When I turned on the radio this week and learned that Billy Graham died, the announcer said that the famous evangelist grew up milking cows in a rural part of North Carolina that was thick with Baptist churches. Billy Graham wanted to be a preacher since he was a teenager and, the radio announcer said, he was unlike other evangelists before him because he emphasized the love of God over fire and brimstone.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Billy Graham wasn’t the first evangelist who preached the gospel of love in an era obsessed with hell and damnation. There was another man, Francis de Sales, who lived some 400 years before Graham, and he wrote a voluminous treatise on the love of God. He preached about God’s deep love for all humans, arguing that God would have sent Jesus to earth even if there had been no Fall. God would have come as a little baby just so humans could know that God understood what it meant to be vulnerable and fragile, what suffering felt like, and how rejection stung slap-jawed.
Wow. I wonder what Billy Graham would have said to that. Even though he preached about love, his message was firmly grounded in the belief that Jesus Christ came to earth and died on the cross because of our sins.
I was saved at a Billy Graham crusade. My family went to the old Metrodome in Minneapolis and we sat in the stadium seats, the floor sticky from spilled pop. I remember gospel music and an older man with tufts of white hair standing far away on a stage, his face projected on jumbo screens around the stadium. As the top of the Metrodome billowed white (like heaven’s clouds!) my twelve-year-old ears absorbed the message echoing from the sound system as if for the first time: Jesus Christ died to save me from sin and death. If only I would accept Jesus into my heart, I would be saved. And it was all because God so loved the world; so loved me.
Even though I had been raised in the church, I had never experienced an altar call like the one in Billy Graham’s stadium.
“You go to church, some of you. You’ve been baptized, you’ve been confirmed,” he said in his slow, Southern cadence. “But your heart is not with Jesus.”
Come, he said, there are prayer ministers down here on the field ready to pray with you to accept Jesus. In that moment, I wasn’t sure if I had accepted him. Was my heart with Jesus? Was I saved, or not?
Francis de Sales knew something about that question. He lived for several years in morbid fear of his own salvation thanks to the sweeping popular theology of his time (17th century France), which was Calvinism. According to the doctrine of predestination, God chose you before time to be among God’s redeemed and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. You were either in or out. Saved or damned. But how could you know?
This question sent de Sales into a flurry of existential angst. After months of torment, de Sales stumbled into a church and knelt before a statue of the Black Madonna, mother of Jesus. There, he prayed a prayer, the Memorare, and declared that, in fact, he didn’t care one whit if he was saved or damned. It was enough to live for God this day, to chose the everlasting water of life in the present moment. Even if he was going to hell, Francis de Sales was still going to live for God.
A strange and sweeping peace rushed over his soul, putting out the fires of anguish that had tormented him. And from that day forward, Saint Francis began proclaiming the love of God as a missionary; however, it wasn’t unreached people groups that he converted. Francis de Sales targeted Calvinists, fellow Christians, the ones living under the predestination theology that had terrified him so, and spoke to them about the all encompassing love of God. He preached a message of hope, of comfort, of joy, over a message of hellfire.
Like Francis de Sales, I didn’t know what direction my soul was going when I sat in the stadium seats at the Billy Graham crusade in 1996. But the direct and simple message from Billy Graham stirred my heart and soon I felt my body rising and walking down, down, down those steps and onto the green astroturf, under the bright lights, and into the embrace of a volunteer in a blue t-shirt, who asked me if I’d like to pray with her. My mom had accompanied me, and I cried a little bit while I held her hand, and I said yes — I’d like to pray and ask Jesus into my heart. A sense of peace washed over me, my tears cathartic and sincere.
Billy Graham and Francis de Sales really weren’t all that different. Graham’s message was simple, direct, and comforting: God loves you, you just need to accept Jesus and you will be saved. Francis de Sales had a similar message: everyone is called to holiness and everyone is loved, not just the monks and nuns and priests of the day. God chose everyone to love and nothing, nothing, nothing, can separate us from that love.
Evangelicals would likely balk at my comparison of Billy Graham to a Catholic saint, particularly one who converted Protestants to Catholicism. Yet Graham himself is the closest thing Evangelicals have to a saint of their own. Though there are key theological differences between them, certainly, they both preached Good News to populations already saturated in Christianity, at least the nominal kind. There is no doubt that Billy Graham was a complicated man with a mixed track record on politics and race, and I’m sure Francis de Sales also had skeletons in his closet. Yet both men were great evangelists who called people out of their stupor and fear; they made God personal; they made many people feel that God loved them.
My grown-up faith isn’t simple and I have many questions about heaven, hell, and salvation. As I sit with my doubt, I am reminded of young Saint Francis de Sales kneeling before the Black Madonna, choosing to love and follow God regardless of the mystery after death. And, I remember that sense of God’s peace washing over me on the floor of the Metrodome, assuring me that God’s love will follow me all the days of my life, and even into the hereafter. For that, I am grateful to these evangelists of love.
Rest in peace, Billy Graham.