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.
The day of the wedding finally arrived, and wouldn’t you know, after weeks of beautiful weather, it was pouring down rain. And yet, the excitement of the day couldn’t be washed away by the deluge. All of the wedding party went to the church early in the morning to make final touches to the decorations in the sanctuary and the reception hall, which was adjacent to the sanctuary. Flowers, candles, punch bowl, tea service and candy bowls (filled with pastel M&M’s) were all in their places, looking elegant and joyful and completely ready. When Bailey checked on the wedding cake – a very large, beautifully frosted and decorated confection – she saw Sheila’s solution to the cake topper dilemma. At the bridal table, directly in front of the bride and groom’s places, was a miniature wedding cake, an exact replica of the one made for the reception, and on that marvelous little cake sat the wedding gift from Mara. The cake topper with the plastic figures of the bride and groom in front of a plastic lace heart looked lovely. Sheila had indeed found the best answer to Bailey’s dilemma. There might not have been any sunshine in the Michigan sky at that moment, but when they saw the miniature wedding cake crowned with Maya’s gift, there was plenty of sunshine in the hearts of the wedding party.
The wedding, which was at 5:00 pm, was beautiful. The sun had made its glorious appearance just after 1:00 o’clock, and showed itself in all its summer finery for the rest of the day. Mara, who walked proudly down the aisle with the mother of the bride, had a front row view of Bailey and Thad as they, through their wedding vows, pledged their love to each other. At the reception, Mara’s chair was placed very close to her special friends. From that vantage point she was able to see and enjoy her gift to the newlyweds throughout the reception, as did all the other guests at Bailey and Thad’s wedding that happy summer afternoon.
The crescendo of excitement for the wedding slowly descended into a general buzz of talk, laughter and best wishes for the couple. Some hours later the newlyweds made their way to the airport to leave for their honeymoon – destination, Hawaii! Those left behind after the plane’s departure spoke of the beauty of the wedding, the joy of seeing family and friends who had come from near and far. The guests also shared anecdotes from the day, one of which explained that Sheila’s beautifully decorated miniature wedding cake with topper had been given free of charge to Bailey and Thad! The energy and creativity that had been on display for the special gathering had been captured, as much as it was possible to do so, in pictures and stories and memories. The family and friends of the newly married couple returned to their homes having fulfilled their congenial duty as loving witnesses to a marriage.
Soon, life slipped back to an identifiable rhythm for the families of Bailey and Thad, and everyday happenings came back into focus. The honeymooners had been gone for three days and would not return for another week. Jan, Bailey’s mom, was concerned about Mara, and wondered how she was dealing with her new home, but understood that the little girl would probably not come to visit until Bailey and Thad came back from Hawaii. One morning, though, as Jan went out the front door of her home to go grocery shopping, she found a little figurine and a message written on notebook paper. The figurine was a small Hawaiian hula girl with wings – a Hawaiian angel? Maybe another gift found at the Community Free Store? The message said: “Dear Bailey and Thad, I Hope You Had a Great Time at Your Honey-Moon in Hawiia. LOVE! Mara”.
The little emblem of angelic protection and message of love to Bailey and Thad acted as a form of reassurance to Jan, and others, that Bailey was doing well – and perhaps this was the best possible gift that the young couple received for their wedding.
“Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it” Hebrews 13:2
My cousin Randy Plut (pronounced “ploot”) came for a three day visit last weekend – it has been twelve years since his last trip to Minnesota. Randy has always been an amazing guy. He is the oldest of my close-in-age cousins. His brother Rick and sister MaryAnn made up the trio of cousins with whom my sister Margie and I spent most of our time. Randy, Rick and MaryAnn had myriad talents, not the least of which was a great sense of humor – among the cousins, it was always thus. Their dry wit, an eye for weird comic situations, and impeccable timing made being with them a whole lot of fun. It was at my cousins’ home that Margie and I met many of Randy’s high school pals, one of whom was John Swartzwelder, who would become the legendary writer of the animated sitcom, The Simpsons. I think an off-kilter sense of the comical is part of what drew Randy and his friends together in high school. I recall great conversations and laughing many an evening away with my cousins and their friends in Aunt Lillian and Uncle Bob’s living room.
