What was it about Billy Graham?

I cannot think of a stronger candidate for the most influential Christian of the 20th century than Billy Graham.  Even in our little Gloucestershire church, stories are emerging of how Billy Graham’s preaching changed lives and families.  How could one farmer’s son from North Carolina possibly impact so many lives?

Part of the answer has to be his harnessing of the technology of the age.  His insistence on quality P.A. systems and the use of public spaces and sports stadia meant that he could address crowds of up to 1 million at a time.   Satellite TV feeds for live-link audiences extended his lifetime audience to 210 million people in 185 countries.

He was also a man of unquestioned integrity in an age of cynicism and scrutiny.  Mike Pence has been squarely mocked for his avoidance of travel, meetings or meals alone with any woman other than his wife.  No one is mocking Billy Graham now (please see my comments on Pence’s boss below before you count me as a fan).    Combined with his insistence on external scrutiny of his financial affairs, this policy led to 58 years of public life and ministry without major scandal.

Billy Graham was an American patriot, but that was not his message.  He met with and prayed for politburo members and Chinese premiers and even gave Kim Il Sung a bible.  Billy Graham was a white middle class man, but white middle class values were not his message.  He preached with MLK Jnr and hung out with death row prisoners.    Billy Graham was a Baptist, but that was not at the heart of his public preaching.  He met with popes and archbishops and encouraged his converts to connect with the local churches his campaigns partnered with.  Billy Graham was a theistic evolutionist –  but that was not the heart of his message, so he retained his popularity across the spectrum of US Christianity.

Billy Graham preached Christ crucified.  Look at the footage in the obituaries, watch a film of one of his rallies.  View the recent (and brilliant) myhopeuk you-tube remixes http://myhopewithbillygraham.org.uk/programs/the-cross/ …. Billy Graham only ever preached one message – that God loves you; that you’re a sinner; that Jesus died on the cross to deal with your sin; that your response to Jesus death and resurrection is what determines your earthly direction and your eternal destiny.  Clear, simple, powerful.  The kind of message the most influential preacher of the first century was talking about when he wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth:

‘but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

Why was Billy Graham so influential?  Technology and integrity played a part, but the real key to Billy Graham’s influence was that he exercised very little influence of his own.  He stuck like glue to his core message, seeking to expose people to the influence of his crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

Pruning Kevin

I had to prune Kevin down to about half his height.  Apparently the dead wood would be in the way of new growth.

In late 2007 I got fed up and removed all the conkers our four year old had scattered across the garden, but Kevin’s conker escaped the purge.  We found the seedling that sprouted from it under a sandbag the following spring and Kevin lived and grew and moved with us for eight years.  When he was three feet high and just about too big for his pot, he was adopted by Wotton Community Sports Foundation and planted as a feature tree.  This delightful turn of events turned sour for Kevin when local deer took a liking to his sticky buds and tasty bark and munched his top half to death. WCSF provided Kevin with a big new deer-proof jacket & he’s raring to go with this year’s sticky buds, but 3 years-worth of main stem had to go.

Thus far in my life, nearly all of the (comparatively minor) physical and emotional pain I’ve experienced has been self-inflicted – by having a family and by falling off my bike.  I have seen plenty of other people’s pain and have probably been to more funerals than you, but I can’t speak with any personal experience of major betrayal, injury, illness or loss.  As a church leader, funeral celebrant and ‘community personality’ I do a lot of listening.  Speaking out pain helps people to make sense of the waves of grief and anger and to plot their own course through injustice and pain.  Speaking can be cathartic and listening therapeutic.  But sometimes I’m called on to speak.  What can I say when my own experience of pain is so limited?

Jesus said I’m the vine, my Father is the gardener and you are the branches.  The gardener prunes the branches to make them even more fruitful.  Old wood and dead material is cleared away to make space for new growth and fruit.   In both my own limited experience of suffering and in the lives of those to whom I have listened I’ve seen the pruning hand of God at work.  It’s not always obvious in the years of loss and pain, but the presence of God and the experience of perseverance and learned lessons can lead to flourishing and fruitfulness that may never have happened without the pruning.

The idea that loss and suffering can lead to gain and flourishing is at the heart of the Christian message.  Jesus death – the ultimate tragedy becomes the source of forgiveness, friendship with God and eternal life for all who believe and his resurrection is the d-day defeat of death and the devil.  So our suffering is swallowed up in the unstoppable victory of God and his good purposes over all opposition.

Often as I’m listening, God gets the blame. But as people talk it out, it becomes apparent that there are a thousand other culprits in this broken world – muntjacs, me, you, them, powers and authorities we can see and understand and powers and authorities we can’t.  All are allowed by God to exist with free will for the time being and all will be called to account on the day of Jesus’ return (okay maybe not the muntjacs – they were just doing their thing).

For me this Christian view of suffering is so much more satisfying that saying ‘**it’ happens..  When you think about it, you can’t even say that much if we’re just Godless phenotypes configured by selection pressure.   ‘It’ happens would be more accurate – there being no positive or negative value to what we consider to be suffering.

Apparently Horse chestnut trees take at least 14 years to flower and produce their own conkers.  Kevin hasn’t got off to the best start and no doubt there are more challenges ahead, but maybe his conkers scattered across the lawn will irk dads in generations to come.  Any maybe, just maybe, my pruning will create space for a 300 ring trunk..

 

Simple Sex

And today’s celebrity sexual abuser is….allegedly Dustin Hoffman.

I am sick of sexual abuse.  I am sick of sexual abuse in the news.  I am sick of sexual (and physical) child abuse lying behind the presenting issues of every tenth (conservative guesstimate) person I have a pastoral conversation with. I am sick of ‘me too’.  I am sick of a society which hangs it all out for you to see, where no surveys find that less than 50% of us watch porn and where a sense of sexual entitlement leads to a feeling that my wife / sisters / daughters / female friends cannot go out without being leered at.  SICK SICK SICK

Here’s a simple idea from the old school:

What if we got the idea into our national consciousness that the best place for sexual intimacy, sexual contact and sexual arousal is in a lifelong, committed relationship between one man and one woman, recognised by the community and blessed by God as suggested in the second chapter of the bible, or by Jesus in Matthew 19?  (For the sake of a those more liberal than my reading of the bible, let’s also include lifelong same sex sexual relationships here).  Could it be that we could then all talk openly about sex and relationships without tittering innuendo and embarrassment?  Could it be that couples struggling with sex could talk with counsellors with the aim of restoring their lifelong relationship to sound emotional and sexual footing?   Could it be that the sex industry would collapse and sexual slavery would end?   Could sex and relationship education climb out of the too little, too late, too biological, too much peer pressure to perform trap?  Could it be that we’d realise that habitual porno self-love is antithetical to sexual relationships between human beings? Might my daughters be able to walk down the street without the feeling that they’re being objectified?  Might the housing crisis draw to a close? Might I feel less sick?  Might we be less sick?

Occasionally someone thoughtfully shields the innocent ears of a Christian pastor from sexual detail…..   Which is lovely…. But it’s too late.  Because I’ve heard too many confessions and seen too many broken lives and have also watched the news occasionally and let me tell you…. we are sick sick sick and the answer is SIMPLE SIMPLE SIMPLE.