Sunday, April 17, 2005

Going To Sunday School With President Carter

Son and I walked up to the Maranatha Baptist Church and were greeted by ushers.

Actually, they were not ushers, they were Secret Service agents. The one woman and the two men stood behind a table as guests of the church emptied their pockets and allowed their bags to be inspected. There were no metal detectors, but we were told a bomb sniffing dog did an inspection of the sanctuary earlier in the day. Later, as we left, we saw the K-9 unit's van.
The church was a typical, country church, in the middle of a typical small American town. There is only one traffic light in Plains, and it simply flashes yellow as a cautionary warning. One travels up highway 280, then north on highway 45, past the Plains High School and two other, more attractive little churches.

Maranatha is a small brick building with a simple steeple. It sets about 50 yards from the quiet highway. There is a simple sign on the road. Surrounding the church are a number of old pecan trees.

We drove up in the driveway at 8:45 AM. The information I'd received from the web page said the church opened at 8:30, but we hadn't planned on being this early. We simply didn't know where we were headed, so we set out early.

It was a good thing. Once past the Secret Service, we walked through the narthex where the real ushers gave us bulletins. Inside the tiny sanctuary, the seating was already filling up. We were given the choice of sitting in two folding chairs placed next to the pews, one chair in front of the other -- or sitting in the choir. "We got no choir today, as we have a special guest musician," one of the ushers told us.

We sat in the chairs near the back.

Within moments a woman came out. Jan greeted us and told us that the President started teaching Sunday School in 1953. He taught over a dozen Sunday School classes in the church he attended in Washington, DC, while serving as President. He teaches at Maranatha almost weekly.

"I'm fixing to tell you what to do and what not to do. We are truely thankful to have guests. You are not a burden and we are glad to have you. When the President began teaching here, he asked me to help our guests understand what to expect. I've never been in the army, but I have been a teacher, and while my name is Jan, you can call me bossy if you want.

"When the President enters, he will come through that door," she said, pointing behind her and to her left. "He will look at you and ask, 'do we have any visitors,' and you are to feel free to laugh."

She made the rules clear, but expressed them in a very entertaining way.

No autographs are given at the church by the Carters, but she did tell us how we could write him and get an autograph.

Photographs may be taken when the President enters the sanctuary, but not after the opening prayer or during worship.

After the worship, guests may pose with the President and his wife for a photograph. One per customer. Here the teaching background came forth. "You cannot and you will not pose for a photograph with your group, then get back in line and poss again as an individual. If you are part of a group, you will poss as a group. No exceptions. The line will go fast. It must go fast. The Carters are like all other Baptists. After church, they want to get lunch." Everyone laughed, and she continued. "Which reminds me. Don't invite them to go to lunch with you and don't ask if you can go to their home for lunch."

We were told not to stand when he entered the room. "He is not the President when he enters this room. He is the Sunday School teacher. Do not stand for him, and do not give him applaus after the class is over."

When Jan finished, the pastor entered and began to share some thoughts. Many of them were the same as Jan's comments. The Rev. Dr. Daniel G. Ariail ("it is pronounced Arial," he told us) has been a pastor for 45 years. He has served at Maranatha for 23 1/2 years.

The President entered the room and without an introduction, began to speak. "Do we have any visitors," he asked, and we all laughed.

He stood at the front, dressed in dark pants, sport coat, an open collared shirt with a bollo or string tie. He flashed his famous smile as he asked where everyone was from. Several state names were shouted out, along with a few nations -- China, Spain, Nigeria, Japan, and Malawi.

"Do we have any pastors or missionaries here?"

There were ten of us, and we each were asked by the President what churches we served. I was one of 6 Presbyterians. The others were Baptist.

One was a Baptist missionary who had been serving in Malawi for 12 years. Carter invited her to offer the prayer. Once the prayer was over, the occasional photography ceased and the class began.

"In 2002 I gave a speech in Japan and my hosts gave me the charge of addressing 'what is the greatest challenge of the 21st Century.' Without having to give much thought to it, my answer to that question was the growing chasm between the rich and the poor throughout the world."

Speaking without notes, Carter shared several statistics.

"The greatest problem in all of this is that Americans and Christians just don't care. It's not that we are not concerned. We are. We feel for people when we hear their stories. We just don't care and we don't do anything about it."

The problem of this chasm is breeding wars, Carter said. "Right now there are 70 wars in the world. Most of them are within nations, not between nations. At the Carter Center we are always watching these wars.

"The tsunami in December took 175,000 lives. We saw the photos and we all sent money. And yet, every month, 165,000 die of malaria. For a simple $3, an impregnated net could be furnished to a family. Not only does this keep the mosquitoes away while you sleep, it is impregnated with a chemical so that it kills the insects. So little cost, yet Americans do nothing.

