The Georgia Dome was packed to the rafters with tens of thousands of people. A choir twelve thousand voices strong filled the immense sports arena with rousing anthems of the faith. Cliff Barrows welcomed us in the same warm manner as he had greeted millions of others over the past four decades. George Beverly Shea, now approaching 80 years, sang "I Found a Friend" in a baritone voice still clear and powerful. And then the moment we all awaited - Dr. Billy Graham. It had been 43 years since I had seen Billy Graham in person. My mind flashed back to Syracuse, N.Y., walking between my parents into a crowded sports arena that to my seven-year-old eyes seemed to be the biggest building in the whole world. I remember being impressed with the size of the choir and the friendliness of Cliff Barrows and the deepness of George Beverly Shea's booming voice. And then a handsome, southern sounding Billy Graham came to the mike and preached a Gospel message, the content of which I do not recall. What I do recall very vividly, however, is that when he came to the end of his sermon and asked if there were those "who want to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior," I became aware for the first time of an awakening that stirred in my young spirit. I summoned enormous courage and asked my parents if I could go down to the stage where Billy Graham had invited seekers to gather. They seemed pleased to accompany me. This was my first conscious response to the activity of God's Spirit in my life. It was the point at which I intentionally began to seek the will of God.
Billy's voice hadn't changed much in 43 years, I thought. Still very southern sounding, at the same time winsome and confrontive. I was anxious to hear how he would skillfully weave text and story into a powerful contemporary message of convicting truth. I waited, but his words did not come together with the penetrating clarity I had expected. His message was certainly good, though he did at times seem to ramble. He spoke to issues of the soul and society but many of his phrases were time-worn. Once or twice he even appeared to lose his train of thought. By the end of his presentation, a deep sense of sadness and loss had settled over me. I was witnessing the demise of one of the greats.
Then an amazing thing happened! With words almost identical to the invitation which he extended in the 1951 Syracuse Crusade, Billy Graham asked those "who want to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior" to leave their seats and come forward to make a public and personal commitment. Without hesitation, people began to move en masse from every section of the Dome and stream toward the platform. The sight was absolutely overwhelming. The choir sang "Just as I am" just as it had 43 years before. And the flow continued for nearly fifteen minutes until the entire athletic field was filled with thousands of people. I wept as I witnessed this remarkable moment. It was then I knew that the secret of Billy Graham's success as an evangelist lay not in his power to communicate but in the power of the One who had chosen him.
The following Sunday afternoon while I was napping on my couch, there came a knock at our door. It was Matthew, an energetic second grader from up the street who has a special attraction to my wife (or to her chocolate chip cookies). I overheard him excitedly describing youth night at the Crusade which I knew several van loads of neighborhood kids had attended. Peggy tried to protect my rest time from interruption but it was soon apparent that whatever Matthew had on his mind was more important than my sleep. "Mr. Bob, guess what?" He was standing inches from my face when I opened my eyes. "I gave my life to Jesus down at Billy Graham!" he said with a grin that spread from ear to ear. "Why, Matthew, that's wonderful!" I said, the fog lifting from my mind. "How old are you?" I asked. "Seven," he declared proudly. "That's how old I was when I gave my life to Jesus and it was at a Billy Graham Crusade, too," I told him, the treasured memories rushing back again from the past. "Uh-huh, Miss Peggy told me," he responded, still smiling. "But I'm not really seven - I'm seven-and-a-half!" And with that he bounded out of the house, donned his riding helmet and peddled off down the street.
And the mystery of the Kingdom continues.