President Jimmy Carter stayed with the Olson family of Northeast Portland when he visited in 1978 and read a book to the Olsons’ two children, Ehren, left, and Kristen. Janet Olson was pregnant with her third child at the time of the visit. Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian
“Imagine the President staying in your home,” began an article in a recent edition of the Portland newspaper, the Oregonian.
“Janet Olsen, now 78, remembers standing on her front porch on May 4, 1978, and watching in awe as the presidential motorcade pulled in front of her Northeast Portland home, bringing with it an extremely unusual overnight guest: President Jimmy Carter.
The president, who sometimes stayed in regular people’s homes instead of hotels when he traveled, slept that night in the couple’s bedroom while they slept in a guest room.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening,” Olsen said. “And we lay awake most of the night thinking, ‘This is really strange, the president of the United States is sleeping in our bedroom.’”
Sitting at her kitchen table over four decades later, Olsen and her husband Paul said they weren’t surprised to find Carter conversational and warm.
‘The fact that you’re entertaining the president in your home is kind of intimidating,’ Janet Olsen said. ‘But as soon as he entered our home, he was easy to be around.’”
With this delightful article were pictures of Carter’s visit. Two images stood out.
The first was a shot of Carter happily reading picture books with the Olsen’s young daughters just before bedtime. Carter’s face was as relaxed and real as it surely was when he read with his own school-aged daughter, Amy.
Another photo showed Carter sitting on one end of the family room couch with Mr. Olsen on the other. Carter’s shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows, the sole of one shoe casually pressed against the edge of the nearby coffee table.
Between the men were the Olsen girls. Rather than clinging to their father, the children were cozied up to their guest. If you didn’t know better, you would assume Carter was a longtime family friend, not the leader of the free world.
This Portland stay with the Olsens was no “let’s see how the other half lives” Presidential experiment. This overnight stay was true to who Jimmy Carter was and what he valued.
To my mind, this unlikely visit also hints at the Jesus of President Carter’s understanding and experience. After all, Carter’s Christian faith was not a sideline for him; it was quietly front and center.
From Carter’s example, we could surmise that his Jesus was low to the ground, a true man of the people. That his aim was to elevate others, not himself. That strangers were just friends ready to be made, even unlikely strangers, as when Jesus said to the friendless tax collector Zacchaeus, “I’m visiting your house tonight.”
In his lifetime Carter published countless faith-related books, and yet we don’t need to read a single one to get a sense of who Carter’s Jesus was or what Carter felt Jesus was asking of him. All we need do is to study Carter’s life, and there’s his Jesus, standing right beside him, plain as day.
This Lent, we are taking time to think together about Jesus—not in the abstract but in a personal way. We are reflecting on his question to each of us “Who do you say that I am?”
This question isn’t a trap, a setup, a foil to determine who among us is orthodox and who’s an outlier. Jesus genuinely wants to know where he stands with each of us.
Our response—whatever it might be—is never a one-and-done.
Because he is so interested in who we are and who we are becoming, Jesus asks us his question many times throughout our lives. He comes to us in prayer, in worship, and in conversations. He shows up in the newspaper, in the movies, in our neighborhoods and sanctuaries, continually asking, “Who? Who do you say that I am?”
No doubt, our responses are informed by scripture and tradition. They are also influenced by books and sermons and studies. And whether we realize it or not, our responses can’t help but be rooted in the relationship we have or yearn to have with this Jesus of ours.
Relationship is the operative word here. Because in the end, our answer about who Jesus is and who he isn’t is shaped by the way Jesus is alive within and around us.
Isn’t this what makes Jimmy Carter’s Jesus so real to even the skeptical observer—after almost a century of hymns sung, prayers voiced, and devotions both written and read, Carter’s Jesus is most visible in what the former President has done and said, as well as in what he has chosen not to say and not to do.
We don’t just say who our Jesus is. We show the world who he is.
Years ago, my mentor Charles Busch taught me how vital it is that we each claim and proclaim the Jesus who is most real to us, even when this means leaving the church’s fixed language behind.
The seeds of this insight were planted when a certain fellow found his way to Charles’ church. After growing up in a very conservative Christian community, he had been in a self-imposed exile from organized religion and only by accident stumbled upon the Lincoln City church.
