Is Billy Graham being turned into a commodity? Or is his recent return to public ministry, if only briefly, a poignant mustering of strength from a man who refuses to surrender to the years?
Former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth L. Woodard raised the issue in a provocative piece recently in The Wall Street Journal. I wondered the same thing a few weeks ago in Asheville, wincing as I watched the frail evangelist being wheeled into a ballroom by his grandson to celebrate his 95th birthday. To my eyes, having covered Graham for The Charlotte Observer and just written a book about him, he seemed intimidated by the occasion, as if he wanted to be anywhere else but here. He managed a weak wave at the start, as if to tell the crowd to hold their applause, then shared a few words at the end. Most of his remarks were directed to Cliff Barrows, his old friend and musical associate, who was at the birthday bash as well. I felt sad and wistful taking this all in, thinking back to the electrifying young evangelist who commanded with unmatched confidence the world’s pulpits for a half-century.
The crowd of more than 800 at the Grove Park Inn included Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Rupert Murdoch and several Fox News personalities. It was Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, in fact, who urged party-goers to light their birthday cupcakes and sing “Happy Birthday.” At one point in his remarks to his crowd, Franklin Graham touted Fox, saying that God is using “the greatest news channel in America” to spread the news that God loves sinners. The Fox News presence, along with two dozen TV cameras and reporters chasing sound bites from Palin and Co., added an off-putting twist to the evening. They all seemed so out of place among Graham family and old friends. No need to wade here into the now-familiar debate over Franklin Graham taking the family business sharply to the right. By this point, you either believe he’s standing up for the gospel with his anti-gay and anti-Islam activism – or you fear he’s running his dad’s once-inclusive ministry into the ground.
What’s been on my heart is more personal, this question of whether Billy is being used to generate attention and support for the ministry. To keep the “Billy Graham brand” going, as Woodward put it. His rare public appearance at the birthday party, his brief reflections on “The Cross,” a 28-minute video heavily promoted by the ministry, and the publication of a new book have all fueled the public conversation. It’s also stirred a hint of cynicism. Woodward wondered whether the new book, “The Reason For My Hope” (Thomas Nelson Publishers) is an example of “authorial pretense.” Graham can barely see, hear or put pen to paper, how can he write a book?
“With the significant help of others” is clearly the short answer to that question. The Charlotte-based ministry, for the sake of its own integrity, would do well to acknowledge that. People would understand, and empathize.
Maybe I’m being tender-hearted and a bit naïve. But I’d like to think there’s a more powerful moral to this story. I believe Graham yearns to use his last breath to deliver the message he’s spent a lifetime carrying to the farthest corners. His mind is clear, his family tells me. His heart is strong. His passion to bring hope to a wounded world drives him ever forward now, just as it did in years past. He wasn’t on that new video for long. But when he was, he turned back to John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” His hands and voice were shaking, but it could have been the Graham who first took the world by storm under that tent in Los Angeles in 1949.
In a world where too many older people are pushed into the shadows, Billy Graham at 95 is pushing back. He’s mustering the courage and the strength to share a few last words, even if someone has to push him out there now in his wheelchair. And even if a debate about the future of his ministry rages around him.
These last public days may be Billy Graham’s most powerful sermon of all.
Ken Garfield is Director of Communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte. He is the author of “Billy Graham: A Life In Pictures” (Triumph Books, $19.99 paperback). The Journal welcomes original submissions for guest columns on local, regional and statewide topics. Essay length should not exceed 750 words. The writer should have some authority for writing about his or her subject. Our email address is: Letters@wsjournal.com. Essays may also be mailed to: The Readers' Forum, P.O. Box 3159, Winston-Salem, NC 27102. Please include your name and address and a daytime telephone number.
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