Jerry Jenkins Shares Lessons Learned from Billy Graham

  • Jerry Jenkins

Article by: Jean Torkelson

Lessons from the nation's best-known preacher were shared by one of the nation's best-selling authors at the second annual Jefferson County Prayer Breakfast on October 7. The preacher is Billy Graham, long considered one of the most influential men of the 20th century. The author is Jerry Jenkins, who co-wrote the Left Behind series, which has drawn 70 million readers and is considered one of the top-selling series of all time.

Jenkins, the keynote speaker at the prayer breakfast, reminisced about Graham before an audience of 220 citizens, business leaders, and public officials at the event sponsored by Colorado Christian University and held at the Sheraton Denver West hotel. Jenkins spent more than a year with Graham, helping him write his best-selling memoir, Just as I Am, published in 1997. The author offered a behind-the-scenes look at the preacher-turned-reluctant-celebrity, who has counseled presidents and drawn overflow crowds all around the world. Yet Graham, now 90, remains so humble that, when faced with a standing ovation, he told Jenkins he wants to crawl into a big hole.

"I don't like to share the spotlight with God," Jenkins recalled him saying. When Jenkins observed how much people revered Graham, Graham protested, "People shouldn't put me on a pedestal," and added, "In fact, when I think about the number of times I've failed the Lord, I feel this low," and then put his hand flat near the floor. Graham's humility could also take a mischievous turn. One time, Jenkins said, Graham tried to outwit a Denver-airport crowd by slipping by unnoticed in a Columbo-style raincoat. There's Billy Graham, dressed in a Columbo raincoat, with fishing lures all over it, realized Jenkins, who was meeting him at the arrival gate. "Even though he had on this raincoat, 200 people swarmed all over him. They didn't just want to meet him, they wanted to touch him. I was overcome."

After helping Graham with his memoir, Jenkins went on to become famous in his own right as co-author, with Tim LaHaye, of the Left Behind series, an apocalyptic thriller which draws on events that the Bible says foreshadow the end of the world. A resident of the Colorado Springs area, Jenkins is the author of more than 170 books and is a Christian business entrepreneur. Among other enterprises, he has founded a film company and heads a writer's guild for young Christian writers.

At the prayer breakfast, Jenkins plied his storyteller's art before an audience that included former U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong, now president of Colorado Christian University; past Colorado Senate president John Andrews, who heads CCU's Centennial Institute; Colorado Attorney General John Suthers; U.S. Senate candidate and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton; Jefferson County Commissioner Kevin McCasky; and Lakewood Mayor Bob Murphy, as well as legislators and Lakewood city officials. "It's inspiring to me to see so many come together to pray and lift up our country," said Ron Benton, CCU's assistant vice president of administrative services and this year's breakfast coordinator. He added that the turnout was encouraging and plans will move forward for the third event next year: "We're getting momentum, the Lord willing," Benton said.

The morning included prayers, music by the singing group Greater 4 Grace, and an honor guard composed of members of the Lakewood Police Department. Jerry Schemmel, "the Radio Voice of the Denver Nuggets," served as master of ceremonies.

Jenkins got to know Graham while the two worked on the memoir in the preacher's North Carolina home. Today, Graham is in frail health and still grieving over the loss of his wife Ruth, who died two years ago. Jenkins witnessed the seamless, loving interaction between the Grahams, who were sweethearts since college. One day, he recalled, he was probing Graham's past when Ruth started to correct her famous husband's faulty memory: "No, that happened in Detroit, not Boston; and you're thinking of so-and-so, not so-and so.."

"Mr. Graham rolled his eyes and finally he said, 'Ruth, would you just let me handle my own memoirs?'"

"'I would, Bill,' she shot back, 'but it's starting to sound like your forget-moirs.'"

Strangers were often amazed at how accessible Graham was. One time while he, incognito, was in a barbershop having a haircut, a manicurist asked him what he did for a living. When Graham said he was a preacher, she replied, "I don't have much time for preachers. The only one I like is Billy Graham..."

"Well, I'm Billy Graham," he said. Incredulous, the woman blurted out, "Oh my God," to which the genial Graham replied, "No, but I work for Him."

Despite his 50-plus years in the world's pulpit, Graham has been astonished that, nine times out of 10, people have completely missed his central message. Nearly everyone, he told Jenkins, thinks his message is: live a good life, treat people well, go to church, and read your Bible. Actually, Graham's message is this: salvation is by grace alone -- salvation isn't earned, it is accepted from Jesus Christ.

Jenkins was thunderstruck at Graham's spiritual discipline, which is based on the biblical counsel to pray without ceasing and to continually search the Scriptures. To fulfill that, Graham keeps a Bible open nearby, wherever he is, to glance at when he walks past. As for unceasing prayer, "I have done that every waking moment since I received Christ as a teenager," Graham told Jenkins. But he seemed puzzled that his discipline would be considered so awe-inspiring: "It's no secret," Graham said. "God does not hide from us."

At first, Jenkins worried that it would be hard for readers of the memoir to relate to such discipline. As for himself, "I pray, and (pretty soon) find myself thinking about the Chicago Cubs." But then he had a breakthrough. He realized there's only one difference between Graham's commitment to prayer and everyone else's:

"Billy Graham does it."

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