PLAINS, Georgia – The Sunday school lesson was familiar: When your burden grows heavy, ask God for strength. But the message carried a more powerful and personal meaning than usual because of who delivered it: Jimmy Carter.
The 90-year-old former president taught Sunday school in his hometown for the first time since he disclosed on Thursday that his cancer had spread to his brain.
With easygoing humor and his usual toothy smile, Carter gave two back-to-back Bible lessons to unusually large crowds totaling more than 700 people — some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles — just three days after undergoing radiation treatment.
He spent less than five minutes recapping his illness before saying, "That's enough of that subject" and beginning the lesson on faith, love and relationships.
Carter said he and his wife of 69 years, Rosalynn, resolved never go to sleep without settling their differences.
"Just being able to admit you MIGHT be mistaken and that the other person MIGHT be right" will improve a relationship, he said, prompting laughter from the crowd at Maranatha Baptist Church.
He encouraged his listeners to consider God a partner in their lives.
"Any time, we can just bow our heads and say, 'God, I'm really troubled. I ask you to give me the strength to bear whatever is on my shoulders and to bear whatever comes to me,'" Carter said.
The former peanut farmer and Georgia governor has been teaching Sunday school for more than three decades at his small red-brick church, which has about 40 regular members. His appearance this time drew the biggest crowd members could recall, with about 460 people packed inside.
The turnout was so big that Carter gave a second lesson at the nearby high school for about 250 people, and about 70 others had to be turned away.
People seated underneath the stained-glass windows nodded when church member Jan Williams described those who managed to get a seat as "blessed."
Carter entered and exited without fanfare, wearing a gray suit. He paced across the front of the sanctuary as he spoke and occasionally returned to a podium to read aloud while wearing a pair of thin wire glasses. His wife sat nearby.
As listeners left the church, they proudly showed each other newly taken photos with the Carters.
Cricket Keating said Carter's "irrepressible joy" made the trip from her home in Columbus, Ohio, worthwhile. She and a friend arrived in Plains at midnight to be first in line and spent the night in sleeping bags.
She said she felt humbled by Carter's message.
"No matter how bad things are, we have company in this world," she said.
Chet and Stephanie Cranfield of Merritt Island, Florida, stopped in Plains after attending a funeral nearby. Chet, 58, began chemotherapy in November for kidney cancer.
Both husband and wife said they were comforted by Carter's message of optimism and push to rely on God for strength.
"He was wonderful. I feel uplifted," Chet said, holding his wife's hand.
"Like God can carry you through anything," said his wife of 32 years.
Carter promised the crowd at the church he would be back to take photos with them after teaching the second class. He asked that they come up in groups for pictures.
"If you come up by yourself, I won't say anything, but I'll wonder why you don't have any friends," the former president said, exiting to a burst of laughter.