What Would Billy Do?
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?”