Sunday, March 28, 2010

28 MAR 10: Will and I AM

"Enjoy the concert tonight," a woman told me as I walked toward the coliseum door.

This didn't sound quite right to me. "I'm here for the preaching, too," I answered. After all, the minister's name was on the event -- although I suppose he's really the opening act, for a more important Main Attraction.

This short chat is only one of many things which surprised me about this weekend's "Will Graham Celebration" in Auburn. The sermon from Billy Graham's grandson is being so soft-pedaled, it's almost an afterthought. Billboards promote "music with a message." But then again, the music IS twice as long as the message....

I traveled to Auburn for Friday's opening night of the Will Graham Celebration. Since it was a worship service of sorts at the start of the Sabbath I keep, I wore a sport coat and tie -- and wound up so overdressed, some people probably concluded I was a doomsday prophet seeking the right moment to interrupt everything.

In October 1994, I attended Billy Graham's last crusade in this area - a five-night event at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. I moved to Columbus after Franklin Graham's 1996 event at the Civic Center, so I don't know how trendy that was. But the Will Graham Celebration is so different from 1994 that it's almost as "cutting-edge" as a two-edged sword called the Bible.

A giant TV screen was set up outside Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, with music so loud that it reverberated off Jordan-Hare Stadium on the other side of the parking lot. The TV was there for "overflow" in case the coliseum was full. It was nowhere close to that - not even with sentimental fans who missed Auburn's final home game there.

The 1994 crusade had no giant TV screen outside -- but it had a choir inside, with Cliff Barrows leading hymns. The Will Graham Celebration has nothing like that. Matthew West leads worship songs on a guitar - and fans rush to the floor for the music, long before any minister gives an invitation.

(I'd put a picture of the Will Graham Celebration program here - but that's another change from 1994. No one handed out anything at the door. To take home a souvenir, I either had to go to the floor for a salvation packet -- or spend four dollars for a giant Auburn University soda cup. They didn't even throw in a lid for that price.)

With no program, I have no idea who the celebration emcee was. But he welcomed the crowd estimated at 3,500 to "beautiful Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum." If it really was that beautiful, they wouldn't be replacing it with a new Auburn Arena across the street.

A local minister who serves as Executive Director of the Will Graham Celebration then took the stage. "I want to thank you people," he said several times - proving he didn't take theology courses under Al Sharpton.

Then it was time for Matthew West and his "contemporary Christian" band to lead worship songs. Words were displayed on two giant screens at either side of the stage, so you could sing along. Then a Christian rapper came out - and I wondered why his words weren't displayed as well, because I had trouble understanding him.

The Christian rapper was someone I'd admittedly never heard of, named Tripp Lee. I sat so far from the stage that I couldn't even tell if he wore Triple-E shoes.

The Will Graham Celebration is so high-tech that while Tripp Lee performed, a "crawl" of text messages appeared on the giant screens. I presume they all were sent by people inside the coliseum. And I presume none of them were screened in advance, since a couple praised Alabama's football titles. [True!]

After Tripp Lee rapped "Drivin' With My Top Down" and a video testimony from another mysterious Christian rapper appeared, Will Graham came on-stage. Not wearing a coat and tie, but an Auburn University sport shirt. Do all Auburn pastors do that on Sundays after big football wins?

Will Graham broke the ice with his audience by talking about his first few days in East Alabama. He drank lemonade at Toomer's Corner, and went to Cock of the Walk in Opelika for only his second experience eating catfish. Uh-oh - some believers who follow the "clean meats" chapters of the Bible turned against him right there, as a dangerous liberal.

Will Graham actually is named William Franklin Graham IV - married for 12 years, and a father of three. His son is William Graham V, but Will noted he and his wife have given the child the nickname "Quin" for five. I shudder to think what could happen if Quin ever has a son....

Will Graham gave a 33-minute message much as his grandfather would have given in 1994 -- challenging people to make a decision for Jesus. I didn't agree with every point he made, because some contradicted what I read in the Bible. But strangely, the passage he read never was shown on the giant screens - and the fact I carried a Bible made me the strange one in my section.

Will Graham's invitation brought enough people and counselors down to half-fill the Beard-Eaves Coliseum floor. The wood floor was covered with a brown tarp -- which seemed puzzling, since Auburn is through holding basketball games and gymnastics meets there. Is Auburn High School looking for a new practice site?

(Auburn University must really care about keeping the old look of the coliseum. Signs in the rafters still promote Colonial Bank, and it shut down seven months ago.)

As counselors assisted people making spiritual decisions, the Will Graham Celebration took an "intermission." During that time, the giant screens invited the audience to send a text message to win an iPod Nano or a Flip camera. Once again, times have changed - because in 1994, you might have put an entry slip in a drawing for an autographed Billy Graham book.

The intermission ended two hours after the service began. The 1994 event I attended ended at the two-hour mark with a closing prayer. But in Auburn, the star act of the evening was about to come out -- Diamond Rio. I didn't realize this longtime country band turned Christian last year. That's what happens when Rascal Flatts leaves your record sales the same way....

