WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with evangelist and author Leighton Ford.
Leighton Ford may be one of the most remarkable men the post-World War II evangelical church has produced. He is Billy Graham’s brother-in-law. He’s been married for more than 65 years to Billy’s sister Jean. He also served for more than 30 years as an evangelist with the Graham organization, speaking to millions himself, and all around the world. He was also a pioneer in Christian media, often guest-hosting on Graham’s Hour of Decision broadcast.
Leighton Ford was also an important behind-the-scenes player in the evangelical world. For nearly 20 years he was chairman of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization. The Lausanne Committee has played a significant role in creating and maintaining cooperation and theological integrity on the part of missions organizations worldwide.
Today, at age 88, Leighton Ford is still active in ministry, as a mentor and coach to younger Christian leaders here in the United States and around the world. His new book is Learning To Listen: Discerning God’s Voice and Discovering Your Own.
I had this conversation with Leighton Ford in his adopted home town of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Leighton Ford, welcome to the program. It’s an honor to be here with you and especially to talk about your book, Learning To Listen: Discerning God’s Voice and Discovering Your Own. It’s kind of a memoir, isn’t it?
LEIGHTON FORD, GUEST: It is. It’s my own story, but I hope it’s a story, Warren, that will touch other people to think about their own story and what it means to listen deeply to life and most of all to God.
SMITH: Well, you know, one of the things that I think if the book has one key lesson, it is just that isn’t it? That listening is often more important than talking, than proclaiming even.
FORD: We are made to be human listenings. It’s as we listen to the voice of the shepherd and follow him, that we discover what life really is. Yes, it is. And my theme in this book really is that out of the many voices that we hear around us all the time, from the time we’re young—some voices that shape us or misshape us—as we listen to the most important voice of all, that wonderful voice of the Lord, we discover our own voice. So that’s sort of the theme.
SMITH: Well, I want to talk to you about some of the voices that have had an impact on your life. You were adopted as a child.
FORD: I didn’t know it as adopted until I was 12, and I should have, because it was on a fall afternoon in Toronto, Canada, which was the city of my birth, walking in a park that my mother, who is 4’11” told me and I was 6’2″ I was adopted. I should have figured that out before then. It was not a jolt. It was a revelation to me. I felt loved. I felt chosen. It meant a lot to me that we’re God’s adopted children. And I am thankful that I was adopted by a couple who were not perfect, but I think that was in God’s plan.
So I still remember that day. I know that some people when they learn they’re adopted it’s difficult for them. For me, it was not a troublesome thing. My mother told me there’d been an accident. I thought it had been a car accident, killed my parents, turned out I was the accident because my mother was not married. But God took all that situation and used it to put me in a place where I’d hear his voice.
SMITH: Well, and you did hear his voice from a young age, didn’t you?
FORD: Particularly through my mother who was very devout. She was a strong believer. She’d wanted to be a missionary, although she really would never have been fitted to be a missionary. But she took me where I would hear the word of God preached. She read the Bible to me. She had me memorize portions of scripture. So it was through her books she held up. I can remember in a place in our house when I was young, we’d kneel down, she’d hold up not only the Bible, but books about Dwight L. Moody and Livingston, the missionaries and evangelists and leaders and say, God wants to have people like this. It’s interesting, though, I cannot remember the sound of her voice. It was a high pitch voice, I think, but I can’t remember the sound of it, but I do remember her. Sometimes she’d talk too long. The way she punished me instead of her give me a swat, she’d talk and talk and talk, and I’d say just hit me once and let me get out of here.
SMITH: And so you would have preferred a little spanking rather than—
FORD: Well, I wanted to get out and play hockey. But it did form me. It was one of those formative voices in my life.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, talk about some of the other voices in your life. You’re in Canada and you are, if you don’t mind me saying, you’re, what, 87 years old now?
SMITH: 88 years old. So, this was—when you were 12 years old, I mean this was 75 years ago. To go from Canada to an American university to be raised in a household where education was valued. That was pretty unusual in and of itself, right?
