Anne Graham Lotz enunciates precisely and speaks in distinctive clipped cadences that are reminiscent of her famous father, evangelist Billy Graham.
She’s calling to talk about her new book, The Magnificent Obsession: Embracing the God-Filled Life, but of course is willing to give an update on how “Daddy Bill” is doing.
“He’ll be 91 in November,” said Lotz, the second of the Grahams’ five children. “He has a hard time seeing and walking, but his mind is clear. He’s very affectionate and content. … He’s shifted gears. Most of his life he’s been concerned about reaching the world. Now he’s most concerned about the people immediately around him.”
The ailing evangelist can still regale people with great storytelling, his daughter said.
“All his life his mind has been super sharp, like a computer,” she said. “It’s just incredible what detail he can remember. He may have to pause and think, to recall, but he can tell stories in detail like you wouldn’t believe.”
Lotz and her children live about four hours away from the elder Graham’s home in western North Carolina, but she and her children go to visit frequently. “They just love him,” Lotz said. “They’re so gentle with him. He has two dogs that stay with him and a big cat I gave him last year.”
Lotz, 61, has been staying busy as an evangelist and author in her own right. Her new book focuses on the biblical story of Abraham. She notes that Abraham, considered the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, did not have a religion, but a relationship, with God.
“Religion is, I think, one of the biggest hindrances to finding God,” Lotz said. “God described Abraham as a friend. … I want to know God in a relationship that one day he will describe as a friendship. God loves you and wants to know you. He’s calling you to a personal relationship.”
Christians too often feel their faith is accomplished when they are saved and attend church, Lotz said. “That’s such a shallow understanding,” she said. A relationship can begin at church, she said, but it can’t end there. “Being a Christian is a personal relationship with God, a thriving relationship, based on communication.”
The problem, she says, is that too many people are “too reliant” on the church, and too many Christians “have fallen into a convenient pattern of allowing their church experience to be their sum total of experiencing God.”
Growing up in the Graham house, she said she learned to keep Sunday as a day set apart. But people shouldn’t rely on a kind of Sundays-only spirituality, she said. “If something happened and you could no longer go to church, if you were homebound and lost your friends at church, how strong would your relationship with God be?”
Speaking of being homebound brings her back to her father.
“My daddy is that way now,” she said. “He’s homebound. His relationship with God is vibrant.”
Her mother, Ruth, too, provided an inspiring example of faith as she approached death two years ago, Lotz said.
“She finished so strong. Every day, her relationship with Christ was stronger than the day before. She would say she was like a mouse on glueboard, couldn’t lift a finger some days, but she was strong in her faith, filled with joy, alive in her relationship with the Lord. There was pain and difficulty involved. I saw her handle it with grace and
inner strength and character.”
She learned other lessons about relationships from her mother, she said — from a woman whose husband was the world’s most famous Christian preacher. Perhaps because he was so famous.
“You can’t develop it through a pastor or spouse; you have to develop it firsthand,” she said. “Within the church, I feel people are just rocking along and afraid to say what they experience isn’t satisfying. … There are a lot of believers in exile. They’ve been so
hurt by God’s people, they don’t go to church. They run away from God’s people and they throw God out.”
It’s an experience Lotz knows all to well herself. She left church for a year, she said, because of how fellow parishioners treated her and her husband. “Their behavior was despicable,” she said. “What they did was wicked.”
The problem, she said, is that “when the church does it, you feel God did it. You have to cling tighter and say, ‘God I want to be closer to you.”‘
The Lotz family later helped plant a new church, Southbridge Fellowship, which meets in a movie theater in Raleigh, N.C., led by Pastor Scott Lehr. Her falling out with church has sensitized her to how common an experience it is for many Christians.
“If they have been burned and hurt by God’s people,” she said, “we’re calling them into a personal relationship with God.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Garrison writes for The Birmingham News.)