She never met Billy Graham, though everyone of our generation knew his name. She is just old enough to have enjoyed his foray into movies (The Hiding Place is an underrated film) and just young enough to recall being irritated when his Crusades preempted her favorite television.
Still, she trusted him, because Billy Graham was an evangelist—but not the Elmer Gantry kind. He was not (to our generation) cool, but sound and solid as the savings bond your grandmother got you for your birthday.
My wife Hope and I met in high school but didn’t date until after she had gone to Wheaton college. She used to tease me about her elite status: “Billy Graham went to Wheaton College.” Wheaton had a new Billy Graham Center on campus and an Inklings library. Add in Jim and Elizabeth Elliot, and her school had it all: minds awake in C.S. Lewis, the Elliots’ passionate hearts, and a sound hand to do the work of the Gospel in Billy Graham.
I knew I could never compete with Wheaton!
Gentle reader, I married her, but every so often, her magazine from Wheaton College would come, and as a proud alumna, she would remind me: “Billy Graham. Wheaton College.” And she would win. Again.
Wheaton was not the Harvard of Evangelical colleges, it was the Billy Graham of Evangelical colleges.
What did that mean? For Hope, it meant that the school would be sound, not crazy right wing or racist, and would stay true to the Gospel. If Hope had wanted a secular music college she could have had her pick—but she wanted Wheaton, not a pale image of secularism. She wanted a mind baptized, not credentials.
Of course, just as Reverend Graham was not perfect, so Wheaton was not quite what she’d hoped for. Too often, she saw Wheaton professors chase external praise. As Nixon was to Graham, so University of Chicago recognition was to some of her professors.
Still, she is a loyal alumna, because, like Graham, she got a great education, did not pay too much for it, and made wonderful lifelong friends.
Nobody, nobody, nobody gets everything right. Since history has no arc, things tolerated today are intolerable tomorrow. History has no dialectic because history is not a person. History goes as persons choose and God, within very broad limits, allows that choice.
Graham’s soundness is that he lived always in the knowledge that death would come, and with death, God.
The arc of history for all of us is death. Graham sided with that truth all his life, made ready for it, and helped others of us to get ready.
This did not make him cheerless, but it did give him perspective. He lived long enough to see his fame fade. Few of my students today have any knowledge of Graham–if they even know the name.
Billy Graham the man was not eternal, but now his immortal soul, created in the image of God, is free.
The mistakes are touted up and grace is given. Mercy is his reward and Billy Graham sees the face of God. That is an education he got by living and that is a college in which we can all enroll. It never disappoints us and compares to nothing, being perfectly good, true, and beautiful.
We all are born, enrolled in this school of souls, and then graduate. We can all attend Billy Graham’s deepest alma mater because Jesus invites us all. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Happy birthday, dear wife, true Hope. You were a teacher who gave me hope and changed me deeply. You made me better . . . And I am glad we enrolled in the same school for souls as Mr. Graham.
Rachel Motte edited this essay.