FORD: Yeah, I suppose. Neither of my parents went to college. I was the first and I was five years old when I first raised my hand to say I want to follow Jesus. But it was in my mid-teens when my mother, as I say, she was very devout, but she was also a very troubled woman. She left home for some months. I didn’t know where she was. And she finally came back. I remember it was right after World War II ended and that summer there was a youth conference where I went and the speaker talked about what he called the morning watch. I didn’t feel like watching anything in the morning as a teenager, but he talked about how he prayed. He said, when I pray I don’t sit down cause I’m very nervous. I get up, I walk around, I pray out loud so my mind doesn’t wander. And I can still remember, Warren, picking up an old Thompson Chain-Reference Bible that had been given to me, going out in the woods—now I was 14—walking up and down hoping no one was watching me reading a Psalm and turning it into a prayer. And that was—the Lord became so real to me that it had been a lonely time, troubled family. But out of that, his care for me became very real. And it was through that, that that fall I was appointed to be the director of Youth For Christ, the youth rally, my hometown, which introduced me to that whole new world.
SMITH: Well, that world, the Youth For Christ world is where you also eventually ran into the man that would become your brother-in-law, Billy Graham.
FORD: I met him at youth conferences and he came to our hometown to speak. And even back then, he had the reputation that when Billy preached and gave his appeal, people would just flock down. And we expected all of our friends who came and packed out our auditorium on a cold January night, and Billy preached to us. Powerful. And nobody moved. Nobody moved. Nobody moved. Finally, one little girl came to make a re-dedication and I was disappointed. I thought, you know, when Billy comes, everybody’s going to come to Jesus. But what I remember from that night is that afterward, Billy saw in my face that I was disappointed. He came over and he put an arm around me and he said Leighton, I see that God has given you this desire for people to know the Lord. And if you stay humble, I believe God will use you and I’m going to pray for you.
And that arm around the shoulder, that promise of prayer touched me very deeply. And it was that night that he told my parents and myself about Wheaton College and I applied and went there and there I met Billy’s sister.
FORD: Yeah. Well, before we get there, and I definitely want to get there and I want you to talk about that experience as well.
FORD: We can’t miss that. Jeanie’s going to be listening in.
SMITH: That’s right. But talk a little about that first meeting because, I mean, Billy Graham was already pretty well-known at that point, even though he wasn’t a lot older than you. Was he, what, five—?
FORD: 10 years.
SMITH: 10 years older than you. What was that like for you to, you know, meet him for the first time? Was he already sort of enough of a celebrity that you were kind of awed and humbled by him? Or what was that like?
FORD: This was before he became a national celebrity, but he’s well-known in the Youth For Christ circles. There are many really gifted evangelists who went from city to city preaching. But there was something about Billy, it wasn’t just his flashy tie or his gabardine suits, but there was something about the power in his eyes, in his voice, and most of all in his spirit and the Bible in his hand, that he could have preached almost anything. It was always Christ. But when he gave the appeal, people came and all of us young preachers, aspiring preachers, we wanted to be just like Billy. Of course, we couldn’t. But he was an inspiration to us. And it was that to me. So he came that night, just that one night, he was friendly. He was warm. He preached 25 minutes. I can still hear that voice, “Prepare to meet thy God.” And people are really listened. But that night, no outward response. But it’s interesting that I don’t remember his message as much as I remember that arm around the shoulder. And that promise, I’m going to pray for you.
SMITH: Well, that is a remarkable moment. You said that you were disappointed and you’ve already identified that you had a strong desire for soul-winning to see people come to know the Lord. Was Billy disappointed that night?
FORD: I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. That’s a good question. I’ve never thought about that. How could he help put be? Probably, because when you preach like that you want people to come and no one responds. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve had it many times. You speak, it seems there’s no outward response. He’s never told me he was disappointed. I do remember—I have another story about Billy. My son married the daughter of a Baptist pastor who headed Youth For Christ in Dallas, Texas. When he was a seminary student, Billy came to Dallas and preached wonderful message. But when it was all over, Neil, my dear friend now, had to go to Billy and say we don’t have enough money to pay you. And he said, I’ll never forget that Billy said, yeah man, it’s okay. God will take care of us and lay flat on the floor. And God bless this young man. When we come back to Dallas, it’ll be your timing and we’ll pay for it. And four years later, he filled the cotton bowl. But there was a humility about him. He always believed this is God’s work. It wasn’t just his voice, it was God’s voice speaking through him. And I think that night he was able to say, all right.
