Thursday, 22 February 2018

Billy Graham - A Personal Reminiscence

I was one of those who went forward at a Billy Graham Crusade. It was the early summer of 1966, at the Earl's Court Arena. He preached there for a month. Close on a million people must have heard him. I was one of about forty thousand who responded to the "altar call" (though I don't think that phrase was being used any more in the 1960s).

There. I've come out and admitted it. I won't say it changed my life. I'd consciously become a Christian earlier that year, thanks to friends in the school's Christian Union. Before that I'd been a chorister. I hadn't been brought up in a church going family. My parents told me on my first day as a chorister not to bring any of "that religion" back home with me. It was for the music that they were encouraging me, that alone. So they were not best pleased when I announced my conversion, though they did come to my baptism and confirmation a few months later.

So yes, 1966 was an annus mirabilis, a year of joyful wonder, no doubt about that. And Billy Graham was part of it. I went with friends to hear him several times. I didn't care for the musical style of Cliff Barrows and George Beverley Shea - I'd have preferred O worship the King and There's a wideness in God's mercy to Blessed assurance and To God be the glory (still do). But I remember admiring the sheer professionalism with which these vast events were managed. I also recall being impressed by the diversity of people sitting on the platform - Anglican bishops, civic leaders, some black faces I didn't recognise. All in all, it was great theatre. You couldn't but be impressed.

He was a master of rhetorical technique. Where had he learned it, I wonder - from the study of classical Greek and Roman rhetors, or from American politicians or the great preachers of previous ages? Maybe he was one of those natively gifted people who come to realise they have power to sway human minds and hearts. He knew how to work a crowd. And he knew exactly how to speak in such a way that you would think it was directly and personally meant for you. To achieve that calls for charism of a high order.

But most of all, I was drawn to the man. It wasn't so much the content of his addresses (none of which I can now remember), but the way he gave them, the kind of human he came across as being. (I wonder if this is true of all of us preachers most of the time?) What struck me more than anything was the sense he conveyed of a profound personal integrity. He seemed to have no "side". It was hard to suspect hidden agendas or imagine ulterior motives, though the cynics tried hard enough. He believed every word of his own message, and as far as we the audience could tell, lived by it. All the obituaries I have read confirm the impression that he was a genuinely humble man who "loved his Lord", as Donald Coggan would have said, who never regretted giving his life to the gospel.

I think, looking back, that it was his essential goodness that impelled me to go forward that evening. I craved innocent, unselfconscious goodness (and still do), that singleness of mind and purpose that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls "purity of heart". I was already aware as a teenager that I fell well short of it myself. I wanted, so to speak, to nail my colours to that mast. It was an aspiration. Perhaps I knew in some obscure way that this would be a life task, that conversio is never a once-for-all decision, but a lifelong turning away from what is destructive or corrupting or evil towards all that is good and true and beautiful. "Think on these things" says St Paul. I believe Billy Graham was one of those rare people for whom this was a daily habit.

I met him once, briefly. This was in May or June 1984 when he came to the original Sunderland FC ground at Roker Park to preach to the North East. Nearly twenty years older than when I'd last seen him, he had not lost his good looks. I'd been sent to report the event for a newspaper. By then I'd moved away from conservative evangelicalism into a more catholic and sacramental spirituality. So I perhaps went to Sunderland prepared to be critical. The stadium was only half full: maybe it was the keen wind blowing off the North Sea that night, or maybe the people of County Durham and Northumberland were just worn down by the miners' strike that had begun a few months earlier.

I went to the press conference. You could tell that Billy Graham understood how to engage with, if not a hostile, then a suspicious media. (The press mostly don't care much for religion until a significant exemplar of it dies - today's obituaries strike a very different, and far more positive, tone from the press commentary of thirty years ago.) He was courteous, direct and shrewd in his answers. He wouldn't get drawn into debates about American politics, what he thought about Viet Nam, Watergate and so on. I asked him a question, possibly about race relations in US; or was it about Nicaragua? I don't think it was the miners, though that would have been interesting. I was probably trying to be clever. But he played a straight bat, and you couldn't quarrel with that. He looked me directly in the eye as he spoke. His gaze was piercing, questioning, placing me under scrutiny. I thought: here is a man who deserves to be taken seriously.

So why didn't the Billy Graham brand of evangelicalism "stick"? I was asked a similar question by George Carey once, when he was Archbishop and came to preach at Sheffield Cathedral. "You were on course to be an evangelical leader, Michael. What went wrong?" I said I didn't accept the premise that anything went wrong. But it would take a long series of blogs to explain. Maybe I don't entirely understand it myself, though as I get older and look back on my life, things gradually fall into place, even if gathering the fragments is always a work in progress.

I suppose that as the prophets said to Elisha, "the place where we live is too small for us". I don't mean this unkindly. We all move home many times in our lives, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. I have good evangelical friends whom I honour for their faithfulness to Christ and their loyal witness to the gospel. But I found the evangelicalism of those days too talkative, too busy, too extraverted. There was not enough silence in it, not enough space to contemplate, not enough imagination or playfulness, not enough awareness of the place of beauty in religion. And it didn't seem to reach into the complexities of the human heart (well, mine, anyway). No doubt a lot of it comes down to temperament. But I have to say that I became increasingly at odds intellectually with the way conservative evangelicalism did theology.

