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A Tribute to Billy

One of my favorite authors is Ricky Bragg, a beautiful writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner. His latest book, "Where I Come From", is a collection of short stories growing up dirt poor in Alabama. Bragg is clearly not a Christian, but he and I have this in common, a deep admiration for Billy Graham. Here’s how Ricky so beautifuly puts it;

Written before his death on February 21, 2018

The Word coursed through the Southern air when I was a boy. It flew through the pines and across the cotton fields until it was snagged by a raggedy antenna and channeled, hissing and crackling, through the picture tube of a secondhand Zenith TV. We learned of the exodus, of the swallowing of Jonah and the trials of Job, through static and horizontal roll – until someone went outside and turned the antenna back toward Birmingham. I watched my grandmother press her palms to warm plastic to be healed, saw kinfolks shake the floorboards in time to the Happy Goodman Family, Dixie Echoes, or Florida Boys, till the preaching resumed from Tulsa, Pensacola, or Baton Rouge. The televangelists and their troubadours would become the soundtrack of our lives, constant, beseeching, and much the same, a kind of white noise for me and my sinful brothers, something to be tolerated till Gunsmoke came on.

Only one voice truly transcended, only one got through. Children stopped playing. Old people leaned closer.

“They love their lust, love their sin so much, they don’t want God to come…”

Only one really reached into that hot little room and pulled.

“But the day of the Lord will come, like a thief in the night…”

I remember thinking, the way a boy thinks, that if I turned the set off, even if I crawled behind the television and jerked the plug out of the wall, that voice, strong and clear and calm, would still be pulling, pulling and the only way to be free of it was to run out the door and down the road. And even then some passing car would probably still bring him into earshot again, its radio tuned to some distant coliseum where a hundred thousand people had come to hear God’s Word, through Billy Graham.

“Lust and greed and hate and jealousy… the human race stand, at this moment, on the brink…”

The face was handsome but fierce, like a lion or an angry hawk, its eyes like drill bits, its jaw set in iron. But mostly it was the voice that got you, that voice that sounded so loud, even in a whisper, it seemed to come at you in color even from a thirty-five-dollar black-and-white. It was never shrill, never strident, never alarmed, even as it told of the end of days. That voice, at least to a little boy, was a voice of peace and power. The other preachers of my childhood raved and sweated and accused, preached so hard, as one old man told me, “a feller couldn’t live it.” And there was some of that in this voice – but only some. It was, in one breath, a doubled-up fist, pounding, driving, at sin, at hypocrites, at the Devil hisself. But in the next breath the voice calmed, welcomed, like a laying on of hands. And sometimes, impossibly, it was all these things as we think a judge should sound, or a father, or just any good strong man. Because what the voice mostly did, in all the power, was plead for goodness, and argue against despair.

“And I am ready, for I am a child of God.”

Some preachers preach from an angry spirit – they can’t hid it in their voice. Billy Graham never preached from anger. It ain’t the one who shouts the loudest that you remember what they said. And even when he got old, his voice didn’t change.

The calm people heard in Graham’s voice was a simple manifestation of faith, said Chris Roberts, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama, and a lifelong Baptist. It was the voice of a man, Roberts said, “who knew how the scoreboard was gonna read at the end… and it wasn’t too late to change jerseys.”

“Today, you can choose to receive Christ as your Lord and Savior, or not. But your choice will determine your eternity.”

Millions knew Graham was God’s messenger, knew the voice of a dairy farmer’s son from Charlotte was bouncing not from a satellite but someplace higher. In 1959 a woman in Australia said that in the midst of thousands, she heard him speak to her alone. Millions more believed the same. Dogma would not open the gates of heaven; one must accept Christ and live a good life. That meant salvation, and improved this world for us all. Maybe that is what a prophet is. I only know of that voice I heard as a boy, and the warmth and warning that traveled with it on the air. The voice of God.

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