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Ruth Bell Graham

Tough and Tender Moments

Life hasn't always been easy for spunky Ruth Graham. Yet the wife of evangelist Billy Graham finds her life a constant adventure. Here's why.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1991 issue of Today's Christian Woman.

Ruth Graham squeals like a child on Christmas morning. "You found it!" she exclaims, as a friend hands her a roll of tape. "Wonderful!"

Noting my confusion, she explains, "It's for repairing my Bible. I can only get it in England." Then Ruth Graham shows me why it is so important. She opens her Bible to a page that is nearly worn through from use. Notes are scattered in the margins. The edges are ripped. "With this special tape I can repair the pages!" she says, her face glowing over her treasure. Ruth Graham's Bible is her most precious possession. It has been her comfort, companion, and consolation through a life that many would call difficult.

In many ways, Ruth Bell Graham is a study in contrasts. There is a sophistication about her that makes it easy to understand how she fits in comfortably at White House dinners. She is fully versed on world events and well read in many areas. She is also childlike at times, a practical jokester who delights in pulling pranks on "people who take themselves too seriously." She was well into her fifties when she first hopped onto a motorcycle. In her sixties, she suffered a series of injuries when she tested a glider she had rigged up between two trees for her grandchildren.

Ruth lives in a rough-hewn house decorated with antiques and elegant touches she's done herself. She opens the windows to catch the mountain air and worries little about temperature controls.

This is where Billy Graham comes between crusades—when he can. But even when their five children were young, his homecomings were more like special visits. He was the adoring father who showed up for his precious times with his children, then left, leaving Ruth as Mom and Dad, caretaker and disciplinarian, friend and counselor.

For the most part, Ruth Bell Graham lived the life of a single mother—of five. How she held it all together is something of a mystery—until she pulls out her Bible again. She acknowledges crying over its pages, seeking a way to ease her loneliness, searching for answers during the tough times when one son and then another turned away from the teachings of the Bible. Prodigals—And Those Who Love Them (Focus on the Family Publishing) is her tribute to those years of waiting for her sons to return. They are both back now, involved in Christian work and grateful for the prayers Ruth has prayed.

One sunny day recently, Ruth shared her thoughts about the life hse has led and what she has learned that could help other Christian women.

Why did you write Prodigals?
Because of my two boys. There are lots of books available on the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I couldn't find a single book that encouraged a mother or father of a prodigal today. I wanted to write something that might encourage other parents.

My oldest son, Franklin, always kept things to himself. He was about three when this house was going up. The tougher the workmen, the more he was attracted to them.

One day they were all having their lunch break in the attic. I opened the door and the cigarette smoke nearly knocked me over. There was Franklin in the middle of them choking on a cigarette, and they were all roaring with laughter.

As Franklin grew older, I'd get calls from the police. I'd get calls from the headmaster of his school. Franklin once said, "My mom's hair is white because of me." To which I replied, "Don't take all the credit, son. Age has something to do with it."

What happened with your other son?
There's quite a gap in age between Franklin and my fifth child, Ned. He was a loving child, but he also went through a period where he was involved with drugs. Looking back on it, it seems like just a few weeks ago. But it dragged on for years.

Were you aware of what he was going through during that time?
Fortunately, I wasn't aware of everything. But I was aware of enough to keep me awake at night. I remember waking up one night while in another country. I thought of the loved prodigal and it was like a shot of adrenaline. I knew there as no more sleep that night. I turned on the light and reached for my Bible. And the verse I turned to was: "In nothing be anxious, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known unto God. And the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall govern your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" ( KJV). Suddenly I realized the missing ingredient to my prayer had been thanksgiving. So I sat there and thanked God for all that Ned was and all he had meant to me through the years. As I began to thank the Lord, I realized worry and work were mutually exclusive. When we're most concerned, we should start thanking the Lord for the lessons he is teaching us through the tough times. And, invariably, it's during those tough times that the Scriptures really come to life.

What principles have you learned from your own experience of being a mother of a prodigal?
Prayer is so important. Our children never outreach God's reach. This doesn't mean they won't go astray. This doesn't mean they won't mess up their lives. But sometimes we forget God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and eternal. Our children can run—but God knows where they are, and God's watching over them. I'm just thankful I didn't have to wait any longer for my sons to return.

Was there ever a time when you wondered if your husband was doing the right thing for the children by being away so much of the time?
No. Never. I really don't think that Bill's being away at crusades had anything to do with it. When our children were small, they thought everybody's father did the same thing. And when Bill was home, he was there for them. I think the boys simply wanted to establish their own identity.

