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.

 

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.

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

The Wedding Guest – Part 3

Cake topper courtesy Amy Cloutier Photography

Cake topper photo courtesy Amy C Photography

 

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

Hula girl angel

The Wedding Guest – Part 2

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Once they knew Mara had permission to come to their wedding, Thad and Bailey also understood that Mara would need a dress to wear, so they made a date with her to go dress shopping.

When the day came to pick up Mara for the shopping trip, Thad and Bailey drove to her house only to learn that she and her family had been evicted. Bailey and Thad asked neighbors if they knew where the family had gone. One neighbor had heard the family had taken up residence in a tent on a farm, and gave them directions to the location. When they arrived at the farm, Mara and her family were no longer there.  They were told by the farmer that the children, Mara and her two younger siblings, had gone to the home of a shirt-tail relative and her boyfriend, who, seeing that the children were hungry, dirty and suffering,  kindly allowed the kids to stay with them in a duplex home on the edge of town. The farmer gave them general directions to the home of the couple.  This is where Thad and Bailey found Mara and her brother and sister. The parents had left the children there, and gone on their way. Mara, after all the  difficulties of moving from place to place,  was very happy and relieved  to see Bailey and Thad, and  glad they had been able to find her so they could go on the much anticipated clothes shopping date.

The shopping date fell on a hot, sunny day, and as they left the duplex Mara asked where they were going to go look for a dress.  “Houghton,” Bailey replied. Houghton is approximately 13 miles from Calumet. It has a small mall with a couple of department stores that would allow for some selection for Mara’s clothes.

“Houghton!” Mara said, “Oh no! We have to walk so far and it’s so hot!”

Taken aback by her dismay, Thad quickly explained, “We don’t have to walk, Mara. We have a car, and the car has air conditioning.”

“You have a car?  And air conditioning?” As soon Mara understood that this trip was going to be comfortable, a look of relief filled her eyes. “OK! Let’s go!”

As they climbed into the car Bailey asked Mara if she was hungry. “Starving,” she answered. So the first stop was lunch at  McDonald’s.

After lunch came the trip to  JC Penney. Mara had never been to a retail clothing store before. Almost all of her clothes were from the Community Free Store in Calumet, so this was an exciting time, and Mara was in awe of everything she saw at Penneys.  The three eventually made their way to the dress department, which had a broad selection of clothing in Mara’s size. As Mara picked out dresses to try on,  Bailey became   puzzled over  Mara’s choices. None of the dresses she tried on were really suitable for a wedding.  Eventually Bailey  guessed that the reason Mara was so smitten with those particular dresses was that each one had an inexpensive decorative necklace attached to the collar – and jewelry was something that the little girl loved but didn’t own. Bailey confirmed with Mara that it was the necklace that she liked best about the dresses, then said, “Let’s find a different dress that will be nice  to wear to the wedding, and you can find a necklace to go with it, OK?” Mara agreed. They found a dress and necklace that pleased Bailey, Mara and Thad, too,  whose approval was sought by Mara when she came twirling out of the changing room as she tried on each dress.  A pair of new shoes completed the ensemble. The threesome then went to the check-out center to pay for the purchases.  When Mara saw the total cost of the items flash up on the cash register,  she was distraught.

“No you can’t do that,” she cried. “It’s too expensive!  I will put the necklace back!”

Thad and Bailey took Mara aside and quietly assured her that everything was fine, that they were very happy to purchase the items she had picked out and not to worry about the cost, which was not very much at all. It took some time to convince her, but eventually Mara was able to receive and enjoy the clothing that she would soon wear to the wedding.

As the wedding date came closer, Mara asked about the cake topper, and was curious to see a picture of it on the wedding cake. Bailey explained that there wasn’t anything to see yet because the cake was almost the last thing to be done for the wedding since it needed to be freshly baked and decorated for the big day. This answer seemed to satisfy Mara, but privately, Bailey wondered what solution Sheila had found for Mara’s gift of the 1970’s cake topper. Time was passing quickly. Mara had endured a lot of disappointments in her young life, and Bailey hoped the gift of the cake topper would not be another one.

The Wedding Guest – Part 1

Pastel colored jelly beans

Several years ago Bailey Takala, an  almost 20-something, met Mara Jarl , a friendly, tow-headed, blue-eyed first grader.  Bailey was attending university then,  but made it a priority to volunteer at a local Calumet, Michigan elementary school in an  afterhours program called Great Explorations. Bailey had been a volunteer for the program since her high school years. Mara was one of the students enrolled in Great Explorations, and after their initial meeting at GE, Mara and Bailey became fast friends.   When Mara learned that Bailey lived  close to her house, she rode her bike over to visit Bailey almost every afternoon.  On one of her visits to Bailey’s, Mara spotted a candy dispensing machine that had M&Ms in it. She was fascinated by the device – a type of gumball machine – and loved to turn the handle, watch the candy tumble down and eat a few M&Ms while she was visiting. “How did they get those M&Ms in there?” was a frequent question and a great mystery to the 6 year old. Initially Bailey strictly limited the number of M&M’s  Mara ate so that the candy would not ruin her appetite for supper, but it wasn’t long before Bailey and Jan, Bailey ‘s mother,  realized that whatever Mara ate at their house might be the only food she would get for the rest of the day. Over time Takala ‘s began to realize how destitute Mara’s family was, and they started to offer Mara nourishing food in generous amounts, which Mara never turned down. But seeing that the candy was a special treat, Takala ‘s made sure that the candy machine was always full of M&Ms for Mara.

