The Time That's Left

What will you do with the time that's left? Will you live it all with no regret? Will they say that you loved till your final breath? What will you do with the time that's left?

~ Mark Schultz, “The Time That is Left” (From Stories & Songs, ©2003 written by Mark Schultz and James Isaac Elliott)

One of the more awe-inspiring things about being a human being, for me at least, is that we have the agency to adapt and change continuously as we go through life. Our potential for growth and maturity is limitless, and how much we change, and how long we allow ourselves to be humble and open to change, is entirely within our control. When people speak to the journey in life being more vital than the destination, they are referring to a process of continuous learning and improvement that shapes us as we go about our days, allowing new information and experiences to influence us, and they never presume they’ve reached a final destination until they’ve drawn their last breath. When we stop learning, we’ve stopped living.

The recent fate of two friends in my age group brought this thought into sharp focus for me.

A few weeks ago, a former Air Force colleague of mine, along with his wife and son, who attends Randolph College just up the road from our house, treated me and my family to a sumptuous dinner at one of the finest restaurants in Lynchburg. We count him and his wife among our dearest friends, and he had undergone a coronary angioplasty not too long ago to resolve a 99% blockage in a coronary artery, so it was truly a blessing to spend time with them, and we had a wonderful evening together, filled with great conversation and great food. He and his wife were supposed to return home the next day, but we learned through his son’s posting on Facebook that he was at Lynchburg General Hospital having a new stent implanted because the previous one had been compromised, and the blockage was back up to 99%. We rushed to the hospital to see him, and while the procedure was a success and he was OK, he was certainly more pensive, reevaluating his future plans in light of another close call. The doctor told him that if something similar happened again, open-heart surgery was likely, and while my friend was talking about a job change the night before, he was now resigned to remaining in his current job as long as possible because he would need the health benefits. He is only a little less than five months older than me.

Just days later, I learned that while we were enjoying dinner with our friends on Friday night, another friend, Timothy F. Johnson, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 50. He had long battled serious health problems which landed him in the hospital on a number of occasions, but he was a relentless traveler, crisscrossing the nation to promote the Frederick Douglass Foundation, an education and public policy organization he co-founded which describes itself as "The Largest Christ-Centered, Multi-Ethnic and Republican Ministry in America". He was a larger than life personality who always had a megawatt smile and a heart bigger than all of outdoors for his friends and allies, but who could call down thunder and lightning on his foes. He was confident, fearless, and unless his health slowed him down, always in motion. He sought me out and recruited me into the organization, promoted my work, and is indirectly responsible for where I am today.

It was Tim who invited me to visit Liberty University for the first time on September 10, 2010 to help inaugurate a collegiate chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, and it was Tim who invited me to the organization’s hospitality suite at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC a week later so I could promote my book, and that’s where I met my future boss, Dean Shawn Akers of Liberty University’s Helms School of Government. Less than a year later, after a trip to Liberty University for a book signing in May 2011 and a courtesy visit to Dean Akers, where he invited me to apply for a position in his school, I had left Maryland for Lynchburg, Virginia and began my new career with the University as an associate dean. My wife now works there as an assistant professor of German and French, and both of my younger children are earning their degrees there tuition-free.

Sadly, I never had a chance to tell Tim how his networking on my behalf, unbeknownst to him, pointed the way to my future, because he was gone before I even realized he’d taken ill again. For all he did for so many people, and despite all his accomplishments, he described himself on Facebook as “simply [a] person who loves calling themselves an American. No prefix or suffix. Just an American who believes Jesus Christ is his Lord and Savior.”

So in one weekend, one friend was compelled to stare at the specter of his own mortality, and another one crossed into eternity to be with his Lord and Savior. Given their ages and mine, it made me think a lot about what I do with the time God has given me.

Every day is a gift, and it’s also a charge to be about the Lord’s business. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” The imagery in my mind is of God making out a list of tasks for me and me alone, and then designing me specifically to accomplish them. I’ve always believed that every day I wake up and draw a breath, it’s because there’s still work left for me to do.

