I had the great privilege of attending the incomparable Billy Graham's funeral and memorial service on Friday March 2nd here in Charlotte.
Every Christian I have visited with about the celebration of Dr. Graham's homegoing was both moved and inspired by the service. The tone of the entire event was set by the following quote printed on the back of the service's official program: "Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don't you believe a word of it! I shall be more alive then than I am now. ... I will have gone into the presence of God."
Given how uniformly inspiring the entire service was — music, testimonies, prayer — one tribute seems to have risen to the level of being the high point of the service for a remarkable number of people who watched or attended the service. That was the tribute from Billy Graham's daughter Ruth. I know her story touched me very deeply. Since that day I have often pondered why that particular story has provoked such a visceral, positive and widespread response.
First, what did she say? Ruth Graham, the great evangelist's daughter, shared the story of having been divorced, of marrying a second time despite her parents' misgivings, and then having to flee that abusive relationship. She shared how she was driving up the winding road to her parents' mountain home, wondering what kind of reception she would receive. Would they tell her, "we told you so." Would they scold her or express grave disappointment? After all, her father was Billy Graham.
And yet, when she pulled into her parents' driveway, there was her father waiting, and as she stepped out of the car he embraced her and said, "Welcome home!" Ruth Graham then said that while her "daddy" wasn't God, he represented God's unconditional love at that moment.
I don't think there was a dry eye in the house as we listened to Ruth's story. Most of us were nodding, at least inwardly, in agreement, as fellow Christians remembering the many times when we have had to come to our Heavenly Father having fallen short and disappointed Him. And yet, He always welcomed us home with His unconditional love.
All of the presentations at the funeral were excellent, God honoring, and doctrinally sound. So why did Ruth Graham's story resonate so widely? Precisely because it was a story. It is why Jesus taught so often through stories.
Ruth's story echoes Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), a biblical story that touches virtually everyone. Why? We all want a father like the prodigal's father, who "while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion" and "ran, and threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him" (Luke 15: 20-21).
The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that everyone can have a father like that — our Heavenly Father. Once we trust Jesus as our Savior and His sacrifice on the cross for our sin, then we can always count on His unconditional love and forgiveness. As the Apostle John reminds us, "if we confess our sins he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1: 9).
God wants to be that all-forgiving Father to each one of us. However we cannot know Him and His forgiveness without first coming to know Jesus as our personal Savior and Lord. As the Apostle John declares, "to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).
I must tell you that for those of us who have experienced that new birth, it is as life- transforming and as real as it is ultimately indescribable. We have all experienced the unconditional love that Ruth Graham shared with us at her dad's funeral. You can experience it as well.
Thank God for Billy Graham, who was, as his tombstone proclaims, "a preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."