SMITH: Leighton, I was taken as I read your book about one really quick story. It’s just a few lines in your book and I’m going to read it. There’s an old rabbinical story about Rabbi Zeusma who said, “When I stand before God, he will not ask why were you not Moses? He will ask why were you not Zeusma?” Can you say more about that?
FORD: Yes. That struck me because we are certainly shaped by other people in our lives—parents, influencers oof various sorts. But God wants us to be true to who he has created each one of us to be. Each unique, each different, not just by ourselves, but part of the community of God’s people. And I think of those of us who are young preachers when we all want to be like Billy Graham, preach like him, be like him. Mary Oliver, the poet, has a wonderful little poem about the mockingbird who is a thief of other sounds. And often in our lives we are so shaped by other people we paste on bits and pieces of others. When the Lord says, Warren Leighton, I call you by name. You’re not Leighton, you’re Warren. You’re not Warren, you’re Leighton. You’re not someone else. So when Jesus called people by name—they’re not too many people that were called by name. There was Peter. There was Mary. There was Andrew. There was certainly Paul. But realize God calls me by name. I don’t have to be famous, but to him I’m special and unique. So, as the rabbi said, God hadn’t called him to be Moses. Billy Graham had a brother named Melvin—a farmer here in North Carolina. He wasn’t called to be Billy. He was called to be Melvin. Worked to the dirt, but held up Christ.
SMITH: Yeah, yeah. Well then it goes back to what you said earlier that God only makes originals, right? He doesn’t make imitations. He makes originals. He’s a creator. You mentioned Mary Oliver. Mary Oliver must be a favorite of yours.
FORD: Absolutely, yes. I wanted to meet her.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, she’s a wonderful poet and near the end of your book, you quote another very, very brief poem by her. I don’t know if maybe this is the whole poem where maybe just a portion of it. But you said, “The poet Mary Oliver offers her instructions for living a life: ‘Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.'”
FORD: That’s a short portion of a longer poem of Mary Oliver, who, by the way, I don’t think was a believer early on, but later in life her poems show that she became a believer. But those three lines: “Pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.” How often we go through a day we haven’t really paid attention. Even the little miracles around us, we’re not astonished. We don’t have anything to tell about. So I wrote a book on the Attentive Life. My son in law is a doctor, said, “Why are you reading this?” I said, “Because I get so easily distracted in my life—thoughts here and there and every place.” So if I could go through a day having paid attention—whether it’s my wife’s voice, the birds outside or a young man I just met here before you and I started talking. Pay attention. You may be astonished and you’ll have something to tell about.
SMITH: So Leighton, up until now we’ve sort of gotten you into adolescence here and you know, your book is about listening. What were you learning in this phase of your life about listening for God? Because you were trying to discern your vocation, your adult calling in life. You had these voices—your mother’s voice and Billy Graham’s voice even speaking into your life. How was that vocation, that sense of calling—in the vocational sense—coming together for you?
FORD: I just came across the other day notes for the first talk I ever gave. I was 16 and a half and it was at the First Baptist Church of Pontiac, Michigan. And it was to a group of young people. And I taught about walking with God. Now why They asked me, I don’t know. I don’t think it was a very good talk, but I had this sense I had—what I had come to know first as a young man with my mother telling me about Jesus. At 14, that experience going off and reading the Bible, turning it into a prayer and realizing how God cared for me. It was something I had to share. I am an evangelist. An evangelist is one that tells the good news. Not because I was trained for it, though I was. Not because I was ordained for it, I was as an evangelist. Not because I was paid for it, but because there was good news for me that I just had to share. So I started there. I can remember the first real sermon I ever preached on a little brick church on the North Shore of Lake Erie way out in the country. And that night a young Japanese-Canadian girl who’d been moved in World War II came forward to give her life to Christ. So it started there—not with big crowds, just something I wanted to share. And I had the model of Billy Graham and many other very good preachers.
SMITH: Well, you know, I remember reading about that story in your book about that girl coming to Christ that night. All these years later, thousands, maybe even millions of people that you’ve preached to since then. You still remember that first one?