Greater than Randy’s talent in humor is his talent in music. Before he was ever a witty teenager, Randy was a serious and accomplished musician. His instrument is the piano, which he plays like a wizard, shape-shifting without a pause, by memory alone, from classical pieces to country western to ragtime to the Beatles, the tip of his tongue poking out between his lips from time to time, the only evidence of the intense level of his concentration. It has always been thus for Randy, with family members and friends watching and listening in wonder over the years.
Randy is also amazing for having recently survived a cardiac arrest that was as near fatal as it could be. He survived it because, by the grace of God, just as Randy collapsed, his sister MaryAnn came to his house, understood the situation and called 911 for help. Randy spent quite a while in the hospital and has no recollection at all of the entire month of January 2013, the month his heart attack occurred. In fact, it was a great surprise to him to learn, as he improved during his hospital stay, that he had a new job! He had applied for, and won, a new position just prior to his heart event. Randy now has a pacemaker, an incredible invention in its own right, and one that should help Randy avoid another cardiac collapse, may it ever be thus.
We spent the last night of Randy’s visit to Minnesota at the home of one of my nieces, Michelle Rogers. Michelle and her husband Bill graciously invited my husband, John, Randy and me for dinner.On entering Bill and Michelle’s home that evening, Randy noticed the piano in the living room, so after we enjoyed a delicious meal together, he offered to play the piano for us. We were all delighted to be a part of the audience, and Randy did not disappoint – he was phenomenal! It is a very rare thing to witness the level of skill and creativity of an artist like Randy, say, at a concert hall or on TV or the internet, but to experience performance mastery of Randy’s kind in the intimacy of a family home is mind-boggling. Bill and Michelle made sure their three children were part of the experience, and the kids enjoyed Randy’s playing along with us. Randy asked them if they had any songs they would like to hear, which he then played for them without hesitation, sheet music or batting an eyelash. We adults were astonished at Randy’s skill, whereas the kids took things in stride. What? Wait a minute – wasn’t this a minor miracle occurring before our eyes? But kids are kids. How could they gauge how remarkable Randy’s performance was? I know I was pretty oblivious to Randy’s immense talent when I was a youngster. I took his proficiency at the piano for granted and had no way of knowing the rarity of Randy’s gifts. Understanding of this kind only comes with maturity. It has always been thus, I believe.
There was another member of the audience who did seem to understand the unique quality of the evening, though. Max, the family dog, knew something special was happening. He sat by the piano, listening attentively while Randy played, and a after the recital was over, he left one of his favorite toys at Randy’s feet as a token of his appreciation. Is this a typical occurrence? Has this always been so, that dogs are aware of and admire the finer things of life?
On the ride home from Bill and Michelle’s, after saying our farewells to Randy and wishing him the blessings of health and happiness for the future, I thought about the wonderful evening we had shared, about the passage of time, and the sparing of Randy’s life in 2013. Life is an extraordinary gift, and the gifts God gives to us as individuals are also extraordinary. This is something that I want to grasp more completely. But perhaps one has to pray for the ability to comprehend this, … perhaps it has always been thus.
“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” Psalm 139:6
In November of this year, my friend Tracey Finck and I flew to Ocean City, NJ, to meet with Dr. Leonard Sweethttp://www.leonardsweet.com/index.php author, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior http://www.liberty.edu/academics/arts-sciences/english/?PID=7627, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, and nine other people who gathered together to talk about books. This event was called an “Atlantic Advance”. “Advance” is a term created by Dr. Sweet which is meant to be used in place of the word “retreat.” Retreat, in the parlance of most of the Jesus followers I know, is a word that describes a time set aside by believers to seek a quiet, secluded place to pray, meditate, read scripture and have some time feasting alone with the Lord. But the word “retreat” also has the connotation of turning tail and running away in defeat. In Dr. Sweet’s view, Christians should not be retreating, but should always be advancing through the ups and downs of our Christ-yoked walk. Thus, even though our group did gather in a quiet (only because it was the off season) city, in a fascinating 1903-era boarding house removed from the present century by its architectural details and wrap-around porch; and even though we had times of prayer and scripture, and a few hours intended for solitude, the 13 roomies at the 2013 Atlantic Advance moved ahead on the sacred journey en-masse, with lots of laughter, a fair amount of tears, stimulating book-related conversations and amazing, verging on miraculous, shared meals. I understand the term “Advance” now.
