Reading his obituary in USA Today this morning, the word “homespun” was employed. It’s a fitting word for Rev. Graham. He had one of the great Southern hallmarks of being able veil his studiousness and intelligence behind a folksiness that allowed him to come across as an “everyman.” It is said that the volumes found in his personal library—books on almost every subject imaginable, including the works by a wide variety of religious thinkers—were well-worn and marked up. But no one would call him scholarly.
Taking account of the time in which we find ourselves currently, I am reminded of a conversation Rev. Graham had with Larry King shortly after the Columbine massacre in 1999, recalled in Donald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What:
‘Larry King asked Billy Graham what was wrong with the world, and how such a thing as Columbine could happen. I knew, because Billy Graham was an educated man, he had read the same article I had read, and I began calculating his answer for him, that violence begets violence, that we live in a culture desensitized to the beauty of human life and the sanctity of creation. But Billy Graham did not blame video games. Billy Graham looked Larry King in the eye and said, “Thousands of years ago, a young couple in love lived in a garden called Eden, and God placed a tree in the Garden and told them not to eat from the tree…”’
‘And I knew in my soul he was right.’ (Miller, p. 90)
I was a teenager, a sophomore in high school, on that fateful April afternoon when I watched Columbine unfold. Since a school massacre was such a rare occurrence then, it was basically my generation’s 9/11. We mourned with those kids. A friend of mine even kept a three-ring binder of news clippings and photos of the victims, his own unique way of dealing with the pain—the way folks a few years later would buy Twin Towers memorabilia for their homes.
I was an avid video game player at the time and I was so annoyed by the arguments about games and music being the culprit. I was also annoyed, at the time, by statements like Graham’s. It all seemed so simplistic. Too simplistic. The real world didn’t deal with fanciful stories like this. Adam and Eve and their fruit. No, the evil of the world had to be more insidious than that.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that Rev. Graham was right. Too right. It is that simple.
Homespun. Folksy. A veneer, behind which lived a deep and rich spirituality, the soul of a man who seemed to truly know God and knew that it wasn’t always necessary to show his work. He put what he learned into practice.
A few years ago I learned that Billy Graham lived in Florida at one point. I also learned that, during those years, he would row a canoe out to a small spoil island and hone his preaching craft by delivering sermons to the herons and alligators and whatever leftover swamp critters lived there.
Saint Seraphim and Saint Francis both honed their craft by preaching to wildlife. We’ve turned Saint Francis into a birdbath and Saint Seraphim is depicted in iconography with a bear—which is way cooler than the doves and deer that adorn ol’ Frank, to be honest. But we probably don’t think of Billy Graham like a Saint Francis or a Saint Seraphim. But maybe he is? Maybe he’s evangelical Christianity’s Saint Francis? Only time will tell.
Like Francis, Graham seemed to actually live what he believed and preached. He embodied his Christian faith and spirituality in way that wasn’t showy (despite his showmanship), but was a natural extension. He lived and moved and had his being in his relationship with Jesus the same way a fish lives and moves and has their being in water. At least this is my perception of the man.
Yes, he seemed simple and academically light. But the truth was very different.
Like his appeal to the Garden story after Columbine, it all seems so basic and simple--too basic and simple—until you get to know it more and find that there is depth to that simplicity.
Columbine and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook and Pulse and Vegas and, now, Stoneman Douglas High School are all symptoms of the same disease. We are sinners.
We are sinners.
We are sinners who need Jesus to deliver us.
This message, which consumed Billy Graham’s life and resulted in countless professions of faith, countless baptisms, countless citizens of God’s kingdom, is the message.
We have guns because we are afraid. Afraid of someone robbing our houses, someone hurting our families. Afraid of the government, of oppression. We have guns because people sin. And that sin causes us to hold out the possibility of killing—rather than loving—our neighbor. And so sin begets sin.
Thanks Eve and Adam.
Jesus, like the angels, repeatedly remind us to “fear not.” Saint John, beloved of Jesus, leaning on his chest—closest to His heart—at the last supper, would go on to say that “perfect love casts out fear.”
The love of Jesus is perfect love.
Be not afraid.
Jesus has redeemed Eve and Adam. Jesus has redeemed you.
This was the truth that Billy Graham preached. It seems so simple, too simple. Just like the man who preached it. But it is truth.
And truth will set us free.
Rest in peace and rise in glory, Billy. Thank you for your life of service.