by Chaplain Norris Burkes
“You sound like Billy Graham,” my high school speech teacher told me years ago. “Have you considered becoming a preacher?”
I was stunned but not too surprised. I had listened all my young life to Billy Graham use his compelling voice to bring a simple message to my generation. His voice was unforgettable, but there are several more reasons I’ll remember him.
He was an intellectual giant.
He preached from the Holy Book with sprinkles from the science books of sociology, chemistry and physics. His scientific illustrations mesmerized us as he found ways to neutralize the conflict between the Bible and science.
His ethics were impeccable.
In 1948, he and three other evangelists pledged to follow Thessalonians 5:22 and “… avoid all appearance of evil.” They shunned circumstances requiring them to travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than their wives. Had he broken that pledge, he could’ve been quickly discredited and his career ended.
Unlike a few of his contemporaries, he limited himself to a modest salary. He made sure accountants recorded the donations. His salary was public information and comparable to clerical pay scales of the time.
He pushed for a global and ecumenical impact.
Like me, he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, but he welcomed people of all religions. In the 1950s and 1960s, fundamentalist churches condemned him for associating with New York liberal Protestants, and still he would dare add a Catholic and even a Rabbi to his platform.
But more than that, as early as 1953, he welcomed people of color into his stadium crusades. At a Tennessee event, he famously removed ropes that organizers had placed to segregate his audience. He told a South African audience, “Christianity is not a white man’s religion and don’t let anyone tell you it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people.”
In 1992, he visited his wife’s childhood missionary home in South Korea. Pressing across the border, he became the first foreign religious leader to visit North Korea, repeating the daring crossing in 1994.
He didn’t claim perfection.
Critics derided him, and perhaps likely so, for a few of his stances. For instance, he supported Presidents Nixon and Johnson in the Vietnam War. In 2011, he admitted to his interviewer from Christianity Today that his political views had “crossed the line,” and he had become too political in his support of Nixon.
He was a man of humble beginnings and endings.
Having spoken to more than 200 million people in his lifetime, he was photographed more than Marilyn Monroe. Gallup Polls placed him among the Top 10 “Most Admired” men in the world 61 times. Despite this public adoration, most remember Graham for his extraordinary humility.
I will remember him most for a day in 1971 at a crusade in the coliseum in Oakland, Calif.
On that day, he ended his sermon as he’d concluded all of them: with the hymn “Just as I Am.” Sometimes called the “National Anthem of Evangelicals,” the song calls people to drop their pretenses and come to God just as they are. The song has seven verses, but it was likely the fifth that moved me most:
Just as I am – Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come.
Leaving the stadium bench, I made my way tearfully to the altar. Billy Graham prayed over the penitents. It was at that moment I vowed to become a minister.
Graham was laid to rest Friday in a plywood casket that was built for him by a convicted murderer from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a simple casket for a simple man with a profoundly simple message.
Thank you, Mr. Graham, for your humble witness to our world. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23)
Chaplain Norris Burkes is best known for his syndicated column that takes a spiritual, often comical – if not irreverent – look at everyday life. He began writing the column for Florida Today in 2001 and was quickly syndicated into nearly fifty papers, reaching almost a million homes. Norris is also a full-time, board-certified hospice chaplain. He is endorsed as Baptist chaplain and is an active member at Impact Community Church. Additionally, up until his retirement in 2014, Burkes served 20 years as a part-time Air National Guard chaplain, (with 8 years prior service as an active duty Air Force Chaplain). Norris graduated from Baylor University, Waco, TX with a Bachelor of Arts in religion and journalism. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Golden Gate Seminary in Mill Valley, CA. and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Pacific University in Portland OR.