What the Church might yet learn from Billy Graham

I must confess I struggle to know what the term Evangelical means anymore. I know that in the Greek, it originally meant good news or gospel. While I find that to be the most clarifying sense of the word, for over many years now it seems to have also taken on nuances of historical nostalgia, political influence, and attitudes similar to those who might pursue and preserve power. It’s a word whose many connotations I find difficult to fully comprehend. It has a lot of baggage with it that has burdened its original intention to convey God’s good news. For that reason, I rarely use it or readily identify with it.

This morning I woke up to the news that the Reverend Billy Graham had passed into God’s good presence. I know of Billy Graham the same as what everybody knows, that he was a preacher of Jesus Christ. While I wish I knew more about him, when it comes down to it, that is what he essentially was. A man who devoted his life to travelling from city to city, state to state, country to country preaching the good news about Jesus. In a culture that frequently esteems complexity and nuance, it’s amazing to think a man of such simplicity impacted the world so greatly.

In a sense, that simple essence helps remind and clarify what it might mean to be evangelical. A person whose life reveals God’s good news.

Reverend Graham’s passing comes at a time in our history where so much of the country is embroiled in a chaotic divisiveness of which the Church is very much a part. What role the Church goes on to play amidst this chaos will greatly depend on whose rule or kingdom we are seeking.

In Reverend Graham’s death and our looking back at the simple essence he was about, maybe the Church can be reminded that our essence is not about leveraging power to progress an agenda, but to be those whose lives really convey God’s good news.

My Dad once told me a story that when Richard Nixon received the presidential nomination at the Republican convention, he invited friend Billy Graham to a backroom with other friends and politicians where there would likely be smoking, drinking, cussing, political discourse. Ruth Graham, however, pulled Billy aside and said, “That’s no place for the man of God.”

Our place is to make much of Jesus and embody his way of living that conveys the uniqueness of God’s good news. It is a mission for which Reverend Graham labored long; now that his labors are over, his labors are now ours. As we take them up, let us be careful to leave the baggage behind. May we take up his labor of love in such a way that conveys news that is truly good.


Walking upon the narrow way | Matthew 7:13-14

As Jesus begins moving towards a conclusion to his sermon on the mount, he paints another word picture for his disciples—“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The context does not precisely clarify what imagery Jesus is drawing on.  Perhaps he’s referring to an officer’s door in a city wall in contrast with the main gate for the local population.  Maybe he’s referring to the narrow alleyway one would take leading up to the small door of their home versus the broader main street up and down which crowds would walk and vendors haul their carts.  Whatever specifics Jesus had in mind, the text is sufficient.  Two ways.  Wide and broad; small and narrow.  Within Jesus’ words, three sets of differences distinguish these ways from each other.

The first difference between these two ways is freedom.  A wider, broader way allows more freedom for moving around and about for comfortable maneuvering and exploring.  The smaller, narrower way, however, offers less freedom; the edges are tight and walking space is restricted.  The path has to be taken as it is or not at all.

The second difference concerns the travelers who frequent these ways.  While many enter and walk the wider way, few will find and follow the narrow way.

The boundaries of these respective paths are no doubt a factor for their travelers.  The wide way allows spaciousness for strolling, side stops for meandering, features for customization.  The traveler chooses the pace; it allows them to turn to the left or to the right.  The path is about the traveler’s individual story or experience.  The broader way is for tourists.

The narrow path, however, forces focus.  Care must be taken for each step, how the leg is extended and the foot is planted.  Lest you lose sight of the leader or hold up those behind you, the mind must be melded with every disciplined movement.  The trek is about the path itself and how it works its essence into the travelers who belong to it.

Ultimately, however, the freedom each path seems to offer is ironically inconsistent with where each leads.  The third difference, therefore, is the destinations towards which these paths are moving.  The way that was so wide and broad, scenic and spacious eventually comes down to an undoing of everything it seemed to promise, a dead end with nowhere to go.  The narrow path, as small and limited as it seemed, eventually opens up into a spaciousness that offers elation and beauty with an abundance of life.

As helpful each of these differences are in parsing the picture Jesus paints here, it still remains a bit abstract.  The narrow way Jesus emphasizes and directs disciples toward can be generalized to mean anything, turning it into some existential road less traveled.  If viewed through the context of what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount, however, the constrictions of the narrow way become more defined and emancipating.

Rather than allowing murder to remain the epitome of evil and dysfunctionality, Jesus singles out the anger we broadly tolerate as the darkness to avoid.  Instead of measuring our martial fidelity in terms of affairs or incidents of cheating, Jesus characterizes it by the purity of our hearts.  Rather than reinforcing the “eye for an eye” sense of justice, Jesus distinguishes peace as our balancing contribution.  Instead of reserving love for those who will repay it, Jesus stipulates a sacrificial love for all, enemies included.  In each of these examples, Jesus moves the standards of righteousness from the broadly held to the narrowly pursued.  It is the narrow way because it is framed by ways of living that are characteristic of Christ alone.

