NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Billy Graham granted his first interview in several years Dec. 20, telling Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that if he could do it over again, he would spend less time traveling and more time in meditation and prayer.
The renowned evangelist, now 92, spoke to Van Susteren just before meeting President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, along with Franklin and Jane Graham, for lunch in Charlotte, N.C. The Bushes were at the Billy Graham Library to sign copies of their autobiographies.
Van Susteren asked Graham if he has hope, and Graham said he has a tremendous amount of hope because he is a believer in Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and “is alive right now.”
“My wife is already in heaven. I look forward to seeing her definitely in the near future because I’m 92 now and I know that my time is limited on this earth,” Graham said. “But I have tremendous hope in the fact I’ll be in the future life. And I’ll be there because of what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross and by the resurrection. And this gives me a great deal of hope.”
If Graham had the opportunity to live his life over again, he said there are things he would do differently.
“I would study more. I would pray more, travel less, take less speaking engagements. I took too many of them in too many places around the world,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I’d spend more time in meditation and prayer and just telling the Lord how much I love Him and adore Him and [am] looking forward the time we’re going to spend together for eternity.”
Van Susteren inquired about what age Graham realized he wanted to be a preacher, and he said it was around age 18 or 19 when he was a student at a Bible school near Tampa.
“I used to walk the streets in this area that had completely disintegrated because of the Depression at that time. And I would pray and I would ask God for a direction for my life and for the genuine purpose of my life. What am I here for?” Graham recounted.
One night at a nearby golf course, as he was lying on the 18th green amid the palm trees, he heard God’s call.
“The Lord seemed to call me and say that I was to preach the Gospel. And from that time on, I began to prepare,” Graham said. “By preparation, I mean I began to read books which contributed to what I would say in the years to come. And then I began to realize that my job was to try to win over people to Christ, which I did privately and publicly, which became eventually my sermons that we call evangelism.”
Over the years, as he spoke to millions, he was surprised by the numbers who gathered to hear his message, Graham said. He noted a particular engagement in Seoul, Korea, the largest audience he ever had.
“They were just spread out as far as you could see, in a great plaza along the river,” he said.
Graham passed along some advice to young preachers.
“Spend more time in study and prayer. That’s the secret of successful evangelism,” he said. “If you neglect that, you’ve neglected the very heart of God’s call to you.”
With Christmas approaching, Graham said the holiday means “a great deal” to him, and his wife “always made a big thing of Christmas for the children.”
“We all looked forward to it. We would get up on Christmas morning and have our prayers, and then we would sit under the tree and open our presents, usually on Christmas morning, sometimes on Christmas Eve,” Graham said.
“But when I looked into the crib or the manger and saw that little baby who was going to rise to become the greatest teacher that ever lived, to die on the cross for my sins, to know that I’ll be forgiven because of what He was doing, it absolutely transformed Christmas for me,” he said.
“And all the shopping and the gifts and all the things we celebrated [at] Christmas, it’s a spiritual time. It’s a time that strengthens my faith and gives me courage for the future. And I don’t expect to live that much longer, but I do remember that every Christmas strengthened my faith as I came along.”
Also in the interview, Van Susteren asked about Graham’s relationship with the Bush family, and Graham recalled that he first met Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, in Florida and then was invited by Bush’s grandmother to answer biblical questions and pray with a group of neighbors in her home.
“She was one of the sweetest women I think I ever met, a very deep Christian. And she became a wonderful friend to me. And through her, I began to meet the rest of the family,” Graham said of Dorothy Walker Bush.
President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara “became very close friends to Ruth and me,” Graham said, and it was during a visit to their retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1985 that he met their son George. Graham had been asked to conduct a Bible study for the family, and Bush stood up to ask questions. Later the evangelist and the future president went on walks and played tennis together.
“I remember he was very interested in spiritual things and he asked a lot of very deep questions about the Bible and about the Christian faith. And I tried to answer as best I could,” Graham told Van Susteren.
After lunch with Graham, Bush sat down with Van Susteren to elaborate on what he wrote about Graham’s influence on his life in his book “Decision Points.”
“He’s a gentle soul. I mean, here’s one of the most famous people in the world, and in his presence, you realize how humble he is,” Bush said. “And his humility, and obviously, his love for God and Christ can overwhelm the cynic. And I was a cynical person at the time, and his spirit overwhelmed me.”
Graham, at Kennebunkport, was able to lead Bush from being a man full of questions to one with some peace about God.
“I mean, one way, from a kind of biblical analogy, he was — started to help me plant seeds. And the ground was — the ground was pretty hard,” Bush said. “But after meeting Billy, the ground became more fertile for the seed, is one way to put it. No, he helped change my life. He truly did. And I was a questioning person. I was drinking a lot. And religion was — you know, I used to — I put in the book ‘I would listen but never hear.’ And Billy Graham helped me understand the redemptive power of a risen Lord.”
More than 1,000 people lined up outside the Billy Graham Library Monday to meet the Bushes, and Graham joined them briefly to receive the first signed copies of their books that day. Franklin Graham gave the former president and first lady a private tour of the library and later said his father’s mind is as strong as it has been in the past few years.
“His mind is sharper today than it was five years ago,” Franklin Graham said. “I don’t know what it is. He is getting better. He is getting stronger.”
Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.