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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

March 1, 2018

One of my privileges as a pastor was to walk with parishioners as they approached the gates of death, and with their families afterward. After I left parish ministry to work in higher church councils, I was surprised to discover that this was one of the things I missed most from pastoral life. I now have the privilege of walking with congregations through their final days. As with individuals, some congregations face their death better than others. Yet in every case, the conversation turns to legacy. What will we leave behind that matters?

Last week’s passing of Billy Graham has spawned much talk of his legacy. Some are ready to grant him instant beatification to sainthood, while others have vilified him as a bigot. The truth surely lies somewhere in the middle; he was of great positive influence for many, yet he was also a flawed human being just like the rest of us. Paul’s retrospective on Abraham discounts his flaws and lifts him up as a paragon of unwavering faith, even though Genesis shows plenty of fluctuations in his fidelity. (Compare Romans 4:19-21 to Genesis 17:15-22.) Abraham’s legacy was defined by who he was at his best.

It is considered good manners to speak no ill of the dead or dying. Would that we thought the same for the living! But when it comes to public figures like Billy Graham, apparently those constraints do not apply. My news feeds contain as much lashing out against him and what he represents as praise for his character and accomplishments. Much of the critique stems from his early years, during which his influence was perhaps at its height. Yet in later life he expressed deep regret for some of the things he said and did that some critics are now pillorying.

Youthful errors plague every human being. The Bible urges church leaders to “shun youthful passions.” (2 Timothy 2:22) The strength of youth is also its liability. When we are at our strongest, we can and do use our strength toward ends that are less than noble. Yet we envy youthfulness as we age.

In church life, older congregations who used to have more people and resources envy congregations that are young and flourishing. It is hard for the two-hundred-year-old congregation in its twilight years not to envy the large megachurch nearby that seems to grow larger daily. Yet just as Paul did with Abraham, we should remember that the legacy we leave is marked by who we have been at our best. There is so much to celebrate about the life of an individual or of a congregation, even in their twilight years as they grow nearer to their end.

One of Billy Graham’s best legacies is that he continued to grow in grace toward others to the end. How he leaned in his later years spoke volumes about his character and integrity. He became more generous rather than less, focusing increasingly on the power of God’s love to lead people to salvation on pathways other than those with which we are most familiar. How we end our journey, even if our strength is diminished, may say more about who we really are than what we did in our years of greatest strength.

The day after Billy Graham died, my family celebrated my Dad’s 94th birthday. While he remains remarkably healthy, old age has taken its toll. His ramrod straight back is now stooped, his lifelong 5 mph gait has yielded to a shuffle. Yet to me, he is still as tall and as strong as ever. At his birthday party last week, someone asked him if he had any words of wisdom to share in his advanced years. He was quick to reply, “We don’t know everything we think we know.” I hope Dad is with us still for a good long while. But already I see him leaning increasingly into his legacy of humble generosity that marks his true greatness.

In the season of Lent we travel with Jesus on the final leg of his life’s journey. He stays the course all the way, even though he pauses in anguish at several points over his final days. The weight of his destiny hangs heavy on him, yet he continues forward. Over those days he shows us how to suffer without being broken. In a world that praises and prizes self-reliance, he demonstrates the more excellent way of laying down our life for the sake of others. It is the way of love that conquers all.

Jesus died hard, but he died well. And, of course, that wasn’t the end of his story…. More on that in due time.

Your companion on life’s journey,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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