Surely to be swept aside in news of hurricane, flood, and the general noise of Twitter is a letter, found after many years by Karen Tumulty from Ronald Reagan to his dying father-in-law. It is nothing short of a full-blown evangelical outreach to a man on his deathbed, an effort to secure his father-in-law’s soul for the hereafter. Tumulty says, “His language did not have the speechwriter-polished sheen we associate with the president who came to be known as the Great Communicator,” and yet I have read it several times and each time it has moved me to tears. To my mind the lack of eloquence makes it even more moving. Those widely read will recognize that President Reagan borrows arguments from C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham, peppered with personal stories that many will recall him telling more than once.
Ms. Tumulty feels the real story behind the letter is the genuine, though generally quiet, faith of Ronald Reagan complete with his broken marriage as contrasted with the tumultuous personal life, and entirely confused faith stance, of the current president. But I see a very different story behind the letter. Here is one of the most articulate men ever to hold the office, a president of extraordinary consequence, struggling to make his faith known to a man without faith. It is a story of love and a story of very common evangelism. If it stands in contrast to anything, it stands in contrast to the media-tech heavy, highly polished, Hollywood level, searching for the “new” and the “relevant” productions that seem to pass for evangelism these days.
From the contrast I see, I draw two lessons: 1) Evangelism that matters, the stuff that really changes lives and saves souls, does not happen from productions, services and speeches; it happens person-to-person, not based on how articulate one is at presenting the “Four Spiritual Laws” or how good the music is. And 2) it is not the faith of the leader that changes the world, it is God. Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan changed the world.
I shared last weekend that my mother had passed away earlier in the week. I hope you will stick with me while I tell you just a little about her. My mother was not the most articulate soul on the planet; not even as articulate as President Reagan in the letter. Nonetheless, after my sister and I graduated from high school my mother felt compelled to become a volunteer Young Life leader in our community. This is a job generally taken on by the young, attractive, and articulate – there is a lot of evangelism by charisma (a trait my mother was well short of) involved. But she was driven to share the gospel with young people though she was challenged both generationally and by a lack of articulateness. I was on Young Life staff at the time, in a different city, but when it came her time to give a talk she always struggled and always reached out to me for help. Putting the gospel into words was not her strong suit.
Regardless of her apparent lack of gifts for the kind of ministry Young Life does, since her death I have heard from dozens of people about how much she influenced them and changed their lives. She unquestionably changed her community more than I, working in ministry professionally, ever changed the one I was working in.
Ronald Reagan’s relatively inarticulate faith changed the map of the world. My mother’s inarticulate faith changed an entire community in suburban Indianapolis.
The bottom line is this, ministry that matters is done by God, not by us. In the end it is not our preparedness or our articulation that carries the day, it is God’s action. God uses the tools available to Him at the time, whether it is the deep articulation of a C.S. Lewis, the eloquence of a Billy Graham, or the stumbling, “old lady” efforts of my middle-aged mother, God changes lives not us. And as lives change, the world changes.
And that, by the way, is the answer to Ms. Tumulty’s observations from the letter. We don’t rely on POTUS for our aims, we rely on God. Moreover, we don’t even really have aims, other than God’s. So the president does not have to be “one of us,” we just have to be one of God’s. God will take care of the rest. The Bible s full of God using foreign potentates and unbelievers to achieve His aims.
If you love God, but are afraid you lack the tools to affect things, stop being afraid, you do not need the tools, God has them. If you think an Evangelical vote for Donald Trump is somehow an act of hypocrisy, then you fail to understand in whom an Evangelical’s faith actually resides. And thank God for Ronald Reagan.