Photo courtesy of Mrs. Green, who is from S. Georgia, where we went to see the in-laws this weekend, plus something we’ve never done: go listen to the former President teach Sunday School. I’ll try to re-count.
It was a beautiful morning and we made the 8-mile drive from my in-laws’ farm to Plains and the Maranatha Baptist Church. An excellent Squeeze song came on just as we entered town and speed limit dipped to 35. A couple of blocks past the main drag, Maranatha sits in a pecan orchard just off highway 45. On a Sunday morning when Carter is in town, there are far more cars than the small country church would normally boast. You can’t miss it.
No one seems too put out by the local deputies parked near the road, nor the Secret Service folks at the church entrance; very civilized, only one metal-detector wand. Firm, but fair. We think we’re early, but as we walk up to and enter the back doors, the former president is already talking, asking the crowd of maybe 175 to tell him where they are from – and what religious denominations they profess. We dodge a videographer in back and take up an empty pew a couple of rows further up. The church is nearly full but there is room.
He’s at the front but not in the pulpit, conversing with the crowd like it’s his natural state. And it must be. The former President is in his eighties and, from the back of the room, both looks it and doesn’t. In his jacket and bolo tie he is at ease and in command. He asks how many of the assembled have traveled to Cuba: one. Then how many would like to: hands go up all over the room. He tells us that he and Rosalyn have just returned from there and what a mistake it was for the U.S. to have isolated Cuba via embargo all these years. While there he met with prisoners, wives and mothers of Cubans held in the U.S., as well as members of the thriving Cuban-Jewish community in Havana – which, he reported, is in need of a Rabbi. He also met with Raul and Fidel, who he reports is recovering from his intestinal problems quite well. Candid, humble, and witty, Carter shares these details not like they are in confidence or evidence of his importance but simply as one might news of people one had visited while away.
With a word, but little more, of his upcoming trip to North Korea, he seems to have fulfilled the requirement of answering for himself and what he’s been up to, and moves toward the lectern down front and his lesson.
If you’ve ever been to any Sunday School class, he segued to the chapter and verses that would be his focus precisely as any such teacher would: with seriousness, an awe for the subject that dwarfed our surroundings and a quiet confidence that most in earshot knew what he was talking about. I won’t go into the lesson – it was from Colossians and concerned Paul’s letter to a community of early Christians there. But as I listened to him speak so knowledgeably on the writings of Paul, the first-century Roman setting and the essence of his letter to these people he had never met, Carter’s precise mind and open soul were both equally on display. But this was no exposition; just when I was asking myself why he did this at all, he seemed to provide an answer as he searched for the right word to express a particular thought: after all he had accomplished, he was still studying, preparing, thinking, praying… all of the habits that had kept his mind sharp, and his heart open, all of his life.
This is of course my opinion and nothing he ever need to explain or admit. But what better way to honor the source of joy, comfort and grace that had taken him through life, through elation and trying times alike, than to open it up in a familiar setting a dozen or so times a years? Sharing his beliefs is likely neither help nor hindrance to appreciating this incredibly nimble servant’s mind sharing some of it’s core tenets. Because it’s Sunday School, he doesn’t come across as preachy; the reverence cuts a different way. It’s personal. You can’t disconnect the truth of what he says from who he is and all that he continues to do.
Beautiful words from a beautiful, dear man. Our former President teaching Sunday School, for a while longer yet. You should probably go.