About 4 years after Mara and Bailey struck up their friendship,  Bailey became engaged to her high school sweetheart, Thad Johnson, whom Mara had come to know through his many visits to Takala’s.   Bailey spoke often of her upcoming wedding, and  Mara was always excited to hear about the plans for Bailey and Thad’s big day, which was going to be at the height of summer –  a very beautiful time of year in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Because Mara was so interested in all the wedding discussion, Bailey invited Mara to the wedding, and to her bridal shower, also. Mara was extremely happy to be included in the momentous occasions, and looked forward to them both as only a child can.

On the day of the bridal shower Bailey and Mara had time to talk about what a shower was, who would be attending and what kinds of things happen at a shower. During the festivities Mara enjoyed meeting Bailey ‘s  extended family and friends, and eating the wonderful food that was prepared for the guests. Mara also watched with great interest as Bailey opened her shower gifts, but the highlight of the afternoon for Mara was the cup of M&M’s that she got to eat all by herself.

Two weeks before the wedding, Mara came over to Bailey ‘s with a  plastic bag that was rather balloon-shaped and presented it to Bailey as a gift for her and Thad.  Bailey was very touched at Mara’s generosity.  She said, “Thank you Mara! But you didn’t have to get us anything for our wedding.”   Mara ignored Bailey ‘s concerns and insisted that she put the gift down carefully on the table and open it, which Bailey did. What Bailey  found inside was a wedding cake topper circa 1970, complete with a large domed circular base sporting a plastic bride and groom standing in front of a big, lacey plastic heart.  It also appeared that the topper still had remnants of frosting from the cake it had adorned so many years ago. As Mara  and Bailey gazed at the plastic decoration, Mara offered a brief explanation for her choice of a wedding gift: “Just in case you get to have a cake at your wedding.” Bailey again  tried to gently tell Mara that she shouldn’t have used the little money  she had to buy a wedding gift, but Mara said, “No problem, Bailey! It’s from the Community Free Store!”

Mara went happily home, confident that she had chosen just the right gift for Bailey and Thad’s wedding. Bailey, on the other hand, had a dilemma: how could she honor the gift from her little friend but not actually use it on the cake since she had already chosen and paid for a cake topper herself? Bailey  called  Sheila Thompson, the woman who was making her wedding cake. Sheila worked at the school, knew many of the kids in the GE program, and understood how important it would be for Mara to have her cake topper used at the wedding reception.

“Don’t worry, Bailey,” Sheila said, “I will think of something. It will work out just fine.” Sheila was both compassionate and capable, and Bailey trusted her with finding the best answer to the cake topper challenge.

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

Music, minor miracles, and more

A Fishing Lesson with King Solomon

A friend and I were talking about fishing, which I love, when he told me about a fishing festival that takes place in southern Minnesota in June. It is called “Bullhead Days”. For those who may be  unfamiliar, the bullhead is a species of catfish. The brown bullhead is also widely known as the “mud pout” or simply “mud cat.” bigbullheadwagontrain[1] It is not a thing of beauty, and although they are fun to catch, they are not generally a sought-after fish. In fact, bullheads are considered a nuisance by many anglers. I think it is a great idea to have a festival to celebrate the undervalued, under-appreciated and unlovely bullhead. Why not allow this fish to have a day in which to reap laurels? And I wish the many fisher-folk attending Bullhead Days in Watertown, MN all the best.

Thinking of Bullhead Days brought back memories of fishing in my own hometown one warm June evening many years ago. It was a Saturday night and I was fishing alone on the shores of Lake Fremont. I was fishing solo because my husband, John, had decided to go fishing with his boss, Bill, instead of me. I was miffed at John because I was told that this was a ‘guys only’ fishing trip in a well-appointed fishing boat on a big lake, Lake Mille Lacs, some fifty miles north. I did a slow burn as John packed his things and drove away.

“Fine!” I thought defiantly.”I will simply get my rod and tackle box and go fishing by myself!” And I did.

