I cannot tell you how many times or how dearly I have wished that I could have been eighteen in the 1980’s, coming into my own under a president that loved America, Billy Graham, a growing economy, a future that seemed full of hope, Billy Joel, and Rocky.
I would have been happy growing up in the 60’s, too, with JFK, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Malcolm X, and the Beatles. Even the 50’s and 40’s practically look idyllic when compared with some of the things our culture is facing today.
Loving history as I do, there is something about a period as recent as thirty years ago that seems somehow sweeter, gentler…something about it that makes life look as if it were somehow easier then, though the world certainly had its share of very real problems and threats. Come to think of it, had it been my choice, I imagine I would have picked Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis or Reagan and the Soviets over Obama and ISIS. I have heard that during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy hardly slept a wink in a week (say that seven times fast!). Reagan worked tirelessly to rid the world of what he saw as the ultimate enemy of mankind—Communism. Obama, on the other hand—well, some things are better left unsaid.
In a million very real ways, the world is undeniably divided between “then” and “now.” I was strongly reminded of this at Summit Ministries in Manitou Springs, CO this summer, where I had the privilege of listening to two lectures by Dr. Paul Prentice, who was the chief head of macroeconomics for agriculture under Reagan.
It may be hard for someone else to realize just what an honor it was for me to be able to talk with this man, to shake the hand of someone who had worked for the good of our nation– for the good of generations yet unborn–under one of our greatest presidents. My eyes filled with tears as I spoke to him. I thought they would go unnoticed—at the very least, unmentioned. I was wrong.
I raised my hand during the Open Forum and asked something that had little to do with economics (which was his topic), and even less to do with journalism and media (which were two of the topics Warren Cole Smith, also present, had covered).
“Well”, I said, somewhat quietly, when he called on me. “I was just wondering what it was like to work under President Reagan.”
His piercing eyes gazed at me for a few long seconds. He sucked in a deep breath, looked away, then made eye contact again. “You were crying earlier when we were talking. Now you’re going to have me crying. What was it like?” He took a step forward, his index finger pointed skyward out of a clenched fist, and raised his voice. “I’ll tell you what it was like! Our economy was failing, and our unemployment rate was near 25%.”
“Yeah,” broke in Warren. “I got out of high school and couldn’t find a job.”
“The Soviets were taking over the world,” Dr. Prentice continued. “Everyone was afraid. And one man stood between us and them. His name was Ronald Reagan.” His eyes, bright with passion and unshed tears, locked on mine. “That’s what it was like.”
Before he left, I asked him if he thought the mess we were in could be fixed. Earlier, between lectures, he had told me that for all the work Reagan and his administration had done—including Dr. Prentice’s own work—he had never seen this coming, and it was as if all the progress they had achieved had never happened. “But,” he told me, “if I believed it was hopeless, I’d be living out my last years on a beach in Panama. It’s not hopeless. But it is up to you.”
* * *
I hope you’re still reading at this point, because all that nostalgia was leading somewhere.
In Acts, we read: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” (Acts 17:26-28a, NIV)
Perhaps history seems gentler because we read it out of a textbook and know how it ends. It’s not frightening, like our own reality, because we now know Germany didn’t win the war. The Cuban missiles never made it to the US mainland. The Soviet Union didn’t take over the world, and Ronald Reagan died in 2004 from Alzheimer’s, not in 1981 at the hands of a would-be assassin.
We wish, for our children’s sake as well as our own, that the world could go back to the way it was, seemingly tame in terms of comparison. However, Jesus asks us, “Can one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life or cubit to your height? No? Then stop worrying!” (Luke 12:25, 26, my paraphrase.) The God we serve is sovereign. He is in control, not the earthly powers that be, though they may imagine that they are the ultimate authority.
The conclusion that I have come to is that if God appointed the times and places of the Bible’s heroes, then He must have appointed mine, too, for God is no respecter of persons. If I am here, now, in the circumstances I find myself in, He must have a reason. He must have a purpose for my life, a mission for me to fulfill. I am hardly the culmination of history, and yet I find all these moments upon moments, an infinite regression to the beginning of time itself, have led here, 4:43 am on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, to me, writing this draft. Later, to you, reading the published product.
This fact alone ought to give you immense courage and hope. Every time you breathe, with every beat of your heart, God’s purpose is at work in you. He has work for you—work only you can do.
Remember how I said history seems tame because we read it out of a textbook and know how it ends? Dear reader, how have we come this far without realizing that the end of the story has always been guaranteed, that it was established in God’s Word before the foundations of the world? History was never going to end any other way: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. Then the One seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I am making everything new.’” (Revelation 21:1-5a, HCSB.) History ends, not with the dying gasp of some national power, but with the triumphant shout of a King.
In a speech for the Goldwater campaign in 1964, Reagan quoted Winston Churchill, saying, “There’s something going on in time and space and beyond time and space which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.” We would be wise to heed his words.
So, stop living in the past. Stop pining away for how things used to be. Instead, take courage from the heroes, and lessons from lives lived before; then, look to the present, and ask your King what work He has for you where He has placed you, that one day we may all stand together—young, old, men, women, black or white, but saints all—unashamed at the part we were given to play in His Story.
“We’ve been blessed with the opportunity to stand for something- for liberty and freedom and fairness. And these are things worth fighting for, worth devoting our lives to. So let us go forth with good cheer and stout hearts- happy warriors out to seize back a country and a world to freedom.”
-Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference Dinner, March 1, 1985
“Presidents come and go. History comes and goes, but principles endure and ensure future generations to defend liberty…Here, the lamp of individual conscience burns bright. By that I know we will all be guided to that dreamed-of day when no one wields a sword and no one drags a chain.”
-Ronald Reagan, Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, Jan. 13, 1993