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February 2015

Success – Billy Graham at Ninety Six

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At a recent dinner party our host posed a question to discuss over the meal: what are you hoping for?

Most responses were predictable: peace in the world, health for our families. One younger guest said, “I hope that at the end of my life I can know that I have made a difference, some worthwhile contribution to the world.” We then had a fascinating discussion of success, and significance.

That table talk was still in my mind this week when Jeanie and I drove up to visit her brother Billy, who turned ninety-six yesterday at his Montreat home.

We took along a signed copy of the new book by Grant Wacker, distinguished professor of American church history at Duke Divinity School.

“Why does Billy Graham matter?” asks Wacker, and offers a thorough assessment of his place in twentieth century America. He details the sixty plus years of ministry: the millions upon millions who heard his voice; his friendships with so many presidents; the twenty-eight times he was on the cover of major magazines. He certainly was a “success” in public influence and recognition.

What interests me is the title. Wacker could have made it about Billy Graham as preacher, evangelist, world leader, most admired figure. Instead he calls it America’s Pastor, because, of the thousands of letters which poured in to him, most were about people’s personal hurts and needs – broken marriages, wayward children, loneliness.

As Jeanie handled the book to her brother the irony was that with his failing eyesight he could barely see the cover. I gazed at him sitting up, white hair flowing back, blue eyes faded, barely able to hear his sister’s soft voice. As he held the book, and slowly thanked us for our birthday greetings, his voice was so different from the thunder and quick words of earlier years.

But his wit is still there! “How old are you?” he asked Jeanie, and when she told him said, “How did you get there so quick?”

In those minutes I realized Grant Wacker has the title right. Billy Graham is evangelist to the world, but pastor to many, and to our family Billy Frank the caring brother and uncle.

It was Billy who broke the news to our son Kevin that his older brother Sandy had died unexpectedly during surgery. He was at Mayo Clinic when our daughter Debbie went for tests on breast cancer (now long gone). He waited for her at the end of a long hall, hugged her, prayed for her. She later said, “Uncle Billy, for me that was the best sermon you ever preached. It was not you speaking from a platform, but you in your wheel chair, waiting for me in my fear.”

On one of our recent visits I realized he could not hear my words so I sang for him – some old hymns. “Keep singing” he said. “Sing more.”

He was not much of a singer himself. His soloist George Beverly Shea said Billy had a malady – no melody! But he and Billy’s music leader Cliff Barrows often had him join them in a fun version of “This Little Light of Mine.” He was allocated only one note. When they got to “Hide it under a bushel?” he would exclaim: “No!”

“Billy, do you remember that?” I asked. He nodded. So I sang and when I got to “hide it under a bushel?” I paused, and, very softly, he breathed, “No.”

Of all the words that he spoke and millions heard, that one quiet “no” tells me that any one of us can let our light shine.

Billy touched the world in ways very few can. He touched individuals in ways any of us can.

At ninety-six, doesn’t that count as success?

Leighton Ford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

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Ash Wednesday 2005

At the Ash Wednesday service today ashes were placed on my forehead in the shape of a cross as the ministrant said to me, “Remember, man, ashes you are and to ashes you shall return.”

I knew it before he told me, because I had been reminded of this coming fact in the past few days, through the deaths of a relative and a friend, and also through our book discussion group Monday night.

For several years we have been meeting to talk about the latest book we have read together. There once were six of us. One has died, the other moved away.

This Monday the remaining four of us talked about Elizabeth Costello, the most recent book of the Nobel-prize winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee (whose birthday, interestingly, is today).

I found it intriguing but baffling, and so I think did the others.

Costello is an ageing Australian novelist who on the strength of her first and most impressive novel is invited to lecture at various universities and other sites (including a cruise ship!) around the world.

The lectures she gives on several topics – realism, animal rights, whether some things are so evil they should not be written about – are based on essays or lectures Coetzee himself has given on these matters. Costello has very firm views on all these matters, but prefers to leave any definitive answers hanging in the air. Most of her relationships with her family are also hanging some place in mid air.

