On the Lighter Side




— LUKE 15:32

Millions of people have heard Billy Graham preach from the pulpit or have listened on radio or watched him on television, but many have never heard him laugh. I can testify that he loves to laugh! At team meetings and with his family, his laughter often rings out, hearty and robust. Like Nehemiah, Billy is a man of joy. The joy of the Lord is his strength;1 and the joy of the Lord brings laughter.

    Is there by any chance a theology of laughter? Listen to what Paul Rader, a Chicago evangelist and ex-boxer, said on the subject

When God chooses a man, He puts laughter into his life. God is delighted to fill the hearts of men and women with laughter. The anointing oil that was poured upon the head of David put laughter into David's life. Laughter, after all, is the surplus of life; it is a bubbling over the emotions, a kind of spasm of exuberance, a delight of the human heart that makes the thorax cackle. It is something that warms the heart and brain and imagination so that men and women are moved to over flowing delight.2

    Billy Graham may not "bubble over," to use Rader's expression, but from what I know of him, he shares the same view of joy. It's not

Page 206

the "religious" or "ceremonial" kind of joy that scholars often discuss. Such joy is usually long on solemn pronouncements and short on smiles and merriment. Billy contends that merry is a good Bible word. At the same time he, like all Spirit-filled believers, avoids that frantic, sensual, plastic kind of joy that the world loves. He may begin a crusade message with a light story that dissolves any "sermonic" atmosphere, but often he is actually laughing at himself.

    One one occasion in 1954 he had been invited to give a fifteen-minute talk at the London School of Economics to a distinctly hostile and playful crowd of British students. As John Pollock tells that story, there were boos when Billy stood to speak.3 He told some amusing anecdotes and was moving into his serious message when a crash of glass brought a student through an upper window, where he stood crouching with his chin and lower lip jutted out, scratching himself like an ape while the audience roared. Billy Graham looked at the young man, laughed, and said, "He reminds me of my ancestors." Everyone joined in the laughter. Then he added, "Of course, all my ancestors came from Britain." That brought down the house. When the laughter subsided, Billy gave his message, vigorous and uncompromising, to an audience in respectful silence.

    One year later, after a tremendous nationwide crusade in Scotland, Graham returned to London. He had been invited to preach to Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in the Royal Chapel at Windsor Castle. When the word got out to the press, Punch, that incomparable British humor magazine, published some advice to the visiting American, parodying a Lewis Carroll rhyme:

"You are young, Dr. William!" the equerry cried,

   "with procedural problems to grapple;

It may be all right to be 'Billy' outside,

    but NOT, if you please, in the Chapel."4

    Perhaps because I was once a military chaplain, I have remembered for all these years a story Billy told at the San Francisco crusade in 1958:

    "This American soldier woke up one morning in his barracks

Page 207

and began behaving strangely. He walked around groping with his hands and saying, 'Where is it? Where is it?'

    "His buddies, finding him ignoring their questions, tipped off the sergeant, who grilled him but got no response. All the soldier would say was, 'Where is it?' He was ordered to report to his commanding officer, whom he likewise vexed, and who in turn sent him to the hospital, where the psychiatrist examined him.

    "'What's your problem, soldier?'

    "'Where is it?'

    "They finally decided to give him a 'Section 8' and sent him to the Post Separation Center. There he went around to the various offices, saying nothing except 'Where is it?' In time he was handed his official discharge from military service. He looked at it and exclaimed, 'There it is! That's it!'"

    On another occasion I heard Billy tell about a man who was walking down a road, and behind him followed a pig. A friend who saw the man called to him, asking how he got the pig to follow him. He replied, "It's very simple. Every step I take, I drop a bean, and the pig likes beans." The point of Billy's story was that Satan goes along the road of life dropping his beans in front of people, and they follow him eagerly to their destruction. But the sight of Billy Graham stooping as he walked around the platform looking for beans and making pig noises had his audience in stitches.