I remember reading that one time when you started to wonder what to do about Franklin, God seemed to tell you, "Love him more."
I remember praying, "Lord, help me discipline this boy." He could get into more mischief when he was little. God never speaks out loud to me, but I know when he's spoken. "Love him more," he told me. And that's exactly what Franklin needed.

Isn't that what all our children need?
Children need loving discipline, but they also need to hear us say we love them. We all love our children, but we can get pretty tired of them. Love was never a problem for me. Discipline was because I'm not a consistent disciplinarian. If I felt good, they got by with murder. If I had a headache or was feeling tired or cross, these were the times I was sharp with them.

Our children teach us so much about God. When you're at a standstill as to how to deal with your child, think: How does God deal with me? The answer is, with a lot of patience and a lot of love.

As a mother, I sometimes feel that it's my responsibility—my burden—to do the right thing so my children will turn out right. …
I think being the right sort of person is more important than following the "right" formula, because there's no set formula for child-rearing. The most important thing we can do for our children is to have two parents who love and respect one another, who love and respect the Lord, and who love and respect their children as people. And I think we should keep rules to a minimum.

During the years when you were raising your five children, how did you keep things under control?
I had to decide what was a moral issue and what was nonmoral and simply a part of growing up. Tracking mud into the house is a no-no, but it's not a moral issue. Children tend to be noisy when they're playing, and you feel like saying, "Hush!"—but it's not a moral issue. However, I would call disobedience a moral issue. I would call respect a moral issue. Of course, stealing, lying, and things like that are moral issues.

Also, I think it's important to teach our children—as the Bible says—line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little. If you try to teach a child too rapidly, much will be lost. But the time for teaching and training is preteen. When they reach the teenage years, it's time to shut up and start listening.

But that's when we typically start to tell them what to do, isn't it?
Yes—and it's the wrong time. You're lucky if you have a teenager who will talk. Some keep everything to themselves. But even so, you have to respect their silence. And love them. You have to respect your children. Sometimes they say things deliberately to shock you. They don't believe it themselves, but they want a sounding board. You've got to be a sounding board, and say, "Do you really think that's true?"

Was it ever hard for you to have your life determined by Billy's course?
No. For one thing, if Bill were just an ordinary salesman, that might have been a little different. But before I married, I wanted to be a full-time missionary myself, so I've vicariously enjoyed his trips and his missions.

I couldn't go along when the children were growing up. But I loved staying home with the kids. That was no sacrifice. Nothing thrills me more than when they or the grandkids come to visit.

It's true Bill's been gone a lot. But we did not have the chance to get tired of each other. I thought that when the children were grown and married I'd be free to travel with him. And then when I was free to travel, I found out I was too old and couldn't keep up with him. He thrives on challenges and difficulties. I collapse.

Tell me about your courtship with Billy. Was it love at first sight?
When I came back from our first date, I remember telling the Lord, If you let me spend my life with that man, it would be the greatest privilege I could think of. But we were so serious. I don't think we had a date that wasn't to a place where he was preaching or to some religious service. I think we needed to play more, go to ball games and things like that—do more normal things. But between studying and preaching, he was so busy. It wasn't a usual courtship.

Did you know Billy Graham was different right from the start?
There was a quality about him, a total commitment to God, I had not seen in others. There's just no two ways about it: he was sold out for the Lord. And I still see the same thing today. The only difference is, we're getting older and our bodies are wearing out; it's a little bit more difficult to minister.

How have you two been able to resist the power and wealth that easily could be yours?
I don't know, except we were both raised in comfortable circumstances. I think some people were raised very poor, and when they get a lot of money, they don't know how to handle it. The greatest joy I have with money is being able to share it or do something with it to help somebody.

I don't want anyone to think we're perfect. We're loaded with fault. And I'm sure we've made many unwise decisions. But money's not a temptation. One of the nicest things the Lord has done for us was let us get this property years ago from two mountain families. He gave us this property, and it's been a lifesaver.

Friends helped us build this house. We built it out of salvaged materials. That's one of the gracious things the Lord did for us—let us have this quiet retreat.

Has Billy talked about retiring?
No. You ask him and he'll say, "As long as there's opportunity, I'm going to preach. No one in the Bible ever retired."

Do you want him to retire?
No, I think he'd go crazy. I really do. I remember saying good-bye to him in Frankfurt, Germany, when he was going into Russia, and he looked like death warmed over. He was so tired. Yet, when he came back 12 days later after preaching, he was a new person. Absolutely refreshed. Some people respond to challenge.

