Billy Graham: Aging With Faith

Saturday, April 14, 2007

He is 88 now, bent by age and ailments, spending his days sitting with his beloved bedridden wife, Ruth, at their home in the mountains of North Carolina.

Yet the stature of the Rev. Billy Graham continues to grow. In December, the Gallup Poll named him among the 10 most admired men in the world -- the 50th time for him on that list.

Few living Christians have been stronger unifying forces, commanded such respect or influenced more people. Among high-profile evangelists, he stands out for personal integrity, openness to cultural change and a lack of interest in wealth.

Graham, who has made only a few personal appearances in the past few years, rarely grants interviews. In an e-mail interview with Pamela Miller, a reporter with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Graham talked about his declining health, his final resting place, his vision of heaven, the war in Iraq and currents in the evangelical world. This is an edited version of that exchange.

Q: How are you and your wife, Ruth, doing?

A: One of the joys of growing older is the opportunity for us to spend more time together. Sometimes we'll just sit for hours, holding hands and talking or watching a video, or even just enjoying each other's company in silence. After a lifetime of travel and being apart so much, we treasure this stage of our lives.

At the same time, old age has its burdens, and we aren't immune. Whoever said, "Old age isn't for sissies" had it right. For years, Ruth has struggled with serious pain because of the degeneration of the bone structure in her back, and she is now bedridden. I have several continuing health issues. Ruth and I know that each day is a gift from God, and we are thankful for them.

What gives you comfort and hope? What is your daily faith practice?

My greatest comfort comes from knowing that I belong to Christ, and that no matter what happens, he will never leave me or forsake me. He will be with me as long as I'm on this Earth, and some day I will go to be with him in heaven forever. I look forward to that day!

The Bible and prayer have always been the foundation for my daily walk with God, and they still are. For many years, I've made it a practice to start the day by reading the Bible and praying, and I still do this as much as possible. Ruth and I also try to end the day by praying together and reading a brief passage of scripture.

Now that reading has become more difficult, I probably read the Bible less but pray more. Of course, over the years I've memorized many passages from the Bible, and I'm especially thankful now that I did this. I wish we gave more attention to Bible memorization in our churches today.

America's evangelical subculture has recently undergone some interesting changes, including the rise of new, more liberal voices whose views on cultural issues stand in sharp contrast to those of the religious right. What do you make of such changes?

As an evangelist, my calling has always been to proclaim the central message of the gospel: What Christ did for us by his death and resurrection, and our need to respond to him in repentance and faith. I've always tried to avoid being associated with groups that focus on political issues, either on the right or the left. That isn't my calling.

Sometimes trying to be neutral isn't easy -- kind of like the man I heard about in the Civil War who decided to wear a blue coat and gray trousers and got shot at by both sides!

However, I'm very concerned about the growing polarization we see today, both in our society generally and even among some evangelicals. Somehow we've got to find a way to get past this and find a common ground.

Do you follow news from the Middle East and Iraq? If so, is there anything you'd like to say about the conflicts in those places?

I try to follow the news from there, and Ruth and I pray every day for our president. I don't think any of us can appreciate the pressures he faces. We pray also for our military personnel who are serving over there and for their families.

One of our grandsons -- Franklin's son Edward -- is serving over there as an Army Ranger, and a few weeks ago he was wounded by shrapnel while on duty. Thankfully, he is recovering, but this has brought home to us what the families of our military personnel are going through.

Some of the tensions in the Middle East go back thousands of years to Abraham in the Bible, with the births of Ishmael and Isaac. I also think we aren't as knowledgeable about Islam as we should be, or the centuries-old conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. These conflicts took centuries to develop, and they won't be solved overnight.

At the same time, we ought to pray for peace in that part of the world and encourage our leaders to do everything they can to promote peace.

A family difference of opinion about your burial site surfaced in the news. Can you comment on it?

Ruth and I both know that the moment we take our last breath on Earth we will be together in Heaven. And at our age, we know it won't be long before we are in God's presence for all eternity -- and that's what really matters.

As for our final resting place, we are prayerfully pursuing this very personal decision together, just as we have tried to do throughout our 63 years of marriage. The determination will not be made by our family, our organization or outsiders, but will be ours alone.

We are agreed that we will be buried together, side by side, and that's more important to us than where we will be buried.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company