I have been inspired by Billy Graham since I was an older teenager. He burst upon the scene in his California crusade in 1947 when I was one year old. But I didn’t pay attention to him until God laid His hand upon me for Christian ministry when I was 18.
Many of us who were aspiring preachers mimicked him. We could not preach as he preached, but we could insert “an-uh” between our statements, and we could copy his body language. The world was full of little “would be” Billy Grahams. I listened to his “Hour of Decision” on the radio, and launched my own 15-minute radio program called “Moment of Truth” on the local station. At least my father listened to it.
Across the years, I found other aspects of Billy Graham I wanted to copy.
I wanted to copy his integrity. When his organization attracted donations in the millions, he placed himself on a salary commensurate with the pastor of a large church. He insisted that his Crusades be audited and made public. He regularly turned down million dollar offers from Hollywood and television. He made much more on royalties and books, and gave much more away.
In a world awash with sexual scandal, Billy Graham sought to avoid the potential for impropriety. He chose not to travel or dine alone with any woman other than his wife. He loved his wife, Ruth Bell Graham. They married in 1943 and remained devoted to each other until her death in 2007. He said of her, “Whenever I was asked to name the finest Christian I ever met, I always replied, ‘My wife, Ruth.’ … She was a gentle, smiling and kind person whose primary goal was to live for Christ and reflect His love.”
He stepped forward to promote integration before the civil rights movement and included all people of every race and nationality. In 1953, he refused to preach in Chattanooga, Tenn., unless they removed the barriers that separated whites from blacks. In 1957, he asked Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to join him in the pulpit in New York City.
Their family isn’t perfect. Their kids have had alcohol and drug problems. Their daughter’s marriage failed and their granddaughter gave birth out of wedlock. But they continued to love their children with grace and acceptance.
I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Thessalonica, “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaea.”
Billy Graham never wanted to hold himself up. He always wanted to exalt Christ. I am sure that remains true as the world prepares for his funeral. But we would do well to imitate many of the qualities reflected in his life and to live so that we might model for others the honesty, integrity and love that flow from faith in Jesus Christ.