A Jamaican Remembers Billy Graham

Billy Graham


By now you have heard the sad news that the Rev. Billy Graham died Wednesday at the age of 99.

Surely, he was the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. Respected by sinner and saint alike, Billy Graham preached on or across every continent in the world. He preached before kings and queens, rich and poor. He was a personal advisor to Presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. No wonder they called him America’s pastor.

As a young boy growing up in Jamaica, such deep, vivid memories were inspired by his rapid-fire, earnest preaching, accompanied by sweet memories of George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art” on Graham’s long-running radio program, The Hour of Decision.

Many of my peers back home in Jamaica wanted to preach like him. But there is only one Billy Graham. As far as I can tell, Graham never preached in Jamaica–he may have sent his associates to preach–but he never held his big tent meetings in Jamaica or the West Indies for that matter. What I do know is that he regularly visited the home of Johnny Cash in Jamaica. The Cashes even dubbed one of the rooms in their house “the Billy Graham room,” as it had an extra-long bed to fit Graham’s tall frame.

As I think about the life of this servant of God, I realize that four important qualities from his life still influence me to this day:

  1. His faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to use imperfect people to preach the gospel.
  2. His faith in the truth of God’s word to transform the human heart.
  3. His willingness to endure criticism and rejection for the sake of Christ.
  4. His passion for seeing lost humanity come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Despite all the accolades now pouring in from around the world, the Rev. Billy Graham was just a mere mortal that God raised up for a given time. His work is ended, he is with the Lord, and his reward awaits.

Of course, no one person can bring in the Kingdom. We need faithful men and women in every generation who will embrace and embody those four important qualities that so deeply marked this servant of God.

During last week’s staff meeting, one of our staff leaders shared a beautiful prayer-poem that illustrates the limitations facing every servant of God:

A Future Not Our Own

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction

of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of

saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession

brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one

day will grow. We water the seeds already planted

knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects

far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of

liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,

a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s

grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the

difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not

messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

 (This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in November, 1979.)

Well done, good and faithful servant. Rest In peace, Dr. Graham.

Why Lent is more than a dietary shift.


Every year during Lent as far back as I can remember, I bristled at the notion of giving up some kind of food. 

Because Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day, Catholic Bishops are urging their faithful to give up steaks and chocolate during the forty days of Lent. Supposedly, this kind of abstinence helps identify with Jesus’ suffering during the last week of his life.

Who am I to quibble with the Bishops of the church? I am a nobody. But I will quibble just a bit. I would ask that we go a bit deeper and instead of saying no to certain foods, focus our Lenten journey on honesty with Christ. 

Jesus desires in Luke 5– truth and honesty in the inner being(Psalm 51:6). 

But in Luke 5, only a few people seem concerned with honesty:

Peter: Luke 5:8- but when Simon Peter saw it (the large catch of fish), he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. Peter is honest about the moral and spiritual condition of his life. His anguished plea reminds us of Isaiah’s anguished plea in (Is 6:5) where he said,  “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”” Now, that is brutal honesty.

The leper: Luke 5:12- Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” This was more than a cry for physical healing. This was a cry for community. To have leprosy was to be an outcast from family, temple, synagogue, friends, work, life (click here for more details). To be healed and cleansed is to be part of a community. He was brutally honest with Jesus. “I need your help, and if you are willing, please help me, I am sick, and I am lonely.”

The crowds:- Jesus asked the leper, “now that you are healed, please go show yourself to the priest so that he can confirm your healing and please don’t tell anyone what I did for you.”

Of course, he didn’t. It is hard to keep good news from bursting out. Instead, Luke records,
“But now, even more, the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.” Luke 5:15

Levi and his tax collecting friends:- “After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭5:27-28‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Dishonest people
Luke presents a contrast between the common, everyday people of Jesus’s day and the cultured, religious crowd. They weren’t honest with Jesus. For Luke, the religious community were onlookers. They knew that Jesus was unique. To them, he was a spectacle to behold, a sideshow that you didn’t want to miss. But nothing deeper than that. They heard him teach, they saw him heal people but, stood at an objective distance, the way scientists try to observe and test their hypotheses. And we know this to be true based on the following observations:

1. After four friends of a crippled man went literally above and beyond to help their friend to Jesus, and after Jesus forgave the man of his sins, here’s their reaction:

Vss. 21-22: Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?

For them, Jesus was not a person to worship and solicit help, but a theological challenge to be shamed and dismissed. That’s not honesty in the inner being.

2. The most glaring example is that of Levi who left everything to follow Jesus. Tax collectors made a good living. The money earned fleecing their victims was worth the cultural rejection.  The same thing with fishermen who made a better-than-average average income (even if they had had a bad night-Luke 5:5). Leaving these jobs was an act of radical commitment that carried significant economic repercussions.

Levi did not give up chocolate and steaks to follow him, he left everything. Instead of joining the party and celebrating Levi’s turning away from the shameful, corrupt, tax collecting shakedown of his people, the religious leaders stood at a distance and sneered. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5;30)?” The implication being, we don’t do that, ergo, we are holy, and our lives are intact. It’s dishonest to separate oneself from other people or position oneself above and beyond other people.

It’s not surprising that Luke 15:1 says: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.” ‭‭Is it even possible to draw near to Jesus without being honest with him?

What would honesty with Jesus look like?

This Ash Wednesday, Christ, the doctor of the soul, who sees us from the inside, asks us to be honest about the state of our lives.

Be honest about your need for prayer

The need for less religion and more empathy for others. Let’s be honest that we have too much religion and not enough empathy for others. You have heard of the Christians who go into restaurants after church on Sundays, eat the big meal, and then leave tracts telling people to come to Jesus instead of leaving that 20 or 25% tip. Can tracts buy baby formula, diapers and keep the heat on? Too much religion and not enough love for people. 

