Editor’s note: Most Saturdays for 15 years, Don Wilton drove the long road to meet with Billy at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. There the two friends spent hours talking about family, politics, sports, and their spiritual lives. In Saturdays with Billy, Don shares more than 20 heartwarming stories of his times with his friend, illuminating the qualities in Billy’s character that were true to the end and revealing the heart of the man whose light still shines. Enjoy today’s excerpt as from Saturdays with Billy as Don shares about the day when his dear friend “took his first breath” in Heaven.
I would not change places with the wealthiest and most influential person in the world. I would rather be a child of the King, a joint heir with Christ, a member of the royal family of heaven. ~ Billy Graham
This time it was not Saturday. This time it was not with Billy. On Sunday evening, after preaching, my wife and I jumped into my motorcar for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Boone, North Carolina. How could anyone not really love this quaint town? There are spectacular panoramic views of mountains, clear streams of water, and hundreds of walking trails to enjoy as well as wonderful people to meet. This is not the real reason I love Boone.
Boone is the home of Samaritan’s Purse. Franklin Graham, son of Billy and Ruth Graham, is the president of Samaritan’s Purse as well as the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. What wonderful organizations! Samaritan’s Purse mobilizes an army of people who give of themselves around the world in disaster relief, medical ministries, and just about anything and everything where people are afflicted. Most importantly, all is done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The honor of an invitation to lead their spiritual week in Bible study each day was deeply humbling.
Tuesday, February 21, 2018, arrived. As I recall, it was a beautiful day in Boone. The air was very cool but crisp and vibrant as my wife, Karyn, and I arrived at the Furman Building for another great time of fellowship with so many wonderful people around the Word of God.
I parked my motorcar in the special lot, close to the entrance of Furman, ready to go at 9:00 a.m. After I spoke, I was going to have lunch with Billy Graham.
As the scores of people flooded into that magnificent facility, I could sense the Lord speaking to my heart. I felt, deep down, that God was there again. His Spirit was evident.
I opened God’s Word, and everyone dialed in.
Suddenly, several people simply stood to their feet and walked toward the entrance. A strange, very real sense of “something is going on but I have no clue what it could be” came over me. I continued to preach the Word of God but realized I was losing my audience. By now, people had begun to whisper to one another. My mind began to go in different directions. Then I noticed several of the leaders abruptly leaving. I must admit I thought about Franklin. He had been with us the day before but had left for Dallas, Texas. Had something happened to him?
I looked down to the front table, where my wife was sitting, for a clue. She was holding a piece of paper up so I could see it. On it, Karyn had written:
“Mr. Graham has just gone to be with Jesus!”
It was about 8:30 a.m. I looked to my left into the face of Ron Wilcox, COO of Samaritan’s Purse, as he approached the lectern. As I stepped back, he simply announced, “Dr. Billy Graham has passed away into the presence of the Lord Jesus.”
Bryan Willis, the director of special events at Samaritan’s Purse, was there to take hold of me. As he led me off the stage, my head was spinning in some ways. I had spent last Friday with Billy. We had held hands together. We had prayed and asked the Lord Jesus to bless His servant Billy Graham.
As I climbed into my motorcar, the thought came to me. I thought I was going to have lunch with Billy Graham, but God decided otherwise. It was time for Him to bring Billy home.
As I drove down the mountain to the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, my mind was full of thoughts and memories. Thoughts about God’s angels came to mind. How much Mr. Graham loved to talk about angels. He would often talk about the one that gave those shepherds the shock of their lives. “Just one angel,” he would remind me. God’s special ambassador, sent to come and bring “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:10). “This clearly established the meaning of good news,” Mr. Graham would say with conviction. He loved to talk about the multitude of the “heavenly host” rushing together, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:13-14).
One time I preached a series on angels, and I asked the evangelist to assist in the gathering of my thoughts. He was so humble. He told me he had written a book about angels but knew little about them. The conversation continued time after time. He talked of the angels who appeared at the empty tomb.
They said to the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again’” — Luke 24:5-7
The angels he talked about so often had given him a royal escort into the presence of almighty God. This was Billy’s Heaven. He was home.
Mr. Graham remembered those words from Luke when thinking about his beloved Ruth, especially after her death. Dreams became part of his life in his later years. Oftentimes we would sit together and he would tell me detailed accounts of dreams he was having. Many centered on Ruth.
One of these involved a most beautiful picture. There was a magnificent landscape in his dream. The hillsides were adorned in splendor. “Myriads of flowers wafted in the breeze, and trees lined themselves up everywhere,” he said. Billy Graham found himself walking toward this majestic scene, and while he was doing so, he thought he remembered seeing Ruth high up on the mountainside, picking flowers and singing. He began to run toward her but could never get there. She never turned to look at him. All of a sudden, there was a huge river between them. He shouted and called to her, but she did not respond. Abruptly, he woke up! He was back in his room — alone. All he could do was look over the top of his bed to the beautiful picture of his beloved Ruth.
On another occasion, we were having tea on the front porch of the house as the dogs were playing around. Every so often I would get up and throw another stick for them to chase. Sam wagged his tail a lot, and China joined in. Cat was not at all interested in the game. One look at Cat left the distinct impression that life was boring!
I noticed Mr. Graham preoccupied for the longest while. Initially I thought he might not be feeling too well on that day. Perhaps he was just being quiet. Then I noticed he kept turning to his right. It was a slow turn, perhaps more of a sideways glance. I followed his gaze up to a small window. This was no ordinary window; inside was the kitchen sink. The ultimate workplace. It was the high-action zone of the happiest room in the house — if one were to measure all the family activities that ebbed and flowed from the sink of the kitchen.
“I can see Ruth,” the longing husband whispered. “I can see her standing there…”
Judging from the sweet tone of his voice and the gentleness of his expression, I hesitated to say anything. I did not want to interrupt his longing. I did not want to bring him back to the reality that the love of his life was waiting for him to join her at the feast table of the King.
“The most thrilling thing about Heaven is that Jesus Christ will be there. I will see Him face-to-Face. Jesus Christ will meet us at the end of life’s journey.” He believed this with all of his heart. The absolute certainty of life after death was a constant topic of conversation on Saturdays with Billy. He could not help himself talking about the joy of Heaven. An unknown bystander would have no doubt that Mr. Graham believed everything the Bible said about Heaven was literally true. He certainly did. No questions here. He understood the active ingredient of faith. He knew there was so much we, as human beings, simply will never fully grasp, especially about how we are raised from the dead. However, for Billy it was not complicated. First, he just took God at His word. He trusted the Lord in every way. He often reminded me that my role as a preacher was never to try and get people to understand the great mysteries of God, but rather, to preach the Word of God with conviction and in the power of the Holy Spirit. He often was heard saying, “The moment we take our last breath on earth, we take our first in Heaven.”
Nevertheless, this did not stop him from missing Ruth. He pined for her — but not in a “lack of faith” kind of way. He just missed her. He missed her voice, her face, her presence, and her love.
Billy’s Heaven began long before February 21, 2018. It began when he accepted Jesus as his personal Savior and Lord. He always seemed to have Heaven on his mind. He knew he was simply passing through this life — Heaven is his eternal Home.
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Excerpted with permission from Saturdays with Billy: My Friendship with Billy Graham by Don Wilton, copyright Don Wilton.
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How does it comfort you to know that when we trust in Christ, we can trust in Heaven as our eternal Home? Has the life and legacy of Billy Graham impacted your life? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!