We often use the phrase “once in a lifetime” to mark personal experiences we are unlikely to repeat. I feel most fortunate I can say I have experienced two such once-in-a-lifetime encounters, both involving the late Reverend William Franklin “Billy” Graham Jr. and his larger-than-life legacy.
The first of these episodes occurred in the fall of 2013.
I had just become the dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry at Southern Seminary in June of that year — only the fourth person to hold this position and the first to serve since the school expanded. I had been teaching full time on the Graham School faculty since 2007, and prior to that, had earned a doctorate (Ph.D.) in evangelism through the Graham School, so my appreciation for what it meant to be part of the only graduate school that Graham ever endorsed with his own name was already deep. But word came soon after my appointment as dean that Graham wanted R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, and me to come for a visit to his home in Montreat, North Carolina, so that I could be formally introduced to Graham. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.
We drove up the mountainside to Graham’s home and were welcomed in by staff and caregivers. After a brief time of welcome, we were escorted in to the living room to see the famous evangelist. Though visibly weakened by age and infirmity, he immediately recognized Dr. Mohler and greeted him, and then Dr. Mohler introduced me. I then sat in a chair next to Dr. Graham, and leaned over in order to speak to him, putting my hand on his chair. Dr. Graham immediately placed his hand on top of mine. I didn’t know this at the time, but a picture was taken to capture that moment. That photographic treasure now hangs in my office in a place visibly prominent to my daily workspace sightlines.)
I simply told him what an honor it was to serve as the dean of “his school,” and assured him the same gospel message that he had so faithfully preached, and the same global mission that he had given his life to fulfill, would always be the heart and soul of the Graham School. Graham responded, “Praise God!”
Dr. Mohler and I then had the privilege of praying with Graham. Altogether our time with Dr. Graham lasted about 45 minutes, but the memories would last for a lifetime. It was truly a kairos moment.
Not long after our visit, Graham was hospitalized for an extended period, and though he returned to his home and lived a few more years, his physical condition had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer receive outside visitors.
The second experience was being fortunate enough to be one of the about 2000 mourners/worshipers gathered together on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, in March of this year for the private memorial service honoring the life of Graham.
Shortly after I arrived, I met Tom Phillips, longtime senior staff member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He told me they had issued media credentials for 497 different outlets — every major broadcast network and cable news channel, countless local affiliates, numerous international media — to cover the service that day, and that more people would have the opportunity to simultaneously hear the gospel message proclaimed than all of Billy Graham’s crusades combined. It would truly be his “last crusade.”
As someone who regrettably never experienced firsthand a Billy Graham Crusade, I knew I was getting to be a witness to history … The clear center of the funeral was not the man Billy Graham, but the message he so faithfully proclaimed for decades: God’s love, our sin, Christ’s atonement, and the necessity of a personal response to the gospel.
As someone who regrettably never experienced firsthand a Billy Graham Crusade, I knew I was getting to be a witness to history. In addition, the people who gathered under the outdoor “canvas cathedral” formed a unique “congregation” that one knew would never again be together in a single venue this side of eternity. Most importantly, however, the clear center of the funeral was not the man Billy Graham, but the message he so faithfully proclaimed for decades: God’s love, our sin, Christ’s atonement, and the necessity of a personal response to the gospel.
Being present that day to honor one to whom honor is due is a treasured memory. He had given the strength and energy of his life to preaching the good news of Jesus Christ for all people, and I know that what would have pleased him most was that the focus wasn’t all on him, but rather on Jesus Christ, his savior and Lord.
This once-in-a-lifetime moment led me to reflect upon that earlier personal encounter with Graham in his home, and to pray afresh and anew that the Lord would use me personally — and everyone connected to the Graham School that I lead corporately — to live up to the legacy of gospel faithfulness and Great Commission fruitfulness for which Graham will forever be remembered. May it be so, Lord.
Adam W. Greenway is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry at Southern Seminary.