Christianity, Reviews, Uncategorized

Book review:ME and WE – God’s New Social Gospel by Leonard Sweet

Book Review

ME and WE — God’s New Social Gospel  is a lively and lovely introduction to a re-imagined, metaphorically rich  present/future church. This church, Dr. Sweet contends,  must learn how to face three of the biggest challenges of today’s culture: individualism, racism and consumerism.

The title of the book does not prepare the reader for the beauty contained within it. I must say the book is beautiful, in many ways.  First, the book is beautifully planned: It is presented in three short parts. Part I is about the Me/We Gospel – A Biblical Story; Part II is about  Me/We Creation – A Birthing Story; and Part III is about the Me/We Economy – A Garden Story.

Second, the book is  beautifully written, especially Part II, which is a deep and meditative look at the need to sever the identification of black with evil and white with good. This imagery runs through the “whole range of human behavior”, according to Dr. Sweet, and deserves our honest attention as well as our best, prayerful efforts at correction.

Third, the book is beautiful in its application. Using the symbol of the menorah, Part III offers a seven-branched view to incarnating light and life giving practices. The emphasis is on relational theology and individual responsibility as we live together in God’s House and Garden communities — our churches.

Dr. Sweet notes early in the book that 19th century efforts at implementing a social gospel were a dismal failure. He warns, “Any attempt to see Jesus’s understanding of the kingdom of God as a political movement, an apocalyptic regime or social justice program– anything other than the revelation of God with a trinitarian personality and path to the heart — is to put ideology in the place of faith.”

My favorite description of Me/We social gospel living is the section on “Conserve and Conceive”. In Genesis, God asked Adam to “till and keep” the garden. Dr. Sweet prefers to use the phrase “conserve and conceive”. This term is then used to refer to a broad scope of holiness-living activities, beginning with conserving and conceiving “God’s creative identity in our current relationships and (to) conceive God’s creativity in new relationships. It starts with Me and moves to We… When Christ is in control and the body is being re-formed by the Spirit into wholeness and harmony, the body remains organic, living, growing, healthy. A Me/We gospel is a salvation gospel.”

I have been reading Dr. Sweet’s books for many years. He is a brilliant thinker and writer, and there is no missing the fact that the Lord Jesus is preeminent in everything he produces. But this book took me by surprise. I believe it is not only one of the most beautiful books he has written, but it may also be one of the most important.

 

Christianity, Reviews, Writers/writing

“Fierce Convictions” by Karen Swallow Prior – a book review

Book Cover for Fierce Convictions        I have just finished reading “Fierce Convictions —  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I knew a little about Hannah More (1745 – 1833) prior to reading this book, particularly that she was one of the Clapham Sect http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/119725/Clapham-Sect, with William Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England. But “Fierce Convictions” makes clear that there is quite a lot to know about Hannah More.

Dr. Prior has done a marvelous job of writing a thorough, balanced biography of Hannah More, who accomplished so many feats  in her lifetime that it’s mind boggling. One should remember that she did all these things: write acclaimed poetry and plays and a novel, start a school for women, speak persuasively to the upper classes of England about abolition of slavery and reach out to the poor of her area by starting Sunday schools which were vehicles for literacy, at a time when being a woman was a liability to doing any public work at all. Astounding.

Dr. Prior has given us a wealth of finely researched information about Ms. More’s successes and charming ways, but she also tells us about her failures and her blind spots, thus helping to form a better, more complete, more believable picture of the subject. We are also kept aware throughout the book of the historical and cultural period in which Hannah More lived, which for 21st century minds, had some very perplexing and troubling customs. As far as the readability of the book goes, there are quotes from writers of the mid 18th century that are challenging to be sure, but Hannah More’s life is so interesting, and Dr Prior’s writing is so engaging,  that it is worth the reader’s effort to work through those passages.

