UPDATED: (Jerusalem, Israel) — It feels like an apostle has left the earth.
The Associated Press is reporting that the Rev. Billy Graham — a humble giant of the Evangelical Christian faith — has been called home to be with the Lord. He was 99.
Please keep his family and staff in prayer as they process his loss, and simultaneously set into motion long-prepared plans for his memorial service, which will be held on Friday, March 2.
Let’s also thank our Father in heaven for using this farmer’s son from rural North Carolina to boldly proclaim the Gospel to more people than any other person in human history. He preached in stadiums and arenas to more than 200 million people, as well as to hundreds of millions of more souls via radio, TV, film, books, media interviews, a newspaper column, the Internet, and other forms of media.
Rev. Graham had a profound impact on my own life and faith, as I know he had on many of you.
- URBANA STUDENT CONFERENCE: In December 1984, I first heard Graham preach live and in person. I was one of 17,000 students attending Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship’s “Urbana Missions Conference” in Urbana, Illinois. I was only a senior in high school, but the little church I attended gave me a scholarship to join a group of college students who had rented a bus to drive all night to get there. The entire conference was wonderful, but Graham’s message was the most powerful, moving and funny sermon I had ever heard. To this day, I can still remember his core theme — “What will you be like as a Christian ten years from tonight?” — and his jokes. Years later, I found the audio of the message on the BGEA archives and have loved listening to it several times over, as well as confirming how much of that message I really did remember because it was etched into my soul.
- BUFFALO: In the summer of 1987, my family and I drove to Buffalo, New York, to experience a Billy Graham Crusade for the first time. Wow. I’d seen them on TV. But it was something to see in person, a simple man speaking simple words but holding an audience of 50,000 or so in rapt attention as he explained the Gospel message and asked them to make a decision to follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord forever.
- ROCHESTER: In September 1987, my parents served on the platform committee of the Billy Graham Crusade in Rochester, New York, the closest major city to the little village of Fairport where I was raised. Three friends of mine — including my future wife, Lynn Meyers — drove from Syracuse University where we were students to Rochester to attend that Crusade on a chilly Fall Wednesday night. It was a profoundly moving experience for me.
- SYRACUSE: I first had the honor of meeting him in April of 1989 when I was a senior at Syracuse University. My pastor, Dr. T.E. Koshy — who was also the Evangelical chaplain at S.U. — was asked to be the General Secretary of the Billy Graham Crusade in Syracuse that spring. It was to be held on our campus, in the Carrier Dome football stadium. Dr. Koshy asked me and several other students to assist him in various aspects of preparing the evangelistic campaign. This included co-writing a memo on the Christian history of the university and the major issues students were talking about in those days and personally briefing the evangelist on the memo and answering his questions. I had the opportunity to help organize a private reception for Rev. Graham and student leaders at the Chancellor’s home, and help organize a special Q&A forum Graham conducted for S.U. students after the tragic terrorist attack that downed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The flight had 35 Syracuse students on board. It was blown up in December 1987, just a few months before Graham was scheduled to arrive on campus. It shook the student body terribly, and Graham graciously agreed to an evening event just for students that we called, “Peace In A Troubled World.” He was so gentle, and gracious, so compassionate and willing to listen to the students’ pain. He was also so clear and direct that the only hope for peace in this world or the world to come was through faith in Jesus the living Messiah and God of the universe.
- BOOKS: I have devoured Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am, in print and multiple times on audio and highly recommend it, as well as many of his other books, from Peace With God to Angels. Indeed, I have also read and loved many books written about Graham — my favorite by far being Billy Graham: His Life and Influence by former Time magazine correspondent David Aikman (for which I wrote the foreword to the paperback edition). Another excellent one is The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham In The White House by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.
- MONTREAT, NORTH CAROLINA: Just a few years ago, Anne Graham Lotz invited me to come to North Carolina to teach the Scriptures at The Cove retreat center, and to come up to her childhood home to meet with and pray for this aging servant of the Lord. It was a special and moving time. He was a lion in winter — a man who had once raced the planet, powerfully preaching the Gospel to millions in 185 nations, befriending and counseling kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers in the Word of the Lord; now sitting quietly in a rocking chair, a blanket over him, on oxygen, his hands frail, his hair white. He was warm and kind, hospitable and quiet. No longer was he running or preaching. Now he was reclining and praying. I had the opportunity to thank him for the impact he had had on me, from Urbana to the present. I reminded him of the forum he did at Syracuse University after the Pan Am disaster and how transformative that was for all of us. Anne and one of her daughters read the Bible to him. While his voice was raspy, he literally groaned with affirmation for every word of the Lord they spoke as his spirit resounded to the words of his Savior. I remember thinking later that night after we’d come down from the mountain that it was like meeting the Apostle Paul. I confess that I wept with thanksgiving that I, the grandson of Orthodox Jews who escaped persecution in Russia, could have a precious hour with a man no better than any of us, but a man chosen and used so powerfully by the King of glory.
My prayer now is that even in his passing, his memorial service will be used by the Lord to proclaim the good news of God’s amazing grace and love to hundreds of millions — maybe billions — more people in the U.S. and around the world. What’s more, I pray that millions whose lives and souls have been touched by “America’s Pastor” will share those stories with family and friends and strangers, so they too can know the good news.
So many still need to hear the simple truth of the Jewish Messiah who came to teach and love and suffer and die on the cross, then rise again on the third day in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets. So many still need to know that the Messiah has come to give forgiveness and eternal and abundant life to anyone who will repent and call on the name of the Lord Jesus to be saved. And that He is coming again, maybe soon.
May Billy Graham’s simple message be remembered, and may his humble example be followed.
(photo: Rev. Graham with my pastor, Dr. T.E. Koshy, and myself at a reception for student leaders at Syracuse University in April 1989)
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