Billy Graham died yesterday, and I believe that He is rejoicing right now.
I read a quote on Twitter from him that said:
“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” -Billy Graham, 1918-2018
He was an amazing man with an amazing message. I wept through the episode of The Crown in season 2 that depicted the Queen’s relationship with Billy Graham. He impacted people from all walks of life. He bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of prison and battled racism. But most of all, he preached the gospel all over the world, even behind the Iron Curtain.
I read his book Nearing Home a few years ago about dying, and it was truly beautiful.
So none of what I’m going to say in this post is meant to take away from any of that. I just want to ask a few questions.
I read an article in the Washington Post yesterday called “Divorce, Drugs, Drinking: Billy Graham’s Children and their Absent Father.”
After their marriage in August 1943, Ruth caught a chill while returning from their honeymoon. Instead of calling to cancel a routine preaching engagement in Ohio and staying at the bedside of his new bride, Billy checked her into a hospital and kept the appointment, sending her a telegram and a box of candy for consolation. She felt hurt, but soon learned that nothing came before preaching on her husband’s list of priorities.
In 1945, Graham became a full-time evangelist, a job that had him traveling throughout the United States and Europe. Perhaps sensing the start of a lifelong pattern, and pregnant with their first child, Ruth moved in with her parents in Montreat, N.C., a Presbyterian retirement community. The Bells provided her with companionship to ease the loneliness she felt during her husband’s long absences and were there to share important moments — when their first child, Virginia (always called “Gigi”), was born in 1945, Billy was away on a preaching trip.
It goes on to talk about how the kids felt about their dad being gone, and what a difficult road his wife Ruth walked, without any help raising the kids. They finally were sent to boarding school because things were just too busy.
It reminded me of a documentary I watched a while ago about the immense sexual, physical, and emotional abuse scandals out of the missionary boarding schools in the 50s-90s. Terrible, terrible stuff.
And one of the themes they kept coming back to is that the children were told they could not talk about any of this with their parents because it could hinder their parents’ work, and their parents’ work was everything. In the broader scheme of things, nothing else mattered because they were doing God’s work on earth.
But if you take that to its logical conclusion, what that mindset is really saying is this: the children don’t matter. Their well-being doesn’t matter. And so it’s okay if they are sacrificed in order to achieve the greater good for God.
Do you see a problem with that? I do. As one former boarding school student said,
“God is not Molech [one of the pagan gods in the Old Testament], demanding child sacrifices. God loves all of his children.”
And I believe that. I do think it’s that simple. God does not ask us to sacrifice our children for Him. He just doesn’t.
So I am left with this strange conundrum when it comes to Billy Graham and his kids:
- We know that God used Billy Graham in great ways all over the world. We know that that man had a tremendous legacy.
- But did God want him to abandon his kids like that? Did God want him to be an absent father?
I honestly don’t know how to reconcile those two things, so I am asking.
All five of his children are in some sort of ministry, and many grandchildren, too (though one grandchild, Tullian Tchividjian, is a pastor who groomed multiple vulnerable women for sex, and is thus guilty of clergy abuse, and left his wife to marry one of them). But three of his kids divorced, and many had rough stories. Though God has brought them back, their lives were not easy.
Now, even if he had been a present father that doesn’t mean his kids would have necessarily made better decisions earlier, but it does seem strange to me that God would ask us to neglect our kids to do a bigger work. Maybe those whom he calls like that should not be married or have kids in the first place?
Even writing that seems strange, though, too, because we know that Billy Graham’s kids have had amazing ministries (especially his daughter Anne). And Franklin’s ministry Samaritan’s Purse has done so much good.
Yet God can take good out of anything. So God used his kids and had amazing grace there. But is that what God intended? Was God happy every time Billy Graham got on a plane to preach to thousands, when his kids were left behind and honestly were neglected by their dad?
I don’t know the answer to that.
If God wasn’t happy, then would God have preferred that some of those Billy Graham crusades not have happened?
Maybe things aren’t as straightforward, and there aren’t definite answers. But I struggle with it because to me it matters. Where does God see our obligation to our nuclear family? I think it comes before our obligation to the world, but maybe there are exceptions.
The way that I see it is this:
God has left the world to the church as a whole. God has left your kids to you specifically. And we should always care for our specific responsibilities before our shared responsibilities.
Perhaps I have that wrong. Perhaps that is not true in every case. But then what does that say about God? And how do we know in each specific case?
I’m honestly asking. So leave your thoughts in the comments, and let’s wrestle this through together!