My first impression was that Coetzee had come up with a forced narrative character as a way of cobbling together his lectures for a wider audience. The more I read (and the more we discussed) the more I felt there was far more to the book. Far from being an overreaching book by an overrated author (as Jonathan Yardley wrote in his critique) I think it is a most profound statement of a dilemma that the author, every artist, and every human faces: how can I know what I really believe?

The last chapter is a kind of dream-like experience of purgatory. Costello is in a drab town having to face a panel of judges who decide who gets to go through a certain mysterious door. What lies beyond it – heaven? hell? nothingness? – we are not told, although she does get a peek through and sees first a bright light, then a dog.

But when the novelist has to tell what she herself believes she is at a loss.

“I am a writer … a secretary of the invisible,” she says, “It is not for me to interrogate or judge what is given me. I merely write down the words.” A good secretary, she adds, “should have no beliefs.”

When pressed to make a statement she says, “I believe in what does not bother to believe in me.”

And when asked whether she believes in God she protests it is too intimate a question, and says, “I prefer to let God be. As I hope He will let me be.”

Our friend George who professes to be a secular humanist posed the question to us: what would any of us say or write if asked what we believed.

As for George himself, he told us that he would say, “I believe I am going to die. And then there is nothing more.”

Which led into a most fascinating discussion from which I digress for some personal thoughts.

I think I would say, “I believe, like George, that I am going to die. The ashes on my head today remind me that is a fact. It’s true for all of us whether we believe it or not.

“I also believe other things. I believe I am alive. I believe I can think about death and what it means. I believe I can argue with George, unlike my beautiful and very bright dog Wrangler who will instinctively flinch from death but does not talk to me about it. He may have his thoughts but I don’t know that. I know that I do.

“I know that when my little granddaughter Anabel came for Christmas and had to leave, she lay beside me for half an hour in the early morning, very quiet next to ‘gagee.’ I looked at her and wondered what a two year old thinks lying in bed in the morning, and whether when I am long gone what she will remember of being there with me. When the time came to leave for home she sobbed and kicked because she did not want to leave Wrangler or Gagee.

“So I know other things besides dying. I know that I love, as does Anabel. I desire. I long. I have at times hated. Once I thought I could kill. I have lusted. I deeply care about life and those I love.

“Our friend Brent who was part of this group and died was a brilliant judge who loved justice and mercy.

“Has that all died? The love, the longing for justice and mercy and caring?

“Does that turn to ashes too?”

“I believe it does not. I believe love does not fail.

“Can I prove these as inescapeable realities, like death? Not in the same way. But love and longing and justice and mercy are proved also from experience, from life. These are not merely words, or abstract values. They have meaning only because they are lived out by real people in real relationships.

“So when Jesus, who for me embodies all of these, tells me that there will be a house of love as the end of our longings, I believe him.

“So yes, I believe. Not in something but in the One whom I confess in the Creed:

   I believe in God the Father Almighty,
and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”

Today at Ash Wednesday communion the hymn was the same we sang last year:

We rise again from ashes,
   from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
   to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
   then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes,
   an offering to You.

The second stanza says that we offer to God our failures, our attempts, the gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt.

Those last words brought tears to my eyes when I read them, as they did last year.

I know where the tears came from. They are tears for Sandy, our son who died at the age of twenty-one, nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Is Sandy only ashes?

I stood by his grave Saturday, near to where our other relative was to be buried. I brushed a few pieces of grass off the headstone.

I thought of the note I just received from someone who knew him in college, remembering the kind of person Sandy was, how without being preachy his faith was evident by the way he lived his life and cared for others.

His influence lives on. The memories do.

But what about him?

Jesus said that God is the God of the living, not the dead. So Sandy is more than a memory. As long as God lives, Sandy lives, alive and vital in the presence of God.

How that can be is a mystery beyond what George or I can calculate from our bodily lives, beyond our reason.

But the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of.

Pascal said that.

I believe it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River Speak

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I walked this river many
times before,
but never quite so far
or quite so deep.

I’ve followed down its
darkened banks
this quiet, hidden, winding
ribbon
so close to tourist traffic
yet so far
removed.

But I had never listened for
the river’s voice.

Today, I heard the river speak.

I took along a m an,
a young, black man
to show the river to him
and the way.
But he showed me to see the way
and how to let
the river speak.

