I had just preached my first message as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg South Carolina, when my phone rang. “This is Billy,” I thought I heard the voice on the other end say to me.
My office was still jam-packed with moving boxes. This was, after all, my first Sunday. I was brand new to the city and did not even know where Walmart was. I had just run into a delightful young man by the name of Billy, whose prayer life I cherish to this day.
“What’s up Billy,” I said back to the voice on the other side. “Met any pretty girls lately?”
“This is Billy Graham, and I was just calling to let you know just how much Ruth and I appreciated your timely message today on television!”
“Oops,” I thought as my whole life began to pass in front of me. “Sure sounds a lot like Dr. Billy Graham,” I told myself.
And so began something amazing that only God could have designed. Billy Graham and Ms. Ruth invited me to come and visit with them in their wonderful Montreat home. One visit led to another, and our friendship took off. Needless to say, one of the stories Ms. Ruth loved for me to repeat was the original— especially the part about the girls!
Years later a most distinguished guest of Mr. Graham’s asked of him in front of me, “How did you and Don Wilton become such close friends?” Dr. Graham thought for a minute, lifted up his head and simply said, “God.”
I was honored in the 1980’s to be one of the teachers for the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism and had been afforded the privilege of meeting God’s peerless evangelist from time to time – but this was definitely not on the same page. For some ten years I drove back and forth to Montreat to sit at the feet of this dear man of God. We did everything any friends would do. So many hours of playing with the dogs he loved so much. So many great impromptu meals filled with hot dogs, barbeque of varying kinds—especially ribs from 12 Bones or brisket or chicken, and of course dessert of every kind. He particularly loved apple pie, especially if his daughter, Anne, had made it. In the earlier days, Ms. Ruth would bring the pie out and we would all sit and chat about everything. Oh how much he missed her when the Lord Jesus called her to her heavenly home. Like the one time when sitting together overlooking those beautiful mountains through the highly recognizable picket fence that runs across the front of his yard.
He loved to just chat about family and friends and places and issues. He loved his family so much and spoke to me many times of his perpetual concern that he had spent so much time away from them. Time and again we would lean back on the call of God. His call seemed so immense. Only the breadth of his call matched the depth of his call. Mr. Graham knew God had set him aside, even though he just couldn’t accept that he amounted to anything worth talking about. From his earliest days, when God spoke to Him, he knew it. This never changed. It was the fact that this all came from God. How could a holy God bother with such a man as Billy Graham? Perhaps one of the many clues to his renowned humility lay in his genuine humility before his Heavenly Father. Mr. Graham just never saw himself as much of anything, let alone anyone.
I spoke of his humility when I was privileged to preach at his graveside. President Bush, who had visited with the family the day before at the Billy Graham Library, said to the media, “If ever there was a servant it would be Billy Graham.” Indeed! I suggested this posed a greater question concerning Mr. Graham’s inexplicable humility.
“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble,”
I reminded the watching world from James 4:6.
The depth of Mr. Graham’s call produced Mr. Graham’s humility before God, and out of his humility flowed an abundance of God’s endowed grace on His servant.
There. I think we have it. Grace abundant. No wonder everywhere he spoke and everywhere he went and every person he met was “blown away” by this man. How could a man so great in human eyes be so humble and real and complete?
Our amazing friendship ran so deep it crossed over into a privileged intimacy. We would sit for hours and discuss life, the Bible and theology, government, and the people for whom Christ died. In 2008, he called me up to his home office, gathered his staff around him, and announced that he was requesting membership in our wonderful church, FBC Spartanburg, SC. What joy! I must admit I rushed back the next day to inform Mr. Graham that our church had voted 51 percent to 49 percent to “allow” him to become a member! He is so humble that, despite my uncontrolled laughter at the time, I thought for a minute he actually believed me!
I realized God was doing something special here, especially when Mr. Graham asked me “to hold his hand as he goes to heaven.”
Now, some months after God’s calling Dr. Billy Graham home, I can affirm it all. The privilege of marching in slow time up the steps of the Capitol of The United States of America and seeing the power of the world in the Rotunda singing, “Just as I am” led by Michael W. Smith, brought a smile to my face.
I was privileged to sit at Billy Graham’s feet for many years in a very personal and very intimate way. Millions watched and came to sit at his feet as the world gave thanks to God for this most precious servant of the Lord.
As for “Billy”? There they were to meet him: Ms. Ruth, George Beverly Shea, Cliff Barrows and a crusade choir comprised of every soul saved by Christ through one man’s faithfulness.
And there’s room for millions more!
Dr. Don Wilton has served as Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina since 1993. He also serves as president of The Encouraging Word television ministry. theEncouragingWord.org