It was circa late 1970’s. I was lying on the multi-colored shag carpet in my parents’ living room in Bloomington, Minnesota, with my head propped up on a giant floor pillow and my eyes glued to the TV. My beloved grandma was over at our house, too, which she often was. To me, whenever she was there it was a special occasion even if it was just an ordinary day. But this day, like so many others, really was special. We were tuned in to the “Billy Graham Crusade.”
Even at my young age, I had come to really look up to the Reverend Billy Graham. I was introduced to the teachings of Christianity as a little one, taken to church and attended Bloomington Lutheran elementary school all the way up until eighth grade. I accepted Jesus into my heart in Kindergarten. I became so certain of the Truth of God’s Word at age five or six that I was determined to become a mini-evangelist in my own right, telling other kids I met in my neighborhood about God’s son Jesus, and how He loved each and every one of us! And Billy Graham was the Evangelist par excellence! So when he came on the tube, this was serious! He spoke the Truth.
Usually when these crusades were on TV, mom, grandma and I would gather in our living room and tune in for the entire broadcast. We would hear everything from the sermon, the music- including the low baritone voice of George Beverly Shea singing some familiar spirituals up until the final “altar call” where the reverend would invite folks to come forward, meaning they were making a declaration that they needed Jesus. Every sermon, without fail, would come to a close as the melody of “Just As I Am” began to play and he would instruct, “Those of you in the back. Begin making your way down front. The buses will wait on you.” As I watched and listened to that booming and persuasive, yet sincere voice fill our home, I would often glance back at grandma. She would nod her head in agreement to so many of his statements. For a girl so close to her grandma, this made a huge impression.
Grandma had faith. She didn’t always go to church. Although at times, when my mom was little, she would walk with her to a neighboring one. Grandpa was raised in a Catholic Church, I believe, but in later years didn’t go. He did not object to grandma going to a Protestant Church and taking my mom with her. I’m so glad he didn’t. After grandpa died when I was four years old, grandma would come with us often to the Lutheran Church we belonged to. One of the things she always used to say was, “You don’t have to be a member of a church to be a Christian.” And of course that is true. In my grandma’s case, she lived out her faith simply and quietly everyday. Something I can say about my parents as well.
Grandma was kind. Feisty, to be sure, but good and kind as well. She believed in hard work, the rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty kind of work. An avid gardener, she spent hours out in the hot unforgiving summer sun weeding and pruning her beautiful flower gardens. She never complained, just did what was required of her day in and out as she cared for her home for the many years she outlived her husband. She loved her family, spoke with her daughter every day even though mom had a family of her own and lots of irons in the fire. They would often talk at 10:30 each night when grandma was watching “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” on TV and rewarding herself with her nightly glass of beer after a hard days work.
I always knew grandma was on my side. She was my biggest cheerleader. She loved me and took great delight in watching me twirl my baton or twirl around her living room as she sat in her rocking chair. She was the only one I was NOT too embarrassed to dance freestyle in front of. She would choose a record to play in that gigantic console player- often the Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys, or Dolly Parton were the choice du jour-and sit back in her rocker watching me go to town making up goofy dance routines. This would cause her to clap her hands and squeal with delight. Usually some fresh, delicious gingerbread or sugar cookies were sure to follow. I knew she loved me for real. Unconditionally. A “Just as I am” kind of love.
I don’t remember her ever talking in detail or at length about her faith. I just knew it was there. One remark she made has stayed with me until this day. Grandma was over at our house to watch me one time because I was sick and mom had to go somewhere. I was sitting on our rust-colored built-in sofa that my dad had made. Just sitting there in my pajamas reading the Bible. She came up to me, and seeing what I was reading, remarked. “That’s the way to do it, Valerie. (although she would make my name two syllables, more like “Val-ree”. Just another endearing factoid) You just keep right on a-reading that book. Best thing you could ever do.” I really took that to heart.
And so, watching Billy Graham was special for us. For me, I couldn’t hear the simple message enough. God created the world, and it was good. The first humans, Adam and Eve sinned. This is why we live in an imperfect, broken world. But God, who loved us so much and had a plan for our lives, sent his Son to the earth to die on the cross. He took away all of our sins, died, was buried and rose again from the dead. so that we might have eternal life. I could never tire of hearing that God loved even me. Me! Broken and mistake-prone that I am, that we all are. Hearing on those nights that God saved me- while sitting with mom and grandma, two faithful Christ-followers who reinforced the importance of the message- put a fire in my little eight year old pot belly, to TELL EVERYONE about this GOOD NEWS. And that is what I set out to do.
Over the years, the “evangelism” took the form of ministering to elderly folks in care centers as a chaplain. I bet my grandma would clap her hands, nod, and squeal with delight if she could see that I went into ministry. In my messages to the residents of each center, I proclaim the same basic message that they never grow tired of hearing. He loves them just as they are. He loves me, just as I am.
And now, after all these years (grandma passed away in 1986) grandma gets to finally meet the Reverend Billy Graham in person. I hope she tells him how we loved to watch him on TV, and how inspiring he was for us.
Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bid’st me come to thee,
Oh lamb of God, I come! I come! (Verse 1)
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot;
To thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O lamb of God, I come, I come! (Verse 2)
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! (Verse 5)
Just as I Am
Charlotte Elliot, 1835
John 1:29; 6:37
Rest in Peace Reverend Billy Graham
November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018
And, one last thing, reader: He (God) loves you, too. And it’s that “just as you are” kind of love.