With him I went down
further
deeper
than I’d ever gone before.
A bridge was there I’d
never seen, or
never found, or
was not there
last year.
Across it was another
side, another
path that went down
where I’d never been
and showed me things
I’d never seen.

He showed me tenderness.
reached out an unselfconscious
youthful arm
that touched my shoulder
and my soul.
I wondered for a moment
what would a watcher
think who saw a
young man hug
an old man
in the woods?
It was a holy touch.

He showed me woundedness.
Pulling up a pant’s leg
he let me see on
one dark limb
the foot-long scarry flesh
where doctors poured
the poison to kill
a carcinoma, but left
him one bone short,
with tendons knitted by a stapled knot.
In his Jacob’s twisted beauty
I saw the healing
hand of God.

He showed me artfulness.
below cascades we
tried to frame a view
we’d like to paint.
“We’d want” I said, “the
rocks, the yellows and the
greens, the bridge, the falls.”
“If it were me,” he said,
“I’d let myself fall down
the bank, be bruised
a bit, and at the bottom
see what I would see.”

He showed me guidedness.
Siddhartha, so he said.
And this I did not know,
after many years
of plying his trade
as a boatsman learned
to listen to the river.

And so, at last, we found a ledge
beneath the bridge and
sat a while and listened
to the white noise
of falling sheets
to rushing hiss
on polished rocks
to liquid grunts like
bullfrogs in the hollows
as the river spoke.

And – this is what it said –
“God started me before you came
this way.
He’ll keep me going past your
longest day.
I’ll shape the earth yet deeper
to the falls.
I take my playful course
because He calls.”

Like that the river spoke.

I heard my call
To walk the river as He
makes it flow
to take along those hearts
Who want to go
and with them find paths
I long to know.

June, 1996

Mystery

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Everyone loves a mystery. Yes, except when it comes to God. Then we want everything to be made clear, to “make sense.” (How intriguing that we want the great “Spirit” to “make sense”!)

Of course our faith does make sense, profoundly. Yet there is always an element of mystery, beyond our ken. The God disclosed in the Old Testament had a name that could not be spoken, a face that could not be seen. Then in Jesus God did speak his name, did show his face.

And yet, for all the presence and clarity of that revelation (for in Christ was all the fullness of God that could be known in human form) he is still Mystery … larger than our minds, deeper than our hearts, grander than our most sublime experience.

“My ways are not your ways” he said through the prophet, and Paul echoes that his paths are “beyond tracing out.” God cannot be packaged in a formula, caught in an axiom. Nor can faith be freeze-dried or the Christian life programmed. We will always be children wading beyond our depth.

The gospel, always simple, is never shallow.

“Mysteries” allure us, make us want to figure them out. There is something in “whodunits” that tease our imaginations. But even as we try to put the clues together, the surprise ending is what makes the story. Something in us wants it to turn out differently than the story seems to be … yet in a way that meets our deepest longings. Would we not be disappointed if we could figure it all out? Could it be that way because God has put eternity in our hearts, and we are, as C. S. Lewis said in so many ways, made for another world?

Deep down we seem to know that the obvious does not always have the last word.

In the liturgy of the Holy Communion we confess together the “mystery of our faith”:

Christ has died
Christ has risen
Christ will come again.

The facts of the story are clear. Once and for all history was invaded and changed forever. But the reasons and finalities are not.

The simple gospel of God is something that as a five year old boy I could apprehend. The “mystery of godliness”, the amazing grace and wonderful power of God is something I know I will never comprehend.

I keep pondering what Paul wrote: about “the glorious riches of this mystery” (Colossians 1:27) and this all is “a profound mystery.” (Ephesians 5:32)

(We do need to keep in mind that “mystery” in the Bible l is not a puzzle with no solution, but something secret that has been revealed by God’s Spirit – and will be fully revealed in eternity)

 

The Fog of War

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I wrote this in 2004. After reading I believe it is still apropos to where we are 2014.