    Laughter has played a healthy role in Judaism and Christianity ever since Sarah laughed at finding herself pregnant. The reformers Luther and Zwingli loved to exchange humorous stories with their students and friends. Other Christian leaders who were known to enjoy a good laugh were Hugh Latimer, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, Dwight L. Moody, Samuel Porter Jones, Charles Spurgeon, and Billy Sunday.

    The question as to whether Jesus ever laughed has been debated for centuries, but as far as I am concerned, there is no debate. He wept, didn't He? Billy Graham wrote in The Secret of Happiness, "We never read of Jesus laughing, though I am sure He did."5 Of course He laughed. As Creator of the universe, he invented smiles and laughter. Furthermore, every person whom Jesus saves, and who

Page 208

is filled by the Spirit with the love of God, senses the joy and sooner or later begins to laugh — usually sooner. If he or she doesn't, something is fishy. "Jesus people" love to laugh because they are created in His image. That's how we know Jesus laughed.

    Billy has also written:

One of the characteristics of the Christian is inward joy. Even under difficult circumstances, there will be a joyful heart and a radiant face. Unfortunately many Christians go around with droopy faces that give no outshining glory to God. Upon meeting a Christian, it is not hard to tell whether or not he is a victorious, spiritual, yielded believer. A true Christian should be relaxed and radiant, capable of illuminating and     not depressing his surroundings. I have found in my travels that those who keep Heaven in view remain serene and cheerful on the darkest day.

   In all ages people have found it possible to maintain the spirit of joy in the hour of trial. In circumstances that would have felled most people, they have so completely risen above them that they have actually used the circumstances to serve and glorify Christ.

   There are times when I feel I don't have joy, and I get on my knees and say, "Lord, where is the fruit of the Spirit of joy in my life?" I find that the joy is there down deep — it is a deep river. Whatever the circumstance, there is a river of joy. In these times of upheaval and uncertainty, it is important that the trustful and forward-looking Christian remains optimistic and joyful.6

    The Billy Graham crusades create a kind of paradox. When Billy preaches, he inveighs strongly against sin. He condemns the wicked activities of Satan. He warns about judgment and doom. He is very sober. He shakes his head and points his finger. He draws biblical pictures of hell, the abyss, and the lake of fire. He speaks of a day wherein God's wrath will deal with evil forever. And for many hundreds of people who do not know Christ when they come to the crusade, there is an awful chasm to face. The choices of time are binding in eternity,

Page 209

and they must choose. Death comes to us all, and punishment for sin is real because hell is real.

    Here is the paradox. Some people come away from the stadium weeping, but these are tears of joy. They have chosen God; or rather, He has chosen them. What a relief for them that the danger of eternal judgment has been taken away! What a mercy that Jesus paid it all at the cross — for them. Tears, yes, but tears of joy.

    So now the newly-forgiven can join other hundreds of believers who have come away from the stadium smiling and lighthearted. The new believers can laugh with them, for the burden of sin is lifted. They know they are redeemed and are now filled with hope. They can join in singing the songs of the redeemed.

Soon and very soon

we're going to see the King!

    Worries about the future are gone, and they are on their way to enjoying life. They love Jesus. They claim Him as their Savior and Lord. They are therefore free to join the merry atmosphere of heaven-bound pilgrims who are, or should be, jubilant and full of fun.

    Such is what Jesus intended His church to be like.

    Well, why not? Those who have crossed the bridge have moved to God's side of the street; and that's where Billy lives. When he leaves the pulpit, he is in prayer and thanksgiving to God, and he leaves the scowlers on the other side.

    Billy worked his humor on me once. He paid a visit to his Minneapolis headquarters and came up to the third floor and into my little office. When he comes to his main office, he does so at odd hours to avoid disturbing the staff. I happened to be absent. Billy left a note on my desk that read: "Dear Woody, I was here to see you, but you were not here. You do a good job. God Bless you. Billy." Immediately I began to feel guilty until I noted the time of his visit: Sunday at 3 P.M.!

