I was out-of-town the morning that Billy Graham died. I’d never met the man in person, but had been to one of his last crusades when he came to Raymond James Stadium back in the late 90s. Being a pastor, my social media feeds immediately filled up with everyone’s reflections and favorite Dr. Graham quotes. He was something special alright, a true American treasure and a gift to the Kingdom who impacted thousands upon thousands of lives.
Rev. Dr. Graham left his mark, quite literally, upon my life and my office wall. His signature is affixed to my doctoral diploma as the co-founder of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, my alma mater. I’ve always felt mixed emotions about his name hanging above my head. On one hand, it is no small thing to have a connection to the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. On the other hand, it is a very big thing to have a connection to the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. Through Gordon-Conwell, Dr. Graham gave opportunity to and prepared the next generation of preachers and pastors for ministry, of which I am a part, and to which I feel a great responsibility.
Dr. Graham saw the value in an educated clergy, so much so that he felt compelled to make sure that schools like Gordon-Conwell were established for the ongoing training and theological education of those who would take God’s Word to the masses. I happen to serve in a tradition that places that same high value on education. The reason for this is an acknowledgment that life is not always easy and a rich, robust faith is going to be one that comes with challenges and requires ongoing wrestling and refinement. Although Dr. Graham spoke plainly, his words were rooted in a deep, personal faith and solid theological education. Substance over style allowed Billy Graham to lead so many into a life-changing faith.
This is the legacy of Dr. Graham that creates such a challenge for pastors of my generation. The temptation on one side is to appeal to the many by offering a gospel that is light on accountability, cheap on grace, and easy to digest because it requires nothing of us. The temptation on the other side is to mold and create a gospel message that supports whatever our particular political and social leanings happen to be on any given day. Dr. Graham was not inclined to give in to either of those temptations.
When I was at the crusade in Tampa, I was only 20 years-old and was not prepared for Billy Graham. I wanted to be wowed and entertained. I wanted a sermon series based on the latest movie franchise and a pastor who had just walked out of an American Eagle photo shoot. I wanted funny anecdotes and calls to stand up to the powers that be. Dr. Graham gave me none of that.
Instead, he gave me the pure, unadulterated Word of God – spoken humbly with a gentle heart. And I was captivated because he was giving me something that I couldn’t get out in the world. He was giving me Jesus. And that’s all that Billy Graham did for his entire ministry – he gave people Jesus.
And so on those days when I sit in my office and contemplate whether or not I should preach a series on “Stranger Things” or if the church should invest in a fog machine or if I need to get an entirely new wardrobe with the right logo on it, I look at Dr. Graham’s signature on my diploma and I am reminded to just give ’em Jesus. Because, at the end of the day, that’s all that’s really going to matter for eternity.
The Rev. Hope Lee, lead pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church and The Well, can be reached at 941-794-6229, firstname.lastname@example.org or biggreenchurch.org. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Herald written by local clergy members.