At first glance a supply preacher might turn it down. The church is 183 miles away. The congregation is smaller than most church choirs. The service is on Sunday evening. (I have a prejudice against Sunday night church because I did not see the beginning ofWizard of Oz or the first half of a Super Bowl until I went to college.)
But this Sunday night service was at Jimmy Carter's church. How could I say no when the directions include:"The church is just past the only red light and the giant peanut"?
I did not let my hopes get too high. I kept my imagination under control. This is how I pictured it.The worship service would be charming. I would preach warmly and thoughtfully.
When the former president shook my hand afterwards he would say, "Brett, I am so glad to get to hear you preach.I read your columns for Associated Baptist Press. The one on Sarah Palin cracked me up.I hope you don't mind that I brought one of your books for you to sign. Could you make it out to 'Rosalynn and Jimmy, my dear friends'? Would you like to write a book together? You pick the subject. I have a speech coming up in Israel. Do you want to go? Would your son Caleb be interested in a summer job at the Carter Center? I have a granddaughter who's single who I would love to have meet Graham. Why don't you spend Christmas with us in Plains? Could we have our picture made with you?"
On the drive to the middle of nowhere, I worked on my opening lines should the former leader of the free world show up:
"Mr. President, you were the first candidate for whom I voted. Too bad it was 1980."
"How about that Congress? What a bunch of goobers!"
"Did Amy ever get her braces off?"
"When is the last time you saw Fritz Mondale?"
"I love Willie Nelson, too."
On Sunday night at 6:00, twenty of us gathered in a pecan grove in a modest brick building in the fellowship hall of Maranatha Baptist Church-no suits, no ties, no president. God and I had a talk. I apologized for being disappointed that Jimmy and Rosalynn weren't there. I told God that I felt terrible for acting like God's presence was somehow not enough to get excited about.
The pianist played, "You may have all this world, give me Jesus." We sang, "Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word." The announcements included delivering food to the needy, a joint worship service with the Lutherans, and a Gideon Speaker. We prayed to the Creator of the universe for sick friends and gave thanks for a ten-year-old girl's soccer game. We listened to 1 Chronicles 16:11-12, "Seek God's presence continually. Remember the wonderful works God has done." I preached about the way in which we see God with us now by remembering the way God has been with us in the past. We sang "Surely Goodness and Mercy" and closed with the promise of God's blessing.
What if we only got to worship once every ten years? Wouldn't we tell our children bed time stories about the last time we went to worship? Wouldn't we mark the date on the calendar in red? Wouldn't we marvel at the possibility of praying together? Wouldn't we wonder at the privilege of singing praises? Wouldn't we write stories and take pictures?
But we get to worship every week. Every Sunday we have the opportunity to worship so it becomes the opportunity to take worship for granted. We miss the miraculous hope of worshipping God.
The world's most famous Sunday school teacher, his lovely wife, and their Secret Service agents arrived at 6:05.
After the worship service, Rosalynn asked Carol about our children. We compared notes on growing up in small southern towns. The Carters acted like we were the ones with the Nobel Peace Prize. I want to vote for him again. The only thing I had imagined President Carter saying that he actually said was, "Could we have our picture made with you?"
Having a saintly ex-president and first lady at church is a helpful reminder that worship is a big deal, but knowing God is in attendance ought to be enough.