All who loved him knew this day would come. Billy Graham is dead. At 99 years of age he stepped off of this world’s stage and into the arms of his Savior—no doubt, head bowed amid a welcome applause from a great cloud of witnesses.
I first came to know of him as a young boy, watching his black and white telecast from our living room and I remember the respect and praise he received from my parents. My dad reminded us that he and Billy were both “Tarheels” from the state of North Carolina.
Billy’s influence transcended the church and denominationalism. He brought muscle and polish to evangelism and he did it with humility. His grip on the gospel never waned, and his personal application of it never wavered. He practiced what he preached.
I have had the great honor of attending many of his crusades over the years, and to meet and know some of the men on his team. I remember attending his last crusade in New York City, in Flushing Meadows. As I stood in the back of the stage, while Billy made his final comments, I watched as one of his team members walked off to the side of the stage and wept convulsively. The crowd of 90,000 could not see, but I saw and I knew what he knew—and I felt it, too. Billy’s preaching days were over. In a way, I wanted us all to weep. It somehow seemed fitting that we should recognize the passing of an era, to recognize and honor a life well lived. But no time was given for that, no communal tears, no group hugs, no high fives for a career that spanned 60 years. He simply walked off the stage.
We wanted to believe that we would continue to see Billy and Bev Shea and Cliff Barrows, and stadiums full of people, and invitations where thousands respond to the plea to “make a decision for Christ” while the choirs sang “Just As I Am.” But the time had come to turn the page and pass the torch to others. Now, this morning, as we receive word of his passing, we are reminded with finality that his voice is gone. The man with the jutting jaw, the piercing eyes, the reassuring humor that served to attract us to the sweetness of his character, would never again be used to point people to Jesus.
What amplifies the sadness on this day is that our country still needs Billy Graham. More than ever, we need his voice to echo in our evening news, to show up in our newspapers, to remind us, “Jesus said, you must be born again!” The cry of Jeremiah the prophet was the cry that kept the great evangelist and his team moving in the course of their ministry: “The summer is ended, the harvest is past, and we are not saved.” America is, more than ever, “not saved.” America, more than ever, needs Billy Graham.
But Billy would not agree with that. He would argue, what America needs is the message he preached—the simple gospel. America needs men and women who will faithfully herald the message of the gospel and boldly counter the tides of secularism. That’s what he did, and that’s what he’d want us to do.
I once had the great privilege to meet the man. I was thoroughly rehearsed on what I would say. When the moment came I stuck out my hand and thanked him for his faithfulness to Christ, for his example to us, and for all that he had done for the sake of the gospel. True to form, he looked right through me with those steely blues and then deflected the praise saying, “I wish I had done more.”
At the time, I thought his comment was filled with an almost outlandish, illogical humility. How could he possibly have done more? But as I think about it now, he was simply being true to his character, and to his calling. He wanted to do more because more needed to be done. I know now that’s what he was telling me: don’t be satisfied, don’t ever stop, the fields are white unto harvest.
So today, as we mourn his passing, let us accept the torch he’s handed us and remember the words of Jesus: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”