After reading this book, I have compiled the Top Ten Admirable Attributes of Hannah More:

  1. She was bright, articulate and witty.
  2. She was from humble birth, was modest and self-effacing.
  3. She was a Christian who grew in her faith, and changed her manner of living to reflect that growth, including modifying her opinion on the cruel treatment of animals.
  4. She wrote a play in 1763 at age 18. It was published in 1773. By the mid 1780s had sold 10,000 copies.
  5. She was unstoppable in her efforts to end slavery and to bring about moral improvement in England.
  6. She was able to cross societal boundaries, both to the upper classes and lower classes, with grace; she was able to cross religious boundaries with an open mind and heart.
  7. She was able to survive great personal setbacks and attempts to destroy her good name. She didn’t recover quickly, but she didn’t quit living her life.
  8. She was generous to a fault with her time, talents and money in her efforts to help those in need.
  9. She had great friends: Dr Samuel (“Dictionary”) Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Edmund Burke, Elizabeth Montagu, William Wilberforce, John Newton, John Venn, and many,many others.
  10. She wrote her bestselling, most imaginative, most widely read works after age 60.

You can read all about this amazing woman in “Fierce Convictions — The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I believe that this book should be on the reading list of every young woman. I have asked our local library to purchase a copy for their shelves, and will encourage them to include it on the list of suggested books for Women’s History Month 2015.

This is Dr. Prior’s second book, the first being “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.” I look forward to reading many more books from Karen Swallow Prior.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was sent an Advance Reader’s Copy of “Fierce Convictions” by Nelson Books for the purpose of reading and reviewing the book. My comments and opinions are completely my own.

Christianity, Reviews, Writers/writing

On your mark… get set… PLAY!

Can you recall the last time you thought of the Christian life as playful? Me either. In fact, I believe most people would be very reluctant to put the words “playful” and “Christian” in the same sentence. Imagine then, how surprising and intriguing it was to see that someone had written an entire book on the subject.  I recently finished reading the book The Well-Played Life – Why Pleasing God Doesn’t Have to Be Such Hard Work by Leonard Sweet.  From beginning to end, the book tells the tale of the pleasure God takes in people, and how, as we humans progress through the Three Ages described by Dr. Sweet, we should live in a way that returns the compliment.  Suggestions for joining in the fun of “playing with God in the Garden” – the best metaphor for discipleship according to Dr. Sweet – are skillfully and imaginatively presented in The Well-Played Life.

Why is it, do you think, that Christians are perceived as hardworking, humorless party-poopers? The Well-Played Life examines how this image came about and reminds us that the only people who can redesign this perception are Christians. Contained in the chapters are many vivid examples of joyful, exciting and God-pleasing events in scripture, especially in the life of Christ, which can inspire us to look at our lives as believers not as work, but as happy, creative activity. In the early pages of the book there is a very provocative thought tossed out to us: ”It’s time to abolish work. It’s time for a theology of play.”

Using the frame work of the Three Ages – First Age (0-30) Novice Players; Second Age (30-60)Real Players; Third Age (60-90+) Master Players ,  Dr. Sweet defines each age, pointing out their challenges and strengths under chapter headings such as Follow the Leader, Cave Dwellers, Play in the Dirt, Rock-Paper-Scissors,   and Angry Birds. But don’t get the notion that this book is all cotton candy and Skittles.  It is filled with goodness, truth, and beauty as well as puzzlers, pointers and playful practices for those who wish to live “in sync with the Spirit,” in Dr. Sweet’s words.

I must admit I had fun reading this book, but it also convicted me.  I saw that at times I am among the rock-faced-and-rigid barrier of believers that can be so intimidating to those who don’t yet know Christ. I would rather be identified as a member of the family of living stones that form the spiritual dwelling of a joy-filled Jesus. If that transfiguration is going to happen, I better get praying, and playing.

A summary of this book in less than 140 characters:  When we are clothed in God’s glory, we are in our play clothes.

Disclaimer –  I was sent a free copy of the book The Well-Played Life – Why Pleasing God Doesn’t Have to Be Such Hard Work by Leonard Sweet  from Tyndale Momentum.  My opinions are my own.

