Letters and Lessons from Departed Presidents December 08 2018

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

A memorial service for someone who has died is a great opportunity to contemplate how we have been investing our own lives. Most of us have been to memorial services that have been inspirational examples of love and selflessness, as well as services where one comes away with a sense that it was a sadly wasted life. Although I saw only highlights of the recent service for George H.W. Bush, America’s 41st president, I heard enough to appreciate the type of example he set for his family, for other leaders, and for us as citizens. In certain ways, it reminded me of the man with whom Vice-President Bush served in the background for eight years, Ronald Reagan. So let’s spend a few minutes on both of these men.

My Uncle John, a life-long bachelor from Connecticut, was a huge Ronald Reagan fan. And when Ronald Reagan passed away in June of 2004, Uncle John immediately made plans to come out to the Reagan Library in Simi, California so that he could properly remember him. And I had the “privilege” of being Uncle John’s tour guide and chaperone, which for him was a trip of a lifetime. My uncle had not been on an airplane in decades, and had borrowed a cell phone just for the occasion (but didn’t know how to use it). After missing the first leg of his flight and the getting lost after landing at LAX, it was a miracle that we were actually able to locate each other and get going on this little adventure. Once at the library, it was just as much fun to watch Uncle John enjoy soaking it all in as it was to go through it myself. Uncle John enjoyed seven hours’ worth—stopping at every station, reading every word, watching every video.

The library was packed with people even several weeks after President Reagan’s service, and I can understand why. Although the accomplishments of “the great communicator” were certainly on display, so too was his tenderness, love, and sense of humor. Among other things, he was a great note-writer, evidenced by some of the letters and notes he penned to people from all walks of life, not done to impress, but totally out of public view at the time. Then came his last letter, the original of which is in the library. Here are a few excerpts:

My Fellow Americans,
I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease. Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way…. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it….
Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.
In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.
Sincerely, Ronald Reagan

This letter was a great source of encouragement to many of the Alzheimer’s families and care givers at that time. I had a similar sense watching and listening to the highlights of the George H.W. Bush memorial service and to hear what impressed others most about his life. Though the media may have stretched their praise a bit, given how much they criticized the man when in office, it seemed that a portrait of his underlying character came through. President Bush was not one to dwell on his own successes or accomplishments, a trait that apparently was quite irritating to his campaign managers. It was hard for him to tear anyone else down.

His son George W. spoke of him as one who “valued character over pedigree,” even though Bush 41 had a pedigree of service few others ever achieved. The younger Bush (43) and others spoke of the elder Bush writing many notes to people from all walks of life, seeking to encourage, express condolences, and build them up. Would these presidents have used email and texts in this day and age? Perhaps. But the fact that they both took the time to write to people individually emphasized their thoughtfulness and caring. President Bush’s graciousness in losing the election for his second term was highlighted by a note he penned to the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton. You can read the full letter online, but a short excerpt captures the tone:

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.

The two went on to work together on humanitarian efforts. Did these men have flaws? Certainly. Yet there are some important lessons we can learn from their examples as well, and parallels in the Scriptures. 

One of the better-known facts about George H.W. Bush’s life was that, as the youngest fighter pilot in the Navy during World War II, he was the only survivor after his plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean, being rescued by a U. S. submarine crew. What I didn’t remember was that he had also almost died from a staph infection as a teenager. George W. used these “close calls” to say of his father that “his brushes with death made him cherish the gift of life.”

Both Reagan and Bush 41 were not publicly outspoken about their faith, but we can relate their example to our own walk with Christ in several ways, such as:

  • Our own rescue from spiritual death should motivate us to cherish our physical life. “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us that we would be called children of God; and such we are….” (I John 3:1). God did not have to adopt us into His family, but by His grace and mercy, He did.
  • Although it may be nice to receive human recognition, showing love to all (whether friend or foe), without expecting to receive anything in return, honors the One who made us: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46). This statement was in the context of Jesus’ call for us to love even our enemies.
  • Don’t seek to be noticed. Jesus made this point several times in Matthew Chapter 6:
    • Verse 1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
    • Verse 2: “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do …”
    • Verses 5 and 6: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room …” (this admonition was followed by the “Lord’s prayer” in verses 9-14)
    • Regarding fasting in verses 16-18: “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

These things are the hallmark of a deeper life, because our focus turns to honoring our Father rather than obtaining human credit. It means following in the footsteps of Christ Who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” and Who “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7 and 8).

So it’s OK if no one ever knows that you prayed and cried with a friend who had cancer; it’s OK if you gave money to a family and they never knew who did it; it’s OK if you anonymously helped a stranger stranded on the side of the road; it’s OK to be left out of an acknowledgement for a job well done. For our part, we should certainly encourage and build up others, and we are told to do so in the Scriptures. But there is a certain enduring honor that comes with laboring, serving, and writing in obscurity, even for the most visible of people like Presidents of the United States. Oh Lord, let us not be puffed up by recognition and let us be content in obscurity. And oh yes, let us not forget to write.

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Steve Smith