George Williams arrives at the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot in Plains, Georgia, Sunday mornings at 5 a.m. to give out numbers to those who show up for President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class. My friend Sharon and I pulled into the lot at around 6 a.m. last Sunday, early enough to be third in line and get a front row seat just a couple of feet from where Carter would speak later in the morning.
But first things first.
We still had four hours to go – an hour of waiting in the car, an hour allotted for visitors to file through the Secret Service checkpoint, and two hours of the Jan Williams show, a delightful blend of humor and menace aimed at keeping us entertained while making sure that no one broke any of the rules involved in attending Sunday school with the 39th president of the United States.
Jan is George’s wife as well as a no-nonsense former teacher who, no doubt, had few, if any, discipline problems in her classroom, and she wasn’t going to have any with us. When Carter walked into the church sanctuary, she told us not to stand up or applaud; during the photo op, he would be seated on a stool and we would not shake his hand or put our hand on his shoulder; nor would we talk to him other than to say “Good morning. Glad to be here,” and if we did address him by name, President Carter or Mr. Carter would be “perfectly fine.” Mr. President, she said, was not an option, because he’s not the president, and references to him being an ex or former president were not necessary.
“He’s aware of that,” Jan said.
As 10 a.m. approached, Jan wrapped things up by telling us she ‘d be standing at the front of the church, off to the side. “All you have to do,” she said, “is glance my way and you can tell if you are the gifted class or not.” With that reminder, she took her place on the sidelines, and President Carter walked into the room.
“Good morning,” Carter said once and then again to elicit a more enthusiastic response from an audience both awed and unsure of exactly how boisterous to be. As he walked back and forth in front of the pulpit, Carter asked us where we were from, called on a visiting pastor to lead us in prayer, and began the lesson for the day, one called “Giving the Tithe.”
The 92-year-old former Commander in Chief looked sure-footed and healthy as he told us about the Old Testament account of Abraham, how he returned home after defeating the King of Elam and gave 10 percent of the spoils to Melchizedek, a priest and King of Salem, and how that gesture set a precedent for tithing that endured for centuries to come. Tithing is not obsolete today, but it exists on a much smaller scale. The concept, however, of giving back was the message Carter wanted to convey.
“What do we owe to God?” he said, making it clear that he wasn’t talking about material or monetary possessions and reminding us that Jesus had nothing — no house, no savings, and when he died, no friends. Yet “he lived the perfect life.”
Carter then talked about the gifts we receive from God. He mentioned the good (freedom, talents, happiness, joy), the not so good (challenges, uncertainty), the in-between (a life of unpredictability), and life itself.
In the end, he said, it’s irrelevant whether one becomes a farmer or a lawyer (or presumably a president). “The more important question than what am I going to be,” he said, “is what kind of person do I want to be?
“We don’t have to be special in other peoples’ eyes,” he added. “We don’t have to please anybody else. We have to please ourselves. And we have to please our creator.”
To illustrate his point, Carter talked about Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Fuller was a self-made millionaire who at the age of 29 decided, along with his wife, to donate their wealth to various causes and dedicate their lives to missionary work and helping the poor.
“That stretches our consciousness, doesn’t it?” Carter said, not because Fuller had millions to give but because he gave away everything he had.
“We’re supposed to give our whole life – our talents, our abilities, everything dedicated to carrying out the mandate, the command, or the example set by Jesus Christ,” Carter said. “He didn’t just give 10 percent of his time, did he?”
And that right there was the essence of Carter’s Sunday school message.
It came at the end of an eight-hour drive from Raleigh, an overnight stay in neighboring Americus, and a four-hour check-in process at the Maranatha Baptist Church, but it was well worth the effort to be reminded that living is about giving life everything we have, not just 10 percent.