FORD: Well, it was the first—I started to say like the first kiss. First falling in love. Or the first of anything. It was actually a kind of a funny evening because I preached on—I probably borrowed some of one of Billy’s sermons, I don’t know. But that great story from the book of Daniel where the handwriting on the wall and the King, he’s so scared because he’s been worshipping the false gods. And I was telling that story and I imagine the glass of wine fell from the King’s hand on the floor. And just as I said this, someone dropped a hymn book on the floor of this wooden church and people jumped. And afterwards one of my best friends said, “You planned all that, didn’t you?” And I said, “I did not plan that. It just happened.” It’s funny the details you remember. That church, by the way, it’s not there anymore. It’s been torn down. But that’s still very vivid to me.
And as you say after all these years, it’s not for me the size of the crowds, but the individuals who say—I just got a note the other day from a woman here in North Carolina that said I was eight years old and I want to come by and to give you a hug sometime because that’s when I came to Jesus. So, it makes it worthwhile. But it’s not just something that preachers do. It’s good news we can all share every day by our words, our love, our care. That’s how it’s spread.
SMITH: You ended up going to Wheaton because Billy Graham mentioned the school to you and told you about the school. You went there and that’s where you met your wife, Billy Graham’s sister. Talk a little about that experience and how that was formative in your life.
FORD: Well, Wheaton was certainly a great school for me. I did learn—I’ve always loved to think and bring thoughts together. Connecting thoughts has been important. I studied philosophy under some outstanding teachers and I began to do more preaching there. But the thing I most remember is that a fellow young preacher named John Wesley White, who played hockey with me and prayed with me, said I’m in taking this girl from the farm in North Carolina out and I’m not getting any place. You need to meet her. So, we went to a hockey game. He took her, I went with someone else so I could meet Jeanie. Our first date after that was a total disaster. I got there late, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I thought she’d never want to go out with me again. But she did. She gave me a second chance. But we fell deeply in love there. So I’m glad Billy not only brought to me the sense of calling to be an evangelist, but more important than that, his sister. And also some wonderful introductions. Billy introduced me once, he was preaching at Columbia, South Carolina, and I was there. He said, I want Leighton Ford to get up here and say a word. He’s the man who married my wife. Long pause. Said, “No, that’s not what it did.”
SMITH: So even Billy Graham misspeaks every once in a while.
FORD: Even when even he married us and he said we’d exchange wings instead of rings.
SMITH: That’s funny. So, you end up at Wheaton. I guess I’m wondering, you must have known pretty early that Jean was Billy’s sister, right? I mean, this wasn’t a complete blind date.
FORD: No, it wasn’t. And when Bill wrote a letter to Wheaton—and by the way, he wrote a letter of recommendation to Wheaton and I got turned down. I think one of the few people ever he wrote a letter for the got turned down. But I later got in on my own somehow. And he came back, actually, to Charlotte and told Jeannie about this guy he had met in Canada. But so I knew about her, she knew about me, but we weren’t going to be pushed into anything. So we’d been there for a year before John Wesley White finally got us to that hockey game where we really fell in love.
SMITH: So you and Jean ended up getting married, obviously, and you’ve been married now—I’m trying to do the math on that, but you know, it’s gotta be 60 years.
FORD: 66 years. And many, many years, many experiences and many voices across that time. But her voice is one that—it’s interesting. My wife Jeannie had polio when she was 12, and it is a very serious time and she could have lost her life. She didn’t, but I left her voice a little bit weak. But her voice—it is soft, but when she speaks as he speaks grace. And I’ve heard that voice many times when I’ve needed that from her. So, I really believe it’s more important to me that I’m married Jean Ford than I was related to Billy—as important as Billy is in my life.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, I totally get that. And so these voices, your mother’s voice, Jean’s voice. Billy’s voice became formative for you for a number of years because you were a part of that organization. The organization was very young, was a fledgling organization whenever you were there, when you were a part of it. Talk about those early days. What was it like?