The need for repentance. If Jesus walked up to your front door, would you try to stall while you run and hide your idols?

The need for spiritual maturity: Are we growing up? Are we changing? Are we having victory over certain besetting habits? Are we growing in our understanding of the gospel that saves us? Or are we still the same year after year?

The need for a more Christ Like attitude. Can we be honest about our attitude? Sarcastic, critical, mean-spirited racist, sexist, moody, holding a grudge for being slighted or overlooked? Always concerned about what people think about us, instead of resting in what Christ says about us? Are we willing to step out of ourselves and serve others? The religious leaders simply could not see that Jesus was about prayer, healing and touching lepers, healing the cripple, Jesus was all about people.

With all respects to the Bishops, please don’t give up steak and chocolate this Lent. This is not a dietary shift. Give up your life and like Peter, and the common people of Jesus’ day, be honest for a change. That’s the beginning of a transformed life.

Why some people love Jesus, but not the church in its present form.


The young man sat down in my office and wasted no time unloading his pain: “For years, I swore I would never get mixed up with religion until I started coming to your services. I now know that Christianity is about Jesus–his life, death, and resurrection.”

He was on a roll–“I am struck by his willingness to love people like me, with all my struggles and addictions. I love his power to touch lepers, spend time with women used up and abused by powerful men. I love how he challenged the powerful and corrupt religious leaders. Most of all, I love his directness with his disciples. He was patient with them, but still called them to a higher vision for their lives.”

As I listened to this passionate young student, I could tell he was reading his Bible with care and insight, and it was resetting the priorities in his life.

But what he said next made me sad. “Pastor, I love Jesus. This is not some empty religious trip for me. Jesus is alive in my daily experiences. But when I come to the church, I don’t see the passion and excitement that I read about in the early church. When I look at the programs and projects of the church, I know that there is some outreach to the community, but it seems like most of what we do is focused on us.”

I finally asked him what he thought was missing.

“If Jesus is alive what are we doing to bring healing and hope to the hurting people of our community? When I come to the prayer meetings, I don’t see many people present first of all, and then I wonder, what do we believe about prayer? Why do we struggle to give and attend to the worship of Jesus both in the church and outside of the church?”

And then he said these words I will never forget: “I love Jesus, but I don’t like the church. I see a disconnect between the words we sing and preach about Jesus. and how we demonstrate his powerful, resurrected life through each of us.”

Words from a naive, emotional youth? Maybe. But don’t dismiss what the student is saying. In fact, meet with some of the students in your church and ask them, is our church helping you become a faithful follower of Jesus? And then be prepared to listen, learn, pray and change.

“The unfortunate reality,” says Kara Powell, author of Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love your Church,  “is that most churches are not growing, and they aren’t getting any younger (p.15).” Check out Seth Stewart’s helpful summary of the book here.

So what’s the resolution with this college student? None. There are no easy answers, I told him. The church, the people of God, from the times of the Exodus, through exile, to the post-resurrection community until now has been a messy community. There has never been a moment in time when the Church lived in perfect obedience to Christ. But there has never been a moment when Christ left his Church.

So this is the resolution: I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ (Philippian 1:6). 

Christ in us, the hope of glory, that is the ultimate resolution. He started a good, redemptive work in His Church and he won’t quit until he returns. My young college friend continues to worship and serve in our church because he is learning to embrace and love our church the way Jesus embraces and loves His church. The sign of a maturing Christian is one who loves Jesus and loves the people (however imperfect they may be) that Jesus loves.


Slow Reading For Lasting Change


At the start of this year, I made a shocking confession to God — I was tired of reading the Bible the way I had always read it.

Now, for a preacher, I know that sounds borderline blasphemous, but let me explain. For more years than I can count, one of my regular spiritual practices has involved starting my reading with Genesis in January and ending in December with Revelation.

Admittedly, reading through the Bible is not easy. For one thing, the thought occurs that, yes, I am reading through the Bible, but how is the Bible reading me?  I am getting into the Scriptures, but are the Scriptures getting into my life? Am I just better informed, or am I becoming a better person because of my reading through the Bible?

And then there are certain books during my year-long quest that I have dreaded reading through: Leviticus, with its blood and sacrifices; the two books of Chronicles, with all the mind-numbing lists; Isaiah, formidable in its 66 stentorian chapters; Song of Solomon, and all its erotic poetry; and the minor prophets, filled with God’s scary denunciation of sinful nations. People tell me these are some of the books that hinder them from reading all the way through to Revelation.

This year, I am trying something different: I am spending a month in each book of the Bible — or that’s what I hope to do. So I spent the month of January reading through Genesis five different times, and I encountered God in ways that led me to worship. Pastors may lead worship but don’t always worship!

In February, I am reading Exodus, with its 40 chapters, at least six times.

This slow reading of Scripture is touching my mind and emotions in some weird ways. For example, as I read these words in Exodus 33:7,11 — Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friendI couldn’t read these words without weeping.

I am not weeping with sorrow but with delight that God loves us and wants us to walk and talk with him. Moses and the people had a place where they would meet with God. I long for that level of friendship with God.

Why am I doing this? Not for sermon fodder. Nor I am not reading Scripture to fill my mind with factoids. I am reading through Scripture because I need God. I want to know God. I am lost without God’s wisdom in my life. Well before I became a pastor, I was (and still am today) a disciple of Jesus Christ. I read and ponder these ancient words because that’s what disciples do.

May the Lord stir up within His Church such deep cravings for Scripture. And may his words satisfy our restless souls and grant us peace.

If you are reading the Bible in 2018, how is God’s Word speaking into your life?