Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you.
Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith (Heb. 13.7).
There’s a scene in Robert Duvall’s film The Apostle where the renegade evangelist, Sonny Dewey, comes upon a boat blessing ceremony on the river. “You do it your way, I’ll do it mine,” Sonny allows, acknowledging the efforts of the presiding priest, “but we get it done, don’t we?”
It’s a fairly sophisticated ecumenical observation, and it came to mind when an oversized ad in the Family Christian Bookstore window caught my eye last year. It was Billy Graham, the king of the altar call, all silver-haired and looking distinguished as ever. And he had a new book!
At least, there was a new book with his name on it, and it had in fact already come to my attention because of a story by Kenneth Woodward in the Wall Street Journal. Woodward argued that Graham himself had little to do with the book, and that the Billy Graham machine was largely responsible for cranking it out. Woodward went on to suggest that the machine ought to consider giving the nonagenarian and his legacy a break.
I grew up on Billy Graham’s preaching and Christian vision, and he was my childhood hero. I never made it to one of his famous crusades, but I remember watching them on TV with my family—even running to my room during an on-the-air altar call to re-dedicate my life to Christ on at least one occasion.
That was back when I was memorizing Bible verses with the Navigators and gobbling up books from InterVarsity Press about apologetics and evangelization. There were youth groups and Sunday school, summer camps and work trips, quiet times and discipleship meetings. And Billy Graham? He was the Evangelical standard-bearer, a key role model for carrying out the Great Commission and spreading the Good News.
Graham was knowledgeable and learned, but he never came across as arrogant or pretentious. His preaching was passionate and persuasive, yet devoid of the scaremongering hellfire that characterized other popular evangelists of his time. Although Graham routinely counseled U.S. presidents and his televised crusades made him a media superstar, Graham nonetheless gave you the impression that he was a regular Joe—that he was approachable and normal and downright human.
So, I wanted to be like Billy Graham—what young Evangelical wouldn’t? How to accomplish that was the question.
Rather, the real question was: Are you kidding me? Graham appeared to be a normal human being, but there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that he was still somehow different and, thus, in an altogether foreign realm as far as life trajectories went. Consequently, the famous evangelist represented a goal that was both admirable and yet unattainable—and therefore quite safe.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and you’ll find me as a freshman at Wheaton College in Illinois—Graham’s alma mater. I didn’t go there just because of the Graham connection, but it was certainly a factor, and when I heard that Graham would be coming to visit Wheaton that semester, I was thrilled.
He was coming to dedicate Wheaton’s spanking new graduate school and center for evangelization that was to be named in his honor: The Billy Graham Center. I marked the date on my calendar, and I eagerly anticipated the day I’d get to see this larger than life paragon of the Faith up close for the first time.
The day arrived—it was cold and windy. I bundled up and headed down to the Center for the dedication ceremony. There was a crowd already gathered before the dais, and I wormed my way to the front, rationalizing that my past history of Graham enthusiasm justified a bit of jostling and rude behavior.
No matter—I was there! Maybe 20 feet from the great man—him, sitting up on the platform with the other honored guests; me, down below at the edge of the horde and gazing up at the podium. Impatiently, I waited out the string of introductions and mini-speeches, and then the moment I’d been waiting for: Billy Graham stepped up to the mike to speak—right there, just above me! I could’ve reached out and touched his shoe!
Then, I noticed something: Billy Graham had a runny nose.
“Billy Graham—a runny nose?” (Pause.) “Heck, even I get a runny nose from time to time.” I watched with curiosity as Graham reach for his handkerchief. “Why,” (wait for it) “that means,” (wait…) “that means that … Billy Graham isn’t all that different from me!”
Simple, I know—painfully obvious even. But recall that I was just a young undergraduate at the time, and up to that point (believe it or not), it had just never occurred to me that superstars and larger than life heroes—even the Evangelical Christian ones—were, well, human. Mortal. Ordinary folks that catch cold like everyone else.
It was a revelation, yes, and a challenge: If God could accomplish so much through an ordinary, cold-catching mortal like Billy Graham, what might he accomplish through me? And, more to the point, what’s holding him up?
Fast-forward once again to the present day. Billy Graham is back in the news because of Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s Oscar nominated film that tells the story of Louis Zamperini—the Olympic runner, World War II hero, and internment camp survivor. Sadly, the movie downplays Zamperini’s faith, and, as Grant Wacker pointed out, it totally bypasses his watershed conversion at a post-war Graham revival in Los Angeles.
In the movie “Unbroken,” Billy Graham goes unmentioned, and Zamperini’s redemption narrative is largely reduced to a few title cards flashed before the closing credits. Yet Zamperini himself believed that the religious event was the pivotal moment of his long journey.
Zamperini was raised a Catholic, and it would’ve been all the more glorious if his adult conversion had brought him back to the Sacraments. Even so, it’s clear that Zamperini totally surrendered himself to God’s grace, and that grace had a field day in and through his life. He gave up his heavy drinking, sought to forgive his Japanese captors, and, most significantly, ended up devoting his life to telling others about the Lord—the most sure sign of an authentic interior about-face.
“The Church wants to preach the Gospel together with all who believe in Christ,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II. “It wants to point out to all the path to eternal salvation.” Note the Holy Father’s double emphasis on the word “all” there: All need to hear about the Gospel, and, consequently, all need to preach it—it’s a team effort! That means clergy and religious doing the preaching, as well as businessmen, homemakers, and students. Both young and old are called, as are both the educated and the illiterate. What’s more, the mission includes every kind of Christian, Catholic and otherwise, and even those who might be struggling in their faith or moral life. “All who believe in Christ,” St. John Paul wrote, not “all who believe in Christ and meet a certain minimal standard of virtue and piety.”
That brings me back to The Apostle. The central character, Sonny, is an imperfect ambassador of Jesus if there ever was one. Among other things, he has a drinking problem and anger issues, and he ends up beating a man into a coma. Instead of turning himself in, he goes on the lam and creates a new life for himself in another state under a pseudonym—not exactly a poster child for Gospel living by any stretch.
As depicted in the movie, however, the flawed Sonny somehow still draws others to Jesus—even as the ending credits roll and we see Sonny the convict leading his fellow prisoners in a spiritual chant as they clear the highway of brush. In this, is he so different from St. Paul, himself a murderer and a leading persecutor of the first followers of The Way? There wasn’t a whole lot of distance between Paul’s acquiescence at the stoning of St. Stephen and his first attempts at testifying to Jesus, and he went on to become the greatest evangelist ever. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (cf. I Cor 9:16) was his motto, in season and out of season. It ought to be ours.
Don’t worry that you don’t know enough or that you think you’re not holy enough or that you might get something wrong. Preach the Gospel with your words as best you can, and strive to bring your life into line with those words. Tell others about Jesus with your voice, and at the same time coax your actions and choices along to follow suit. Do it even if you’re a rotten sinner. Do it even if you’ve got a runny nose or you’re ninety-some-odd years old.
Do it anyway—don’t wait. “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth,” St. Paul wrote the Philippians, “Christ is proclaimed.” And when Christ is proclaimed, regardless of how, good things happen.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared February 15, 2015 on the author’s blog God Haunted Lunatic and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Billy Graham Evangelical Association.)