By Rebekah Theilen
Love, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When I was a growing up, being raised in a family with Baptist roots, Billy Graham was Billy Graham. There were no others. But if you watched his funeral, held beneath a tent in humble North Carolina, you saw that there were many others. He was the trusted confidant of American presidents. He was friend to Cliff Barrows, Grady Wilson, and George Beverly Shea. He was grandfather to 19, great-grandfather to 44, and on and on he goes into the coming generations. He was “Daddy” to five—Gigi, Anne, Ruth, Franklin, and Ned. He was husband to wife, Ruth, for over sixty years.
In death and in life, we delight in true stories of family and friends. In these weeks since Billy Graham has met his Lord, I’ve found myself watching his old crusade videos, and listening to interviews with people from his life. Interview after interview, one begins to notice a commonly-asked question: “What was it like?” People want to know what it was like to be the friend, the child, or the wife of Billy Graham. Not only was this man deeply loved, but he was highly revered throughout the world, and—though it feels cheapening to mention his name in relation to such minor statistics—was even named on Gallup’s Most Admired Man list more times than any other man since the 1940’s when the listing began.
In an age where heroes have gone extinct, we as a people are hungry for goodness. Billy Graham’s life, changed by the Gospel, was focused on showing us the only place to look. Investigating skeptics might examine Graham’s life, hoping to uncover a secret or scandal. But I think they’re looking for something more. When it comes to the people of pulpits and pedestals, the ones who would seem to us larger than life, we are wanting to know that we aren't alone. We are watching to see if these people are human. And while we’re comforted knowing these humans have faults, we don’t want our leaders to ever let us down. We want to believe in not only the unlikely, but even the impossible—that good men still exist in the world.
Impossible, that is, apart from God. One by one, Billy Graham’s children stood at the podium, honoring a man who had surely, at some point in their lives, let them down in various ways. Billy Graham, truly, was only a man. But any mistakes, disappointments, or water under the bridge is not what they chose to focus on that day. By speaking so kindly of their dearly loved father, they passed to the world an incredible gift: They revealed to us the beauty of loving a flawed man. They brought to life the words of Catholic mystic, Evelyn Underhill, who writes, “All things are perceived in the light of charity, and hence under the aspect of beauty; for beauty is simply reality seen with the eyes of love.”
It couldn’t have been easy, traveling the world as he did all those years. His wife, Ruth, was familiar with the pains of prolonged separation and no stranger to lonely, unromantic realities of living without her husband, oftentimes for weeks and months. In one interview, she says it would’ve been hard to accept Billy’s absences for any reason other than that he was proclaiming Jesus Christ, God’s token of love for every nation of the world. She believed her husband was doing the work of God, and that by remaining on the mountain, at home with their children, she was, too. Ruth would never forget, how on the night she returned from their first date, she knelt beside her bed and prayed, “God, if You let me serve You with this man, I’d consider it the greatest privilege of my life.”
Ruth is often described as a woman with a deeply rooted faith, a mischievous sense of humor, and a joy-filled heart. After kissing her husband goodbye, watching him drive down the mountain again, she was known to turn around and say things like “I guess it’s time to clean the attic!” or “Let’s go to the pound and adopt a puppy!” When tears would fall as they inevitably did, or the storms of raising children blew in like dark clouds, or her own sins and weaknesses made themselves known, she gave her broken heart to God. The book, Footsteps of a Pilgrim: The Life and Loves of Ruth Bell Graham, provides glimpses of poems she penned, journal entries she wrote, and other stories from her family and life.
The truest of loves is always bittersweet. Whether or not you agreed with Graham’s theology, or approved of his politics or stadium methods, one has to admit there was something about him: He was willing to be flawed from the very beginning. He was eager to learn, not only from his own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of many men who’d gone before. Billy Graham believed respect belonged to all people, that Christ on the cross of shame became the hope of all men. As a Christian, I am grateful for the life of Billy Graham, as well as thankful for the others, who did not count the cost but shared his goodness with the world.
Rebekah spends her days living life alongside her husband and children. She enjoys reading, homeschooling, and every once in a great while, chasing after the wind.