Reviews, Uncategorized, Writers/writing

Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. Really?

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t expect to encounter a connection between Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and a character in the book Anna Karenina on Facebook this morning, but social networking is often an exercise in serendipity, isn’t it? One of Leonard Sweet‘s intriguing status updates on Facebook today was this statement  :

insects crawl; fish swim; birds fly; animals run; humans pray.

Several comments were posted in reply on Dr. Sweet’s timeline, but one that was particularly thoughtful was from Derek W. White : “Redemption is when preying humans become praying humans.” This was given a thumbs up by many readers.

There was one brief question in response to the post, also: “Comment pray vs. prey?” This triggered an avalanche of thoughts about the book Anna Karenina that friend, Tracey Finck, and I have been reading together for several months.

In this marvelous classic, Tolstoy   has something to say about  “pray vs. prey”, I believe.   Konstantin Dmitrievitch, also known as Levin, is one of the main characters in AK. His story and that of his wife,  Kitty, runs concurrently with the story of Anna and her lover, Vronsky. Levin is consumed with big questions: ” Is there a God? Why are we here, and how are we to live? If in fact we decide life is worth living, how do we live successfully? How should we treat our neighbors and those below us in society as we try to succeed in life? Upon what information should we depend for guidance in these things?” Through various situations we observe Levin grappling with his thoughts, and because of Tolstoy’s astonishing skill as a writer, we experience the good and bad times  of 19th century Russian life with Levin and  Kitty.

In the final pages of the book, we struggle with Levin as he tries to cope with the reality that during his wife’s long and difficult labor, he called out to God several times for mercy, a God in whom Levin had previously asserted that he did not have faith. From the time of the birth of his child, he constantly ruminates on his inconsistency and is deeply perplexed by it. He does not give in to despair over the troubling event, though. The responsibilities of being  a husband, father and a landowner demand his attention, and he answers the demands by being physically involved in the labor of farming. But farming  also brings forward great life-questions. From beginning to end in the book, the land, its  potential and profitability, and the people who work it and their cares, always present situations that display whether or not the land owners and workers deal righteously with each other. Now at the end of the book, it is harvest time once again, and  Levin works alongside the peasants whom he pays to care for his land. One of them is named Fyodor.   Fyodor and Levin address fair dealings between landowners and workers in the following conversation:

Fyodor came from a village at some distance from the one in which Levin had once allotted land to his cooperative association.  Now it had been let to a former house porter.

Levin talked to Fyodor about this land and asked whether Platon, a well-to-do peasant of good character belonging to the same village, would not take the land for the coming year.

“It’s a high rent; it wouldn’t pay Platon, Konstantin Dmitrievitch (Levin),” answered the peasant, picking the ears off his sweat-drenched shirt.

“But how does Kirillov make it pay?”

“Mituh!” (so the peasant called the house porter, in a tone of contempt), “you may be sure he’ll make it pay, Konstantin Dmitrievitch!  He’ll get his share, however he has to squeeze to get it!  He’s no mercy on a Christian.  But Uncle Fokanitch” (so he called the old peasant Platon), “do you suppose he’d flay the skin off a man?  Where there’s debt, he’ll let anyone off.  And he’ll not wring the last penny out.  He’s a man too.”

“But why will he let anyone off?”

“Oh, well, of course, folks are different.  One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man.  He lives for his soul.  He does not forget God.”

“How thinks of God?  How does he live for his soul?” Levin almost shouted.

“Why, to be sure, in truth, in God’s way.  Folks are different. Take you now, you wouldn’t wrong a man….”

“Yes, yes, good-bye!” said Levin, breathless with excitement, and turning round he took his stick and walked quickly away towards home.  At the peasant’s words that Fokanitch lived for his soul, in truth, in God’s way, undefined but significant ideas seemed to burst out as though they had been locked up, and all striving towards one goal, they thronged whirling through his head, blinding him with their light.

