It was in the Fall of 1981. Rice Stadium in Houston was packed to the gills. I’d been invited by a dear friend (who is still a good friend) to attend a Billy Graham. crusade. The whole youth group piled onto an activity bus for the shuttle ride.
The cool kids congregated in the back of the bus. I sat right behind the bus driver.
Two months shy of my 13th birthday, I was just old enough to join youth group. I remember so many little details about that evening, which is odd because a lot of my childhood I’d just as soon as forget.
I honestly cannot tell you what I had lunch yesterday, but I can recall every nuance of that evening in 1981. It is as though all of my senses were tingling – there was charge in the air.
I remember the loud grumble of the bus, and the smell of diesel fuel (mingled with Love’s Baby Soft perfume, which we girls regularly doused ourselves with.)
The brightness of the stadium lights.
The cold hardness of the bleachers.
The scent of buttery popcorn from the concession stand.
The itchiness of the sweater I’d worn, because it because the weather in Houston was actually cool for a change.
At the stadium, I remember that there was an electric buzz in the atmosphere – a kind of spirit-hum that kind of vibrated in all of us. It seemed to resonate in the whole stadium, in every soul. I’d never felt anything like it, and rarely have I ever experienced again. We took our seats and settled in, most of us just as interested in the cutest boys in youth than on Rev. Graham’s message. The stadium lights were nearly blinding, but as he spoke, I forgot about the cute boy in youth (his name was Rick, and he only listened to the band “Rush,” alas, a story for another time.)
In his booming yet gentle voice and North Carolina lilting accent that I would so come to love as a North Carolinian myself later in life, Billy Graham distracted us all from or wriggling, twittering, self-absorbed teenage selves by introducing us to this revolutionary concept of absolute GRACE.
Many of us had never heard about true grace, even in the Southern Baptist churches we’d been reared in. Hellfire and brimstone – that we knew.
I listened and was overcome with a peace that passed all of my young understanding. I was a broken kid, from a broken home.
So confident was Rev. Graham in his message, that I became confident in God, too. Not the god I’d prayed to for years, but the real and tangible God.
The Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end.
After the service that evening, the Reverend invited all those who wanted partake in the grace of God to come down the bleachers and pray with members of his prayer team. It was like an altar call on steroids – more of the people in attendance made their way down to accept this crazy anointing as did not.
Grace – ours for the taking, all we had to do was accept it, to take what seemed to me an impossible risk: Believing on the basis of the stirrings of my spirit, and nothing else. Risky. Scandalously risky. But I made my way down in a sort of floating transport. I don’t remember navigating the steep stadium steps; only that I positively knew Jesus Himself was fidgeting with anticipation to love on me through the prayers of strangers.
There was a song playing in a continuous loop as I approached a prayer volunteer. I didn’t mind hearing the refrain a hundred times. As thousands of voices joined in from all around, I wished it would never end.
“Just as I am – and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
-O Lamb of God, I come!
Just as I am – though toss’d about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
-O Lamb of God, I come!”
I was never the same after that experience. I knew that I knew that I knew it was Truth.
I was never the same, but unfortunately, still completely human.
I still kissed boys on church mission trips.
I still grew up to be an alcoholic. In my drinking years I did some awful things.
Life happened, and parenthood happened, and marriage happened. Chronic illness, battles with anxiety and depression. And now I’m nearly 50, and still don’t have my sh*t together.
But had I not accepted Christ at a Billy Graham crusade in 1981, I might never know that even for prodigal daughters, the arms of Jesus are always and ever open to embrace this broken girl. I might never have known He would make me whole a million times and with a smile on his radiant face.
A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to attend a Christian blogger conference in Asheville, North Carolina – not far from Reverend Graham’s birthplace. The facility – run by Billy Graham Ministries – that hosted the event is called “The Cove.” In the multi-building complex, there are mementos of the Reverend where everywhere.
In one of the buildings, there was a museum of sorts. Included in the displays were personal artifacts of the Graham family – a family that I (and so many others) felt a part of. There was an odd but wonderful ambiance of peace. It kind of made me feel like I’d come home.
Billy Graham passed away today. Alas, he really is home. I’ve no doubt Jesus is hugging him tight, but the rest of us left here have suffered a loss.
He was one man, on one mission. Humble and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But what a difference he made in this world!
If I could tell him one thing, it would be this: Thank you.
Thank you, Reverend Graham… for making it okay for me to come to the throne of God just exactly as I am.
Even with many a conflict and many a doubt.
Thanks for being the messenger that delivered the concept of boundless grace to my young heart. Fighting and fears within, without – because that’s how God rolls, infinite in his mercy.
And tell Jesus ‘thank you’ as well, for lending you to us.
Rest in well-deserved peace.