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SIMPLE LESSONS FROM A FAMOUS TEACHER IN SUNDAY SCHOOL

SOURCES OF STRENGTH:
Meditations on Scripture for a Living Faith
By Jimmy Carter
Times Books
254 pages, $23

Don't hate him because he's dutiful.

Jimmy Carter, the president who begat Ronald Reagan, has spent his post-White House years in a spiritual search that goes both inward and outward. The outward part is his high-profile involvement in the housing initiative Habitat for Humanity, as well as his organization to promote worldwide health and effective diplomacy, the Carter Center. The inward part is a quieter search. All his life, and even more now in retirement, Carter has been studying the Bible and teaching adult Sunday school.

It's a pursuit that is unlikely to find much favor with those who measure the man by his political life. It can't be counted the way votes can; it doesn't fit into critical assessments of his presidency or his campaign strategies. But for Carter, of course, none of that matters. What matters is what's between a man and his God, a dance that Carter laid out in his best-selling memoir, "Living Faith."

"Sources of Strength" is a companion volume of sorts to that book. It collects 52 of Carter's Sunday school lessons; each chapter consists of a brief Bible passage, followed by the author's rather free-form rumination on its meaning and how it applies to modern life. The chapters are four or five pages long, too short to fill an hour's Bible study. But Carter refers often to discussions that grow out of his lectures at Maranatha Baptist Church, and among the hundred or so participants (celebrity has its drawing power!) there's plenty of life experience to bring to the lesson.

This is not advanced theology, which is good news for those of us forever struggling to do the right thing and looking for advice on how to do it. Carter writes in a plainspoken voice, leavening his generalizations with incidents from his life. (In a chapter on coping with disappointment, for example, he recounts how Rosalynn turned down his marriage proposal at first, and didn't relent until six months later.)

At times he stretches beyond his skills as a writer, especially when he quotes his own flaccid poetry. Or consider this bridge-too-far passage from a chapter titled "A House With Many Builders":

There are unpleasant, bitter divisions, and even wars, among those of us who compose the temple of God. Some want hardwood floors and others carpets; some like a hip roof and some prefer a more simple gable roof; there are strong preferences between wood and metal window frames; and how about the color of the front door? . . . Or perhaps it's best just to find a place on the foundation of Christ and build our own tiny houses out of straw or pasteboard, or plastic, and not even relate to others. After all, they are obviously wrong, and probably inferior!

Largely, though, Carter manages to lay out the issue at hand calmly and clearly, as in this rumination on sin and forgiveness that springs from Psalm 32:

Most of us have a great many blessings. Yet most of us would agree that our material possessions, and even our emotional and psychological blessings, like family and friends, are not enough to bring us complete peace and happiness. Think about it. Have we achieved the serenity and joy that comes from knowing we've fulfilled all the potential God has given us? . . . If the honest answer is no -- as it probably is -- then the gap between our lives and the model given us by Jesus is the source of that dissatisfaction, that uncertainty, that lack of fulfillment that makes us feel ever so slightly incomplete. And this resulting state is sin, which can only be fully healed through confession and forgiveness.

This is the work of a man who obviously has done some thinking. Which is not to say that he has the definitive interpretation of these scriptures, or even that his interpretation is one you and I couldn't have arrived at with a little quiet space and a good translation of the Good Book.

But hey -- at a time when a lot of American spirituality consists of chasing angels and wearing crystals, it's a quietly worthwhile book.