"The World Bank measures a nation's generosity by how much money it gives to foreign aid. Most assume the United States is generous. Most would guess we give 15% of our annual federal budget to foreign aid. The truth is that out of every $100 in our federal budget, we give 15 cents."

An audible gasp was heard in the sanctuary.

As he introduced the themes of the lesson, Carter moved from the statistical information to introducing the Scripture. He spoke of Paul and explained clearly and simply who he was and what his credentials had been.

He had us turn to Romans 10 and said that pride and exclusion were the two great sins that keep us from being more generous. In talking about the free gift of salvation, Carter said the American church should not think more highly of itself than it should, but should continue to be humble and generous.

As he began to conclude his lesson, he spoke of sharing not only material wealth, but spiritual wealth. "We should all be ready to share Christ. When I was a boy growing up here in Plains, that was always a concern -- sharing Christ with people who did not know the Gospel.

"In 1966, I ran for governor of Georgia and lost to a well-known segregationalist, Lester Maddox. My sister told me that I needed to get away and spend some time sharing Christ with others. Stop sharing myself, and share the Lord.

"I joined a Baptist ministry program and I was sent to witness to some Spanish speaking people up North in Springfield, Massachusetts. I worked with a fellow from Mexico. I didn't speak Spanish very well. I learned my Spanish in the Navy and the vocabulary was a bit different.

"About all I could do was to read the Scripture in Spanish while he shared the Good News of Christ. I was so surprised at the number of people who gave their lives to Christ. I asked him what the secret was of his success.

"He summed it up by saying 'there are two loves a person should have in life. First a love for Jesus Christ, and second a love for the person who is in front of you at any given moment.'

"That was the best theology lesson I ever had."

It was 10:45 and he thanked us for coming, had a prayer, and departed.

There was no applause, as we did what Jan had instructed.

Many of the visitors left, but many remained.

The prelude began at 10:50.

At 11:00 the pastor came out and welcomed us. "We are glad our visitors are here. You are not a burden to us, you are a delight and joy to have. We are a small church that has a lot of visitors. Now we do have some corrections in the bulletin. The first hymn is number 6, not 9. The last hymn is 471 not 472. And the Deacons meet at 6 PM, not 5 PM."

The pastor invited us to join him in a responsive call to worship, which was printed in the bulletin.

We stood for the hymn, "Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise."

We remained standing for the invocation and the Lord's Prayer, then sat for the next hymn, "Victory in Jesus."

The pastor led us in a responsive reading which was found in the back of the Baptist Hymnal.

Then we had a prayer, followed by another hymn, "He Lives."

We received the offering. Last week's offering was $3,020.10, according to the bulletin.

We stood for the doxology when the offering was complete.

Maria Cabrerra rose to play her guitar and to sing a song.

The pastor then stood and delivered a sermon, "Drowing in a Sea of Stuff", with Luke 12:13-21 as his text. The sermon was very good. It was simple and clear and well thought out. There was no shouting or emotionalism I often relate to Baptist preaching.

The sermon ended with an invitation to come forward for commitment to Christ. We stood and sang "Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken." During the hymn, the pastor walked down the aisle and when we finished singing, he gave the benediction.

It was 12 Noon exactly.

Son and I greeted the pastor and then walked around the side of the church to stand with the Carters for our photograph.

It is a photograph we both be glad to have.

"You can tell your grandchildren about this," I told my son.

After leaving the church, we drove a few hundred yards toward the center of town, stopping at Plains High School. Our purpose was not so much to visit the school which Jimmy and Rosalynn attended from age 6 through high school graduation, but to find information about the Andersonville Prison.

We decided to stop in the town of Plains for a few photographs. Billy Carter's gas station is still there. Billy was Jimmy's colorful brother and often "held court" with people at his gas station. We photographed the depot, where his election campaign headquarters began, and which has become a familiar image of the town.

Then we drove to Carter's boyhood home, which was an interesting display of a typical Southern home. It was so much like what I remember growing up with. We never lived in such a home, but many of my friends did. The only exception to what I found familiar were the ice chest rather than the refridgerator, and the crank style telephone.

We left the home and headed for lunch. The pastor had told us there were two restaurants in Plains. "There's Mom's Diner and then there is the other one." John wanted something more familiar, so we headed up the road and after a half hour or so, found a Waffle House.

I hadn't thought of stopping in Andersonville, but there were signs of the old Civil War prison, and we were so close, that Son and I decided to go. Today it is very peaceful and lovely. We walked along the monuments and around the perimeter of the stockade markers.
The National POW Museum is also there and Son found that to be a very interesting place.
After leaving the museum, we headed for I-75 for the long, long ride home. We will spend the night on the way back to Miami. I will drop Son off in Orlando, where he lives.

It's been great to have time with my son, just the two of us.