I was not a fan of Billy Graham as a child. My dislike had nothing to do with him or his message. Rather, it had everything to do with the disruption his televised crusades brought to our family’s TV viewing schedule. Mom, a school teacher who wanted her kids to be active readers and not passive consumers, controlled how much television we watched at our house. However, she granted Dad control of what we watched.
Because, as his multiple sclerosis progressed, the television screen was his primary link to the outside world.
Dad was a big consumer of the nightly news, football, variety shows, and hokey sitcoms. As a former county extension agent, he especially loved the bumbling county extension agent on Green Acres. He would laugh until he cried as Hank Kimball’s meandering answers left the farmers who consulted him more confused than ever.
“Jo, get Harlan a tissue,” Mom would order when Dad’s nose began to run.
“Make that two,” Dad would gasp between chuckles, “no, three.”
As much as Dad loved Green Acres, he loved Bill Graham more. While my sister, brother, and I grumbled when Graham’s crusades preempted our favorite shows for three or four nights in a row, Dad anticipated crusade weeks with delight. Every night he rolled away from the supper table early and positioned his wheelchair in the center of the living room directly in front of the TV. We three kids, on the other hand, dragged into the living room, rolled our eyes and assumed our best martyred children poses after flopping onto the couch and easy chairs.
“Dorothy,” Dad would holler, “get in here. It’s starting.” He paid rapt attention to the testimonies of celebrity guests. His face went soft when George Beverly Shea sang, and he listened intently to Billy Graham’s message.
My siblings and I fidgeted and complained as much as we dared, but even we went still when the organist played the opening to Just As I Am after the altar call. We didn’t quiet down because the hymn or because of what was happening on the screen. We stilled because of what always happened to Dad when people began streaming down the aisles toward the front.
Silent tears coursed down Dad’s face. He never sobbed. He never spoke. He just cried. Night after night. Crusade after crusade. Year after year, he cried rivers of mute tears. Eventually, one of us got the tissue box and handed it to him without a word. We never asked Dad what made him cry, and he never offered an explanation.
I thought about my father’s tears on a Sunday fifty years later when our congregation stood to sing after the sermon. During the previous week, the Holy Spirit had repeatedly convicted me of sins I held dear. At the same time, God’s word had repeatedly revealed how helpless I was to overcome old sin patterns outside of His power. And during the sermon, I was nearly undone as our pastor described the greatness of God’s love for sinners, which He demonstrated through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
As the worship band played the opening measures of Just As I Am, I began to cry. I pictured my father’s face, streaming with tears. I thought of him sitting in his wheelchair in our living room. Unable to attend a crusade in person. Unable, if he could have attended, to respond to the invitation by walking down the aisle.
Did our tears fall for the same reason? I wondered.
I will never know, this side of heaven, what caused my stoic father to weep during those long ago crusades. But I knew why I was crying. Without the power of Christ changing me, I could not approach God. I realized my total dependence upon Christ. He sees my need and the needs of others long before we do. He provides a way for us to come to the Father through His Son.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
The immensity of the grace, mercy, and compassion of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–
Who sees me just as I am,
Who saw Dad just as he was,
Who sees our children just as they are,
Who sees you just as you are—
broke my heart and released tears of sorrow and joy.
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
And with those words, I reach for a tissue … again.