It’s been one year since Ruth Graham’s father, the evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, went to be with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As she and her siblings rode from Asheville, N.C., to his final resting place in Charlotte, N.C., the interstate overpasses were crowded with well-wishers kneeling, waving flags, holding signs and praying. “I’m so grateful that he was so dearly loved,” Graham remembers, pausing to control her tears. “Everybody loved him. I think we’re going to know his loss a lot more in the years to come. He was a standard for righteousness in this country that we don’t have anymore.” Looking forward to 2019, Graham particularly reflects on her supporters who were in prayer for her and her family this past year, emphasizing that prayer plays a more powerful role than we perhaps understand in both our personal lives and in the future of the persecuted church.
All five of Billy Graham’s children have followed in his footsteps as champions for the Christian faith. As his third child, Graham has struck a chord with believers struggling to cope with the stress and sin in everyday life. The author of In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart (Zondervan) and Fear Not Tomorrow, God is Already There (Howard Books), she has been publicly open about her divorces as well as parenting a daughter with an eating disorder, a son with a drug problem and another daughter with two children born out of wedlock. At her father’s funeral, Graham stood at the small wooden pulpit that used to travel on his global crusades and told the story of dating a “handsome young widower” after her first marriage ended. She ignored a phone call from her father, who was in Tokyo at the time, requesting she take the relationship slow, so the family could get to know him. “They had never been a single parent; they had never been divorced. What did they know? So being stubborn, willful and sinful, I married this man on New Year’s Eve,” she said. “It was in 24 hours I knew I had made a terrible mistake. After five weeks, I fled.” Graham drove two days back home to her parents. Her father was waiting for her when she pulled into the driveway. “As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and he said, ‘welcome home.’ There was no shame. There was no blame. There was no condemnation. Just unconditional love. And you know, my father was not God, but he showed me what God was like that day. When we come to God with our sin, our brokenness, our failure, our pain and our hurt, God says, ‘Welcome home.’”
Graham says that toward the end of his life, her father was not able to communicate, nor was he able to see and hear well. Yet while he was “somewhat withdrawn,” she was able to hold his hand and see a sparkle in his blue eyes. “He knew I was there. Isn’t that really what we need with the Lord? We know that He’s there, and He knows that we’re there. As I shared at the funeral, my father showed me what God was like. I know a lot of people can’t say that… My father was gentle and loving.”
Adjusting to life without her father has also required tackling personal health challenges. In 2018, Graham was treated for hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid around the brain. Balance issues that had previously been caused by a benign tumor on her spinal column had returned, and she needed a shunt placed in her brain to drain the extra fluid–a procedure her father had done in 2008. In the days preceding, Graham admits she struggled with a “new level of stress and anxiety.” She fought the fear with a memory from her recovery from spinal surgery in 2016. A spinal fluid leak had required physicians to take her into surgery a second time. “I couldn’t think, I couldn’t pray, the headache was like a jackhammer inside my head,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Lord, I’m your daughter; you have got to help me.’” While in recovery, Graham turned her television to Fox and Friends, and during the last five minutes of the three-hour show, which could have been dedicated to election banter, she instead found Dove Award and Billboard Music Award-winning artist Chris Tomlin singing “You’re a Good, Good Father.” “He was there in the room with me. He was present. And the headache went away finally. God is present to us, and I don’t think we call on him enough.”
The last few years have also brought Graham to a new understanding of the need for prayer not just for herself but also for Christians in oppressive and war-torn countries worldwide. In 2017, a Washington, D.C.-based summit of church leaders, victims of persecution, and advocates from 130 countries exposed her to shocking details about unequal rights and violence projected upon people of faith. Once home, she contacted the ministry leaders and pastors she knew and asked to meet for breakfast. “We didn’t talk about prayer, sing about prayer–we prayed,” she recalls. Graham has also begun speaking across the U.S. in honor of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the National Day of Prayer. She will travel to Birmingham this year to share her passion for prayer and the persecuted church at the National Day of Prayer Breakfast at American Village on May 2.
Open Doors USA names North Korea as the most dangerous country to be a Christian, noting that North Koreans are required to memorize 100 pages of ideological documents, poems and songs and can be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for owning a Bible. Graham recommends Christians use OpenDoors.org to learn about the power dynamics at play in heavily persecuted countries and view a World Watch List that outlines the 50 most dangerous countries to live as a Christian. “This is a time for us to pray, not to retreat. We can pray quietly; we can pray loudly; we can pray alone; we can pray with someone, but God hears our prayers,” she says.
Reflecting on her own history as a daughter, a mother, and a Christian, Graham asserts that prayer works, and God is ready to listen and to intervene. But perhaps there’s a responsibility on the believer to plead for intervention. “He’s sitting in eternity and he’s the Ancient of Days. He knows the end from the beginning, and He’s listening to what I have to say. That gives you pause: one, not to take it so casually; two, to trust Him with all the details. We have the privilege of going to Him and talking to Him about what’s going on in our lives. He will work on our behalf, and there’s enormous power there. When we enter into prayer, we are entering into a spiritual dimension that is powerful, and the whole host of hell is trying to keep us from praying, and we can’t let them win. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us and help us.”
Since her father’s passing, knowing he is present with the Lord makes her own prayer life feel nearer to the heavenly realm. “I miss my dad, and it’s made me think about heaven a little bit differently. It makes me realize Dad’s there with Jesus, and they’re talking about me and events in the world,” she says. “It makes things a little closer. I miss him so badly; I think we all do.”
-Camille Smith Platt