FORD: It was a time, now this was the mid 50s. I joined Billy’s team in my hometown of Toronto in 1955. He’d already had his first big crusade in London. And the first one that brought national prominence in Los Angeles. I wasn’t there at the beginning, but very soon I was telling some young leaders that I mentor the other day, it seems to me to the 1950s, it wasn’t that the crusades were just well-organized. They were fairly well-organized. There was a breath of the spirit of that time. There was a wind of the spirit. Post-World War II this country much of the Western world, much of the world was being reconstructed. New homes, new churches, people wanting to find a purpose in life. You had a president like Eisenhower who said he felt that God wanted him to help, to encourage a spiritual revival. There was that sense that it wasn’t just something that was organized. It was a great deal of prayer that Billy emphasized. And before the crusades I was—shortly after I joined the team, Billy asked Jeanie and me to go to New York City and to live there for a year to work with the churches all through the whole New York area—all of the boroughs—and to help them see the value of the crusade, how it could be a tool for them to use. So we went up there and I look back on this, Warren, I was 24, I guess, at the time and I think back and say if that had been me and I was leading the biggest crusade I’d ever had, would I have asked a 24 year old guy to be in charge of working with the churches? But that was like Billy. He opened that door for me.
SMITH: Well, you know, I recently interviewed Luis Palau and Luis Palau had a very similar story about Billy Graham where he was part of the Graham organization and felt that there came a time when he wanted to leave the Graham organization and Billy Graham, not only blessed him but blessed him financially as well as he left that organization. It sounds like that that was sort of something about Billy Graham and the Graham organization’s DNA, that they would trust young people and they would give them responsibility and they would I don’t know—what was it? Trust their character, trust the Holy Spirit, what would you say is the reason for that and the cause of that?
FORD: I only know that in my case, of course I had married his sister, so when he invited me to join the team, he thought it’d be for a year. Went on 30 years. He couldn’t fire me cause I was related to him. But I was asked at Duke Divinity School some years ago, how have you seen Billy Graham change across the years? This was way back. And I said, “Billy Graham has been like an arrowhead: sharp at the point, like an arrowhead—that’s the gospel—broad at the base of the arrowhead because he sees not just his own ministry but the ministry of others.” That’s why he helped a form Gordon Conwell Seminary and Christianity Today and the Lausanne Committee because he saw the wider fellowship of God’s people around the world. To me, it’s very interesting that he comes from a Presbyterian farm background. The red clay of North Carolina. He could have had a very small vision, but his vision was centered on Christ, but always broad in that sense. He wanted to embrace, not exclude
SMITH: So, Leighton, you became a part of the Graham organization early. You’re in your early 20s and you were with the Graham organization for decades.
FORD: 30 years.
SMITH: Yeah. Decades. You preached yourself all around the world. You were a part, as you said, Billy Graham was sharp at the point and brought at the base. There were other preachers. It wasn’t just Billy Graham. There were others. You were one of them. You went all around the world, you did your own crusades. Over the years, do you have any idea how many people you preached to?
FORD: No. I have no idea. I preached to a college in California where nobody showed up. Zero. I don’t think I actually preached there and I preached the 50,000 people in Wales one time when they’re expecting Billy. I’ve never counted it up. I don’t know. It’s a lot.
SMITH: But, yeah, I was going to say it must’ve been over the years in the millions of people that you preached to. As you said, there was something going on in the 50s and 60. We think of the Jesus Movement today. We think of the rise of so many Christian organizations and para-church organizations and explo that took place in Dallas. I mean, something was in the air. I mean, the Holy Spirit was, as some of my friends might say, Aslan was on the move, right?
FORD: Aslan is on the move again, I think, today. But that’s true. Now, I did. I spoke for 10 years on the Hour of Decision where I would speak one Sunday, Billy would speak the next Sunday. We did that for a years. And I did some national television in Australia and in Canada and it was on—I did a two minute inspirational thing on television here in Charlotte on the evening news every night for 10, 15 years. So, yes, but it still comes back for me to the people I’ve met who’s—the individual who said that was important for my life now and eternally.
SMITH: And despite all of that, despite all of that exciting travel around the world and speaking to those people, at some point you felt like you needed to leave the Graham organization. How did that moment come about and how was that for you after decades of being really integral to that organization?
