Friday, June 15, 2007

Rest In Peace: Ruth Bell Graham

Even though I've had a bit more time to reflect on Mrs. Graham's passing since yesterday, I'm still not at all sure how to respond, and so I'm going to "just do it." If this post is a bit more rambling than usual, please accept my apologies.

Although I have occasionally criticized some of Billy Graham's articles in the past, I hope that it has always been clear that I hold him in the utmost of respect. That respect extends to Ruth, as well (although I would have, out of respect, referred to her as "Mrs. Graham" in person and in any other writing, "Ruth" just seems more appropriate here). When the article mentioning her death said that she "could lay claim to being the first lady of evangelical Protestantism," I don't think it overstated the case. But such a statement is to say more than simply that she was married to one of evangelical Protestantism's foremost leaders. It is to recognize the role she herself played in evangelical ministry.

As I've mentioned a few times in the past, I went to Montreat College in Montreat, North Carolina. Montreat, a small city, is known for only a few things. Near the top of that list is that it was the Graham's home. But it was the Graham's home because it was where Ruth's family lived after ending their missionary journeys in China. For a time before moving to a more secluded location, Ruth and Billy lived across the street from Ruth's parents. Ruth's father, L. Nelson Bell, was a prominent figure in his own right, having been a well-respected Christian missionary doctor. The college library at Montreat is named for Bell. Check out the obituary written by the current president at Montreat College. Although short, it contains a list of Ruth's achievements. In fact, it only mentions the generally more famous Billy in passing.

As I've briefly mentioned once in another context, I had the honor of meeting Ruth in person on one occasion. It was back when I was student body president at the college, and Ruth's daughter Anne was speaking at a chapel service. The college chaplain informed me that Ruth was thirsty, and could use a cup of water, which I was all too happy to provide. I wish I could say that we had some enlightening conversation on Christian ministry, but I think that the extent of the conversation was to offer her the water and her gracious response. Still, it's a happy memory.

I make no claims to be very much like either Ruth or Billy Graham. By the grace of God, they have achieved amazing things that I do not expect I ever will. But I nonetheless find it remarkable how much we shared in common through the town of Montreat. Two of their children attended the college. Ruth and Billy were married in the chapel where I regularly attended worship, and where I gave one of my first sermons. Apparently Ruth was a regular Sunday School teacher at the church that met on Sundays in that chapel, although this must have been before my time as a student, as I only found out about it by reading her obituary. Although Billy was a Southern Baptist, Ruth remained a lifelong Presbyterian: a fact reinforced by the fact that they lived in Montreat, which has strong Presbyterian roots including a well-known (among Presbyterians) conference center. Although I am Presbyterian, my wife is preparing for ordination in the Episcopal church. It is comforting to know that there are such prominent examples of bi-denominational couples out there.

Those of us who lived in Montreat knew that Ruth and Billy were very close. Despite some arguably traditional gender roles (Ruth stayed at home to raise the kids while Billy traveled on his evangelistic crusades), Ruth was a very independent woman who Billy always considered a crucial part of his ministry, and one of his most trusted confidantes. Even back then, more than a decade ago, we expressed concern that when one passed away, the other would probably not be far behind. Although we may well hope that this "prediction" fails to hold true, even still, an era has passed.

Good-bye, Mrs. Graham. Your rest has been well-earned.

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