Do you wish you had more time together in this season of your life?
I love the times that I'm with him—yet I have so much to do when we're apart. I always look forward to the time of getting back together again.

What do you do for fun?
So many of the things we used to do together I can't do now because of my hip and back. He'll walk down to the gate and back two or three times a day for exercise. I used to do that; I can't anymore. We always watch the news together in the evening. I serve him his supper on a tray so he can watch the television, and I'll eat with him.

What advice do you have for a woman who might feel frustrated with her marriage or resentful toward the demands of her husband's career?
Women need to stop expecting their husbands to be what only Jesus Christ can be to them. WE look to our husbands to be totally understanding and instantly forgiving, and we forget they're human. They get tired, too. They say things they don't mean. The Lord Jesus is everything we need; if we let him satisfy that part of us that desires perfect understanding, forgiveness, and companionship, we can free our husbands to be themselves. If someone demanded my love and attention, I'd get pretty weary of it. You want to give your love, not have it demanded of you.

Cultivate your relationship with the Lord through reading the Word—and, as someone said, "pausing long enough to listen once in a while." Then cultivate hobbies. I love to sew. I love to cook. I love fixing up the house. I'm not an antique collector, but I hunted down things that fit in with our log cabin. And I love to read. I think you need to develop other interest so that you're not totally wrapped up in your husband or your children. You've got to, at some time, free your children, too.

Why do you think so many Christian women are unhappy today?
I think they have gotten their values mixed up. For one thing, I think we're spoiled. We've had it too easy in this country. I think we have gotten away fro the simplicity of the Lordship of Christ, the joy of obedience to him. The Christian life is an adventure, not a chore. But unfortunately, there are some Christians who have been brought up very legalistically, and I think that makes Christianity a burden. And if we make Christianity a burden to our children, it will be discarded with relief.

So many marriages today have grown sour, and I don't know what's causing it. Maybe it's an inability to adjust. I think we're selfish. Look at the hurting people around us. If we just open our eyes and look around, everybody's hurting somehow. If we would ask the Lord to make us sensitive to the hurts of others, we wouldn't have time to think of ourselves.

How have you been able to handle being alone so much of the time?
God prepared me for a lifetime of good-byes. There's no doubt about that. Throughout my childhood, he trained me to lean on him, to rely on his Word.

I've loved the Bible ever since I can remember. I had a splendid Bible teacher who came out to China to teach us in sixth, seventh, and eight grades. Our parents hired a teacher from the States so we wouldn't have to go away to school when we were so young. This teacher made the Bible fascinating for us. I just loved it.

Then I went to North Korea to high school when I was 13, and was terribly homesick. I had nowhere to go but the Bible. And I found all I needed in the living Word. I remember one time, I was in the infirmary, and I read the entire book of Psalms in one day. When I got through it, I felt as though there was a glow in the room. When I went to high school, my most fascinating classes were Bible study classes. We had another excellent Bible teacher. When I went to college, I majored in Bible.

In each period of my life there has been the presence of Christ and the Word of God to turn to. When my children were born, I didn't have time to sit down and read. As I would drive or iron or do whatever I was doing, God's Word was in my heart and mind. I can't think of any greater heritage we can give our children than a thorough knowledge of the Word of God.

What advice would you give to women who say, "I would like to turn out to be like you"?
I love the old saying, "One's enough of anybody I ever saw." You don't want to be like me. You want to become the women God want to make of you—an original, not a copy.

I would say, feed on the scriptures. Keep your Bible open. That way, if you're too busy during the day to have an hour with the Lord, you can at least have a cup of coffee and read a few verses. Sometimes a fraction of a verse will nourish you all day long. Obedience to the Lord is an adventure.

A few years ago, after I fell and had a concussion, I realized I could not remember a single Bible verse. I day I told the Lord, Take anything I have—but please give me back my Bible verses. Instantly I remembered the verse, "I have loved thee with an everlasting love. Therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee" ( KJV). I don't recall memorizing it; but there it was. Then the verses came back by degrees. It made me realize what a treasure they are. It's hard to memorize when you're older. But if you do it—if you repeat a verse over and over again—it's there when you're driving in a car or when you're busy cooking or when you're lying awake at night, facing a problem. The Bible comes back to speak to you. God still speaks to us through his Word.

from the November/December 1991 issue of Today's Christian Woman (Vol. 13, No. 6)

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