FORD: It wasn’t an easy decision. Billy had encouraged me across the years to be involved within the Graham association and on my own crusades, but the only way I can describe it—in my late forties began to have a sense of restlessness. Not that anything I was doing was wrong. I was delighted and thrilled with the opportunity to preach the gospel, but I sensed maybe I needed a new challenge, something different. I didn’t know what that was. And Jean and I began to think and pray about that. There were invitations to do this or that or the other thing. And right about that time we had a son named Sandy—our oldest son—who died during heart surgery. He was a junior at the University of North Carolina, a runner, athlete. He had a heart problem and didn’t survive the surgery. And I think that, plus that restless I felt, plus I had seen major leadership shift taking around the world. This was now in the 1980s, the post World War II leaders were coming to the end of their ministry or toward the closing years. And I just felt strongly after that loss, maybe the next thing God would have for me to do is to help to identify, develop, bring together network that next generation of emerging leaders, the future Billy Grahams or whatever their name was. So, after 30 years, I had been part of large organizations, I could just go and preach. I didn’t have to worry about the rest of it. But right here in Charlotte, we started Leighton Ford Ministries, just a two or three of us not really knowing what we’re doing except we wanted to find out whose that next generation is.
And I can remember, Warren, and a lot of people who hear this if they’re around Charlotte, remember Hurricane Hugo came through Charlotte and just devastated the city.
SMITH: 1989, I believe.
FORD: We’re supposed to have a strategic planning session that day. We couldn’t, all the power was gone. But the next week I went up to the Lake Norman and on a day alone, it seemed as if the Lord was saying, if you want to make a difference in the world, it’s not going to happen by multiplying programs, but by investing in people. And I made a list of probably a dozen men or women that I’d met all the way from Britain to Australia, to Singapore, to Germany, to Canada, who I felt had that call from the Lord. And I said, I want to help you to carry out what God has for you. And I really believe that younger people are looking for someone older who is willing to listen to them. The listing again, without having an agenda for them, just say, I want you to listen to what God’s call is in your life. So that’s why we started Leighton Ford Ministries. My son has just joined me in that ministry and that’s what I’m still doing.
SMITH: Well, that’s remarkable. You know, I moved to Charlotte in 1993 which was a few years after you got started. But I remember from the very beginning when I was in Charlotte that people were talking—Was it called the Arrow Leadership Program?
FORD: And that came from the idea of Billy like an Arrowhead. And also for the verse in Isaiah that says, God’s servants are polished arrows. That was the leadership program for men and women called to mission, to make Christ known, and to help them develop, as I said, to lead to Jesus, to lead like Jesus, to lead for Jesus, and that’s now become a worldwide ministry in many countries of the world.
SMITH: Well, that was the point that I was getting to, Leighton, because whenever I came here, I would meet people and it seemed to me that—I never went through the program myself, but it seems to me that the sort of the sharpest Christian leaders that I was running into in the Charlotte area, they’d been through your program. When I would ask them questions like, you know, or when I would encounter people that seemed to have just maybe a cut, a little extra wisdom, a little extra of what I was looking for, and I might ask them, where’d you learn that? How did you get to the place where, you know, you were able to sort of cut through, have that insight maybe a little quicker than I was able to get there. They would talk about your program.
FORD: Well, I’m glad to hear that. I am delighted. That’s what we’re hoping for, but it wasn’t just me. We had a team of people who had experience. But I think the secret wasn’t that we are teaching them about evangelism and leadership and communication, but we were listening to them. And I found they wanted someone who would listen. Listen deeply. I’d ask every young man and woman, what’s your vision? They said, I don’t know. I’d say if you had one, what would it be? And and to listen carefully to them. That was one of the key things about the Arrow program.
SMITH: Well, you know, in fact it’s maybe that second question that’s almost a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I mean, how many times have maybe even I said to people, you know, what is your vision? And they don’t know. And I never think to ask that second question. If you had one, what would it be? Because it forces that process that.
FORD: Well, good. I’ll ask you, if you had a vision, what would it be?
SMITH: Right, exactly right.
FORD: What is it?
SMITH: Well, I mean, my vision from a very young age, Leighton, was to to use communication skills, writing, and speaking skills to have—and I remember writing it down when I was 19 years old, 18 or 19 years old, to have maximum impact on my world for Jesus Christ.
FORD: To have maximum impact on my world for Jesus Christ.
SMITH: That’s right. And for me what that meant over time, I sort of unpacked that, well, what does maximum impact mean? It might not mean preaching to large crowds. It might be having a deep impact on my family for example.
FORD: And what is your world?
