|Today’s Spiritual Connections is from the Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, PSNE General Presbyter and Acting Stated Clerk.
Last week news broke that former President Jimmy Carter and his family made the decision for him to enter hospice care. As we in the church know, as one of our significant roles in ministry is to the sick and dying. President Carter will forgo all lifesaving treatment, instead relying on pain management (comfort care). He is spending his remaining days at his home, with family and other beloved parts of his life accompanying him in this sacred journey to death and resurrection.
First of all, what a gift to be able to do this! Death comes for each of us, one way or another – sometimes we have the opportunity and gift of something like hospice, other times death comes quickly, stealing away a goodbye, a last kiss, a healing last conversation or prayer. I know from years of pastoral ministry that hospice is one of the ultimate gifts we can offer to families and individuals passing through the last days of life on this side of heaven, a gift not to be taken lightly but with deep gratitude.
I have long been a fan of President Carter. I was born two months before he was elected President, and so I do not remember his actual presidency, I remember and know the former President. For me, Jimmy Carter has always been the man who worked tirelessly for Habitat for Humanity, a warrior against curable infectious diseases/vaccine champion, and a defender of open elections and human rights. He has also been a Christian, unabashedly. I always wanted to get to Plains, Georgia to worship and attend the Bible study class he taught nearly every Sunday. I never got there. I am, though, deeply impressed by this commitment. As a layperson he has taught Bible study for over 40 years at his home congregation. His niece, who sometimes fills in for him, says he never has to look up a citation. It is clear that the Bible is not just study for President Carter, it is life. He has taken the Gospel of Jesus seriously and embodied it through all of his endeavors.
Even though his actual time in the Oval Office had its bumps, bruises and impossible no-win situations – he took the role of former world leader to heart and offered to us a 40+ year lesson (alongside his family and his community) of what a life with Jesus looks like. What I love the most is that President Carter knew that as a former President he would always be watched. So he took advantage of his rarified position in life to demonstrate, through everyday and also extraordinary actions, what Gospel living is like and what authentic and real Christian life and witness is. What a lesson in evangelism, something we could all take a page from.
Because President Carter is so much on my mind these days, he seems like a good example of what our Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent is trying to communicate. Here we see three temptations offered to Jesus by the devil. The first is bread, not physical bread, but the question of “where do we get our bread from?” The second is self-aggrandizement, having our narcissistic needs met for self-promotion and greed. And the third is unfettered power. None of these are easy temptations to walk away from. It is easy to make fast money, but at whose or what expense? The tendency to self-promotion, and high levels of narcissism is epidemic. And the wrong sort of “leadership” too often prevails – always to disastrous, harmful and broken consequences to people, communities and the Creation itself. In this Lenten season of self-reflection and recommitment to the Way of Jesus, we must examine first how as leaders and participants in the Church of Jesus Christ we participate in these sins and temptations, thus giving in and facilitating evil in ways small and large. We can too quickly be taken in by the metrics of consumer/capitalistic-Christianity, preferring easy wins, quick fixes and sometimes gains at the expense of others. Narcissistic tendencies are often given a fertile space in which to grow and flourish in the Church, turning others off from the Gospel and offering an incorrect witness of how we live as people who claim Jesus as Lord. As a Presbytery community we are seeking to learn about and turn away from the evil of power that is a part of our unaddressed racist and colonial tendencies when we prop up Empire and idolatry through the sin of Christian nationalism.
As one commentator notes, “Jesus does perform miracles (noteworthy actions that attract attention). However, they are not self-serving, nor do they represent God doing something arbitrary, such as sending the angels to pluck a falling Jesus out of the air. The miracles demonstrate the Realm.”
This is why I give thanks for the life of President Carter. He demonstrated the Realm. As President you are offered all of these temptations, every second of every day. They are also present in the post-Presidency time. Instead he took his power and used it to turn world attention towards the least of these: those afflicted by illnesses such as the guinea worm, those in need of affordable housing and second chances, and to the ongoing need to create a peaceable world. Along the way he taught Sunday school over-and-over again at his home church, drawing hundreds each week to hear the Word and study with him about the Way of Jesus. He even admitted to where temptation played a role in his life in open and public ways. He took his discipleship seriously, made sure he brought others along, and used what God put before him in this life to be about the healing and resurrecting of the world in the here and now.