A few days ago I was browsing through Barnes and Noble and came across a fantastic new book, a fantastic new devotional book, actually. This new fantastic devo book is by none other than former President Jimmy Carter, called Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President. This devotional book intrigued me because a year ago I received his fantastic autobiography for Christmas, White House Diary (I'm somewhat of a political junkie, having studied Political Science during undergrad and worked on Capitol Hill for 5 years--you can take the boy out of DC, but not the DC out of the boy!) So that evening I texted a picture of it to my wife, who works for the publisher, and asked for a copy, both to review and to enjoy! I'm glad I did, because I've enjoyed these personal, powerful reflections on the Holy Scriptures and life with Jesus.
Through his White House diary, the reader is able to revisit the four years of Carter's presidency, a tumultuous four years that adds to the weighty significance of these Scriptural reflections. When I read through this diary book a year ago, one of the most intriguing realizations I discovered was his deep, rich personal faith in Jesus Christ. And this devo book exudes this deepness and richness.
This Christian faith wasn't the obligatory faith that marks many political leaders by nature of our pseudo-Christian nation status. This was a deeply effective faith that permeated much of his presidency--to the point where he would continue leading Sunday School back at his home church in Plains, GA whenever he visited. He also regularly read Scripture, no digested Scripture, and prayed with his wife, Rossylyn. He even pursued presidential initiatives, like nuclear arms reduction policies and poverty relief, out of that deep faith. While it was a personal faith--he didn't go parading it around--it was an effective faith that permeated every aspect of his life, even his political life.
And this is why I was so pleased to see this 366 devotional book, a collection of reflections on Scripture taken mostly from three decades of Sunday School lessons that share the insights Carter has gleaned at 87 on life with Jesus, punctuated by lessons on life itself. It's as if we're sitting in one of the former President's Sunday School classes!
Like most devotional books, it offers one-page reflections on a verse or short passage over an entire year. This particular devo book is divided into four section: Launching, Growing, Serving, and Maturing. "Launching" takes a look at some of the foundations of our Christian faith in order to "launch successfully into the great adventure God has waiting for us." "Growing" builds upon the foundation to help you "grow into the kind of Christian who both enjoys life and blesses others." In "Serving" Carter includes devos that help us see how the "Spirit of Christ draws us into a life of service, not to constrict our lives, but to expand and liberate our hearts and enlarge the Kingdom of God." Finally, at the end of your journey through Carter's Scriptural reflections, you'll ponder the influence "mature follows of Christ can have on our families, friends, neighbors, and world--for the glory of God and the benefit of the people God has made." While helping us journey through this great structure, Carter incorporates not only his own biblical insights but his own experiences from his own journey, as well.
For instance, in reflecting on John 10:11, where Jesus is the great shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, Carter recalls a visit by then leader of the Communist Party of China Deng Xiaoping, and his subsequent visit to China. He recalls Deng's comments on the social changes in China, particularly the distribution of state-owned land to farmers. Deng commented that "Chinese farmers wouldn't stay up all night with a sick hog that belonged to the state. But if it were theirs, they would nurse it throughout the night to make sure it survived." Carter then connects this to Jesus' care over his own people, because we are his: "We do not have to worry that when we get sick or lost or feeble or old, Jesus will abandon us for some better or more perfect person...We belong to him, and he has shown his eternal commitment to us by laying down his life for us on the cross." How true, how comforting.
Carter also brought a theological depth that was unexpected. In one devotional reflecting on the command to "be kind and compassionate to another" from Ephesians 4:32, he reflects on his favorite theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He incorporates some of his thoughts on justice and agape love in order to encourage the reader to follow Paul's instructions, which reflect the high standards of the Golden Rule, Niebuhr's favorite verse. Elsewhere, in a reflection on Hebrews 11:1, he almost mocks the group of liberal academics known as "the Jesus Seminar" who challenged basic Christian beliefs. Carter responds, "When [I have experiences that seem to contradict my basic Christian beliefs] I prefer to rely on my personal faith, confident that further discoveries will never disprove what I believe or change what makes Jesus' impact on my life so profound." These and other more theologically rich reflections were unexpected, but greatly appreciated!
Finally, I loved the various personal stories that peppered the pages of this devotional. In one meditation on the passover narrative of Matthew 26:26, Carter recalls how important meals were to him as a child and how his family made meal time a special time, even while at the White House. "Even at the White House, we had most meals together. They gave me a chance to get away from being president of the United States and to be the father and husband of my own family." He then reflects on the very special meal known as the Last Supper, emphasizing that "Christ intended for this meal to bring us together in unity and common purpose. The meal is symbolic--and therefore much more than a meal."
Then, like each of these profoundly insightful personal and prophetic meditations, he ends his reflection on this special meal with a prayer: "O Lord, I'm grateful to ponder this timeworn but never dull subject, which I've studied since childhood-when Christ met in a loving way with his disciples, just to have a supper of thanksgiving with them. Help me contemplate in a probing, incisive, and profoundly personal way the deepest meaning of my relationship with Jesus Christ, my Savior. In his name I pray. Amen."