    A few months later he came by my office again after business hours and left another note: "Dear Woody, Came to see you, and for

Page 210

the second time I find you away from your desk. Just said a prayer for you. Billy."

    That's my boss!

    Another time in 1963 when we were in Paris for a crusade, I left the California Hotel and was walking to the Champs Elysées to post a letter. Suddenly I heard my named called. I looked around; no pedestrians were on the street, and no cars were in sight.

    I heard the voice again: "Woody!"

    At last I looked up, and just across the street, five stories above me, there was Billy Graham leaning from a balcony of a white French rococo-style building and waving at me.

    "What are you doing?" I shouted back.

    "Oh, I'm suffering up here," he said smiling. "How are you?"

    I remember laughing and walking toward the Champs Elysées with a warm glow in my heart.

    Often my encounters with Billy have been like that — unexpected and delightful. In 1992 he came to Portland, Oregon, for a spiritual crusade that literally had the whole state aroused and millions of people praying. At a reception for Billy in a large hotel in Portland, I arrived with five ministers from our San Diego church, Horizon Christian Fellowship, including the senior pastor, Mike MacIntosh. When we walked in,

Page 211

people were moving to the right side of the room apparently to form a line. Our party slipped up to the front of the room on the left side. Billy had newly arrived, and the receiving line was just being organized.

    When he spotted me, Billy's face broke into a smile. Time had passed since we had seen each other. I promptly walked up and received a hug, and my colleagues followed. Billy greeted Mike, and I introduced the others. By this time the line was functioning, and we quickly stepped aside. To our astonishment, the people who greeted Billy came by in large numbers and shook hands with us heartily until we apologetically backed away.

    Once I played golf with Billy. Believe me, that was another comical experience, I being the Prince of Duffers. I had just been to New Zealand on an errand for him, and he wanted to hear about it, so he invited me to where he was staying. The location was near a golf course in Pauma Valley at the foot of Mount Palomar in southern California.

    Our foursome consisted of Billy, his Special Assistant T. W. Wilson, myself, and the club pro. Billy paired off with me. Imagine! My drive off the first tee was a good one and brought a "Whooee!" from Billy. Unfortunately he never said it again. My game sank to a point where I gave up trying and simply went for survival.

    As for Billy, he kept telling me that he was having difficulty with his shots. "I can't play this kind of lie," he would say. But even his bad drives were better than my good ones. (Billy is often quoted as saying, "God answers my prayers everywhere except on the golf course.") When we finished our eighteen holes, it turned out he had scored an 83 and I was over 100. What the other scores were I have forgotten, but as for Billy's "difficulty with shots," I got the message real good.

    In 1996 Billy said on the Larry King Live television program that he gets his joy after preaching the Gospel not so much from people coming forward at his meetings, as from the thankful feeling that he has been obedient to God in delivering the message committed to him.

    Yet the fact remains that Billy Graham enjoys people, all kinds

Page 212

of people, and loves to be with them. A journalist friend of mine, Arthur Matthews, wrote a graphic description of a stroll Billy took through the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, with a Salvation Army officer at the beginning of his crusade there. Arthur has given me permission to quote.   

Our tour covered the East Side community that was torn by riots six years ago. Signs of devastation were still apparent (hundreds of vacant buildings), but there were evidences of resurgence as well. Mr. Graham stopped to admire the painting job of a father home from work, then complimented an elderly couple on the garden in their front yard. He congratulated a college student on a trophy he recently won at school. In each home he visited, he prayed with his hosts.

    Few young people were in evidence on the streets, but we found plenty of them inside the Salvation Army Multi-Purpose Center, which has become a symbol of the area's hope. This morning its pool proved a popular spot; Mr. Graham grasped many wet, outstretched hands.

