By Paul F. South
FLOWER MOUND, Texas (BP) — As a drill instructor, Brandon Graham barked orders, broke recruits and turned out battle-ready Marines. He was fierce, tough and fearless, with crass language and harsh treatment all part of the package.
That all began to change, though, when driving to work one day Graham had what he calls a “Damascus Road experience” that left him weeping on the side of the highway.
The journey there, however, began long before he got in the car that morning. Graham, a 34-year-old Oklahoma native who now serves as assistant pastor at RockPointe Church in Flower Mound, said news that he and his wife would become parents is what first pointed their lives in a new direction.
“My wife and I began going to church before our first child was born in an effort to ‘clean ourselves up,’ as if going to church would make us better parents,” Graham said. “It was while attending church in San Diego that God began to work on me. … The Scripture was coming alive for the first time in my life.”
Shortly after their return to church, the Grahams received devastating news. Brandon’s close friend, Marine Sgt. Mark Adams, had been killed in action in Fallujah, Iraq.
“His death rocked me to the core,” Graham said. “For the first time in my 25 years of existence, I realized I was mortal. The Marines train the fear of death out of you. A Marine infantryman is taught, ‘We don’t die; we just go to hell to regroup for a counter-attack.’ Death was never an option.”
God used Adams’ death as well as the unshakable faith of Adams’ parents in the wake of the tragedy to get Graham’s attention.
“I began to wonder what else there was in this life, other than doing 20 years, getting out and getting another job somewhere. I really started to search. There had to be more out there than just this.”
For Graham — the man accustomed to harsh language, loud orders and the thunder of a .50-caliber machine gun — a still, small voice deep in his spirit on his daily commute provided the answer to his search and a new mission.
“I was driving to work on California State Highway 163 in San Diego,” Graham said. “I heard God speak to me in a way I’d never heard before. I won’t use the word ‘audible.’ I didn’t hear it out loud but in my spirit. It was one of those things that was not of me. ‘It’s time,’ it said.
“I just broke down. It was such a humbling experience because I knew what ‘It’s time’ meant. God broke my spirit right there and called me to salvation. I prayed to receive Christ right there. I just said, ‘I don’t know what you have for me. I don’t know what you want me to do, but I’m going to follow you.'”
Graham initially argued with God. With a young family, this was not the best time to leave the Marine Corps. And for a few moments, he resisted.
“I was overwhelmed, but I couldn’t not follow him,” Graham said. “I said, ‘God, whatever you call me to do, I’ll do it. I’m yours. I surrender my life to you, and whatever you say, I’ll do.’ That’s what I consider my moment of conversion.”
That evening, some six hours after his roadside encounter, Graham received a tearful phone call from his wife Crystal, who had just completed a devotional.
“We need to talk,” Crystal said.
Brandon imagined the worst: a divorce, trouble with one of their kids, something dire. But the Graham family had new orders.
“I just finished a Bible study, and the Holy Spirit clearly told me you’re supposed to go into the ministry,” Crystal said, with no idea of what had happened six hours earlier. For all she knew, Brandon said, he was still a “reprobate.”
He recounted the roadside testimony, and together they wept.
Graham completed his military commitment but not before his fellow Marines noticed a transformation.
“All of a sudden I started carrying my Bible. I was reading it in my duty hut. Other [drill instructors] were going out to party, but my desire was to be home with my family,” Graham said.
“I really started to transform from the inside out. The old was truly dying away. I’d like to say my language got perfect overnight. It didn’t. But people could see a distinct difference right away.”
That change led Graham to help a backslidden fellow drill instructor return to faith. Graham was also able to come alongside another believer in Company E as a source of encouragement.
The change was obvious not only to new drill instructors and recruits but to a Marine in combat half a world away.
“I made sure I treated my guys with the utmost respect. I made sure they got plenty to eat, plenty of sleep. It’s very rare. But part of it was because of the mercy and grace extended to me by Christ,” Graham said.
When dealing with new recruits, Graham would share Heb. 12:11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (NIV)
Graham had signed a recruit’s Bible and included that verse. Later, he received an email from the recruit, now home from battle.
“While he was at war, when things got tough, he kept going back to that verse. And he knew he was going to be OK,” Graham said.
Years removed from Graham’s roadside conversion, when he argued with God about the cost of discipleship, he’s OK, too.
According to senior pastor Ron Holton, Graham, who is also studying for an advanced master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, fills a utility role at RockPointe. Graham’s tireless work ethic and sterling integrity have made an impression on the pastor.
“There’s not a specific thing that he does,” Holton said. “But he is just so talented. He has the confidence that if you were looking for an example of a person that said, ‘God, just use me, and I’ll do whatever’ — that’s Brandon. Brandon’s not afraid to try.”
These days, Graham’s mission is simple.
“The older I get and as each day goes by, I really focus on making each day count and making each day purposeful, so at the end of 70, 80 years or however many God has for me, I’m not looking back and wishing I’d done something different.”
Paul F. South is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, where this article first appeared.