Russell, Kansas. You might ask yourself, “Russell. Where’s that?” Well, it’s about 75 miles west of where the trees stop growing and oil wells begin dotting the western portion of the state. I’ve often described Russell as “one of the prettiest shades of brown I’ve ever seen.” Our family lived there for a time but we didn’t stay long.
In the early 60’s, we moved from Russell to Topeka. I was in grade school. I was just a kid so, admittedly, I didn’t know much of what was going on around me. I learned later that my dad was a “church planter.” This was long before the term “church planting” had been invented and long before hip pastors with tight jeans wearing Hudson Hawk t-shirts sporting thick beards started churches. (I learned later that my parents relocated our family to Topeka in response to God’s leadership to “start a new church in that city.” There was no church in Topeka waiting for them. No salary or health benefits, or even a 401k account waiting. They moved to Topeka because God said ‘Go.’)
If you know Topeka, we were east-siders. Dad, mom, and a few other people who were interested in starting a church, bought an old grocery store on the east side in the Highland Park area. After some significant storefront renovation, the Highland Park church was up and running. As I started 7th grade at Highland Park Junior High the newly birthed church was up and running.
In ’67, we heard that Billy Graham was coming to Kansas City. This was big news! Billy Graham was iconic. Billy Graham was Baptist. Billy Graham was pastor to the nation and her presidents. You see, the Catholics had their Pope John Paul the . . . (add your own Roman numeral here), but the Baptists had Billy Graham. And, in my 13-year-old mind he was our “pope.” Graham was like the “Baptist-Babe-Ruth-with-a-Bible” and every time he’d conduct a crusade in a stadium, he’d hit a Gospel home run!
I remember several families from Highland Park traveling to Kansas City to hear Billy Graham preach. The crusade was held at the old Municipal Park which at that time was home to the Kansas City A’s. Our group sat on the 3rd base side; the stadium was packed! I remember hearing the choir led by Cliff Barrows. Tedd Smith played the piano; soloists Ethel Waters and George Beverly Shea sang. And then, Billy Graham stepped to the pulpit to preach. He had one simple message of hope: “God loves you and Jesus alone can change your life.”
At the end of his message a hush fell across the stadium, heads bowed, and the piano began playing ‘Just As I Am.’ And for those of you that didn’t grow up Baptist, ‘Just As I Am’ is hymn #240, in the 1956 edition of the Baptist Hymnal; key of Eb. Before Graham could extend the invitation, people began coming forward spilling onto the ballfield. Friends accompanied them. Not ten people; not a hundred. Thousands came to Christ!
Last Wednesday morning the news of Graham’s passing gave me reason to pause and reflect. Something was absent. Something was gone. What was it?
America lost the man that was our nation’s pastor. God gave Billy Graham a huge platform to declare “Jesus is Lord” and he fulfilled that mission to completion until he took his final breath.
Several questions haunted me: “Who will take Rev. Graham’s place? Who will now fill the void? Who will rise to speak to the soul of the nation? Who will lovingly speak truth, encouragement, and hope to our world?” As soon as I asked these questions, the Lord gave a Gospel answer. “It’s you. You will, Ted.”
Those are big shoes to fill. But, in the truest of senses, I think the Lord is telling each and every one of us. . . you . . . and I . . . to speak to the soul of our neighborhoods, our church, our communities that same message of hope that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
It comes down to this – “Every person, together, following Jesus, engaged where we live and involved around the world.” That is God’s vision as it was with Billy Graham. Friends, it must also be ours.