I was very new to fishing at the time, but I gathered a few supplies, bought some bait, put them all in a clean five-gallon paint bucket and drove to little Lake Fremont, about 3 miles from home. I had heard that sunfish – a lovely, tasty little pan fish – were plentiful in Lake Fremont. I longed for quick success so that I could bring a some sunnies home to cook-up for a meal, but  after an hour of bobber fishing, I had caught  nothing but bullheads. I tried a few maneuvers to see if I could attract the enchanting and delectable sunfish instead of the ugly bullhead. I changed bait. I changed hooks. I also tried a couple of different locations along the lake’s edge, but nothing seemed to make any difference – I caught only bullheads. I had moved about 100 feet south along the lake once again when a little white truck pulled up close to where I was standing. In the back of the little truck was a little green rowboat. A Native American guy got out of the little truck and slid the little boat from the truck bed and onto the shore in one smooth motion that seemed magical to me. He must have been watching me fish as he got ready to launch the boat because when I pulled in another bullhead he asked quietly,

“You fishing for bullheads?”

I shook my head “no” as I carefully took the bullhead off my hook. “Sunnies,” was all I said.

“Your hook is set too deep for sunnies – you are in the mud,”  he offered, almost speaking to himself.

I tried to make eye contact with him, but he was concentrating on throwing gear into the little green boat.

“Thank you,” I said to the back of his head.

He raised his hand absently, then got into his little boat, stretched out and pulled away. I didn’t see him again that night, or any other night that I went fishing on Lake Fremont. But he was right. I got my sinker and hook off the bottom, up out of the mud, and started pulling in lots of sunnies. I had a great time, bringing in several good-sized sunnies and releasing many others.

I also enjoyed showing John my catch the next morning, and I tried not to gloat – much – when I learned that he and Bill had gotten skunked in their efforts to bring home trophy walleye from the large and beautiful Lake Mille Lacs. I never did fess up to the good advice I’d received from the Native American guy, the advice that turned a frustrating, miserable fishing outing into a fun and profitable evening. But in my happy fishing heart, I blessed that quiet, generous man, and asked God to give him many successful fishing trips in his little green boat.

It wasn’t until much, much later that the broader application of the kind man’s words dawned on me. I wonder if you caught it? I believe that wise fisherman deserves to be called King Solomon, don’t you?

“And He causes me to come up from a pit of desolation — from the mire of mud, And He raises my feet up on a rock, He is establishing my steps.” Ps 40:2

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.

Moonlighting

English: Laurium Historic District Laurium MI

English: Laurium Historic District Laurium MI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In November of  this year, my friend Tracey Finck and I flew to Ocean City, NJ, to meet with Dr. Leonard Sweet http://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.

Isaiah 52:7

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!”

How to be a Superhero

Vintage floral bath towels

Vintage floral bath towels (Photo credit: Idlepines)

I have six sisters, most of whom have been written about in King-family stories that have found their way into digital print on my blog in the last few years. This story is about one of my younger sisters, Claudia.

Claudia is beautiful, gentle, quiet, and has a very contagious laugh. She thoroughly enjoys antiques and gardens. She also loves children. She and her husband Dan have seven kids. The first four, Jake, Anna, Nick and Joe, came pretty quickly. Then there was a space of six years before Tyler, Abbey and Jesse were born.

One summer day when Tyler, Abbey and Jesse were 6, 4 and 3 years old, Claudia and the kids were playing make believe. Each of them, Claudia included, pretended to be a superhero. To add to the fun, Claudia had devised homemade capes by safety-pinning old bath towels to the back of their shirts. You can imagine the exploits and adventures that took place in the kitchen, living room and out into the front yard, with great leaps from the stairs and fast treks around the house causing capes to flare and flap.

Eventually the demands of family life, and the need for naps, broke into play time. After the kids were asleep,  Claudia asked to Nick stay with the younger kids as she ran errands in and around town, one of which was going to the local public golf course to pick up Jake.

When Claudia got to the golf course Jake wasn’t there, so she went into the clubhouse and spoke to the golf pro who was at the desk. She asked him to tell Jake that she couldn’t wait for him since she had another child to pick, but that she would be back to get him in about twenty minutes.

When Jake got to the clubhouse he checked at the desk to see if his mom had come. The golf pro asked, “What does your Mom look like?” Jake told him. The pro said, ”Well, a lady who fits that description came to the desk asking for you. But you know it was kind of odd; she had a towel pinned to the back of her shirt.” Jake said, “Yep, that’s her.” The golf pro stared at Jake for a few seconds, then said, “She’ll be back for you in twenty minutes.”

Here’s what I love about this story – not just that Claudia knows how to have fun and do imaginative play with her kids, although that would be enough to make me cherish this story forever. There are a couple deeper take-aways, too:

1. Some people recognize superheroes when they see them, and some people don’t. Jake knew immediately that the be-toweled woman who came to pick him up was his Mom, The Superhero. The golf pro didn’t have a clue.

2. It’s easy to think that playing with children is beneath us as adults – that it’s a waste of time, or is kind of embarrassing and un-dignified. But it’s not. It’s simply what a superhero does. Ask any kid – they know what  superheroes act like. And they can always spot a superhero when they see one, too, whether you‘re wearing your cape or not.