Jimmy Carter and a peace that surpasses understanding

According to news reports, Maranatha Baptist Church was at its full capacity, 325, with an overflow room crowd of more than 400 a full two hours before former President Jimmy Carter’s Bible lesson on Sunday.

That may not have been news except three days earlier Carter, 90, began receiving treatment for brain cancer.

And now the world wanted to hear what the former president had to say.

As he always does when he teaches, he first offered a recap of where he’d been in the past couple of weeks and why.

“I missed two lessons because toward the end of May (and) first of June, it was found that I had cancer, so they removed part of my liver,” he said. “But then we had another MRI, and it showed I have four places in my brain.”

If you’ve been wondering how a man holds fast to his faith in the midst of such a diagnosis, why he doesn’t just curse God and die, you’re not alone.

I suspect that’s the reason most people flocked to Maranatha last Sunday.

And so it occurred to me during all the talk about Carter’s upbeat attitude that some might wonder, too, about the reason for the president’s hope.

The short answer is pretty obvious. Carter, it would seem, has an unwavering faith in God.

It makes a big difference. It causes us to look forward, not backward. It trusts in God, not people. It can imagine better days and give us the strength to fight on.

That’s certainly been true in my life, but I reached out to a few academics who’ve been following Carter’s story like the rest of us.

What did they think about all the attention given to his faith and his ability to remain peaceful in the midst of what would seem for most of us to be the worst time possible?

One of them, Thomas Merluzzi, a psychology professor at Notre Dame, said that research confirms that the former president is at an age where coping with cancer and acceptance are easier to endorse. Even for those with strong faith, cancer or any other serious disease at a young age can be much more disruptive to career, family, social life, and goals.

The very fact that Carter has said he has “an easy way of accommodating the vicissitudes of life” is “a sign of a person who can adjust to the ebb and flow of life without extreme stress and agitation,” Merluzzi said. “Then add to age and disposition an abiding faith that has been deeply rooted in his life — and you have a recipe for serenity, acceptance and letting go.”

Gospel singer Marvin Sapp sings a song titled “Perfect Peace,” in which he describes a person who keeps his mind on the one who made us. When we do that, we will have perfect peace.

It’s a beautiful song based on Scripture that says “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds.”

President Carter isn’t just optimistic about his state, he seems peaceful and serenely accepting.

In a series of studies that compiled data from 44,000 people with cancer, Merluzzi said that he and his colleagues found that faith and spirituality were positively associated with physical, mental and social health.

“For President Carter, there is the wonderful intersection of age (really wisdom), disposition, and faith that will see him through this no matter what the outcome,” Merluzzi said. “He is an inspiration to all of us who have been touched by cancer — there are few who have not.”

Douglas Jacobsen, professor of church history and theology at Messiah College, spent a day with the former president in 1986 when he invited Carter to the Mechanicsburg, Pa., campus to speak.

What Jacobsen found most refreshing in Carter’s news conference about his cancer was the way Carter described his deep religious faith, as a gift given to him rather than something he claimed for himself.

“That was stunning in the context of so much religious discourse in the early 21st century which implies that faith is an accomplishment that makes faithful people better than others,” Jacobsen said. “By contrast, Carter sees faith as a gift from God to be accepted with gratitude. Faith does not make anyone better than anyone else.”

In the same way, he said that Carter’s deep realism about the unexpected turns of life, including the negative turns of life, is similarly out of sync with contemporary culture, which seems to assume that life should be smooth sailing and that hardships are to be avoided at all costs and bemoaned when they come our way.

“Carter’s obvious joyfulness was winsome,” Jacobsen said. “No whining about anything. Just deep and genuine joy for the gift of life that he has been given.”

The one thing that we humans most fear – death – simply isn’t real for believers like Carter, said Carter Turner, chairman of the department of philosophy and religious studies at Radford University.

Absent from the body, present with the Lord, as 2 Corinthians 5:8 says.

“And if you ultimately believe that God is in control of the universe and is capable of breaking natural law at any moment and bringing about a miracle, eternal hope is possible,” Turner said. “If you believe in that kind of God, all things are possible.”

Turner said that religion generally works on a kind of feedback loop, starting with a worldview and providing the answers to our most important questions. What are our basic beliefs about the world? Is there a God? How do we know it?

“These are some of the basic questions our religions answer,” he said. “But what people believe about this world is only half of it. Beliefs are held more firmly if experience confirms them. “I suspect that most people who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God do so because of some experience they had as a result of reading it. Ideas and experience are mutually supportive.”

So there you have it. No matter how you look at Carter’s life and faith, he has a powerful message to share and proves yet again that the Bible is true: “tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.”

You’ll find that in the 5th chapter of Romans.

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