Honor comes to us in all sorts of ways. When we think of personal honors, we usually think of the ways we have been recognized and affirmed in a formal way. But some honors, just as or more meaningful, are not formally bestowed. To be among the 2,300 people invited to witness the private funeral of Billy Graham was a surprising non-formal honor which moved me deeply. Though I did not have a personal relationship with Billy (I refer to him that way, because that’s the way he would have it), I met him on a couple of occasions.
Because of his biblical and theological perspective, people often fail to reflect on how creative and innovative he was: the way he pioneered the use of radio and television; the way he harnessed print media; the role he played in launching a world-class magazine; and his influence in higher education, particularly theological education.
His funeral, for which he was the primary architect, was in keeping with that ongoing stream of creativity. He was certainly one of the two or three most outstanding Christian leaders of the 20th century if not the most and would certainly have massive attention in death. I can imagine him thinking, “why not use the funeral to make a witness for Christ through the tv coverage?” And that’s a big part of what happened.
The core of the service was the witness of his children, all of them simple and clear, doing what I’m sure pleased him: not praising their father, but emphasizing his message. The most meaningful for me was the sharing of one daughter who had a painful marriage that ended in divorce, talking about her shame and how dreadful it was to think of how this was affecting her Mom and Dad, but how redemptive it was when she was welcomed home by Billy with open arms. It was a powerful story. There was no pretension of perfection. The feeling was that we were at a large family funeral, friends gathered to remember, to share their grief and celebrate the life of a loved one.
Presidents had visited the family in the days before the funeral, and both the President and Vice President were in attendance at the funeral. Nothing was made of their presence. Most of us in attendance would not have even known they were there, but for a simple naming of them when a few other distinguished “visitors” were welcomed.
The entire service was full of worshipful and grateful joy. My emotions were stirred in a surprising way. For a time in the service I was overcome as my own conversion and Christian experience began to pervade my thoughts. Two men were dominant in that vivid reliving: Wiley Grisson, a fifth grade-educated Baptist preacher under whose powerful preaching I was converted, and my baptism by him, along with my father, in a cold creek, and David McKeithen, a seminary-educated Methodist preacher who paid attention to a poor country boy in the youth group, taking me under his wing and nurturing me in the faith, becoming my father in ministry.
Both of those men belong in the company of Billy Graham. Tears of joy flowed for my being blessed by those two men, and for Billy blessing millions.
Tears of repentance and sadness came when I reflected on the state of our nation today. During the service, we were remembering and celebrating the passionate ministry of this man who was relentlessly driven in sharing the Gospel and calling people to saving faith in Jesus Christ. I couldn’t help but think of Francis Asbury, the powerful evangelist that led so much of the planting of the Gospel and the Methodist movement in America. Billy Graham lay in state in our Capitol building in Washington; some folks were critical of that. I wondered if folks were critical when public monies paid for a statue of Francis Asbury on horseback, still present in our capital city.
I was sad and tearful because the signs are far from clear that we are still in the spirit of Francis Asbury, or were ever very much in the spirit of Billy Graham. So, our Methodist movement, once the most obvious presence of the Christian faith and way in this country, is diminishing in number and influence.
There are those who still insist that Billy was never as prophetic as he should have been. Some of that, though in my mind not much, may be so. As I shared in the funeral experience, my mind went back to the mid-sixties in Mississippi. I was not as prophetic, bold and courageous as I should have been, but I did take a stand for the Gospel.
Mississippi was a “closed society” as related to civil rights. Black students couldn’t get into the University of Mississippi, public schools were being integrated and private schools for whites only were rising everywhere; and not only restrooms and lunch counters but white church doors were closed to Black citizens. Along with a few other young Methodist ministers, we took a stand for justice and reconciliation. Billy Graham refused to have a crusade in Mississippi that was not open to all races.
Though not an honor formally bestowed, the invitation to Billy’s private funeral was a signal honor for which I am deeply grateful. I have long believed that my evangelical faith calls me to be passionate in sharing the Gospel, which means calling people to salvation: personal faith in Jesus Christ which means reconciliation with God and neighbor, and personal and social holiness. Billy’s funeral intensified that belief and commitment.