persona that I think even the most sophisticated people in the world responded to.

Those were the values that kept him grounded over the years. He learned to negotiate his way through the realities of the world out there, but he never let it get to him. He was always the North Carolina farm boy, with a kind of gee-whiz attitude toward life. He was impressed by other people, not by himself, and he had that sense of almost childlike wonder. He was always astonished that all this had happened to him.

One thing I really appreciate about him is that he learned from his mistakes, and he talks and writes quite openly about them. That is part of his humility. He doesn’t feel the need to defend himself. Early in his ministry he unintentionally offended President Harry Truman. Billy Graham wore a white suit in those days, and after meeting with the President he posed, Tim Tebow-like, in a praying stance at the gate of the White House. Truman felt that was grandstanding. Reverend Graham learned from that, and he never did a grandstanding thing again. And he said that what he learned from his close association with President Richard Nixon was that it’s best for him not to become too involved with partisan politics.

Billy Graham’s humility showed up in other ways, too. I remember saying during our meeting that he had had an impact on a whole country, on whole cities. He immediately interrupted me. “Oh, no, no, I haven’t,” he said. “Some people have been changed because of my message, but not because of me; it was a result of my message.” He always went through life feeling that he hadn’t done enough.

His thrust of course was always toward individual salvation — the soul, the change, the transformation. I don’t think he was particularly looking at cultural or political change. What made him come alive was standing in front of that pulpit and holding out the hope of a spiritual transformation that so many people desire. We all do some things that we regret and we want life to be a little different than it is for us, and I think Billy Graham’s secret is that he genuinely believes in the message he proclaims: It can be different. God can change you. God accepts you just as you are but doesn’t want to leave you just as you are. He wants to remake you.

That’s a powerful message. We’ve all seen clips of thousands of people making their way down the aisle during a Billy Graham Crusade saying, “Yeah, I want that change.”

As a journalist, I have often asked people, “How did you come to be a born-again Christian?” So many times the reply is, “Oh, it was when I heard Billy Graham preach,” and they’ll tell me their personal stories of transformation.

So what happened regarding my involvement with Billy Graham’s autobiography? I went to a literary agency in New York and made a presentation explaining what I thought the book should be. “This is a book for the ages,” I told them. “There’s only one person who can tell these stories. You’ve got something really unique here.”

I think it says something about Billy Graham that he decided against that idea for his autobiography. Rather than to do the “book for the ages” that I had envisioned, which would have focused on his own personal experiences, he felt it was more important to honor the people who had helped him, to tell the story of how those crusades happened, and to credit everybody along the way. And when his autobiography was eventually published, one of the striking things about Billy Graham that readers discovered is that the key people who started with him were still with him more than forty years later, and they are with him today. There aren’t many people you can say that about, but when you understand who Billy Graham is, the character of the man, it is not in the least surprising.

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