When the LORD gave Moses the commands, He said “So you shall observe to do just as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left.  You shall walk in all the way which the LORD your God has commanded you.”

Now centuries later, Jesus here moves his listeners away from broad generalizations about moral goodness by painting this “all the way” visualization of discipleship.  It has been said “we make the way by walking it”.  The narrow way has been formed in the unique footsteps of the Messiah; each of his words and actions has been a step that leaves his way before us to follow, and by following it, we brought into a community who embodies a way of life that reveals the Lord who can always be found along its route.

The getting and giving of God’s goodness

In Matthew 7:1-6, Jesus has just discussed an interactive dynamic of grace-and-truth that must exist amongst the brethren with boldness and discretion and without hypocrisy or haughtiness.  From there, however, Jesus seems to change topics.

In v7, he says “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

It’s an imperative that summons followers to a constant tenaciousness—keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking—in their pursuit of something Jesus does not actually clarify here. With a follow-up comment“For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened”—Jesus affirms their tenacity will be met with results. But other than tenacious prayerful pursuance, what exactly is Jesus calling us to so vigorously pursue?

He then introduces an illustration: “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!”

If even flawed fathers know how to give their children what is good, our faith and reverence should be strengthened when considering “how much more” our good Father is in giving what is good to we who tenaciously pursue it. So here now the nature of our tenacious pursuit is clarified as “what is good”. But what is meant by good?

A second look at Jesus’ illustration may help. The son in the illustration asks for a loaf or a fish. Neither of these are toys or pets, but food; items meant to give life. The other two items incredulously hypothesized are a stone or a snake, objects that will not provide life or be for the child’s good. The difference between these two sets of gifts is that which gives life to the child and that which doesn’t. The good we are to so tenaciously pursue from the Father, therefore, is that which manifests in the provision and preservation of life.

Now up until this point, it could seem this pursuit of the Father’s life-giving goodness has been laid out to us for our own personal benefit of health and happiness. In v12, however, Jesus adds “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

It now suddenly seems Jesus is reverting back to his theme of how his disciples are to interact with others. The therefore Jesus includes here hints this discussion has all along been framing how his followers’ pursuit of the Father’s life-giving goodness should be done on behalf of others as eagerly as we would do so for ourselves. Why didn’t Jesus simply mention it while discussing his disciples’ interactions with others in Matthew 7:1-6? Perhaps because good treatment can’t be properly understood until it is witnessed in the Father.

Jesus’ previous conversation in Matthew 7:1-6 exposed our human tendency to interact with people in ways that are hypocritical, focusing on the speck in their eye while ignoring the log in ours. In our hypocrisy, we demonstrate a strange willingness to treat people in ways we ourselves would never want to be treated. This oddity seems to suggest we may not actually know what good treatment looks like or how we want to be treated. If that is the case, we can’t yet claim to know how to treat others. Thankfully, however, Jesus took the time to establish it for us.

Jesus’ explanation in v11 establishes the Father’s life-giving goodness as the basis for how we perceive our value in His eyes. We now know we can trustingly and persistently beseech the Father for His good provision.

But just as v11 challenges us to see “how much more” the Father’s goodness is visited upon those who tenaciously pursue it, v12 immediately challenges us to also pursue that goodness on behalf of others. God’s goodness cannot be sought and kept simply for our own benefit; doing so defies the benevolent nature of God’s goodness and deprives our surrounding communities of its redemptive and transformative properties. If goodness is something we hope to seek and keep only for ourselves, it will never remain good.

I had hoped to post this article a few days ago, but several tragedies then suddenly struck—the shooting of a black man in Baton Rouge, a shooting of another black man in Minneapolis, and, last night, a reactionary mass shooting of police officers and some bystanders in Dallas.  As these tragedies open afresh the wounds of our local, national, and human communities, I hear Jesus’ words with new conviction as his imperative still speaks.

Kingdom citizens must keep asking the Father for the news and provision of His kingdom-centered goodness to be poured into the communities in which we continually witness.  We must keep seeking to be agents of kingdom-centered goodness in our communities through the kingdom-centered ways we live.  We must keep prayerfully knocking on every door that could open up and welcome God’s kingdom-centered goodness to enter and therein find a home.

As this “Law and the Prophets” essence continually calls the community of Christ to embody a love for our neighbors learned from our Father, how we give it witness can bring us all into a better understanding of “what is good” and from that understanding could come a greater awareness and assurance of the Father from whom goodness flows.