Take heed!

The death on 21st February of Billy Graham was, by any standard, an historic event. Ninety-nine years old – just short of the century. The responses from the media, both religious and secular, flooded in, many no doubt prepared a considerable time ago. The wide variety of sources testified to Graham’s significance, not just in America, but also on the world stage. Nobody could dispute that a man of stature had departed. Very few preachers leave the world to such public notice. Perhaps none will again. That in itself says much about the role Graham played in twentieth century religious life, and not just within the Evangelical community.

There are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be levelled against Billy Graham. The first thought for some will be his willingness to include liberal Protestants as well as Roman Catholics among the sponsors of his crusades. The nature of his evangelistic approach – the mass crusades, for example – raised questions for some conservative Evangelical and Reformed observers. His closeness to numerous American Presidents also caused concern, particularly when characters like Lyndon Johnston and Richard Nixon were involved (something which Graham himself seems to have acknowledged). The negatives are certainly there, and we would not close our eyes to them. We would not have any sympathy with those who speak of his death as having ‘prophetic significance’ for the approach of ‘the end times’, as even some family members have stated. And yet there is more to be said.

It is remarkable that in a life of 99 years, much of that time in the glare of publicity, Billy Graham was untouched by even a whiff of scandal – financial, sexual, or of any other kind. That is remarkable, and surely a testimony to the grace of God. Even the most hostile secular critics could get nothing on him, and if they could have, they would have. We can be sure of that. Not only that – nowadays the Internet hosts numerous zealous characters who claim biblical justification for ‘digging the dirt’ on prominent preachers and church leaders in the most scurrilous manner. Perhaps in the earlier years the scrutiny was less intense, the culture more respectful, but with the explosion of the electronic media in more recent times, no corner of the life of a public figure is truly private. Wise precautions were taken, good procedures put in place, all activities were open to scrutiny. Billy Graham passed all the tests. Some whose theology was apparently ‘sounder’ have not.

Whilst there may be legitimate questions about some of his methods of evangelism, no-one can dispute Billy Graham’s zeal for the spread of the gospel for the salvation of sinners. That was undoubtedly his great passion. If we think our understanding of the gospel is more fully biblical, we need to ask ourselves how zealous we are in proclaiming that message. Sometimes the honest answer would be, ‘Not very.’ We don’t have a lot to be proud of.

And why did the Lord allow Billy Graham to preach to hundreds of thousands while we preach to handfuls? Perhaps one reason is that he could trust Graham to handle the temptations and pressures of such a prominent position, and we have all we can cope with. Not too flattering, but perhaps not too far from the truth.

We live in an age that delights to pull down the prominent and successful, and show that they have feet of clay. Sometimes it is fully warranted and even necessary. The exposure of ‘cover-ups’ in many areas of public life has had justification, but it can become a dangerous hobby. Christians are not immune from the cultural tide, as if somehow finding others’ feet of clay made our feet sounder. Not for nothing did the apostle Paul warn the church, ‘Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12).

We are not to idealise, much less idolise, any human being, but we are to praise God for the good we see in his servants and seek by grace to imitate them. Billy Graham gives us more than a little food for thought.

One Sure Thing

If there is one word that characterises events on the world stage at the moment it is surely ‘uncertainty’. Wherever we look, there seems to be confusion as to what is really happening, confusion as to what is the best solution to complex crises (if there is one) and fear as to what the future holds. Where will American foreign policy go next? Does even the President know? What will North Korea do beyond belligerent sabre-rattling? Will Angela Merkel survive as German Prime Minister? (You will probably know the answer by the time you read this). Where would anyone start to unravel the complexities of the Middle East? What will Brexit look like and what will the consequences be? Your guess is as good as mine, if not better.

Of course few of us can bring any influence to bear on the ‘big picture’. It is the small picture that poses the most pressing problems. Maybe it’s declining health, concern for a young person showing no sign of spiritual life, anxiety about care provision for an elderly relative, or any one of a multitude of other issues. In so many respects the way ahead seems very uncertain, full of the ‘maybe’ and the ‘what if?’

One thing is certain – the future is not in our hands, and the longer we live, the clearer that becomes. We plan, we anticipate, we worry, yet events take entirely unexpected turns and often leave us amazed or baffled. We don’t know what tomorrow may bring, much less next week or next month.