Now that I probably have more years behind me than ahead of me, and in light of the events I just shared with you, I’ve been asking myself the question Mark Schultz wrote and sung so poignantly in the song I quoted to begin this article: “What will you do with the time that’s left?”

Truth be told, God has been taking me on quite a journey for the past nine years, from when I first stepped into the political spotlight as a candidate for public office in 2006, through the years as a blogger, writer and partisan activist, to where I am today as a college administrator and professor, and occasional commentator on the world as I see it. My family and I have experienced a lot of struggle in that time, much of it from self-inflicted wounds as I stumbled about in search of my calling. When His plan pointed me toward Lynchburg, Virginia and Liberty University, however, no one was more surprised and puzzled than me. There was little doubt about making the move, however, because at the time that door opened, I was unemployed and out of options.

Moving to Lynchburg wasn’t easy after living in southern Maryland for 10 years, the longest we’d ever lived in any one place, and building a life there. We left behind our home, our church, our friends, and my wife’s teaching job at a local high school. My son left the school system he’d been in since first grade and started his 11th grade year as a newcomer, giving up the chance to experience his “glory days” as a senior student-athlete in his old high school with the friends and fans he grew up with. I struggled to learn a new profession, essentially starting over again at the age of 52. The financial struggles, borne of years of accumulated campaign and personal debt, unemployment, and poor stewardship, followed us, and we lost a lot of income in the change from my old vocation to the new one.

And then the most inexplicable run of health problems I’ve ever had in my life occurred. From December of 2011 through August of 2013, I endured two serious injuries, both of which required major surgery, three other surgical procedures to relieve the pain in my aging knees and shoulder, and some lengthy stays in the hospital and a rehabilitation center. The longest hospital stay was one week, due to massive blood loss a month after major surgery to reattach a detached triceps tendon, and they never discovered the cause. My last major injury, in which I ruptured both quadriceps tendons simultaneously, was the worst. I was in the hospital for three days and a rehabilitation center for two weeks, and I had to wear straight leg braces for six weeks, followed by several months of physical therapy. I was out of work for over two months on disability leave, and there was a time when I feared for my job.

I don’t tell you these things for sympathy, however. In the clarity of hindsight, I can see that God was with me through it all, and is still with me, and He’s taking the opportunity to help me become everything he designed me to be.

I am always inspired by the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. God gave him a vision of greatness in his early years, but his boastfulness and pride concerning God’s plan for him demonstrated how ill-prepared he was to realize it. It wasn’t until he endured the crucible of betrayal by his brothers, and slavery and imprisonment at the hands of the Egyptians, that he became the great man who would save the world of his day from the damaging effects of the famine that came upon the land. I often wondered if he had days when he looked up to the heavens and cried, “Why, Lord?” The Bible tells us he was faithful and steadfast through his 13 years of trial, but he was human; I have to believe he had moments of despair and hopelessness, just as we experience today when enduring hardship. Maybe I’m just projecting my weaknesses onto Joseph, because I’ve certainly cried out in anguish to God more than once in the past nine years.

At the end of the day, however, Joseph, looking back on his ordeal as his brothers cowered before him in fear, said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). He understood how God had walked him through the worst of circumstances and human evil, and reconciled everything to His plan, which would not be denied. The apostle Paul wrote, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). It was Joseph’s faith in God, not his situation, which governed his attitude and actions. He simply believed that God is who He says He is, and that was sufficient for him.

I’ve written in the past that the worst injury I’d ever suffered was also the best, because in the time I spent recovering, He showed me the difference between believing in Him and believing Him. Once I believed that He did not bring me this far for me to perish, I surrendered myself to Him, and that has been a daily process as I learn what things I’m clinging to that I need to hold loosely, lest they take hold of me rather than allowing Him to have me fully.

Like Joseph, I’ve had a vision for the better part of my life that I could be a catalyst for bridging the racial divide in our land. I’ve been fortunate, all things considered, and I want to use the gifts, skills and experiences God has given me to help everyone live an abundant life together. I don’t see racial reconciliation as a zero-sum game, as many people do, where any surrender or compromise is losing ground to the enemy. Rather, everyone has to surrender something in order to gain everything.

