Two men I greatly respect passed away in the last week or so. One I knew from a distance as a brother in Christ, Billy Graham, and the other, I knew close up and personally, my father. In honor of Billy Graham and Warren Garner lives I offer a few reflections:
Billy Graham’s faith came under siege in the summer of 1949, just before the Los Angeles Crusade that propelled him onto the national scene.
As president of Northwestern Schools, Mr. Graham was invited to speak at the College Briefing Conference, which was held at Forest Home, a retreat center east of Los Angeles. Also speaking was his good friend and fellow evangelist Chuck Templeton, whose views on the authority of Scripture were quickly changing. Not for the first time, Templeton challenged Mr. Graham:
“Billy, you’re 50 years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple.”
Alone in his room that night, Mr. Graham studied the Scriptures profusely.
“I had no doubt concerning the deity of Jesus Christ or the validity of the Gospel,” he later wrote in his biography Just As I Am, “but was the Bible completely true? With the Los Angeles Campaign galloping toward me, I had to have an answer. If I could not trust the Bible, I could not go on. I would have to quit the school presidency. I would have to leave pulpit evangelism.”
His heart heavy, he went for a walk.
The moon was out and the shadows were long in the San Bernardino Mountains surrounding the retreat center. Dropping to his knees there in the woods, he opened the Bible at random on a tree stump in front of him.
“O God!” he prayed “There are many things in this Book I do not understand … There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science.”
He paused, then continued: “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”
When he stood up from his knees that August night, his eyes stung with tears. “I sensed the presence and power of God as I had not sensed it in months. Not all my questions were answered, but … I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won.”
I don’t know how many times Billy Graham spoke in his storied and powerful preaching ministry, but the heart of his preaching always involved the heart of the Bible. Pastor Brock focused on these verses this past weekend, Romans 3:21-26. T Brock stated as others have declared, these verses are the hinge upon which the gospel swings. In spite of the darkness of sin and wrath it permits God to use on all of creation, God chose another way. He gave his son, Jesus, to meet the demands of the law allowing us to be made right with God and God’s holiness to remain intact. We, then, can again enjoy a relationship with him, first offered in Gen. 1 and 2. While we all fall short, sin, God freed us from eternal consequences of our sin through the life, death and resurrection of his beloved son. He allows us to ride his son’s coattails. As Pastor Brock noted (and I add my two cents):
Through my faith/trust in Jesus, Jesus:
- Atoned for my sin. He gives me/us a way back to relational oneness with God.
- Justified me in spite of my guilt – this a legal term/courtroom term. In God’s courtroom when asked, “How do you plead?” our only honest plea is “Guilty, your honor.”
- Redeemed me in spite of the costliness of my sin. I/We don’t have enough assets – materially or spiritually to buy my freedom from the debt incurred by my/our sin. So, redemption involves a payment that covers a debt. That payment was Jesus’s life.
So, relationally, legally and financially, we have no way to cover the debt of our sin.
“But God” (Romans 3:21) provided a way.
As some point like Billy Graham we have to come to our knees and say, “Whether this makes sense based on science or even logic or not, I put all my chips on biblical truth.” (Sorry, for the gambling reference.) Either Jesus is who he says he is, did what the Bible states he did as he taught, lived and died offering a way to eternal life free from damnation, or he did not. This is the choice of, by and through faith.
Billy Graham has been quoted as saying, “Without the resurrection, the cross is meaningless.” For me, this truth has always resonated. I wrote a paper in college for a religion class where I argued for the truth of the resurrection. I received an “A” on the paper, but my professor noted, “Since you stated in this paper that the resurrection is a core foundation to your faith, I won’t debate you on that point.” That’s a smart and back-handed way of saying, “Though I believe I am a Christian and teach religion is a denominationally affiliated college, I don’t believe the resurrection has to be true or is.” Yet, if I cut out this idea from the Bible, where do I stop. If I cut this idea, then faith becomes a list of opinions or wishful thinking.
Thus, the resurrection means that God the Father accepted Jesus back into heaven after he bore the penalty of and cost of our sin. Without the resurrection, Jesus just died in agony. Without the resurrection, Jesus was just a charismatic martyr of the fledging sect known as ‘the people of the Way” or “Christians”.
At some point like Rev. Graham, I said, I’ll take my chances with the Bible. What about you?
Rev. Graham said on another occasion: “The resurrection of Christ changed the midnight of bereavement into a sunrise of reunion; it changed the midnight of disappointment into a sunrise of joy; it changed the midnight of fear to a sunrise of peace.” After 91 years, my dad’s physical body failed him last week (Feb. 24), but thanks be to God my grief is mitigated by reunion with his friends and family, and my mom! As the Graham quote notes: What would have been totally heart-breaking, heart-wrenching and bitter separation, has a mixture of sweetness to it. I can grieve with hope and a feeling of peace. My family, his church family and friends could celebrate my dad’s incredible life because death for the believer is merely a graduation exercise, a change from this material world to the eternal beauty of heaven.
A few snippets about my dad. He lived by the verse “I have learned to be content in whatever state I am” (Phil. 4:11). When my mom was failing, he said, “I married her for better, for worse. This just happens to be the ‘or worse’ part.” This contentedness stemmed from a rock solid faith in Jesus Christ.
I have told people that I have never had to disentangle by view of God the Father from my earthly father because I never had any reason to question his love for me or whether I could trust him.
One final word on the power and the beauty of faith. During Lent, our staff is having a Thursday 11:30-noon prayer time. On the day after the funeral, as we neared the end of our prayer time, with my eyes closed a picture of my Dad lying in the casket came into my mind. His head moved from prone position (in the casket) to a vertical one (with nothing distinguishable behind him or really around him). With a smile, I heard him in that non-audible, audible way say, “I’m okay!”
What a gift when the line between the physical and spiritual realities becomes permeable! What a gift that resurrection applies to fellow human beings, my dad! This allows me to proclaim the truth of the Bible as noted in two hymns of the faith we sung at my Dad’s funeral. “Great is thy Faithfulness, O, God my Father…” “Blessed assurance Jesus is mine, O, what a foretaste of glory divine…”
Not only does the Bible as believed and accepted by Rev. Graham and Dad guide our day-to-day living, it declares the eternal truth of resurrection. These truths allowed me to say to my Dad, not good-bye, but see you later! And, go give your parents and mom great big hugs and kisses from me. He smiled, and passed away three days later. That’s the resurrection truth which informs my hope, my life, now and forever. What informs your life?