Bill and I have spent many hours over many years traveling the United States and Canada in our tour bus. You’d think we surely had seen most of the beauty of America and visited every national shrine, but the truth is we mostly have driven right past the wonders of this great country because of the tyranny of our schedule. Most of the time we have traveled at night after a concert to get to the next date; we have awakened in the backstage parking lot of another city arena or auditorium.
Last summer we asked our driver, Jimmy, if he could block out some days to go with us to see some of the places we have missed. Bill is a history buff and his reading is mostly biographies of great world leaders and our American Presidents. When he finishes a biography, we see together every documentary we can find on that leader until we have exhausted the subject and then move on.
Our list for last summer’s trip was to see three of the Presidential Libraries and really absorb the beauty of our great land, especially the Grand Canyon. What an experience that trip was! We found each Presidential Library to be as unique as the personalities and passions of each President they celebrated. The regions of the country that nurtured the formative years of each life were evident in the strengths and viewpoints each brought eventually to the Office.
Abraham Lincoln was every bit a product of the Midwest—Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois—that shaped his values and developed his courage to walk alone, if he had to, to do the right thing. It molded his sense of justice and mercy. His library is a down-to-earth experience of the simplicity of his childhood, reflecting the long strides not only of his tall legs, but of his determination to walk the lonely road to freedom for the oppressed. Yet he battled depression and was belittled and ridiculed by the press.
We drove across the vast belly of the country that has come to be known as “the bread basket of the world” to Abilene, Kansas, and the Eisenhower Presidential Center. On the grounds are not only the library, but the Eisenhower family home and the whole restored neighborhood where Dwight Eisenhower grew up, and a chapel called the Place of Meditation, where Eisenhower himself and First Lady “Mamie” and their first-born son are buried. Also, on the grounds are an Eisenhower statue placed in a circle named “Champion of Peace” and five pillars, representing the stages of the President’s life.
The Kansas small town neighborhood, the traditional house, and the Chapel of Meditation all seem to represent a well-grounded man who knew balance—a man who went from being one of our history’s greatest generals and Commander of all NATO forces of World War II to being a peace-building President who opposed war and the military-industrial complex. Yet, as is true of all great men and women, he was flawed and imperfect.
The third Presidential Library we visited was the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Our son had checked with some friends to see if President Clinton might be in residence there. It turned out he was and graciously agreed to meet us before opening hours, though he was leaving that morning for a trip. It was a rare opportunity to hear first-hand the ideas this 42nd President had wanted to have built into his library to capture the tone and history of not only his administration, but also the nineties and the turn of the century. The long corridor-style building implying the journey through each year he was in office (1993-2001) ended with a two-story tall glass wall looking toward the outside representing the future. Along the elongated central walkway are alcoves containing visual and archival collections documenting the cultural, governmental, and global happenings day-by-day of each year, including Clinton’s own successes and failures.
On our trip we stopped in Durango, Colorado to visit our grandson. He took us on a picnic up, up to a clear mountain lake high in the pines. We inhaled the air, refreshing yet still hinting at the smell of the destructive fires that had recently swept through the forests below. We filled our eyes and souls with the wonder of God’s beauty and provision. We drank in these precious hours with our handsome, strong nature-loving grandson and the gift of being with him this day. This moment. This place.
We went on to visit the Grand Canyon, which I had never actually seen because we had always passed it in the night, even once parking the bus on the rim of it so our driver could sleep a few hours.
We had planned to stay where we could watch the sun slip from full day to sunset, casting ever-changing shadows and revelations of color at day’s end. What candy for eyes it turned out to be! Every artist must long for paint and a canvas, yet knowing that this changing panorama could never be captured in a painting. We stayed in a rustic lodge and went back the next morning to see what tricks dawn had up its sleeve. Turned out morning had more light-shows that we could have imagined!
The canyon, our sweet picnic by a mountain lake, and the visits to the archives of three American Presidents was a study in perspective for me. It reminded me that relationships are more enduring than power or politics. It made me remember that each of us is a motley mix of strengths and weaknesses, even those who hold the highest offices in our land or positions of power in the world. We each—even Presidents—are a combination of great gifts and fragile flaws, or, as Shakespeare said, a “brief candle...a poor player who struts and frets his hour on the stage and then is heard no more.”
This Presidents’ Month I want to remember to appreciate the gifts of national leadership we have been given over more than two centuries and be grateful. I want to remember that only God is God and His Kingdom is not of this earth; it is an invisible Kingdom built mysteriously in the hearts of those who believe. I want to remind myself, too, that this Kingdom’s work can never be achieved by earth’s systems, but only by each believer being faithful to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the children, lift up the fallen, embrace the lonely, and pray for both our leaders and the powerless.