It’s because of this that I concluded some time ago that I will never be able to help people flourish through politics:

For me personally, it means I’m searching for a new model for civic activism. Given that my ultimate objective is to emulate Christ and glorify Him in word and deed, I am persuaded that the old model isn’t working. I’m always critical of liberals for tackling problems with programs that have already been tried and failed, but the fact is that we Christians have been doing the same thing. Politics has done practically nothing for us, and the culture around us and the government that has authority over us should be stark evidence of that. ~ Ron Miller, “Time to build an Ark”, Ron’s Reflections, May 9, 2012.

God has been working diligently on my heart since the winter of 2012, and I’ve written about the divine “timeouts” in which He’s placed me on more than one occasion. I think He’s showing me that I still have other gods before Him, and He’s helping me to see that I need to make Him my prime truth from which all else proceeds. I’ve concluded that it’s more important for me to be a Christian who is conservative than a conservative Christian – the order of emphasis means everything.

To that end, I’m going through a “rebranding” of sorts which you will witness online in the coming weeks – “Ron on the Right” will decrease so Christ will increase. I want to illustrate to the world that, in my life, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). I can be more effective for Christ if my political identity is just a part of who I am, a part that is relegated to a lesser place in my life.

I have been moving in that direction for some time now, lessening my focus on retail politics and the power struggle between left and right, and looking more to the larger issues of faith, culture and society to discuss what will help people think and grow. I realized, however, that I needed to go further still. When I began self-censoring on certain topics and discussions because I didn’t want to antagonize one tribe or another, including those in which I claimed membership, I knew I wasn’t there yet.

Damon Linker, a longtime writer and editor for a variety of print and online publications, tells a story about how the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, one of the great Christian theologians of our age, advised him against writing an article critical of the Iraq war for a conservative theological site, First Things, because he didn’t want to be labeled as “unreliable”. In a review of a recent biography on Father Neuhaus, Linker writes:

I have a genuine respect for politics, recognize its importance and dignity, and think that it reveals certain aspects of human nature more vividly than any other activity or pursuit. But I also believe very strongly that its loyalties and commitments, its partisanship and partiality, stand in permanent, irresolvable tension, even fundamental contradiction, with the pursuit of truth, whether through reason or revelation. When philosophical, theological, or historical ideas are blended with political passions and convictions, the result is very often a species of propaganda.

Reliability may well be a political virtue. It's also a pretty serious intellectual vice.

I don’t want to be that person. I want my relationship with Jesus Christ, not my politics, to direct my thoughts, words and actions. I don’t want a political moniker that makes me unapproachable to those genuinely seeking a thoughtful exchange of ideas.

Before you think I’m disavowing my past public statements and my writings, let me assure you that’s not the case. My life is a matter of public record, and I take full ownership of everything that’s out there that I created. Even as a dedicated partisan, I tried to be a calm voice that spoke what I believed in a thoughtful and respectful manner. If there’s something I’ve said or written for which I should repent, I’m sure it will be brought to my attention at some point, and I will examine it, seek forgiveness if the offense calls for it, and move forward.

This change I’ve making might be subtle to the casual observer, because I am still a traditional conservative in the mold of Russell Kirk. I still believe that man is “neither beast nor angel but an incarnational mix of the two”, to quote Louis Markos. I still believe that human life, from conception to natural death, is sanctified and worthy of dignity and protection. I still believe in the family as the most essential governing unit in society, and the health of the two-parent family is the health of the nation. I still believe in the church, which should transcend politics, engage the culture as salt and light, promote virtue to empower self-governance, and bring communities together in humility and service to one another. Finally, even as we move forward to correct injustice and create opportunity for all who will seize it, I believe we must never abandon the time-tested lessons of history, and we must never equate liberty with licentiousness, since one sustains society while the other tears it apart. I doubt my beliefs will score me an invitation to the next meeting of the vast left-wing conspiracy.

That being said, I am truly excited and hopeful for what God has planned next for me, because I have a sense I’m getting closer to where He wants me to be. You, dear reader, have been faithful to me throughout this journey, and giving you some insight into the direction I’m taking going forward is time well spent.