This is one of the most gripping/disturbing movies I have seen in a long time. The entire film is an interview with Robert McNamara (Phi Beta Kappa at Berkeley, Harvard Business School “whiz kid”, efficiency expert on bombing in WWII, the Ford Motor Company’s savior and short term president, JFK’s (and later LBJ’s ) Secretary of Defense during the Cuban Missile crisis and the Viet Nam war, head of the World Bank for many years. Footage from wars and critical events during his years are intercut, but for the most part McNamara sits shoulders hunched, in his dark blue suit and tie, staring into the camera, and giving his reminiscences. Occasionally an off-camera director interjects a question.

At 85, this brilliant man gives the impression of living in his own inner purgatory, passing judgments on history and his part in making it – and especially the confusion and misjudgments caused by the “fog of war”. The title comes from a description of the trench warfare of WWI, when ground fog caused great confusion as to what was going on.

His comments mix the memories of a steely sharp brain, able still to recall the exact percentages of pilots killed in every bombing flight over Hitler’s Europe, with the excruciating moral pain of a man who studied ethics and philosophy in college, but seemingly found the math to be more important than the ethics in making wartime decisions that resulted in victory – and tens of thousands of deaths.

The film is structured around McNamara’s “Eleven lessons learned from war” His first lesson “Empathize with your enemy …” he illustrates with a first-hand account of the Cuban crisis, when Russian missiles were found on the island. In those tense days nuclear war seemed like a very real possibility. (I can still remember Jeanie and I sitting in a cafeteria in Charlotte and talking about whether we should take our children and seek a safe place in the North Carolina mountains.)

Nikita Khruschev sent to JFK a message (sometimes described as the “soft” letter) saying that if Kennedy would promise not to invade Cuba, he would remove the Russian missiles. A few hours later another “hard’ message came from the Kremlin, threatening to annihilate the US. Kennedy was leaning toward responding in similar harsh terms, when Tommy Thompson, former ambassador to the Soviet Union opposed him. His voice is heard in the oval office saying, “Mr. President, you are wrong. I know Khruschev. He needs to save face, to be able to tell his people that he stopped an American invasion. Please, Mr. President, response to the ‘soft’ message.” Kennedy did; war was averted.

But, says McNamara, in the case of Viet Nam, Americans did not know their enemy enough to empathize with them.

Other lessons he passes on include:

    • Rationality will not save us
    • There’s something beyond one’s self
    • Maximize efficiency
    • Get the data
    • Belief and seeing are both often wrong
    • Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning

He makes a chilling revelation: that the purported torpedo attack on a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which led Lyndon Johnson to order the bombing of North Viet Nam, never happened. “We know that now,” he said. “It was a nervous sonar operator that gave a wrong report.”

“What makes us omniscient?” he asks. “We are the strongest nation in the world. We should never use our power unilaterally. If we can’t persuade our allies of the merit of our cause we’d better reexamine our reasoning.”

McNamara’s lessons are grimly sobering, and it’s worth asking: how much have we learned?

Perhaps his most agonizing moments in the film (and there are a number, not a few that came with tears) appear when he struggles to justify and explain his ninth lesson :

    • In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

He remembers Norman Morrison, a Quaker who burned himself to death below McNamara’s Pentagon office to protest the US involvement in Viet Nam.“

It’s a very difficult position for a sensitive person to be in. Morrison was one of those,” he pauses, and adds, “I think I was.” The inner purgatory is obvious.

His last lesson goes to the heart of his summing up, of his work, perhaps of his life, of himself: “You can’t change human nature.” (This is a truth I have emphasized in my own ministry for many years – but with the added hopeful note that Jesus Christ can indeed transform our human nature – and change enemies into friends!)

This bright man so opposed the escalation of the Viet Nam conflict that he either quit or was fired as Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. He claims he still does not know which. For fifteen years after he left government he headed the World Bank and warred against poverty. In the film he says repeatedly, “Human beings must stop killing other human beings.”

But, is that possible? Or will more brilliant, committed, sensitive, and conflicted men kill more and more, doing more evil to do good.

“The fog of war,” is inevitable, he says because “war is so complex, so beyond the human ability to comprehend, with so many variables. Our judgment, our comprehension is not adequate.”

In an epilogue he quotes T. S. Eliot (from the last section of Four Quartets):

We shall not cease from our exploration
and the end of all our exploring will be
to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

“I think that’s where I’m beginning to be,” he muses.