    Later he watched children playing table tennis and bumper pool, then joined some boys shooting baskets in the gymnasium. Others he saw roller-skating to lively music. In an art class he inspected craft work and encouraged some of the youngsters. In another part of the center he saw how the needs of unwed mothers are being met (some are under twelve     years of age). He toured the prenatal clinic and a school where nutrition, sewing, and other courses are taught.

    We then drove across town to the West Side market, arriving just before noon. We found a variety of first- and second-generation Americans in this cosmopolitan area. More Hungarians live here than in any other place outside Hungary. The market's aisles were crowded as we went from stall to  stall, examining the offerings of chitterlings and cheese and chickens.

    Our tour was unannounced, but some of those in the crowd with whom he rubbed shoulders recognized Mr. Graham. A janitor wheeled his trash container up and down the aisles, broadly grinning as he announced the visitor's

Page 213

presence. "Welcome to Cleveland," said a young lady. "God bless you," said another. At one counter the evangelist was presented with a gift of exotic cheese; at another, with some ham imported from Germany's Black Forest.

    As he reached the street exit, Mr. Graham opened the door for a hesitating woman. She paused outside on the sidewalk, and after the introductions, she told him with a smile, "Mr. Graham, I am legally blind, but God has given me spiritual sight. I pray for you every day."7

    The stories about Billy Graham's personal affect on people — tens of thousands of people, even those who have not heard him preach — are endless. In one American city, a Roman Catholic woman told a member of the Graham team that she has asked her priest what his advice would be as to attending a crusade meeting. "My advice," he had said, "would be not to attend."

Page 214

    "I am sorry," she said, "but I think I'm going anyway."

    The priest replied, "So am I."8

    Finally, let me relate what happened at a team meeting in Chicago in July 1975 when I was not present. Billy, as I was told later, was giving a current update to the team on all the manifold activities of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. At one point he said, "And now we come to Decision magazine and Woody. Let me tell you about Woody. If I were going to send out an evangelist, I wouldn't send out Woody." Then he added something like, "But every time he does go out to preach, God uses him in surprising ways."

    Remember my fruitless evangelistic efforts in the pulpit in South Dakota? If there was a difference in my preaching between 1958 and 1974, it was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, thanks to something that happened in 1972. I will say no more about it here except that after that experience, when I was invited out to preach, I began extending invitations at the close of my messages.

    But what did Billy hear that caused him to make such a statement? I believe one of the ministers from Norfolk, Virginia, was talking to Billy and had mentioned me. Billy had recently preached in Norfolk during his Tidewater Virginia crusade, which embraced Norfolk, Hampton, Portsmouth, and Newport News. On Sunday morning during the crusade, I was invited by the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, Rev. H.L. Wilson, to preach in his pulpit. I remember the church well, for the building was a magnificent edifice. So I preached to Pastor Wilson's congregation and gave an invitation. A number of people came down to the altar whereI led them in prayer.

    What Mr. Wilson told Billy Graham afterwards, so I heard, was that it was the first time in 200 years that a preacher had given an invitation in that pulpit and people had responded by walking down to the front of the church to meet God.

    But wait. Wasn't that the one who...

    Now you understand something special about Billy. He would agree with Dean Inge of St. Paul's London, who said, "I have never understood why it should be considered derogatory to the Creator to suppose that He has a sense of humor."9

Chapter 25  ||  Table of Contents

1. Nehemiah 8:10.

2. Paul Rader, Decision, October 1963, 6-7.

3. John Pollock, Billy Graham (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966). 165-66.

4. Stanley High, Billy Graham (New York: McGraw Hill), 1956, 85.

5. Billy Graham, The Secret Happiness (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955), v.

6. Billy Graham in Decision, June 1967 and October 1984; also in Peace with God (New York: Doubleday, 1953). 81.

7. Arthur Matthews, "Stroll in Cleveland," Decision, October 1972, 8.

8. High, Billy Graham, 202.

9. Dean William R. Inge, in Wirt & Beckstrom, Living Quotations for Christians (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), No. 1578.

Chapter 25  ||  Table of Contents