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Change Leadership | Dr. Leighton Ford (Mentoring)

Success – Billy Graham at Ninety Six

February 17, 2015

At a recent dinner party our host posed a question to discuss over the meal: what are you hoping for?

Most responses were predictable: peace in the world, health for our families. One younger guest said, “I hope that at the end of my life I can know that I have made a difference, some worthwhile contribution to the world.” We then had a fascinating discussion of success, and significance.

That table talk was still in my mind this week when Jeanie and I drove up to visit her brother Billy, who turned ninety-six yesterday at his Montreat home.

We took along a signed copy of the new book by Grant Wacker, distinguished professor of American church history at Duke Divinity School.

“Why does Billy Graham matter?” asks Wacker, and offers a thorough assessment of his place in twentieth century America. He details the sixty plus years of ministry: the millions upon millions who heard his voice; his friendships with so many presidents; the twenty-eight times he was on the cover of major magazines. He certainly was a “success” in public influence and recognition.

What interests me is the title. Wacker could have made it about Billy Graham as preacher, evangelist, world leader, most admired figure. Instead he calls it America’s Pastor, because, of the thousands of letters which poured in to him, most were about people’s personal hurts and needs – broken marriages, wayward children, loneliness.

As Jeanie handled the book to her brother the irony was that with his failing eyesight he could barely see the cover. I gazed at him sitting up, white hair flowing back, blue eyes faded, barely able to hear his sister’s soft voice. As he held the book, and slowly thanked us for our birthday greetings, his voice was so different from the thunder and quick words of earlier years.

But his wit is still there! “How old are you?” he asked Jeanie, and when she told him said, “How did you get there so quick?”

In those minutes I realized Grant Wacker has the title right. Billy Graham is evangelist to the world, but pastor to many, and to our family Billy Frank the caring brother and uncle.

It was Billy who broke the news to our son Kevin that his older brother Sandy had died unexpectedly during surgery. He was at Mayo Clinic when our daughter Debbie went for tests on breast cancer (now long gone). He waited for her at the end of a long hall, hugged her, prayed for her. She later said, “Uncle Billy, for me that was the best sermon you ever preached. It was not you speaking from a platform, but you in your wheel chair, waiting for me in my fear.”

On one of our recent visits I realized he could not hear my words so I sang for him – some old hymns. “Keep singing” he said. “Sing more.”

He was not much of a singer himself. His soloist George Beverly Shea said Billy had a malady – no melody! But he and Billy’s music leader Cliff Barrows often had him join them in a fun version of “This Little Light of Mine.” He was allocated only one note. When they got to “Hide it under a bushel?” he would exclaim: “No!”

“Billy, do you remember that?” I asked. He nodded. So I sang and when I got to “hide it under a bushel?” I paused, and, very softly, he breathed, “No.”

Of all the words that he spoke and millions heard, that one quiet “no” tells me that any one of us can let our light shine.

Billy touched the world in ways very few can. He touched individuals in ways any of us can.

At ninety-six, doesn’t that count as success?

Leighton Ford

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