His words are counter-pointed with video footage of the loading of a bomb on which have been painted the words: “Only the beginning.”

What was his beginning? What will be his end? And ours?

At the close the director’s voice asks a final question:

“Do you live with guilt?”

“I don’t want to talk any more,” McNamara answers. “It’s too complex. Whatever you says, there are too many qualifications you have to make.”

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” asks the director.

”Right,” he says. He pauses.

“I’d rather be damned if I don’t.”

The film is not the last judgment.

Thank God.

(The Fog of War is available on DVD)

Leighton Ford,
Charlotte, North Carolina
July, 2004

Trees for Tomorrow – Markers of Our Lives

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Over Labor Day weekend Jeanie and I went to visit friends at their farm in the hills of Virginia, a place of remarkable care and beauty.

Their home is actually a retreat house which Anne, a therapist, author, and spiritual mentor has built on family land. Every guest room motif reflects a part of the world where she and David (a successful executive) have served in mission or social enterprise. Every path cut through the woods has stopping places for rest and prayer.

On an afternoon walk Anne pointed to a slope where dozens of white sleeves stand, supporting newly planted maple and oak trees.

“I want it to look beautiful now,” she explained, “and to be a place where fifty years from now our grandchildren can look and remember what this place is for. A place of hospitality. Not just for our family enjoyment but where people of all sorts came to find refreshment and faith. To see how with love and care the natural beauty of a place can reflect the glory of the Creator.”

Those “trees for tomorrow” kept me wondering, as we drove home into the busy fall season, what markers will we – family, teachers, others – leave for our children and grandchildren?

Over dinner David and Anne talked about places where they might eventually be buried at their farm, whether at the corner of a rustic chapel, or on a beautiful vista on top of Whisky Hill.

David wondered why he found little in the Bible about burials. Actually there’s a fair bit. Abraham was buried in the cave of Machpelah, along with his wife and sons. Moses was buried in a valley although the exact place was unknown. Joshua was laid to rest in the hill country. The bones of Joseph were brought back from Egypt to his father’s ground. The places, except for Moses, were marked.

Deep in our bones and spirits it seems is the desire to have markers, markers not only that we have lived, but why we have lived.

And what do we remember from Jesus? Not only the tomb where he was buried and which he left behind, but the living memorial he established at the last supper: drink this wine, eat this bread, remember me, love one another as I have loved you, and lay down my life for you.

What legacy then are we leaving for the children in our care, our homes and schools?

My mind doesn’t travel far to think of legacies that matter – just a couple of miles down the road to where my wife’s mother was dying in her home on Park Road. She pulled Jeanie close, put her hands on her shoulders, and said, “Daughter, pass it on to every generation.”

Mother and Daddy Graham passed their faith on to their son Billy who has passed it to the world. When a while ago I asked what he’d like said at his funeral he slowly answered, “He tried to do what he thought he should.” And what was that? “Preach the gospel.”

They passed it on to their other son Melvin, not a preacher but a faithful farmer whose marker at Forest Lawn East cemetery reads:

I’m just a nobody
Who can tell everybody
About Somebody
Who can change anybody.

It was passed on to their daughter Catherine, who brought up her children to know and love the Lord.

And to Jeanie, who passed it to our three children, including Sandy, known as a winsome Christian at Myers Park and Chapel Hill, who died during heart surgery at twenty-one, and whose own marker reads: “A heart for God.”

Their lives were their markers. Three generations planting seeds that still grow on.

I don’t have a farm in Virginia where I can plant a grove of trees. You may have neither a platform to preach or a farm to run.

But could we each plant one tree – or at least a seed – for every child who is born?

And, with small seeds, a prayer, a word of encouragement, a bit of needed attention, also plant “trees for tomorrow”?

 

 

 

The Witness of Poetry

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I am reading Milosz’ The Witness of Poetry. In his final chapter (on Hope!) after analyzing the temperament of our civilization, without either despair or facile optimism, he expresses his belief that in the 21st century there will be a radical turning away from the worldview dominated by biology … there will be a new turning back to humanity, “the soul of bygone generations.”

And here he speaks of the adventures of one poet: Cavafy. Whose journey through his own Greek history is also a journey “into his own interior realm.”

