Oklahoma was shrouded in grief after the deaths of 168 people — including 19 children — in a homegrown terrorism attack at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in 1995.
President Bill Clinton spoke at the memorial service. So did Gov. Frank Keating. But everyone knew who would deliver the sermon and face the hard questions.
That was a job for the Rev. Billy Graham.
“The Bible says ... there is a devil, that Satan is very real and he has great power,” said Graham, focusing on the 9,000 mourners in the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds Arena. “It also tells us that evil is real and that the human heart is capable of almost limitless evil when it is cut off from God and from the moral law.
“The prophet Jeremiah said, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?’ That is your heart and my heart without God. ... I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God even if we cannot understand. It is better to face something like this with God than without Him.”
Graham didn’t end those remarks with an “altar call,” urging sinners to come forward and make a profession of faith. But he could have — even with the president of the United States in the front row.
Then again, Clinton was from the South and attended Graham’s 1959 crusade in Little Rock, Arkansas. The young Clinton was so impressed by the preacher’s message, and his refusal to bow to segregationists, that he began sending part of his weekly allowance to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
In the wake of his death this week, at age 99, diplomats, scholars and journalists will struggle to describe Graham’s impact via preaching, television, radio, books and other writings. It’s hard enough to do the math when discussing his 417 crusades in 185 countries, along with countless other gatherings ranging from presidential inaugurations to tiny youth rallies after his 1938 ordination as a Southern Baptist preacher.
To be blunt, it can be argued that Graham spoke — in person — to more people than any other leader in world history. Rice University sociologist William Martin put it this way: Graham was the “most powerful evangelist since Jesus.” In his final decades, Graham focused on supporting new evangelists around the world, while others obsessed over the question, “Who will be the next Billy Graham?”
It’s impossible to point to one Graham sermon as a summation of his life and work, said Martin in a recent interview. However, the Oklahoma City message was certainly a late-career illustration of his convictions, his willingness to discuss sin and salvation, heaven and hell — even when facing the president and a global audience.
“This was Graham acting, once again, as pastor to the nation,” said Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” which he recently updated. In Bible Belt Oklahoma, “everybody knew Billy Graham’s theology. Everyone knew what he believes. He could say what he needed to say, without offending anyone.”
But part of his legacy was the ability to preach “with a sense of appropriateness,” even when facing the queen of England, he said. Graham didn’t think it took courage to do his work — anywhere.
“Billy didn’t leave people with doubts about what he believed as a Christian evangelist. ... But he also knew how to be a healing figure,” said Martin.
That’s exactly what Graham was trying to do in Oklahoma City.
“Today it’s my prayer that all Americans will rededicate ourselves to ... working together to solve the problems and barriers that would tear us apart,” he said. “But there is also hope for the future because of God’s promises. As a Christian, I have hope not just for this life, but for the life to come. ...
“This event also reminds us of the brevity and uncertainty of life. It reminds us that we never know when we are going to be taken. I doubt if even one of those who went to that building to work or to go to the children’s place ever dreamed that that was their last day on Earth. That is why we each need to face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God.”
Late in life, Graham said that he was ready to leave the public spotlight and that he didn’t plan “to die in a pulpit someday,” refusing to pass the torch to others. But it’s impossible, he told me in 1987, for a minister to fully retire.
“When you are called to proclaim the Gospel, you’re doing that until the day you die,” he said, at his old log home high in the North Carolina mountains. “I’ll be proclaiming the Gospel — on my death bed.”