I left the celebration when Diamond Rio began singing music which sounded secular, not religious. It was the Sabbath for me, after all. For all I knew, my pastor might condemn its lyrics during services the next day.

As I walked to my car, I noticed another change of times. Beggars lined up outside the Georgia Dome in 1994, seeking money or food. At Auburn, there was only a man handing out free Bible studies on the books of Daniel and Revelation. "I'm not a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness," he assured me. Hmmmm - so he still could be a Seventh-Day Adventist....

I marveled as I drove home, at how different the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association does things now compared with 1994. Clearly this was NOT your mother's "crusade" service. For one thing, the word "crusade" was retired after the 2001 terror attacks to avoid offending Muslims.

At age 50-something, clearly I am NOT the "target audience" of the Will Graham Celebration. The music is aimed at winning over teenagers and young adults, with a format reminiscent of a rock concert. Some other group will have to appeal to baby boomers now - perhaps with a seminar on whether God is for or against health care reform.

But with the push to gain young believers, I see why some old-school ministries grumble about modern preachers. They complain marketing is being emphasized more than Biblical messages. For these critics, the only rap deserves a "bad rap"....

If you'd like to see all this for yourself, the Will Graham Celebration concludes this evening in Auburn. I won't be there, because of a special communion service in the congregation I attend. The bread and wine is free, but only if you're a "baptized member." At Auburn, anyone can drink -- but you'll have to settle for Coca-Cola starting at three dollars a cup.

I'll be singing Tuesday afternoon, at a different sort of spring "celebration" in Columbus! You're invited to attend the United Church of God service at 2:30 p.m. ET at the Woodmen of the World hall on Milgen Road, next door to Lumber Liquidators.

E-MAIL UPDATE: Now for someone in Columbus with her own message, that's apparently even more provocative....

I have always loved the Ledger- but have you seen how it has shrunk lately? They must have real trouble selling papers. I bet more people read your blog than their paper. It is sad that they have fallen on such hard times.

Now, Cutie Sledgehammer is race baiting to sell papers. How did she get so far off-track? Why do they let her print such hateful articles? And, why would I buy a paper which publishes articles that even they probably don't believe. I am not going to pay a paper to harm our community with race baiting.

Controversy has two sides. It may not always sell more papers. It may turn everyone off so much that they, like me, will not stop at one of the little stores, and buy a paper for a while.

The writer apparently is referring to a Saturday column by Kaffie Sledge on health care reform. But the critics I've heard don't bring up the skin color of President Obama. They bring up his heart - which they think is painted red, due to socialism or Communism.

While the Ledger-Enquirer seems to keep streamlining its editions, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quietly has resumed Sunday sales in Columbus. There must be some kind of local coupon-clipping club, with more clout than I realized.

OVERHEARD OVER HERE: A group of men at a Columbus auto repair shop watches a cable news report on a zoo. "I've never been to Wild Animal Safari," one man says. "It's listed in the Yellow Pages as a zoo."

"I guess that's the only one in this area, isn't it?" another man asks. But the employee behind the counter thinks of another.

"The City Council meeting?!"

Now let's cut through the jungle of news, from the last few days....

+ Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren told WTVM 98 of the promised 100 new police officers now have been hired. I hope the next hire doesn't get hazed by the others - by being called "Agent 99," with a picture of Barbara Feldon in the locker.

+ Muscogee County Marshal Greg Countryman showed WLTZ his newest crime-fighting tool - a state-of-the-art "rumbler" siren for patrol cars. When the police department hires 98 new officers, other law enforcement agencies will try anything to stay relevant....

(This announcement raises a big question -- why do Marshal's Office patrol cars need sirens in the first place? Doesn't that office focus on delivering warrants and guarding court hearings? Or can the rumbler be programed to send subliminal "Vote for Countryman" messages?)

+ Columbus Police reported someone broke into the Walgreens store on Wynnton Road, and stole $200 worth of cigarettes. Now, now - Georgia's legislature hasn't increased tobacco taxes yet.

+ Fort Benning began a weekend combatives tournament - and WXTX reported Saturday's surprise winner was Cadet Megan Tracy. Yes, a woman defeated all the men! The question now is which political "photo opportunity" she'll take first - to appear with Sarah Palin or Nancy Pelosi.

+ The Columbus Lions opened the indoor football season by lashing Louisiana 88-32. That'll teach the visitors to give themselves the nickname "Swashbucklers." That sounds more fitting for a team of athletes at the "Gay Games."

+ Your blog ended Saturday night tied for third in the "My Bracket is Money" contest from Piggly Wiggly and Clear Channel Radio. The "Blog of Columbus" NCAA men's basketball bracket is only one point off the lead. Trouble is, I picked Duke to beat Baylor today - and the Will Graham side of me has a very hard time rooting for a team named Blue Devils.

+ Instant Message to the U.S. Census Bureau: If you don't mind, I'll wait until Census Day on Thursday to put my form in the mail. After all, what if I die Tuesday? Then the information "as of April 1" would be all wrong. Not that I'll care, probably....

(BLOGGER'S NOTE: The timing of our next post depends on when Serious Spring Cleaning ends. It could occur Monday morning, or might be delayed until the afternoon.)

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