This past weekend, Andy and I had the opportunity to attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School lesson in Plains, Georgia. I had learned from a friend shortly after we moved here that he still teaches regularly and had put it on my mental bucket list to do at some point. When I heard of his recent fainting spell on a Habitat work site I moved it up a notch in my mind, recognizing that at 92, it might be important to do sooner rather than later.
I have always loved President Carter. Its my understanding that he was not popular in his presidency but having not been alive when he was elected my understandings of him have always been in relationship to his work with Habitat for Humanity. Its a common misunderstanding that he started the organization when the reality is simply that he used his name and connections to put a once unknown organization on the map, so to speak.
I still remember reading the chapter in Forces for Good that talked about the benefits of what the author called a “superevangelist.” If a person of good reputation likes your organizational mission and agrees to champion it the opportunities for exponential growth abound. Every year that I worked at Habitat we would receive updates about the annual Jimmy Carter work project that builds 100 plus homes each year in a community of great need. Mr. Carter mentioned this on Sunday and I just about cried to hear him say that at 92 he had helped build 150 homes with families in Canada a few months ago. I mean really…the man looked like he could be my grandpa and I found myself simultaneously in awe of this man who’s given his life to the service of others AND at the same time wanting to ask if I could just sit on his lap for a minute.
The entire experience, from our entry into Plains at 8:30 Sunday morning to our travels around town before we left at 2:00 just pointed to all that is right, good and beautiful about our country. People showed up for service in any manner of dress and as the President started his time with us he asked where people in the audience were from. A dozen or more states were represented as well as a couple of countries. I recall Japan and Ukraine. He also asked if there were any missionaries present and had one of them open his time up in prayer.
Mr. Carter started in with Galatians and reminded us that despite whats happening in America today we can rest assured that Jesus Christ was no racist for “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He then took us into 1 Peter 3:
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For
“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
President Carter was criticized in his presidency for failing to, quite frankly, worry about the politics. In a long form article by the Rolling Stone six years ago the writer states that he became known for focusing on goals that “required tremendous diplomatic exertion…if only because they were of such low political priority to everyone else. ‘There was something more than a desire to lead,” says Hertzberg. “That was very strong. But as strong was the self-sacrificial ideal of doing the right thing even if it cost him the presidency.’ ”
This sentiment about President Carter oozed out of every minute of the experience and I can’t help but find myself rising to the call of his (and Rosalynn’s) life. I mean think about it. We were in Plains, Georgia at 10:00 in the morning on a Sunday in August. Its two and a half hours from the nearest metropolis and there is exactly one street going through the town with six stores that sell nothing but peanut butter and peanut butter ice cream. There is one restaurant called “the cafeteria” that you can eat at after church is over which is just as fancy as it sounds: grab a tray and choose between fried or roasted chicken, green beans or collard greens.
Yet by the time we were finished at that little Baptist Church on a country lane in Plains we had listened to him urge us to be more sympathetic, more unified, and more compassionate. Then we watched him step aside from his lectern to show us that where we fail to do that, and he reminded us that we will fail to do that, we have no better partner than Jesus Christ whom we all turned to worship. And that was it for me. That partner word. Its the word we used approximately 10 billion times at Habitat to emphasize how you change a life. You do it by showing up and working in humble partnership with God and your neighbors.
In this way, Carter is one in a million. All the history books seem to read that he was a failure of a president. And perhaps its actually true. In many respects he probably was. But this is also a president who knew, or at least struggled hard to hold onto the knowledge, that the presidency was never the point. It was what he could do with the calling he’d received.
We were reminded on Sunday that we follow a savior who received none of the glory this side of heaven that people consider worthy of honor. Jesus of Nazareth was a childless, unmarried man born into poverty who was killed at the hands of the religious and political elite at the age of 33 after just three years of public ministry. Yet by partnering with the risen Spirit of this man, Jimmy Carter is eliminating poverty, eradicating crippling disease and promoting world peace. The man is truly a living embodiment of Christ’s words in John:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
Its tempting, when confronted with your heroes, to see their lives and think that we’re supposed to take precise notes and follow in their footsteps. This inspiration can last for a season but it quickly dies when things get difficult and you realize that your hero is actually a human being who can’t possibly live up to the expectations of a god. Heroes do serve a purpose though and the worthy ones are those that get out of the way and point you to a lasting hope. President Carter did that for me this weekend when he put down his notes and sat in a pew beside his wife of 71 years and sang “Turn your Eyes upon Jesus.” What a privilege it was to worship with the President. I will not soon forget it.