Here I think is an answer to the question “pray vs. prey?” on  Leonard Sweet’s Facebook status. Tolstoy goes on to say this through Levin:

Where could I have got it? (The answer to his perplexing questions)  By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him?  I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul.  But who discovered it?  Not reason.  Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires.  That is the deduction of reason.  But loving one’s neighbor reason could never discover, because it’s irrational.”

As in the conversation between Fyodor and Levin, Jesus shows us the way of life in the kingdom of God through this revealed truth: we are to love our neighbors, not prey on them. Additionally, we are to pray to God not just to bless our friends and family, but also “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” Luke 6:27. That is not rational, but it is “thinking in God’s way” as Fyodor says. It is righteous living, and it’s an example of how redemption turns preying humans into praying humans, as Derek W. White said; a phenomenon that numbers of others, including Leo Tolstoy, Leonard Sweet and many Facebook friends,  have found to be the best way of living with the difficulties of daily life.

Christianity, Reviews

Tattoos on the Heart: a book review

Laura Bush talks with members during a discuss...
Laura Bush talks with members during a discussion at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been a long time since I have read a book that completely took over my life, but this weekend Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle did just that. I was mesmerized, horrified and enthralled by this book. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the pastor of Dolores Mission, a Catholic church located in gang-land central in Los Angeles. The book is a collection of stories primarily about  young people who have come to Boyle and Homeboy Industries to find a way to leave gang life. The stories in themselves are jaw droppers, but Boyle doesn’t display them for their shock value alone. He loves the young people, the homies, he lives among, and helps us to see past the raw, bloody landscape of their daily lives to the value and preciousness of the individual.

Believe it or not, Tattoos on the Heart is often a very funny book. Boyle’s sense of humor is sublime, and he shares many instances that made me laugh out loud – in public places, too. I also wept at the author’s description of the hopelessness that so many of the kids face, and at the mindless murders that occur between enemy gangs. Boyle writes that after the funeral of one young man, he realized that he had officiated at 8 burials in three weeks, all gang related deaths.

What I ultimately appreciate about this book is that Boyle introduces big, beautiful ideas in the midst of the most horrible conditions in life. Ideas like kinship, success, compassion and gladness. Boyle could have stayed with the sensational stories from the ghetto. It would still have been a fascinating book. But he didn’t. He has a poet’s eye and a lover’s heart, and because of that he teaches the reader to get beyond the blistered warzone of the barrios he describes to the beauty within the young people he has come to know. It’s a good skill to learn, no matter where you live, and Greg Boyle is just the one to teach it through the book Tattoos on the Heart.

Why you should read this book in less than 140 characters: Wildly funny, heart-breakingly sad, profoundly wise. Be careful, it might change you.

Christianity, Good times, Reviews, Writers/writing

The Completest Thing

Reading Material into 2011
Reading Material into 2011 (Photo credit: Bob AuBuchon)

Have you ever experienced an event that was perfect from start to finish? Dr Stephen Maturin, one of the main characters in Patrick O’Brian’s spectacular naval series “Master and Commander”, uses a particular phrase  when one of his tricky espionage escapades, difficult emergency surgeries, or challenging nature observations succeeds without a flaw; he says, “It was the completest thing.”

Last Friday night was just such an event for me. Several weeks ago a friend, Tracey Finck, told me that writer and speaker Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer – Pastor,Martyr,Prophet, Spy was going to be at Bethlehem Baptist church in Minneapolis, and she asked me if I would be interested in attending. I think I jumped out of my chair, yelled “Yes! and circled the date on my calendar before Tracey had finished speaking. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to hear this excellent writer speak about a man who was one of the most outspoken opponents to Hitler during the Third Reich. Both Tracey and I had read Metaxas’s book, and had been amazed at how in-depth the biography was, and how powerfully the author had conveyed the role that family, education, faith in Jesus and courage had played in Bonhoeffer’s life. (Read Tracey’s comments on the book here: www.traceyfinck.com)

