I had filed by last story from Billy Grahams Mission Oklahoma City evangelistic outreach in downtown Oklahoma City and was headed home.
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The evangelists sermon had touched my heart so much that I had to call my oldest son.
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“Its me, your Mama,” I said when I heard his voice on the other end of the line.
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Graham had preached about Jesus parable of the prodigal son — Scripture Id heard many times before. Yet, somehow his message had just the right tone that pricked my stony heart.
He was older, not the young evangelist who mesmerized audiences all around the world with his fervent message, booming voice and dashing looks. Yet when I attended one of his last crusades, one that filled a stadium and culminated in an “altar call” of believers who solemnly walked to the stage to accept the Lord, I got the appeal. He was a preacher and showman who reveled in the power he wielded — in service to God, of course.
Id had a falling out with my then-teenage son and was angry at him. In the back of my mind, I knew I needed to open up the lines of communication again but unforgiveness kept me from doing it.
Graham said the prodigal son, like many young people, wanted to “do his own thing, eventually leaving home to pursue a life without his fathers counsel.
When I first visited Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1990s, on the way to a new job at The Charlotte Observer, I could hardly believe the parkway on the way from the airport was named for Billy Graham — a living figure, and a deeply religious one. Yes, it was the Bible Belt, but it was also the big city. I soon learned how much a part of his home state and of a certain state of mind he remained.
Later, as the preacher told the story, when riotous living had led to a lowly job feeding hogs, the son “realized there was an alternative to this kind of life, and decided to go home.
Looking out into the silent crowd, Graham said, “You can come home. You can come home to God. … Youve lived a life that somehow has failed but you can come home tonight.”
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Graham emphasized that God would not fail to accept anyone who, like the prodigal son, turned or returned to Him with a repentant heart.
“We give every person an opportunity here to take a step of repentance toward God. Hes not waiting to condemn you, to judge you. Hes waiting to kiss you, to say I love you.”
“Americas Pastor,” as he was dubbed, died at 7:46 a.m. Wednesday at his home, where only an attending nurse was present, said Mark DeMoss, spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Both the nurse and Grahams longtime personal physician, Dr. Lucian Rice, who arrived about 20 minutes later, said it was “a peaceful passing,” DeMoss said. Graham had suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments.
As I heard Graham preach, I saw the prodigal son in my own son but then I also saw myself as a prodigal, as well. I was doing my own thing by being stubborn like a small child and I had no peace about it.
He exuded it when I met him a few days before he stepped out onto the Ford Center stage for the first night of his evangelistic outreach.
Graham was a counselor to U.S. presidents of both parties from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Americas highest civilian honor. When the Billy Graham Museum and Library was dedicated in 2007 in Charlotte, North Carolina, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton attended.
The evangelist had invited me to interview him for a story preceding the event. I was a little nervous but that all faded away when I entered the room where Graham sat.
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Describing it to several church friends later, I said he had an aura about him that strongly suggested that he was at peace with God and man. When I think about that interview all those years ago, I still feel the same way.
I had a list of questions and he was gracious enough to expound on each one at length. No “yes” or “no” answers. Graham wanted to share as much as possible in the allotted time that we had. He seemed to know that people were very curious about him and his ministry as he began to get older.
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I approached the biggest question of the night as delicately as possible.
Graham was extremely gracious. Im pretty sure he had expected the question.
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He said he didnt know but God knew. And that, of course, was all that mattered.
I was a little over a year into my stint as religion editor for The Oklahoman when Graham came to Oklahoma City.
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Covering his outreach and meeting him was a highlight of my then-fledgling religion beat career — and it remains so to this day. His message of faith on that last night brought me peace that resulted in positive long-lasting consequences for me and my family.
It was truly an honor to meet him, hear him preach in person and write about his outreach for The Oklahoman.
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It is hard to overstate Billy Grahams impact on American culture and the spread of Christianity across the globe.
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Graham, who died Wednesday at 99, preached the gospel of Christ to more souls than any other person since Jesus of Nazareth himself walked the Earth. Hundreds of millions listened to his sermons on the radio, or on television, or by streaming into coliseums, football stadiums and country churches. Whichever it was, they heard the Southern Baptist preacher deliver a simple message of faith, redemption and forgiveness.
Despite his meteoric rise, despite the fact Time magazine considered him one of the most important people of the 20th century, and Gallup placed him on its most admired list 61 times, Graham remained a humble man. He considered himself more country preacher than groundbreaking theologian, always. That was one reason his message resonated with families like my own trying to cope with the vertiginous changes that shook the postwar world. Images of Vietnam, assassinations, riots and campus protests raced across evening newscasts, along with stories of sexual revolution and drug epidemics. Grahams broadcasts were an oasis of stability in a world gone mad.
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[Billy Graham, evangelist and counselor to presidents, dies at age 99]
Whether it was connecting with my family in the Deep South or reaching the newly converted in sub-Saharan Africa, Graham took his crusades wherever people had ears to hear. More than a few Cold War hawks complained when that mission carried him to the Soviet Union seeking spiritual detente with communist leaders. But Graham ignored his critics. He believed the unbelievers of Moscow needed the gospel just as much as any Baptist in Miami or Meridian.
Likewise, Grahams ministry reached beyond the masses to some of the most prominent leaders of his time. Queen Elizabeth surprised court-watchers when she became enamored with Grahams preaching. His 1954-1955 crusades drew an audience of millions across Britain — and earned him an audience with the queen that started a friendship that lasted throughout their lives. In 1995, Graham led Easter services at the royal familys private chapel. Elizabeth would bestow an honorary knighthood upon him in 2001.
Better known was Grahams closeness with American presidents. He became friends with Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and many who followed. Jimmy Carter met him in the 1950s while working with Grahams organization to promote integration in Georgia. Johnson spent hours with Graham fretting about his personal salvation. George W. Bush credited the evangelical giant for his own conversion.
Graham counseled these flawed men regardless of the policies they pursued or the parties they led. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham explained to me Wednesday how a few minutes in Grahams company revealed why the powerful sought his guidance. He had a remarkably reassuring pastoral presence, Meacham said. Two minutes after meeting him, I realized why presidents in the maelstrom of power would want him around.
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Still, there was a cost in this for Graham. Like many close to Nixon, his reputation was damaged after Watergate. When the Nixon tapes were released, Graham was shocked by the presidents crude language and obvious guilt. Many Americans were stunned to hear Graham express anti-Semitic sentiments. Though he apologized, the episode remains the darkest blot on his legacy.
But Graham was also a positive voice for civil rights, promoting integration and personally removing racial barriers erected by event organizers. He used his influence to encourage Eisenhower to send troops to Little Rock so black students could peacefully enter segregated schools. Later, Graham would be attacked by fundamentalists for the respect he showed other faiths. In its obituary, Politico noted author Bruce Bawers observation that fundamentalists despise Graham as a sellout for affirming the value of the Catholic and Jewish faith.
That reaction is emblematic of a lack of grace in todays evangelical church. Grahams death leaves a void in a movement already shaken by the moral decline of its most prominent leaders. One can only hope that the great preachers passing will cause some in that community of faith to re-examine their priorities. Taking a closer look at Billy Grahams example would be a good place to start.
Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, hosts the MSNBC show Morning Joe.
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