A Life of Listening, Leighton Ford. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.
Summary: A memoir in which Ford sums up his life as one of listening for God’s voice, and the unique voice of his own he discovered as he did so.
I have been listening to Leighton Ford most of my life. As a young boy, I heard him preach on The Hour of Decision on occasions when Billy Graham was not on the broadcast. As a college student, I participated as a counselor in a crusade he led in Youngstown. Even then, his voice was different from Billy Graham, quieter, rich with cultural and spiritual insight. I was moved by his account of the death of his son Sandy, a parent’s worst nightmare, and how he went on with God afterward. I saw a turn in his ministry as he focused on leadership and found his book Transforming Leadership deeply helpful as a rising leader. Much later, as I found myself giving increasing attention to the inner journey, his book, The Attentive Life, captured for me what seems the connecting point between those who love God and love learning, the practice of attentiveness. Now, as I think of this question of what it means to finish well in Christ, comes this memoir, in which Ford looks back and sums up a journey of listening to God.
In the Introduction to the book, he describes his youthful response to the call of Jesus after listening to a retired missionary and a college student speak of Jesus:
I was five then. Now, eighty plus years later, I can barely recall the voices and face of that missionary lady and that college student, but I know that through them I heard another Voice calling me, a voice I have been listening for ever since. So I write my listening story not because it is a perfect story or one to emulate but as a testament to the power of listening for the voice of my Lord.
The narrative traces this listening story from the early years as the adopted son of Charles and Olive Ford. Olive was the one who first taught him to read scripture and pray and took him to the Keswick conference where he responded to the voice of Jesus. He describes his teen years as he struggles to differentiate the voice of Jesus from Olive’s strong, controlling, and protective voice. He narrates his first encounter with Billy Graham at a Youth for Christ rally he had organized, and how, amid discouraging results, Graham encouraged him, encouraging his own response to the growing sense of God’s call to preach.
Graham also told his sister Jean about Leighton, and when they went to Wheaton, they eventually began dating, and in a decisive break with Olive, who disapproved, married Jean. The following years were one’s under Graham’s mentorship, first as an associate accompanying him and sharing some of the preaching, and then forming his own team and booking his own crusades as part of the Graham organization.
He describes the shift in his own ministry as he increasingly included social advocacy and outreach in his crusades, began discovering his inner life as he wrestled with depression, and met his birth mother and understood more deeply the pulls in his life between the sense of loss and longing represented in his birth mother, and the impulse to separate Olive’s voice from the voice that was calling him. Then came the devastating death of his son Sandy, and the discovery of “places in our hearts we don’t even know are there until our hearts are broken.” His preaching was changing, and it became apparent, first to Billy Graham, and then him, that it was time to part ways organizationally, a move that actually deepened their friendship, and collaboration on things such as the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization.
The last part of the book covers the period from his fifties until the present as he embarks on what Susan Howatch called “the second journey.” He learns both to listen more deeply for the Lord’s voice and to find his own. He recounts the several year journey to developing a new ministry focus on developing rising leaders and evangelists. His last chapters explore the anamcharas through whom the voice often comes, his growing appreciation of beauty and hearing God’s voice as he took up art, and the distinguishing character of God’s voice and how it comes.
No two lives are alike, no two paths the same. Yet, at least for me, listening to those who have been listening to the Voice of the Master is a rich source of wisdom. Such is this book by Leighton Ford; not a substitute for listening to the only Voice who can lead us safe home, but as sage counsel for how to recognize the only true Voice from the many competing for our attention.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.