Remembering Lon Allison
From the Introduction to Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God by Lon Allison.
I’m a reluctant witness when it comes to writing about Billy Graham. I am privileged to know him and to have visited with him several times, beginning in the last decade of his public ministry. I also got to know many of his closest team members and some of the family. Even as I sit here writing I think of them with much fondness and respect. They remind me of the words of the psalmist who said, I say of the holy ones who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.” —(Ps. 16:3)
My bird’s-eye view came from serving as the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Those were fifteen wonderful years. I am full of memories and reflections from what I learned.
So, why am I reluctant to write of him? Because he emphatically disliked attention. He would often quote from Isaiah 48:11, stating that God “will not yield [his] glory to another.” He feared people would focus on him more than on the God who created him, saved him, and called him to serve the world with the great message of his Lord Jesus Christ. For instance, in 1996 he visited the campus of Wheaton College, his alma mater, and was led on a tour of the “new,” revised Billy Graham Center Museum. First off, he didn’t like it called the Billy Graham Center Museum. Why? He’d felt the original rendition, which opened in 1980, was too focused on his life and not enough on the work of God operating through many others in the evangelization of America. Further, he feared there was too much Billy Graham and too little Jesus Christ in the story the museum presented. So as he completed his tour of the newly revised exhibits he was asked if he now liked it better. One of his friends told me this story and showed me the exact spot where Billy responded. His words were few but poignant: “there is still too much Billy Graham here.”
Thus I am reluctant to offer yet another version of the Billy Graham story, knowing he would have frowned on such a thing. He really would not want it. On top of that, several excellent books on his life and ministry have been written, and a few of them in recent years. Many are by trained historians with the expertise that only those in that field have mastered. Is another book needed, and by a nonhistorian like me? No, not really. Yet both the publisher who first approached me and a couple of close friends argued that I might be perfect for another Billy Graham book as we neared the centennial year of his life. Why? Because an observant eyewitness who would focus just as much on the message Mr. Graham preached as on Billy himself might be helpful.
I know it would please Billy more for a book about him to take such an approach. As one of my young friends, Johnnie Moore, said, “Lon, you have to write this because Billy made Jesus bigger.” That sold me. If I have anything to offer, it is to look at his life from a slightly different point of view. I’d like to tell Mr. Graham’s story, but always pointing to the Good News or gospel about Jesus that was the core purpose of his life. I’ll explain more about this Good News or gospel in a moment. But my take on Mr. Graham is that in every role of his life he was consumed with the desire to be obedient, with God’s strength, so he might display the life of Christ. Friends who knew him far better than I did say it is so too.
Thus I’ll be talking about Mr. Graham but always pointing to Jesus, who made Billy Graham the man he was. I recall the story of the preacher visiting a church as a guest speaker. When he stepped up to the pulpit there was a brass plaque on the pulpit facing him. It simply said, “Preacher, we wish to see Jesus.” If you will allow, I will therefore write about Mr. G. (as we often called him), but more about Jesus, who worked so powerfully in him.
Now, as promised, let me define a word that will be used a lot in the book. It’s the word gospel. Gospel is an Old English word that means “good spell or story.” Often today it is also called good news or good message. It is used a lot, but always means the same thing. It is the good news or good message or good story about God. That’s it in a nutshell. The gospel is about God. The God Billy Graham believed in is the God of the Bible, who, we are told, is the only God and is distinctly three persons in the same God. He is the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. Three distinct persons as one God.
The essence of the gospel is that God the Father loved humankind so very much he sent his only Son, Jesus, to die for our sins and then, three days later, to rise to new life so he could live in all who seek him by the Holy Spirit. In that person of the Spirit, he promises to be with us and in us always. Because of these great acts of God, people can experience three tremendous benefits, which is why it is such gospel— such Good News. First, we can know him personally. He is no longer distant and otherworldly. We can actually experience God living in our own hearts. The second benefit is to receive forgiveness for all our evil thoughts, words, and deeds from our past, our present, and our future. We are completely forgiven, and not on the basis of our goodness (because we aren’t good enough), but by his perfect goodness (because Jesus was good enough). Not only are we forgiven for our badness, but because he lives in us, he starts transforming us into the good people we’ve always wanted to be. Finally, we receive the gift of eternal life in heaven when we die. And like forgiveness, heaven can’t be earned, but is freely given.
I hope you can now see why this is such good news and why Billy and so many others, including me, have given our lives to tell people this gospel. I am quite sure that anything good we witness in Mr. Graham’s life, he would readily credit to the gospel of the living God working in him. Further, any failures and even sins we find in his history, whether it be in his personal life or ministry, he’d readily attribute to those times when instead of relying on God, he depended instead on himself. Whenever people try to do God’s work for him without depending completely on God to do it, there is failure.
My prayer is that this book will be read by a generation that has never heard of Billy Graham. When I asked my twenty-sixyear- old musician-artist son if his friends would know of Billy Graham he said, “Dad, they know more about Bill Graham, one of the first producers of the music of the 1960s, than they will Billy Graham.” So, it is for them that I write. I also write for those who are broadly attached to the Christian faith, and for those who have had only a small or short brush with faith in their lives. Billy influenced everyone from Catholics and Lutherans to Bible church evangelicals and Assemblies of God charismatics. As I hope you will hear clearly in what follows, he touched people like me with very little religious background. He was the “pastor to presidents” and a spiritual guide to celebrities. But more than everything else, he was a friend of Jesus and passionately devoted to telling Jesus’s story to everyone he possibly could in all the world.