SMITH: What is my world? So I had to get clear, I had to, you know, sort of think that through for Jesus Christ. Everything for the glory of God, everything for the cause of Christ. So, that was a vision that I guess I developed in my life early. Honestly, I feel that it wasn’t because I was so smart that it developed. I really consider that a gift of God that he caused that hunger in me to want to develop that vision and sort of think it through at that level because I run into a lot of men—and I’m sure you do too—that are even our age. I mean, I’m a generation younger than you, but I’m not young anymore and who have never really thought that question all the way through.
FORD: I look back at my early years and I had, thankfully, the influence of Billy Graham and other leaders of his vintage and my teachers, but I can remember being with some older Christian leaders after spending maybe that grace stuff to give an hour or something. I knew everything they did. They didn’t know anything I did. And I thought when I am able to do that, I don’t just want to tell what I’ve done, I want to listen to what you’re doing. Tell me about yourself. A young man’s coming—a formerly young man I knew what he was just a seminary student is come in to see me shortly. I remember when he started out just saying, I want you to tell me about, took a ride in a car, tell me about you. What has God called you to do? And he said, I been called to a church in Vancouver, Canada, which is dying and I’m not sure I have what it takes.
And I listened a long time and said, “Ken, God’s an artist. He doesn’t do copies. He does originals. He’s going to do through you something different.” And he has. So I think again, it comes back to the importance of listening. We can all do that. Not everybody is a great speaker. But you think back, that’s a great speaker. How many people do you meet who are great listeners? Anybody can really listen deeply. And I think as we do that, it also helps us in sharing our faith.
I remember years ago hearing ethic, it was Keith Miller said, when a Christian listens to someone else, it’s as if you put your hand inside a cup and ran around the rim until you find a broken place. As you listen, there might be that place in their life where God may be preparing and speaking to them. So, it comes back to listening. Just before you and I were together today, I heard an interview with Bono. And he was asked by someone, he had been a great student of the Psalms. And the interviewer said, what have you learned about God from the Psalms? He said he listens. Then the interviewer said, What have you learned about yourself? He said that I don’t listen enough.
SMITH: Well, you’ve certainly proven that to me today, Leighton, because I here I come to your place to interview you, to listen to you, and you tricked me.
FORD: I’m not going to apologize for tricking you because I learned something. I learned from you. People maybe learned from me when we have that time of listening together.
SMITH: Well, amen to that. I’m grateful. But I guess my point is, though, you just demonstrated what you’re talking about, right?
FORD: Hope so, ask my wife if I listen. How well I listen. [laughs]
SMITH: Leighton, you talked about your son, Sandy, and the death of your son while he was a junior at the University of North Carolina. You’ve had some setbacks and disappointments in your life. Sandy being one of them. That crisis of leaving the Graham organization and figuring out what to do next. What role does failure and doubt and setback play in our lives and specifically in your life?
FORD: I think that doubt is a kind of intellectual temptation that we’re all subject to—some more than others. For me, my faith has—it’s a gift from the Lord as faith is. But it hasn’t meant I haven’t had doubts. I’ve gone through in my studies earlier what can I really believe about the Bible, about Christ. But those things have made me stop and examine my heart and my mind even more. So I think we make a mistake when we say to young people just don’t doubt, just believe. God can even use our doubts to make us doubt ourselves so that we can really listen to the God who’s really there. Cause we all form God in our own image, the way we’re brought up. And sometimes people react against the God that they’ve seen or maybe not. But I think sometimes God has to shake us up a bit to make us take us right back to the center, which is Jesus Christ.
So I’ve had times in my life, I can remember once I was going to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a week and I felt that nothing I said was going to reach anybody. I wasn’t doubting the gospel. I was doubting myself. And one day I had to go to the university and I was really scared that they might be very hostile. And I told the Lord in prayer just that I don’t think I went there and the words that God spoke to Abraham came to me, I am your shield. I am you reward. And I realized then that I mattered to God, not because I was an evangelist because I was his son. He cared for me. And in that I was able to go out and minister. But it was out of the crucible of the loss of a son, inner doubts, questions, uncertainties. Let me put it this way. When our son died, I told someone after—he was a huge loss. We are very much alike. Great loss in our life. But I thought of a Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. When he crosses the river said, I have felt the bottom and it’s sound. And I have to say, Warren, for all of those questioning times in my life, I have felt the bottom and it sound. That sound is the God who really is God and who really is there and who’s come to me in Jesus Christ.