I remember the speech -- I mean the sermon -- like it was yesterday. The Oklahoma City bombing had shaken the nation. However, the main memorial service was deep in the Bible Belt and there was no way to deny that.
When it came time for the civic event, President Bill Clinton was there and his words were heartfelt and amazing. But everyone knew who was batting cleanup on that day in Oklahoma. That would be the Rev. Billy Graham, who delivered what I still think was one of the most remarkable addresses in his career as the Protestant pope of middle America.
Yet, as he spoke, I thought to myself, "This is the last man who will ever be allowed to stand in front of the nation and say some of the things that he is saying." Graham was speaking to the people sitting in front of him, the people of Oklahoma City and their faith-framed culture, but the rest of the world was watching on cable television. No one ould possibly speak to both of those audiences at the same time, today. What did he say on April 23, 1995? This passage came near the end of the sermon, obviously:
As a Christian, I have hope not just for this life but for the life to come. Someday, there will be a glorious reunion with those who have died and gone to heaven before us. And that includes all those innocent children that are lost. They're not lost from God because any child that young is automatically in heaven and in God's arms.
But this -- this event also reminds us of the brevity and uncertainty of life. It reminds us that we never know when we're going to be taken. I doubt if even one of those who went to that building to work, or to go to the children's place, ever dreamed that that was their last day on earth. That is why we each need to face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God.
It's ironic that this terrible event took place just three days after the churches of this city were filled with people celebrating Easter. Just one week ago today. And throughout the world, the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Easter on this day. And Easter always brings hope to all of us. For the Christian, the Cross tells us that God understands our suffering, for He took upon Himself at the Cross all of our sins and all of our failures and all of our sufferings. And our Lord on that Cross asked the question: "Why? My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" And He received his answer. He knew: To redeem the world. To save you and me from our sins. To give us assurance that if we died we're going to heaven. He was saying from the Cross, "I love you!" And I know the heartaches and the sorrows and the pain that you feel.
Easter points us beyond the tragedy of the Cross to the hope of the empty tomb. It tells us that there's hope for eternal life, that Christ has conquered death. And it also tells us that God has triumphed over evil and death and hell. This is our hope, and it can be your hope as well.
Those words were a comfort to many that day. If they had been delivered in Blacksburg, Va., they would have comforted many, many people and offended many people -- in the building and across America and around the world.
St. Oprah would have been OK, today. The Billy Graham of 1995 would have been too much.
I thought about all of this while reading Michael A. Fletcher's Washington Post story, "President Again Takes On Role of 'Consoler in Chief.'" Everyone knew that Bush had to serve as both a pastor and a politico at that memorial service. We all know that is normal, now. But that only raised another question and Fletcher got it right. You could state it this way: Who can speak for Graham, today?
... (P)residents are increasingly called upon to be the nation's leading voice of moral authority and to express the nation's grief in times of calamity -- both large and small. In 1999, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined 30,000 mourners at a memorial service to honor six Massachusetts firefighters who died in the line of duty. In another era, a nation's grief at such a ceremony may have been conveyed by religious leaders, some White House veterans said.
"In the television age, there are only so many voices you can hear, and the president has the megaphone," said David Gergen, who served as an adviser to four presidents. "At times like this, he takes off his cap as commander in chief and puts on the robes of consoler in chief."
Leon Panetta, Clinton's chief of staff, agreed: "In many ways, he is our national chaplain."
Oh my. I think that is tragic for religion in the public square and for politics, as well. Are we really to the point where we can't let ministers speak to the mourners who are seated before them? Do we have to focus-group test sermons? Or, to state it the other way, will there ever be another Billy Graham? How many ministers in how many traditions did Virginia Tech University officials have to add to the memorial service program in order not to have been attacked?
Can ministers speak in our culture today, without needing to edit their beliefs, their hopes, their words of healing? Just asking.