Now why am I excited? For one thing it speaks directly to the paper George D passed to us, the essay of the eminent biologist Edward Wilson who is absolutely committed to biology it would seem as any devout Christian has been to the Apostle’s Creed.

However at the closing of his essay Wilson also wonders whether there might be a superintellect, surpassing Einstein, who could reconcile science and religion. He doubts this, but does not deny the persistent questions of our humanness that science is not deep enough to answer.

I posed to George this possibility: that this figure would be a poet! And held out W. Berry as an example.

More: that we need to consider hopefully Chas. Williams’ belief that God is a poet, and we are his poem!

If there is “mystical hope” – who can best tell us about it? the scientist? or the poet?

I am also smiling at Craig’s proposition that a kiss cannot be understood by a mathematical formula, or a scientific description, but only by being experienced.

And: I am remembering that in Saturday Ian McEwan’s scientific surgeon, who has everything neatly in order, is disturbed that day by a burning plane glimpsed in the morning sky. (The surgeon quotes the same passage from Darwin that E. Wilson does in his essay). His life is also invaded by the inevitability of his mother’s decline, and the invasion of his home and violation of his daughter by malicious thugs. How revealing that the attack of the violent invaders is halted by one thing only: his daughter’s reciting of poetry!

 

 

 

The Bamboo Forest

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“A child’s world made of bamboo”   Irene Honeycutt

You kept me up late last night, Irene, reading your poem about your little hut, and remembering.

Strange, isn’t it, how one small word can conjure up so much? I read “bamboo” and suddenly a whole street came alive to me again.

There was a bamboo forest on Coltsgate Road where many years ago we proudly built our old brick two-story house. It is well paved now, a cut-through from SouthPark lined with rows of fine new offices for businesses and doctors. Then it was a graveled road just half a dozen houses long, with lots of mysterious and secret places for the children to play.

Sometimes they crossed the road to explore the bamboo forest, always furtively, hoping they would not be seen and confronted by Mrs. Porter and her vaunted and unpredictable temper. She owned not only the bamboo forest but all the rest of the street.

At the dead end, barely visible, was a path through old woods and unused fields leading to the ruins of what we came to call the “burned out house.” From it we toted a load of charred and blackened boards to make a tree house.

Behind us was a short cut our daughter took in the mornings, round a fence, past the cottage of a deaf and mute woman, under the high taut Duke power lines, to the old Sharon School.

A black top strip was added, a safe place to ride a bike. Once I watched our younger son, riding for the first time without training wheels, disappear around a bend. I waited, my heart’s breath held, for the sound of the almost certain crash. It never came.

Czar came one day, a bounding Golden Retriever puppy, into the arms of his new young owner, just back from heart surgery at Duke. Czar was there too the bitter cold November night when the crowds came, lining the sidewalk for hours, to pay their last respects to our older son. Perhaps Czar was wondering where his young master was. Two years later to the week he too died, wandering to the end of the street and hit by a car

I sat on the curb at the end of that same street with our younger son and watched them bulldoze a farm into a parking lot to put up a mall. Later still they leveled our house to make space for income producing buildings.

Our daughter drove down the road and said forlornly, “It makes me sad. My swing set is gone. My house. The school I used to walk to. There’s nothing left to remember or show to my own children now.”

So much is gone.

You kept me up late, Irene, last night. You also woke me early this morning. When day came my first thought again was of the bamboo forest, wondering what had happened to it.

After breakfast I drove to the cleaners, with Wrangler my cattle dog in the back. Three blocks away I made a detour, turning in behind the church that looks like a ski run. On its far and less pretentious side, behind a small brick building, I pulled up by a collection of old barbecue ovens.

Beyond the rusted metal was the bamboo forest. Much larger than I had remembered. Hundreds and hundreds of poles, some upright, some bowing over. A forgotten grotto, hidden from the busy life of Charlotte’s most renowned commercial center.

While Wrangler nosed about the new territory I stood a while, listening, almost hearing, the voices of children threading their way through the tall, slim shapes.

There was one broken shaft of bamboo on the ground. I picked it up, put it in the back of the car, and drove to the cleaners.

When we got home Wrangler was chewing on it contentedly.

