Roy Exum: There’s One In Every Pew

Sunday, March 2, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I’ve always been a big fan of Ruth Graham. I’m not talking about the saintly woman who was the world-famed evangelist’s wife but instead about Billy and Ruth’s daughter, the third of five children who was given her mother’s name. As unfortunate as it may be, we have a special something in common and I have admired her for years because of it.

Ruth has been divorced three times. She’s no more proud of it than I am, having been divorced twice, but it enabled her to write a glorious book with the very true title, “There Is A Broken Heart In Every Pew” Her book has always meant a lot to me. I need to tell you that as a writer with a daily opinion, I get more than my share of snide comments and mean-spirited emails among the many nice ones that arrive.

Yet I believe the most hateful thing ever said to me was shortly after my first divorce. I remember it was late in the afternoon and a cold rain helped set the stage. I had stopped by a restaurant to get a single serving of soup – to go – and this pillar of the Christian community saw me, turned and with a shaking finger blurted in my face, “Divorce isn’t scriptural!”

With that, he turned on his heel and haughtily walked in the restaurant. I was crushed and while I should have followed him in and told him, “Being a jerk isn’t scriptural either,” I went on my miserable way. With that said and “the table now set,” Ruth Graham was being interviewed by Glenn Beck earlier this week and the conversation was light at first, ostensibly about what her ailing 95-year-old daddy expects to find in heaven when he is soon called home. (Billy Graham’s wife died in 2007 at the age of 87.)

“I sense that there’s a crowd gathering at the gate, and mother’s leading the charge,” Ruth said in a delightful way. “I think it’s going to be two friends greeting each other, who have known each other for years because (my dad) has walked with Jesus for years. And it will be very comfortable. It’ll be a warrior returning to his King, laying down all the victories, all the crowns and so forth. Laying them at His feet.”

Well, that was fine; we feel certain Jesus will surely say “Well done, my good and faithful servant” and I am warmly as “excited” as Billy Graham’s daughter that the famed preacher will enjoy a life eternal. Are you kidding me? Dr. Graham may be the most famous Christian of our time, and his Crusades have led many millions to Christ.

But then the conversation moved to Ruth’s own personal life and the hardships she has been forced to endure. “Glenn, in our church adultery’s forgivable. Divorce is not – at least back then.”

“That’s not right,” Beck gently countered and Ruth agreed with a smile, but she kept going. “I divorced my first husband for years of infidelity, and I was the first one to get a divorce in my family, so that was not good,” she told the TV host. “His parents were friends of the family, so that made it very complicated, and I felt like a circle had been drawn, and I was on the outside of the circle.”

Trying to rebound, Ruth fled to a big city and soon did the unthinkable -- she thought she was in love and married again. Within weeks her new husband was threatening physical abuse and he was hardly the man she had thought him to be. Divorced a second time, Ruth now had to come home and face the greatest Bible teacher that ever was. Can you imagine?

“My fears multiplied with every mile,” she told Beck, adding it wasn’t just a matter of what her parents would soon say but the example she was making for her children. (Lord have mercy, I know some people real well who’ve had to swallow that, too. Divorce is horrible.)

“My father was standing there, and when I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘Welcome home,’” Ruth’s eyes still moisten. “And there was never any condemnation. That grace changed my life, and it informs what I do today. I want other people to experience the grace of God like my dad gave to me.”

Several years ago, in an article posted on Beliefnet, Ruth said the pain in her life at 40 was staggering. “I sort of went off the rails,” she wrote. “I decided I was tired of doing it God’s way. But that just made things worse. I had thought I was doing everything perfectly. I was a good wife. I was a wonderful mother. I was active in the church and I was teaching Bible studies. So, why didn’t God take care of me?”

It was several years before she discovered the answer. “He had something to teach me about the difficulties of life: to show me that none of us are exempt, that we all have hardships. We all have things that happen to us that we don’t ask for, but we have to endure.

“And it’s OK,” Ruth said at the time. “It’s all part of God’s plan. I didn’t like having to go through that – none of us do. But it was very important for me to have that experience – and to grow from it. I’m still growing. The story is not over. But that’s OK, God gives me grace. And God is a covenant-keeping God. He is faithful even when I am not. Now I’m living life. I am just living in the grace of God.”

Wow! I think Ruth’s story may be one of the greatest tributes to her father that has ever been told. Don’t you see this? “The” Billy Graham, so easily, could have told her “I’m tired of dealing with you, you’re on your own,” but, no, as her father he loved his daughter “unconditionally.”

“I told Daddy not too long ago that I am much more warmed by the embers than I ever was by the fire,” Ruth wrote on Beliefnet. “I hate to see the physical disabilities that he has endured, but I have enjoyed this special time in his sunset years. He is not as distracted. He is gentler.

“He’s always been a wonderful person. It was hard for him that Mother went first, but God knows what He’s doing. Always before, we kids went home to see her. If he was there, that was well and good. But now that she’s gone, we go home to see him. And he loves it. And I love being with him.

“I remember one day when I was really beating myself up and taking responsibility for my marriage falling apart – just pouring my heart out. Daddy said, ‘Quit beating yourself up. We all live under God’s grace and we just do the best we can.’

Ruth was married a third time, the last time for ten years, until her husband “decided he didn’t want to be married anymore.” Ruth hastened to say that are good friends, and that her third husband is “still essentially a member of the family,” but, no, she freely admitted, “it hasn’t been easy.”

Glenn Beck was masterful in his interview, at another point asking Ruth how she thinks is the best way to “speak the truth and not be divisive,” and her answer was perfect, “It is ‘how’ you speak the truth,” she replied.

“Do we speak it in arrogance? Do we speak it in judgment? Or, do we speak it in gentleness and love? How did Jesus speak the truth?” she replied, her heart long ago “tenderized.”

“We have such division. We have such rancor,” she told Glenn, “not only in our political world but in our Christian world, our religious world. And I know that that breaks Jesus’ heart … I’m not a warrior, I’m much more of a lover … I want to include people. And if, in that inclusion, I gather in some black sheep, well and good. But I’d rather err on the side of grace than I would on judgment. I just am not going to stand in judgment of other people.”

Instead, she is helping prepare her Dad for his greatest reward. “Whenever I go home, there’s always a bouquet of flowers in my room with a handwritten note that reads, ‘Welcome home, Daddy.’”

Oh, my goodness! What a blessing the “other” Ruth Graham has turned out to be, especially to people such as me.

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