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Thursday
Jun142007

Ruth Bell Graham: an Appreciation

[Beliefnet, June 14, 2007]

“If I marry Bill it must be with open eyes,” a 21-year-old Ruth Bell wrote in her diary. “After the joy of knowing that I am his by rights and his forever, I will slip into the background.”

But a woman so bright and mischievous, and so profoundly committed to her faith, doesn’t disappear that easily. For over 63 years, Ruth was the wife of the world’s most famous evangelist, and though she didn’t fight for the spotlight, she didn’t exactly disappear into mousy nonentity. In 2004 a collection of her poems, prayers, diary entries, and anecdotes was published under the title “Footprints of a Pilgrim,” and it revealed a woman who was vital, charming, and who had her share of stubbornness. As she often told her children, “There comes a time to stop submitting and start outwitting.”

Stories about Ruth Bell Graham disclose both her unsubmitting and her outwitting, and whet the appetite to know better this 94-pound dynamo, mother of five, and poet. Once, for example, though well advanced in age, she tried to conceal from Bill that she had a broken arm; she didn’t want him to find out she’d been hang gliding. Or there’s the story about the time, decades earlier, when LBJ asked her husband his advice about a running mate. His surprising response was “Ow!”, because Ruth had kicked him under the table, a reminder of his promise that he’d stay away from giving political advice. Another tale depicts her motherly determination to teach a son not to oversleep: we’re given a glimpse of Ruth crawling across the roof with a cup of water gripped in her teeth, preparing to give the boy a good dousing.

But such antics are only one side of her character; she was also a Christian who thought deeply and prayed hard. Ruth had a keen understanding of suffering. The first funeral Billy ever conducted was for a young boy, a situation that is difficult even for experienced pastors. Yet the poem Ruth wrote about that day, about dressing the boy for this final homecoming, is as clear, reserved, and poignant as Robert Frost’s “‘Out, Out—’.”

Another brief poem, from her dating years, included a neat turn reminiscent of the 17th-century poet George Herbert. At this time Ruth was resolved never to marry, and she intended to spend her life in Tibet as an “old-maid missionary.” But that resolve was not always steady:

Another date

You held my hand

and I,

feeling a strange,

sweet thrill,

gave to my heart a sharp rebuke,

and told it

to be still.

 

You held me close

and I gasped, “Oh, no!”

Until

I felt my heart within me rise

and tell me

to be still.

Though evangelists’ empires can have a dauntingly corporate face, throughout six decades of marriage Ruth retained her own identity as a “Pilgrim,” one marked by diligence and delight. When the novelist Jan Karon visited the Grahams in their home, she came away with this memory of Ruth: “Here was this tiny, fragile, yet powerful woman coming toward me in her hallway in black tights, ballet slippers, and the most beautiful white blouse I think I have ever seen. I was swept off my feet by this woman. She had this enormous energy that preceded her down the hallway…And she was so naughty. She just teased [Billy] mercilessly…I thought they were the cutest, sexiest couple I had ever seen.”

We don’t see many examples of couples who made it through that many decades of marriage with all the lamps still blazing. Leave it to Ruth Bell Graham to show us, brilliantly, how it is done.

 

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