Out of the 13 book lovers who attended, 6 people were pastors, so over the course of the weekend we heard some wonderful stories about other pastors. As I listened, it occurred to me that I knew a pastor story. The story didn’t get shared, though, because, 1. I am not a pastor. 2. Permission had not been granted to tell the story, and 3. I wasn’t absolutely sure how the story went because it had been 30 years since the time of its telling. Happily, I recently met with the friend who told the story so long ago. She, Brita Hillstrom Ylitalo, confirmed that what I had recalled was basically correct, clarified some of the details and gave me permission to tell this, as did Kirsti Uunila, whom I have not met personally, but who gave me permission via facebook . Thanks to both of them.
Brita, of Finnish descent, grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where there are a lot of Finnish people. Many of these hard-working, entrepreneurial and friendly folks have a common bond in religion, primarily the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church. Brita and her large family were deeply committed to this very conservative Finnish church, and were close friends with the head pastor there at the time, Reverend Paul A. Heideman. One summer when Brita was 15 years old, Rev. Heideman and his wife Eva opened their home to a niece. Her name was Kirsti Uunila. Kirsti was also in her middle teens and she and Brita became fast friends. Brita said that she and Kirsti were like shirt and pants, spending time at each other’s homes 3-4 times a week, if not more, often sleeping overnight. During these sleepovers, the girls would stay up talking and laughing late into the night, and were scolded by the adults in both households about being too loud, with threats of separating the girls from each other if they couldn’t settle down. The Heidemans especially were very particular about noise levels because their bedroom was directly above Kirsti’s, and Aunt Eva protected the Reverend’s time of rest.
It was during one of the sleep-overs at Kirsti’s, Brita explained, that an astonishing event occurred. Suddenly, in the dead of night, a hymn sung by Rev Heideman burst loud and clear through the floorboards. This awoke the girls, who giggled to think that if this song was loud enough to wake them up, Aunt Eva must really be irritated since the person whose rest she was protecting was making all the noise! But the commotion from the upper bedroom didn’t stop with one hymn. After the song came an opening prayer, then another song from the hymnal, then a portion of scripture. And next? Yes, a sermon. By this time, Brita said, she and Kirsti knew they were experiencing something extraordinary. They each were quiet as they lay in their matching twin beds, marveling and listening, experiencing the Holy Spirit’s power in the middle of the night, receiving the word of God in the sanctuary of the old Heideman house in Laurium, Michigan. The sermon seemed to be custom designed for them, as it was about living one’s life with intention, staying alert to God’s leading even in one’s youth, and in Rev. Heideman’s wonderful old-world style, he spoke about deflecting the slings and arrows of the enemy and seeking forgiveness of sins as a source of consolation and strength. When the sermon ended, there was the closing blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” A final hymn was sung by Rev. Heideman, then silence. The midnight service was over and the girls fell back to sleep.
The next morning Kirsti and Brita waited to hear what the Reverend and Aunt Eva had to say about the sermon in the night, but neither adult said a word, nor did they act as though anything unusual had happened the night before. To the young girls’ amazement, life went on in its usual routine. They ate breakfast, dressed in their summer garb of t-shirts, cut-off jeans and tennies, and resumed the pattern of traversing back and forth between their homes as they filled the carefree day with activity. Summer went merrily along. Life went merrily along. Brita and Kirsti grew up, graduated from Calumet high school and went their separate ways, staying in touch, but never living close by each other again.
One summer evening many years later, as Brita and I were putting our own children to bed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior, Brita shared this story with me. We laughed and I marveled at the tale. After the kids were finally down, we each took a cup of coffee from the percolator in the kitchen of the old house, and talked for a long time about the peculiar calling that is the life of a pastor. How they are called by God to expound His word to a gathering of believers on a weekly basis, but their calling might also include some moonlighting – literally. They in fact, might be moved in their sleep by the Holy Spirit to preach to a couple of teenage girls in the middle of the night to encourage them to stay alert to the things of the Lord as they make their way into the world, as they advance, toward the life that awaits them.
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
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.
I recently returned from a retreat in Kalamazoo, MI. There were about 200 women/friends who attended, some from as far away as California. Wish I had words to explain how powerful the Coffee Break Ministries weekend in the Parables was. The retreat leader was Ray Vander Laan, a teacher and preacher who has spent years studying the scriptures from a first-century Jewish perspective. http://rvl-on.com/about/
I have noticed in my reading of current Christian thinkers and speakers, that there seems to be a big focus on the importance of story in sharing the message of Jesus Christ. This weekend, Ray Vander Laan, also known as RVL, again brought up the importance of story, and especially that the Bible is ONE story. (This is also an emphasis in a wonderful book I recently reviewed in this blog by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet called Jesus A Theography. See link at the bottom of page).
