When the President Asks You to Pray
I consider myself to be a pretty blessed human being. Beyond countless personal blessings (family, children, career, etc.), I’ve had the privilege to see and experience a lot of things.
I attended the college of my dreams. I own a conference football championship ring from that college. I saw the Sid Bream Slide in game 7 of the NLCS in 1992. I once had lunch with theologian Jurgen Moltmann. I met Jack Ham and John Smoltz. I hosted a sports talk show on ESPN radio. I ran the bases at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in the same summer. I stood on a mountain in Maine, where we were the first people in America to see the sun rise.
(My apologies for the sports “tint” in my life moments—perhaps a lesson in priorities is warranted?).
But few things will match the events of May 7, 2017.
Back in May, we decided to take a spontaneous trip to Plains, GA to see our former President and First Lady, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Mr. Carter teaches a Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. It is open to the public, if you arrive in time (which means at least by 7 am).
We got to the church about 7:15 on the morning of May 7, thinking that we could not be that late. As it turns out, the parking attendant gave us #71, which designated our place in line. As we lined up to go into the church, our place was a long, loooong way from the door. We worried that 15 minutes might actually cost us a chance to be in the room with the President.
The organizer of these pregame festivities at Maranatha is Miss Jan. She makes it absolutely clear that she is in charge, making sure everyone is single file and behaving themselves with appropriate fourth-grade courtesy and etiquette.
This makes perfect sense—after all, she was Amy Carter’s fourth-grade teacher.
Miss Jan’s role is absolutely essential, as the church tries to fit 350 people into the sanctuary each Sunday. On the Sunday before we attended, Maranatha had 28 members present and 235 visitors. Secret Service agents and bomb dogs are now a part of their pre-worship preparations. And they embrace this as their mission, as they willingly and cheerfully extend hospitality to all those who want to enter and hear. That, in and of itself, is a powerful testimony to the hospitality of Christ.
(Unless you cannot behave—in which case you will answer to Miss Jan).
As we reached the door, the church looked awfully crowded and we felt sure we were headed for the small overflow room to watch on a screen. But Miss Jan’s husband (who also serves as parking lot attendant, door monitor, and usher) said, “How about sitting in the choir loft?”
We were thrilled—a seat right behind Jimmy Carter!
Promptly at 10, we looked to our left to see that former President Jimmy Carter was in the room.
I have never even been in the room with a former or current President, much less met one. It was overwhelming to see Jimmy Carter, standing about 10 feet away from us. After all, how many Presidents (or any other politician) would invite you into the room when it does not involve a $1000 a plate dinner or some golden opportunity for positive publicity?
But it all of that was nothing compared to what happened next.
Mr. Carter’s first move was to scan the sections and ask people where they were from. It was amazing to hear people from as far away as China or Ghana, some of whom came to hear Mr. Carter’s lesson.
He followed this by asking if there were any pastors or missionaries, current or former, in the crowd. I raised my hand along with about 12 others. He then asked where we had served and our denomination.
Just as Miss Jan told us he would, Mr. Carter proceeded to seek out a pastor to lead the Morning Prayer. His first comment was, “I normally like to ask one of our women pastors to pray, but I don’t think we have any here this morning.” I was totally impressed with the former President’s first thought (as was my wife and feminist-leaning teenage daughter).
What happened next was absolutely unforgettable. Mr. Carter looked at me, in the choir loft, and said, “How about you? Would you lead our prayer this morning?”
I doubt that anyone will know the awe that filled me at that moment, other than the unfortunate person who had to dry-clean the gray dress pants I was wearing.
It’s hard to describe the emotions when a former President looks at you and says, “How about you, son? You got something for the class today?”
I have performed this ritual a thousand times. But no prayer request ever left me tongue-tied and knot-kneed like this one. When the former President calls on you, it definitely gets your attention more than your run-of-the-mill blessing prior to the family Thanksgiving meal.
My knees almost buckled and my internal organs felt like they were shaking as I stood up. This was going to be a truly Spirit-led prayer because I had absolutely no words. It took me a good five seconds to gather myself and produce something audible–like, you know, “Let us pray.”
Lots of people kindly told me that I did a good job (although I regularly wonder what it means to do a “good job” with a prayer). I’m glad I did–because to this day, I do not remember a word I said!
This was not just because it was a former President making the request. It was awesome because it was this former President making the request.
My father is fond of saying that Jimmy Carter is the only man to use the Presidency of the United States as a stepping-stone to greatness. It is indeed this greatness that he displays after his term in the White House that made it such an honor to lead a prayer at his request.
I am as in awe of the former President’s spirituality, humility, empathy, and fight for justice, much more than his political career. Mr. Carter’s greatness is not found in his legacy as a former leader of the free world. It is found in his ongoing work as a servant leader in the current world.
Rather than using his post-political status to seek fame or fortune or million-dollar speaking fees, Jimmy Carter returned to the family farm in tiny Plains. He left the White House to start building houses–with Habitat for Humanity.
The same man who managed to get Israel and Egypt—Israel and Egypt—to sit down and negotiate a peace treaty, continues to negotiate for peace and freedom around the world. He invites others to join in this quest through the work of The Carter Center and other initiatives.
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter continue as world-wide crusaders for peace, for anti-human trafficking initiatives, for fair housing, for mental health, and for equitable treatment of all human beings. I say “crusaders” because they back up their advocacy with direct action–and they call on others to join them in those efforts.
And still, on the vast majority of Sundays, they are at their tiny country church that is nestled in a grove of pecan trees, where the former President welcome a full house for Sunday School. They even take the time to snap a picture with every family or group that attends—provided that you stay for worship, of course.
(He did indicate that the hour-long post-worship photo sessions may not be their favorite thing to do these days!).
Oh, and he continues to do all of this, even as a 92 year old cancer survivor.
Mr. Carter’s unassuming, down-to-earth presence and My daughter Abbie’s assessment of the Carters was as simple and sincere as they are: “We could all learn a lot from them about humility.”
Thank God that Jimmy Carter chooses not to dwell on how history will judge his presidency, but on how he can work for a better future for all of humanity.
May we all recognize that our greatness is not found in how history judges us when the world is watching, but in what we do when no one is looking.
May we all learn to serve with gracious humility and empathy, thinking of others more highly than ourselves.
And wouldn’t it be nice if more of our leaders–on every level–would do the same? Better yet, perhaps we could all learn to lead in the way that the Carters do, with a little less talk and a lot more action.