The evening would have been wonderful if all we had done was attend the lecture, but we had also been invited  to have dinner  before-hand with Ben and Betsy Alle, Tracey’s daughter and son-in law, who attend Bethlehem Baptist  and were the first to pass on  the information about the upcoming event. Plus, the “we” had grown to include Becky Hagstrom, a friend of Tracey’s – so the evening became kaleidoscopic, and was turned into a beautiful, multifaceted celebration of making new friends, enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal (lasagna,salad,homemade bread,individual mini chocolate-molten-lava-cakes with whipped cream and espresso!) and gracious conversation, topped by an incredible lecture that was as funny as it was profound and challenging.

We also had the honor of meeting the delightful Mr.  Metaxas.We spoke with him briefly, had a book signed,  and took a few Kodak-moment pictures – along with the 1300 other people who were at the lecture. Metaxas said he would stay until midnight if that’s what was needed to greet those who wanted to meet him. I wonder  how late the meet and greet went? We were fortunate to be almost at the head of the line, and saw Metaxas sprint from the front of the church to the table where the signing took place – in the back of the church, of course.  Eric Metaxas embodies energy, humility, wit and  intelligence wrapped up in a life committed to furthering the Kingdom of  Jesus Christ – it was inspiring to see and to be a participant in the Bonhoeffer Tour.

But was this all? No. On the way home there were cold coffee drinks and snacks  –  a drive-home picnic prepared by Tracey – plus we discussed the lecture and associated subjects on the hour-long commute. Oh, and did I mention it was a lovely winter night with a full moon?

God’s favor and blessing  were wonderfully evident that evening, and I will always treasure the memory of it.  Plus, I also think that now I truly understand what  Dr Stephen Maturin means when he says, “It was the completest thing.”

Reviews, Writers/writing

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

Keyboard V
Keyboard V (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not sure how I got swept up into the National Novel Writing Month in November, but it happened. If you are new to NaNoWriMo, their slogan is “Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon”.  The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  If you want to learn more about NaNoWriMo you can do that here: http://www.nanowrimo.org/faq/about-us/

NaNoWriMo is completely on the honor system. After all, if you lie about reaching your goal, who have you fooled? Only yourself, of course. So, did I reach 50,000 words? No. But I did write 41, 271 words, which completely surprised me. Here are the top 10 things I learned from participating in NaNoWriMo:

  1. The number of words you must write per day to reach 50,000 words in thirty days is 1,667, but you should set your sites on writing at least 2,000. You need a cushion to get you through the days when life, family, work or illness demands that you leave the computer and get other things done.
  2. Recognize the things that are writing aids, and which things are distractions; e.g., TV = distraction; radio = aid. Also, being a good typist is a great asset to have at your disposal. I‘m a terrible typist.(Dragon speech recognition software anyone?)
  3. Find a comfortable place to write. This was a challenge. Never knew it was so hard to type with a computer on your lap. Couldn’t get used to my legs going numb after an hour of sitting cross legged.
  4.  Prepare an outline for the novel (fair according to the NaNoWriMo rules.) It is too time consuming to formulate an outline and write a story at the same time.
  5. Do not try to learn how to use Scrivener (a word-processing program designed for writers) and write 1667 words a day at the same time.
  6. Checking your progress on a fun website that has your personal total word count, a bar graph, and lots of other stats is cool, mostly.
  7. It is possible to write 3,000 words in 6 hours; also possible to type in a semi-sleeping state.
  8. It is very hard to lock your internal editor in a room in your brain and not allow her out for a month. Couldn’t do it.
  9. Yes, you can sit down and write even when inspiration has left the building.
  10.  You might want to take the last two days of November off work so that you can write for 48 hours straight, if necessary.

Will I do NaNoWriMo again? Can’t say, especially now that I know how big the commitment is. I will be better prepared to participate if I do take the challenge next year, though.  How about you? Are you interested in joining NaNoWriMo 2013?