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From left, bottom row: Barbara C. Mead; Jane Wooten; Brooks Shumake, Sumter High School Baseball Coach ; Jeff Francisco, School of Education at the University of Kentucky; Ruth Graham; Kay O’Brien; Marnie and Gene Cotton, Nashville songwriter and artist. Top row, from left: Kevin Jones, Director of Sports Recruiting at N2 Publishing; President Danny and Debra Nicholson; Dr. Randall O’Brien, president of Carson Newman University; and Stephen Edwards.

November 9, 2017, was a day of ‘New Beginnings’ at Connie Maxwell Children’s Home. Not only was it the first trustee meeting for new president William D. Nicholson II, but a special celebration service was held that evening with a line-up that included a university president, a Nashville songwriter, and Ruth Graham, daughter of evangelist Rev. Billy Graham.

More than 300 guests filled Connie Maxwell Baptist Church to join in the celebration and hear the keynote message shared by Ruth Graham.

“This is a new beginning, and you know God is a God of new beginnings,” Graham said. “I’m so glad that He is because I’ve needed new beginnings. My story is sort of messy – it’s not very pretty, but God has been faithful through all of it.”

Graham paralleled her life with the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11–32.

In the story, a father has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance and, after wasting his fortune, becomes destitute. He returns home with the intention of begging his father to be made one of his hired servants, expecting his relationship with his father is likely severed.

The father welcomes him back and celebrates his return. The older son refuses to participate. The father reminds the older son that one day he will inherit everything and that they should still celebrate the return of the younger son because he was lost and is now found.

Graham described how like the older son, she was doing everything right—she was a faithful wife, loving mother, and leader in her church. However, her husband was dishonorable and had ‘squandered his privileges for years.’

“He didn’t deserve any compassion,” Graham said. “I needed compassion—where was everybody? Like the older brother, I believed it was very unfair and I was angry.”

Graham felt as long as she was a long-suffering faithful wife, she looked good to herself and others, but God knew her heart.

“He saw the hardness of my heart, and the self-righteousness,” Graham said. “I was anything but tender towards my husband. I wanted him to pay.”

The damage and hurt took a toll on Graham, and her marriage ended in divorce after 21 years.

“I felt like failure was tattooed on my forehead for all to see,” Graham said. “No one had ever been divorced in my family.”
Her ex-husband soon moved on with his life, but what was she supposed to do?

“Divorced people are very vulnerable. Sometimes they need protection from themselves,” she said.

Graham described how she soon became the Prodigal son herself—headstrong, willful, and stubborn. “He was out to have a good time,” she said. “He was going to make his own new beginning.”

In an effort to make a fresh start, Graham decided to move near her older sister. She joined her sister’s church and it wasn’t long before the pastor introduced her to a handsome widower.

“We began to date, fast and furiously,” Graham said. “You know the end of the story. My children didn’t like him, but I reasoned that I knew what was best for my life. My family warned me, but I didn’t listen.”

She tried to find peace by praying and reading scriptures but wasn’t telling herself the truth. “I was manipulating what I was hearing from others, and even read the scriptures to fit my thinking,” said Graham.

After knowing the widower for 6 months, Graham made the decision to marry him. It wasn’t long before she realized she had made a terrible mistake.
After 5 weeks of marriage, she became afraid of him and fled.

It was a two-day drive to her parent’s home and as she made the trip all kinds of thoughts swirled in her head. “What were they going to say to me? What was I going to say to my children? What kind of example had I been?” Graham thought to herself.

Her family home was located on the side of a mountain, and as she got to the last bend of the drive, she could see her father standing and waiting for her at the end of their driveway.

“When I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘welcome home.’ There was never any condemnation, never any blame, never any shame, never any questions—just absolute, unconditional love,” said Graham.

“Connie Maxwell is that kind of place for these children,” she said. “A safe place where they can come and find their Father—their Heavenly Father.”

That gift of grace changed her life. Her father gave her a chance to make a new beginning, and so she did.

Graham moved again and began attending the church that she grew up in. She recalled how one Sunday morning she was sitting in the back of the church with her mother, listening to her friend and pastor preach on Luke 7:37, the story of a sinful woman who brings an alabaster box of perfume to anoint Jesus.

“We tend to think that brokenness means ruined,” she said. “That it means to throw away. It doesn’t. Brokenness qualifies us for service to the King. What would God do with my brokenness?”

Graham recalled how she felt compelled that morning to walk to the front of the church during an altar call. No one else moved, everyone looked up and saw her, and she didn’t care.

“I was desperate to be whole. I was desperate to make it right with God,” said Graham. “I wanted to know that I had been forgiven, that I had been cleansed. I reached out to my pastor and he embraced me in his arms.”

At that moment she let go of all the guilt, shame, and condemnation and felt the tender presence of the Lord’s love.

“My Father had embraced me in His loving arms. The Prodigal had come home,” she said.

“God doesn’t stop at ruins. That’s where He begins. God redeems the ruins for Himself and for His glory if we just give the pieces to Him,” said Graham.

Graham said the story of the Prodigal is for all of us. “Maybe no one on earth has ever welcomed you the way my father welcomed me that afternoon on the mountainside, but your heavenly Father always will,” said Graham. “He will say all is forgiven, welcome home.”