But I want to think (and pray) that I haven't lost what has been most precious in my evangelical formation: a love of the scriptures and a belief that they must be central to Christian life and thought; a conviction that personal relationship with God is the essence of all religion if it is to mean anything; and not least, a spirituality that is ardently focused on Jesus' cross and passion. As a student (at Trinity College Bristol!) my tutors told me to read the radical New Testament critics and John Henry Newman's Apologia. Oh, and to try to grasp the principles of liturgical prayer. I realised how much bigger the Christian world was than I'd imagined. That's it, really. The rest is history.

There are many mansions in our Father's house. God not only moves in mysterious ways himself, but moves us in ways that are just as mysterious when we try to make sense of them. I know that on many matters, Billy Graham and I would not have agreed since those heady days of the 1960s. He probably wouldn't have been comfortable in my liberal catholic, inclusive-church world, nor I in his. Except for this. I have no doubt whatsoever that he would have honoured my stumbling attempts to walk my Christian faith journey with integrity, just as I want to honour his. For what matters most is the same, to "turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ" as the Ash Wednesday words put it. Discipleship is as simple as that, purity of heart. Billy Graham helped me to start out on that path. For that, I'm grateful and glad.

Farewell to a great Christian man. RIP.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Lent - 40 Shades of Gratitude

If you follow The Archers you’ll know that Alan the Vicar has put forward a novel idea for the village’s Lenten observance. Let’s give up complaining, he’s proposed, and every time we offend, let’s put a fine in the sin-box and give the proceeds to charity.

I quite like that idea, though it needs a bit of calibration. Does “complaining” only cover what we do publicly, or what we are overheard doing? Does it only cover what we say or write, or should it include what we think as well? Does it only apply to named people or organisations (“The Vicar doesn’t visit enough”; “Bridge Farm yogurts have lost their taste”) or also to the ubiquitous “they” (as in “Why don’t they mend the potholes in our roads?” or “They don’t care that our trains never run on time”)? And when is a negative comment not necessarily a complaint (“Our bins haven’t been emptied this week: that’s going to cause problems, so we’d better phone the Council”)? And are Ambridge folk still allowed to talk about “bad weather” or a “poor wi-fi signal”?

Maybe the casuistry of complaining is too complex. And to rub your nose in negativity doesn’t exactly lift the spirits. That’s the trouble with Lent. It’s not that giving up things isn’t often very good for us - fasting and self-denial are important aspects of a healthy spiritual (and ordinary human) life. But so much depends on our attitude, our motive for undertaking whatever Lenten exercise or discipline we opt for. So I’m much more encouraged by a tweet from one of my favourite Twitter clergy, @sallyhitchener. “This year I'm taking up #GratitudeForLent - 40 days, 40 thank you notes to people to whom I'm grateful, for small or great things. Want to join me?”

I think Sally gets right to the heart of Lent. For a start, she accentuates the positive, always a good antidote to the negativity of complaining. But she isn’t calling for the kind of generalised goodwill clergy are so proficient at while never sacrificing their gift of vagueness. She sets a clear objective that is, as business-speak has it, SMART: Specific, Measurable (she’ll know if she’s achieved it or not), Assignable (clear about whose task this is, in this case hers), Realistic (it can actually be achieved) and Time-related (in this case, 40 days). The Muslim month of Ramadan is characterised by smart objectives for the fast which makes it all the easier to get a handle on (I don’t say easier to observe). I believe a Lenten observance that sets smart goals will be helpful in at least contemplating the journey that lies ahead.

But much more important is the content of Sally’s Lenten resolution. “Gratitude for Lent” - what could be more true to the spirit of Christianity than that? You could say that gratitude is where Christian discipleship begins, as we acknowledge with thankfulness the tender mercy of the God who has loved us in Jesus Christ and called us to be citizens of his kingdom. So to practise gratitude in Lent is to go back to the very foundations of faith. The clue is in the principle of eucharist. That word literally means “Thanksgiving”. So to live eucharistically doesn’t only mean participating in the service of worship at which we celebrate together the great acts of God. At a deeper level, it means cultivating thankfulness as a habit of the heart, training our deepest selves to respond to life in a spirit of gratitude and praise to God our Creator and Redeemer. In Lent, that gratitude is given a paschal shape as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the redemptive event from which our very identity as Christians is derived.

I used the word “training” just now. Training is what the Greek word askesis means. An ascetic is someone who takes their training seriously, reckons that it’s something worth investing in. Yes, the three great disciplines Jesus speaks about in the Sermon on the Mount, prayer, fasting and giving alms, are basic to the classic Christian understanding of askesis. But motivating them all, I think, has to be a sense of thankfulness, the eucharistic acknowledgment that these disciplines are not ends in themselves, but are meant to deepen our engagement with God whose goodness has invited us into the adventure and challenge of discipleship. The ascetic journey is to travel more deeply into God’s heart of love. It both draws on our thankfulness and enhances it as we discover how infinitely indebted we are to the Love that moves the sun and the stars.

So Lent, this annual season of renewal, this springtime of the Christian year, invites us to find new ways of practising the habit of eucharistia. Where do we start? Sally gives us a practical suggestion. Her forty thank you notes will get us thinking about forty ways in which we need to be grateful - to other people, and through them, to God himself. And alongside these forty shades of gratitude, why not pray the General Thanksgiving each day? I don’t know a better way of seeing off our tendency to complaint and negativity. Indeed, I believe we shall discover that thankfulness is truly life-changing because it transfigures our perspective on life. The Thanksgiving Prayer says that we should be grateful above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. Which is what we look forward to celebrating at Easter. Here's the General Thanksgiving in its original, magnificent form in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.