On 21 February 2018 world famous evangelist and preacher William Franklin (Billy) Graham died at the age of 99.
In over 75 years of ministry, Billy had preached to nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries – more than any other evangelist in the history of Christendom.
And yet, as a 15-year-old in May 1934, the farm boy from North Carolina wanted nothing to do with the "fanatics" holding a crusade on his father's dairy farm.
One of the men in attendance, however, a salesman named Vernon Patterson, was praying that God would raise up someone from Charlotte to preach the Gospel [good news about Jesus] to the ends of the earth.
Billy was not unfamiliar with Christianity. He had been previously baptized and confirmed. He went to church each week, his family had Bible reading and prayer together, and he was vice president of the youth group at his church. But his real interests lay elsewhere. He hoped one day to play professional baseball and his hero was Babe Ruth.
Although not initially interested, on hearing how big the tent meetings were and what a "fighter" preacher Dr Mordecai Ham was, Billy attended one night.
He didn't like being told that he was lost and going to hell though, so he got out as soon as he could and said, "I am through". All that night and all the next day Billy was miserable, he writes in his autobiography Just as I am, and admits, "I couldn't get there soon enough the next night!"
He attended night after night, dutifully taking notes as Ham preached—and becoming increasingly convicted that he was a sinner who did not know Jesus Christ. He began to realize that neither his baptism and confirmation nor his church attendance would save him.
"Our family Bible reading, praying, psalm-singing and church-going—all these had left me restless and resentful," writes Billy. "In a word, I was spiritually dead."
During each service, Ham invited people to come forward and receive Christ. On November 1, six days before his 16th birthday, Billy responded to that invitation, repenting of (expressing a genuine sorrow for) his sins.
Although he felt no great emotion, he knew he was a new person. His mother recalled later that when she arrived home from the meeting that night, Billy threw his arms around her and said, "Mother, I'm a changed boy!"
Another famous preacher, Dwight L. Moody, is credited with saying: "The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him", but in Billy Graham the world certainly got a glimpse of the impact one God-fearing individual can make.
A. Larry Ross, who served as Billy's personal media spokesperson for more than three decades, wrote recently, in an Assist News article that he could sum up the man in four words: humility, integrity, authenticity and love.
"Each one of which I have observed consistently in my travels with him," Larry writes.
Wow! What an incredible testimony to God's keeping power over a long life in the public eye.
Larry goes on to give examples of where he has witnessed these attributes in Billy.
After giving an autograph in July 1999 Billy turned to Larry and said genuinely, "I have never understood why in the world anyone would want my autograph."
Larry at first thought he was joking but then realised "Billy's puzzled sincerity was reflective of his self-identification as 'a country boy called to preach', who could not fathom why the Lord chose him to be blessed with such spiritual responsibility and global opportunity."
There are many examples of Billy's personal, spiritual and financial integrity.
One example goes something like this: In 1949 or 1950, after one of his famous evangelistic meetings, Billy returned to his hotel room to find a naked woman lying on his bed, ready to seduce him in an attempt to destroy his ministry. Billy, cautious and humble as usual, fled the hotel room and immediately implemented a rule: never to travel (including by car), eat or meet alone with a woman other than his wife, Ruth.
Billy's integrity lifted him through the dark days of the late 1980s, when sex scandals befell other TV preachers, and the safe-guard that bears his name has since been adopted by many pastors and executives.
Financially, Billy's integrity is demonstrated in the fact that, instead of taking a share of the offerings at his crusades, he drew a modest salary from his ministry, which was governed by an independent board, instead of by friends and relatives.
In August 2005 Larry went to visit Billy, now in his eighties, worried that Billy, although he still had his wife of 61-years, Ruth, to love and had work to do on his new book, might be lacking in another essential for happiness – something to anticipate. Just two months before, Billy had retired from crusade preaching with his last event in New York City.
"While sitting together on his back porch I asked Mr. Graham how he felt. He replied, 'I have never been more at peace in my life. My wife Ruth has been there for me as I travelled the world. But with her recent medical needs, it is now time for me to take care of her. God has enabled me to do that, and I am looking forward to spending more time together.' Ruth passed away in 2007."
Even recently, despite the ravages of age and Parkinson's Disease, Larry reports that Billy was still filled with passion and purpose to deliver yet one more sermon about the need for renewal in the Church.
Billy told Larry that when he got to heaven he was going to lay any awards and rewards received in this life at the feet of Jesus.
In March 1998, at a TIME gala dinner, organizers were in crisis mode because nobody would sit next President Bill Clinton, in the wake of his recent impeachment by the House of Representatives. Minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, no celebrity in attendance would accept that seat.
When Billy Graham was approached about the situation, he declared, "I'll sit next to the President. He's my friend!"
"What mattered most to Mr. Graham," Larry recalls, "was to faithfully lift up the name of Jesus with authenticity and integrity to the great and the low, the high and the humble. Though he never compromised the Gospel or the dimension of the reality of God's judgment, ... in my experience Mr. Graham always functioned as a 'paramedic,' rather than a 'policeman,' for the Kingdom of God.
"Billy Graham represented a balance of grace and truth. He was a man of humility, integrity, authenticity and an agent of God's love, who despite his gifts and ability, the Lord used more for his availability. He had an audience of One, and would consistently 'suit up and show up', leaving the results to the Lord he served, and giving all the glory and honour to God."•