My Dad, Billy Graham, Spiritual Maturity, and the Power of the Gospel

(My older brother and me circa 1971-ish wearing our new cowboy gear)

1 Corinthians 13: 11…When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

When the occasion arises that I get asked about my favorite childhood memories, the answer I give usually revolves around the experiences I had playing in the woods behind my grandparent’s house. The only time I don’t give that answer is if I sense the asker isn’t really interested in the long version. When I think of me feeling happy at any point as a kid, the very first flash I get is being 5-6 years old playing cowboy in those woods. In my mind, I was indeed a cowboy, and a very good one at that. There was no fear of being alone in the woods for hours at a time. And as far as I know, there was no fear from any adult that I was absent. They knew where I was going, and they knew I’d be back for lunch. Then the cowboy would head back out again. When I would come in for lunch my grandmother would serve it to me at her kitchen table, in a kitchen full of the cigarette smoke that was ever-present in their home. And she’d give me a big glass of sweet tea. And I’m talking old school southern sweet tea. SWEET. Loved that tea. Now for some reason at 5 years old, but being a cowboy, I’d pretend that sweet tea was a big glass of bourbon…like you would get in a saloon. How I even knew to think that is beyond me. Maybe it was from watching Gunsmoke. Maybe it was my mother. Who just so happened to develop a major dependence on bourbon later in my childhood, and eventually became a full-fledged alcoholic. It’s also no mystery as to why I never minded the smell of cigarette smoke, in fact I love it, and by age fourteen I started a habit that I wouldn’t kick for 30 years. I talked like a child, but one familiar with bourbon and smokes, I thought like a child, as I relished make-believe and heroic fantasy, and I reasoned like a child, as I didn’t think anything at all going on was remotely dangerous to my well being. Not the woods, not the creek, not the being alone, not the smokes, and not the pretend bourbon/super sweet tea. But then I became a man…at least…I think.

Who is going to fill those shoes? I’ve asked that question about only 2 men. 1. My dad. 2. Billy Graham. As far as I’m concerned, both were uniquely made individuals the likes of which are never to come again. Billy Graham passed away about a week and a half before this particular writing. He was 99. For all intents and purposes, his ministry has long since been over, but it was still comforting to know that someone like Billy was still alive just in case. When America was in trouble at anytime in the second half of the 20th century or the start of the 21st, they called 5 letters: B-I-L-L-Y. Now he’s gone. Who is going to fill those shoes? He’s unprecedented as a Christian evangelist, and was a perfect storm of God-given, just-right qualities to be welcomed anywhere on earth. The reason he was so effective goes beyond his movie star looks, charisma and charm, and his biblical prowess. The reason is Billy did one thing nobody else does – eliminated the middle man between soul-in-distress and Christ. He simply delivered the Gospel as is and never wavered. The problems of Christianity all stem from one source – man standing between Christ and the rest of mankind placing qualifications on the Gospel. Billy never once did that. And the ministry speaks for itself.

As for my dad…while I was play acting the bourbon swilling cowboy, he was actually a man. Like the only one I knew. He was everything. Gigantic. A level of person I never once believed I could achieve. Most kids feel that way about their dad when they’re young. But he’s definitely a larger than life character. Who’s going to fill those shoes? It sure as heck wasn’t going to be me, I’d tell myself. Told myself that until I was at least 34 years old. That’s the year I found my actual bourbon swilling mom no longer living on the floor of her bedroom. Things changed a great deal for me that year. Technically I was a man of course at 34, and I was a dad myself, too, so all the signs of manhood were there. But in my heart and mind, I was still a kid play acting at life. I had no idea what I was doing or who I really was. That’s when God truly began to mold me. From that moment until now, my life is completely in every way different than it was before. I barely recognize the person that existed from about 14 to 34. He’s not this man now, and he’s not that little cowboy, either.

About a month ago my larger than life dad had a stroke. And today, he’s back in the hospital again with an infection and a slightly fractured back from falling…again. He’s 79. We think he’s going to alright for now. But these aren’t good signs of long term health. Again…Who’s going to fill those shoes?

The only answer? We are.

We are going to fill Billy Graham’s shoes. We are going to fill my dad’s shoes. We must. “When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” That scripture is lifted from Paul’s famous chapter describing – love. That thought continues in verse 12 – “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” Billy Graham used to discuss that scripture in Crusades. Faith. We only know a little. A part. But God knows fully our hearts and who we really are. Faith. We place our faith in the promise that we know part now, but we will soon be face to face with Christ and know as he already knows. We must trust that – we – can fill the shoes of the great men and women that have come before. That God determines our steps and equips us with all that is necessary to do the work.

I still love to walk and play in the woods. I’ll be doing so again next week. But these days I’m not a cowboy. There’s definitely no bourbon, and I’m no hero. But…I’m still fearless when I’m walking with God. When he’s teaching me. Communing. Showing. Loving. That once boy, now a man, still feels the same thing – freedom to live. That? Is the power of the Gospel.

Goodbye for now, Billy Graham. See you in the next.

Gary Abernathy

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