Leighton Ford
September 2008

 

Open Our Eyes

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Have you noticed how things often seem to “parallel” each other?

Almost as if some “invisible” hand is at work in our lives?

In the past four weeks I have had cataracts removed from both my eyes, in one of those marvelous modern medical procedures. First the right, then the left – cataract removed, new lens implanted – and in a few hours colors and shapes became vivid and sharp again – at least from a distance. For reading I will still need glasses!

At the same time I have been reading the current issue of Weavings journal – with the theme “Recovery of Sight to the Blind” with an article by Marilyn McEntyre on “Learning to See.” She writes of finding guidance through intuition, Scripture, and wise and listening friends.

If our prayer as we grow toward spiritual maturity is, “Open my eyes, that I may see,” it may be that our distance vision isn’t what needs correction, but the way we see the ordinary, up-close data of daily life …

“Open my eyes” is a prayer for epiphany. It is a prayer that we may be attuned and alert to God’s ongoing self-revelation in nature, in history, in scripture, and in our encounter with each other, that we might be among those for whom every bush is a burning bush.

I am thankful for the new vision for my physical eyes.

I want to be looking for the clues of God’s presence in what surrounds me today.

How about joining me in that old hymn:

Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth thou hast for me …
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!

Leighton Ford
May 23, 2014

Billy’s Cross

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A Meditation for his 95th birthday.

The cross!
The cross!
the young preacher cried
to the vast crowds
in the football stadiums of the world.

The cross!
the old man says in his husky voice
sitting next to his dog
on the porch of his log house,
gazing with faded eyes at the blue ridged hills.

The cross!

Above his chair in the kitchen
a small cloth banner … a reminder:
“God forbid that I should glory,
save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But why?
Why glory in the cross?
Didn’t Jesus on the cross ask “Why?”

I think I know my brother-in-law
well enough to know
why the cross matters to him so
that after these ninety-five years
he makes it his last word.

He knows how much he himself needs grace.
When he meets the Lord
he’s not going to puff his chest, stick out his hand
and say, “ I’m Billy Graham, your chief envoy.”
Knowing him he’ll be prostrate, on his face,
Saying “Thank You for your mercy,
for choosing me, a sinner.

But it’s not as if he thinks of the cross only as a ticket to heaven.

He knows that coming to the Cross costs nothing, and everything.
How many times I’ve heard him quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“When Christ calls a man, he calls him to die.”
And Jesus: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
He knows that the Cross offers both free grace
And a call to die daily to self-glory.

Billy is a preacher, not a poet,
but I think he’d agree with a poet who writes,
“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross
when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness,
cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”
(Christian Wiman)

I have seen him gaze with longing at the picture of
his departed and beloved Ruth, wince at the pain
that runs through his jaw and down his leg.
At the Washington Cathedral after 9/11 he said,
“I don’t know why God allowed this. It’s a mystery.”
But he knows that on the cross God was saying
“I am with you, not beyond you, in suffering.”

There’s more. A Chinese scholar once told me,
“When Billy Graham came to China
he came not with a closed fist, but an open hand.”
That’s because he knows there’s a paradox in the cross
(though he might not call it that).
The cross is both the narrowest gate
and the widest welcome to new life.
The narrowest, for Jesus said, “I am the door, the way.”
The widest because he also said,
“Whoever comes to me I will not turn away.”

That gate is open to all who seek God’s grace
and are willing to receive it,
people of every kind and condition –
liberal, conservative
Tea Party, Occupier
Straight or otherwise
Republican, Democrat, Libertarian
Sarah P and Nancy P
Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, or “none”
All kinds of sinners and seekers.

In the cross of Christ God throws open the gate of new life and says,
“Welcome. There’s room in my house for you. Come in.
And you’ll be changed into what I created you to be
– a human fully redeemed.”

We can hang a cross round our neck,
gaze at it on a steeple,
but it is far more than an icon.
The cross tells us that life itself, creation itself
is cross-shaped, cruciformed,
the hope of  healing for a broken world.

The cross!

Billy has preached the cross,
successfully.
He also has lived it, or, better
lived by it,
faithfully.

Leighton Ford
November 2013

 

 

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