Here is the scripture that united RVL’s teaching over the weekend: Matt 13:52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” RVL told us that the majority of the time when Jesus taught through parables, he used metaphors, symbols, types and motifs that his audience was well acquainted with from the text. Using parables, Jesus told stories that his audience thought they knew, but Jesus would change something in the setting, or expand the theme, or add a different character so that the parable took the listeners by surprise, and engaged their thinking. RVL taught that in the parables, Jesus would say in various ways that: 1. He is God 2. The kingdom of heaven is at hand 3. I am the Way, follow me.
RVL taught on three major parables, and a couple that are less well-known. He would give us the Jewish back story of each parable, then go through the text with wonderful pictures, maps or videos of the Holy Land so we could get the visual context – all of this was interspersed with Jewish phrases, words or scripture that we would that we repeat after RVL in Hebrew, jokes and short self-deprecating stories of his trips to Israel, and words of wisdom from RVL’s rabbi friends, etc. If I were to use one word to describe RVL’s teaching style it would be “passionate”. This man obviously loves the Lord and the text, and is very committed to inviting his students to share in the same “walk”.
One of the last parables we read was the Prodigal Son. At the end of the lesson, I lost my concentration and composure. I covered my face with my hands and sat there, unable to hear anything that was being said, although I knew RVL was talking. It wasn’t strictly an emotional response, but more of a realization deep in my core about how much it cost the Father (Jesus in this parable) to restore his lost son. All of this was my reaction to the phrase in the text that says (Luke 15:20) “he ran to his son”, which RVL had spent a lot of time and energy explaining to us earlier in the day. My view of the story of the Prodigal Son has been changed forever, I think.
Of course there was a lot more to the weekend, especially the fun of chatting with friends on a long car ride and being graciously welcomed into the home of Michigan friends who were as generous as they were delightful to be with. Still, the take-away for me is the power of the stories in scripture. I believe it is through the reading of scripture and the revelation of the Holy Spirit that we experience not just the history or culture of ancient Israel, not just the content of black print on white pages, but we see the very heart of God, the One who loves us here and now, and who wants us to return that love with all our heart and soul, strength and mind.
A young friend and mother of two little boys posted this on Facebook today:
“Watching my boys play with their hot wheel cars equals a fun and priceless moment in time!!”
It always makes my heart glad when parents catch sight of a quintessential moment that captures the joy of children at play. Those instances can occur fairly frequently, but the demands of raising kids while trying to keep life fairly organized can throw a veil over the fun of living with small children.
My friend’s comment brought this long-ago event to mind:
One summer afternoon at our home, when our grandson, Devin was 7 yrs old, and his cousin, Ryan was 5, I observed a parent’s ability to discern when one of those happy childhood moments was facing a big challenge.
On this day, the weather was beautiful and all the nieces, nephews and grandkids were scattered outdoors making the most of the big backyard and wooded lot. The girls had been exploring our large vegetable garden, and went walking on the many trails that surrounded it. The boys, Ryan and Devin, had been busy manipulating deck chairs and other movable objects, arranging them to make a rocket ship and using an old blanket as a launching pad. This had been the focus of their play for a couple of hours.
Eventually it was time for a meal. Ryan’s dad went out on the deck and called all the kids into the house to wash their hands and eat. Immediately, Ryan ran up to his dad and said, “Wait Dad, please wait! Devin and I are just about to blast off!”
“Oh,Oh,” I thought. “Houston, we have a problem.” I had been watching the boys, and knew this play time had been an especially exciting afternoon for them. I wondered what would happen now, since there was a distinct possibility that their plans to fly into outer space would be scrubbed.
His dad looked intently at Ryan for a few seconds and said,
“You’re just about to blast off?”
Ryan nodded his head vigorously.
“OK,” dad said, “I’ll give you boys 5 minutes to blast off. But then you have to land, come in, wash your hands and eat dinner.”
Ryan was completely satisfied with this answer, and ran down to the “rocket ship” to pass the good news to Devin. The mission had been saved! And to my mind, a “fun and priceless moment” in childhood had also been saved.
Looking back, I can see what wise a decision Ryan’s dad made. Wish I would have thought to say this at the time: “Houston, we have a solution.”