Rather than rejecting the church and the people in it, which was his first impulse, the man found himself deeply moved. Jesus’ unwavering love and commitment to justice were everywhere in this spiritual community, so much so that the man had to admit that in spite of his dislike of churches, he wanted to be part of this one.
But there was just one thing holding him back: language. Language for Jesus. He knew that in joining the church, there would be this moment when he stepped forward and Charles would ask him to declare his faith, all straight out of the UCC Book of Worship. All part of our tradition’s way of receiving new members.
The man knew that what Charles would inevitably ask him was whether he affirmed that Jesus was Lord and Savior, something the man found triggering given his conservative Christian past.
Charles and the man had several heart-felt conversations about this, and apparently, each time, Charles was a bit too subtle. The man’s hesitations remained.
If they were going to move forward, Charles realized he would have to be blunt. So finally, he said to the man, “Just forget about Lord and Savior. Call Jesus Jefe. Call him Boss. Call him Friend. Call him whatever you want. This is between the two of you.”
That straightforward comment broke the spell. Several weeks later, the man stepped up onto the chancel, repeated after Charles, including the words he didn’t much care for and joined the church.
After several years of very active membership, the man found himself loaded up a moving van and headed off to seminary. And now? He’s been ordained for 20 years.
What did he call Jesus in his heart of hearts that morning? What does he call Jesus now? I have no idea. All I know is that he is just as serious about following his Jesus as he ever was. And just like President Carter, just like this congregation, you know who his Jesus is not by what he says but by how he lives.
In her book, Freeing Jesus, the memoir by Diana Butler Bass that will inform our reflecting each Sunday this Lent, Diana says that she was introduced to Jesus as a young child and that he was her friend. This might have been your childhood experience too.
What a beautiful way to begin a life of faith. By experiencing Jesus as an eager, faithful friend. A friend even more significant than an American President but just as quick to roll up his sleeves and play, just as quick to draw you close on the couch and look into your eyes with warm acceptance.
I suspect many of us moved on from thinking of Jesus as a friend around the time we graduated from Sunday School or church camp. As we matured, we found fancier language for Jesus and joined the adults in making creedal claims about him.
Now that we’re older, wiser, and more sophisticated, it may feel awkward and even unsophisticated to confess that, ultimately, Jesus is our friend. We worry this sounds basic, simplistic.
But when he calls us his friends, Jesus isn’t being basic or simple. He is being profound. Revolutionary, even.
By calling us friends, Jesus is doing what President Carter did when he landed on the Olsen’s doorstep, inviting connection, quietly erasing earthly divisions of status and standing to meet as equals, to engage us in ways that leave us feeling seen and known and loved.
When Jesus says he calls us friends, he’s not just elevating us; he’s also saying that he needs us every bit as any other true friend does. Which is what I think Carter was doing. His visits weren’t performative, a show for the cameras. They were born of a desire to befriend unlikely Americans.
Just before he squares off with those who want to do him in, Jesus gathers his disciples to prepare them for what is coming. As he does, he crowns them with the highest, most heart-felt honor he can possibly bestow.
“No longer are you servants. I call you my friends.”
That’s what Jesus calls them. That’s what he calls us when all is said and done. Friends.
When I was young, my mother would say to me, “Karen, to have a friend, you need to be a friend.”
The kind of friendship Jesus offers isn’t a one-way street. It’s not all give and no take. Jesus wants to know us, to be changed by us, to be brought to life by us every bit as much as he offers those beautiful gifts.
And just as he’s willing to meet us in the highs and lows of our lives, so he is looking for friends who will do the same. But here’s the rub: when things get messy and complicated for him, we may question how much we really do want to be his friend.
Lent invites us to consider how willing we are to be Jesus’ friends. How able we are to show up for him when the going gets tough.
I don’t know about you, but when Jesus points his face toward Jerusalem and steps in that difficult direction, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to watch the shadows lengthen and then swallow Jesus up. I don’t want to bear witness to the injustice and agony of Jesus’ final days and hours.
But I go anyway. I go anyway because I want Jesus to know that his friendship has meant the world to me. I go because I don’t want him asking himself what happened to all his friends in the end.
A friend doesn’t go around doing that to a friend.