What Would Billy Do?

 In Church, Culture, Evangelism, Faith, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Leadership, People, Scripture, Transitions, Uncategorized
Listen to “What Would Billy Do?”

 

One of the sadly comical and widely reported details of the second 2016 Republican debate was the number of times each candidate quoted Ronald Reagan or tried to present himself as assuming Reagan’s mantle. Mentioned by name 45 times, many viewers were left with the impression that either the candidates had no fresh ideas of their own or were hoping to get a posthumous endorsement. Moderator Jake Tapper said before one of the breaks, “Coming up, Ronald Reagan looming large over this debate.  So how Reaganesque exactly are these Republicans? We will find out next.”

Will we experience something of the same following the death of Billy Graham? Already the questions are being asked, “What would Billy Graham think of this?  How would Billy Graham respond?” Michael Luo in the New Yorker is writing, “How Billy Graham’s Movement Lost Its Way.” Is there a similar danger in our hoping to find support for opinions in speculating about what Billy Graham would do?  Are we out of fresh ideas? Are we hoping to pore over his sermons and writings and find those answers?

Ironically, starting in 1952 and continuing until his last column the day he died, Billy Graham’s syndicated advice column, “My Answer” has made millions of us think just that. While some of the questions were serious and heartfelt, there were many that left us wondering how much sense there was in his responding.

“Does the Bible say anything about life on other planets?”

“What did Mary and Joseph do with the gifts that the wise men brought them?”

“Will a gold charm help my arthritis?”

“How do I return unwanted Christmas gifts?”

We have become accustomed to Billy Graham being a composite of Jeremiah calling us to repentance, Isaiah giving us comfort, Moses establishing a covenant with America, and Ann Landers having an answer to every trivial question. It’s not glib to think that we would, like the Republicans and Reagan, hope to find somewhere in Billy Graham the certainty we cannot find in ourselves.

The last encounter the disciples had with Jesus makes me think we may have to work through that for a time. The first question of the earliest church was about restoring the Kingdom. “Are you now going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?” That seems to be the same question in every generation. People want the kingdoms of old rebuilt. They want the times that used to be – only updated. However, the gospel always moves out – not back. The gospel does not restore – it recreates.

The angels always asked the hard questions, didn’t they? Almost to the point of being insensitive. But they weren’t at all. They simply could see one step ahead. “Woman, why are you crying?” was their question at the empty tomb. They saw Jesus when she did not. “Men, why are you standing?” They saw Pentecost when the disciples did not.

I think Billy Graham might well say the same to us today. “Why are you still standing here looking into the sky? Why are you not on your way toward what is next and around the corner?”  That, as much as anything, was the hallmark of Billy Graham’s ministry. Not intimidated by all the changes, instead, he made use of them.  He was one of the first to use every new medium for reaching people. He was on the leading edge of publication with Christianity Today. He was instrumental in the founding of seminaries. He was the target of the fundamentalist and segregationist anger when he integrated his crusades. And, as Donald Trump said often about Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham evolved over time, making it even more difficult to pick a quote that would support a single position. Well, except one position. He never wavered on the heart of the Gospel. He never backed away from “the Bible says” and never lost his gracious and welcoming appeal to people of all stripes.

Peggy Noonan said about Ronald Reagan, “Reagan had the vision. But a vision is worth little if a president doesn’t have the character – the courage and heart – to see it through…Did he have the courage without which it would be nothing but a poignant dream? Yes. At the core of Reagan’s character was courage, a courage that was, simply, natural to him, a courage that was ultimately contagious.”

“What would Billy do?” is the wrong question and I hope we can avoid it altogether. Thankfully, it is impossible to know. Even if we thought we knew we cannot reproduce his unique character and heart. However, perhaps we can be inspired and encouraged by this preacher who had the courage to see it through. Maybe the real question for us is that of the angels. “Why are you still standing here looking into the sky?”

 

 

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
More Posts
Showing 12 comments
  • Matt
    Reply

    The gospel does not restore – it recreates. Amen

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thanks, Matt. This is a whole topic by itself.

  • John
    Reply

    If I could take a moment to recommend a book, Bill Bright of Camus Crusade for Christ, solicited a set of short essays from renowned Christian men (his wife did one for women) called “The Greatest Lesson I Ever Learned.” In it, over 30 men like Billy Graham, Chuck Dobson, and Chuck Colson tell us about a time when God humbled them and taught them a lesson they will never forget. I don’t know how available it is. It’s an old book and Amazon says there’s “only 1 left,” but I think it’s worth a read. I still remember the story Billy Graham told.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I’ll try to find it. What was the story?

      • John
        Reply

        Awe. You gotta read the book.

        No, it was about being really full of himself at one of the Crusades (I think it was in Boston). He went in to meet with the local organizers on the morning after the first night feeling really good and a little arrogant about how great it went. When he arrived he found all of the local organizers deep in prayer, pleading for God to work through the Crusade. It really humbled him and reminded him that it was God and not him and that he needs to bathe everything in prayer.

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          That certainly sounds consistent! This is something he said in Boston before his first big meeting. “When I read the list of past speakers and some of the future speakers that you’re going to have here, I felt like the man I heard about in my part of the country who decided to enter his mule in the Kentucky Derby,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “They said you don’t expect your mule to win, do you? And he said, ‘No, but look at the company he’ll be in!’”

      • John
        Reply

        By the way, the one I really remember is Chuck Dobson’s. He told a story about not putting anger down in writing.

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          Someone once said, I think it was Abraham Lincoln, “write the letter but don’t send it.”

  • Mark Neuenschwander
    Reply

    Brilliant.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Mark. The check is in the mail.

  • Fonda Latham
    Reply

    THANK YOU!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      My pleasure, Fonda. Thank you for reading. Tell you what, if you will listen to the Thursday blog this week (there’s a link for that) and tell me what you think, I will appreciate it.

Leave a Comment