That could be depressing or frightening, but as Christians we know that we do not face the unknown future alone. Psalm 138:8 reminds us, ‘The LORD will fulfil his purpose for me’. There is a word of hope for God’s people to hold on to in the uncertainties of living in a fallen world. Literally the psalmist says, ‘The LORD will perfect what concerns me’. The words are a reminder that our Lord is a sovereign God. He is in ultimate control of ‘all that concerns me’, even the smallest detail. If, as Jesus reminds us, he supervises the fall of the sparrow, he surely oversees all aspects of the lives of his children. The reference to his ‘purpose’ in many of the translations reflects that. There is nothing random in his universe.

Of course control in the wrong hands is a dangerous and frightening thing. World events underline that fact. The psalmist goes on to reassure us, however, when he says, ‘your love, O LORD, endures for ever’. The word for ‘love’ is that wonderful Hebrew word hesed which means eternal, unchanging covenant love, reflecting the Lord’s commitment to his people that results in the salvation provided in Christ crucified and risen. Control could not be in better hands. The Father loves us, the Son loves us and the Holy Spirit loves us. This is the Triune God who will perfect what concerns us.

That is not a guarantee of an easy passage through life. Far from it. There may be trials that we have never imagined or sorrows we have feared, along, we trust, with joys we could not have anticipated. The hard experiences will not break the Lord’s people, however, but will serve his glory and our growth in grace. And even in the hard times, we will by his grace be able to ‘count it all joy’ (James 1:2). Only those who are children of God through faith in Christ have such hope and confidence.

Taking Responsibility

A government minister taking responsibility? Resigning without being forced out? Hard to believe! Not exactly unprecedented, but very rare. On 31 January Lord Bates, the international development minister, resigned when he arrived late for work in the House of Lords. The Conservative peer sparked confusion when he gave an apology for not being on time to answer questions from the dispatch box, having missed a question from a Labour peer. According to press reports, Lord Bates commented, ‘I have always believed we should rise to the highest possible standards of courtesy and respect in responding on behalf of the Government to the legitimate questions of the legislature. I am thoroughly ashamed of not being in my place and therefore I shall be offering my resignation to the Prime Minister with immediate effect.’ His reaction was met with amazement and cries of ‘No!’ One Labour peer suggested that an apology would have been adequate to address the issue. Most present agreed.

We have no mandate to comment on the motivation for Lord Bates’ action. He resigned dramatically in 2016 to undertake a solo 2,000 mile walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, so perhaps it’s something in the blood. Not our business. But a minister taking responsibility for failing to reach what he believes are the proper standards for a minister most certainly is.

We do not live in a society where taking responsibility is common. More often we meet with blame-shifting, prevarication, finger-pointing, flat-out denial. At school it starts with ‘It wasn’t me, sir’ and goes on from there. Whatever goes wrong, it is somebody else’s fault, or something else’s fault – my environment, my education, my parents, the government, the stars – you name it, someone claims it. One thing is sure – it’s not my fault.

Not new is it? Ancient, in fact. ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’ (Genesis 3:12). When confronted by God regarding the first human sin, Adam’s response was to try (in vain) to shift blame onto Eve and, implicitly, onto God himself. If he had done a better job, it seems, Adam would not have ended up in the predicament he now faced. Eve learned fast and tried to dump blame entirely on the serpent. None of it fooled the Lord as the succeeding verses show. Every guilty party was called to account and received a just sentence.

We are in no better position. Refusing to take responsibility for our sins simply does not work. God is not fooled and still calls us to account. Worse still, refusing to take responsibility actually closes off the one route to a solution. If we will not face up to the reality of the disease, we will never seek or accept the cure. Most of us have met people who, although seriously ill, insist that ‘I’m fine’ and act accordingly. They will never seek the necessary treatment since they do not believe there is anything wrong with them. People die proclaiming, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’

For sinners, in fact, the situation is even worse. The sinner asserts ‘I am alive’ when in fact he is dead. How much worse, and how much more foolish, could it be? Denying responsibility for sin precludes seeking the salvation God has provided in Christ crucified and risen. That was David’s experience in Psalm 32. He recalls, ‘For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long’ (verse 3). Even his body was severely affected. The solution? Instead of ‘covering’ his sin, he confessed it to the Lord. ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity’ (verse 5). The result was cleansing and forgiveness – ‘you forgave the iniquity of my sin’.

That is the heart of the gospel. True repentance – taking responsibility for our sin as an offence against God – opens the way to the lifting of the burden of guilt and healing of the whole person. Rightly David sang, ‘Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (verse 1). Until we take responsibility, that door remains firmly closed.