Christianity, Reviews, Writers/writing

From Tablet To Table by Leonard Sweet – a book review

NFrom Tablet To Tableothing is more intriguing, in my estimation, than to learn that an ordinary, everyday object has the potential to be transcendent. In his book From Tablet To Table, Dr. Leonard Sweet opens up the table to display the power this ubiquitous piece of furniture has to be just that – transcendent. No matter the make-up of your family – single household, community, or church; no matter the type of meal served – PBJ sandwiches, drive-thru service or potluck, Dr. Sweet tells us the family table has the potential to become a positively transformative  place for those who gather around it. It was hard for me to imagine that the table, or the lack of it, could matter so deeply to the culture or to the church. It was especially surprising to discover the pervasive connection the church has with food, and to learn that it was Jesus who led the way into this “open table” foodie lifestyle.  I never really considered the idea that Jesus’ dining pattern became a faith-forming  experience with his disciples, and their enjoyment during meals  may have looked pretty suspicious to  the Pharisees, which is probably why they accused him of being a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”(Matt 11:19) From Tablet To Table covers these surprising and engaging ideas, and many more. Presently, as far as the Western Christian church goes, there is a lot to be concerned about regarding the table says Dr. Sweet. Quoting Jean Leclerc’s definition of the gospel, “Jesus ate good food with bad people,” Dr. Sweet points out that it was the table that shaped early Christian worship, as we see in the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection meals Jesus shared with his disciples. “Food is a building block of our Christian faith. We are part of a gourmet gospel that defines itself in terms of food and table. Yet we find ourselves  at a juncture in history where we have lost the table…” The culture of today is also feeling hunger pangs for the table, and this is noted in several places in From Tablet To Table. One example is a list of “quantifiable negative effects both  physically and psychologically” on families and kids due specifically to the loss of the table. These include a negative impact on shaping vocabulary in young children, and in combating childhood obesity. On a positive note, another bit of data suggests that sitting down to a family meal three times a week can cause a student’s performance in high school and college to skyrocket – just three times a week! When I think of all the time  I put in to making sure our kids had access to special lessons and practices and performances that were expensive and long distances away, it doesn’t seem so impossible to get together for an inexpensive meal at home three times a week – especially if it could mean a better chance for kids to do well in school. The table… the family table. Who would have thought that it carries such power, and potential and promise? Who would have thought of it as transcendent? Well, Jesus did, it seems. He spent a lot of time around one, and he also made a sacrament out of bread and wine, as Dr Sweet reminds us in his book. Here is a quote from Dr. Sweet’s book that I love that may whet your appetite: “First commandment and final commandment to humans in the Bible? ‘Eat freely’, Gen 2:16 NASB, and ‘Drink freely’, Rev 22:17. Everything in between these two commands is a table, and on that table is served a life-course meal, where we feast in our hearts with thanksgiving on the very Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation: Jesus the Christ.” Why you should read this book in less than 140 characters – From Tablet To Table by Dr. Leonard Sweet is rich, rare, filling and satisfying reading. Help yourself to a copy and enjoy every morsel.

Christianity, Thinking back, Uncategorized

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!”

Christianity, Travel Stories, Uncategorized

Parables with RVL and a few close friends

Heart of Jesus
Heart of Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-A-Theography-ebook/dp/B0078FA9OW

Christianity, Reviews, Writers/writing

‘Jesus A Theography’ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola: a book review

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it is only right to warn you not to read this book just prior to going to bed – here’s why:

I was very happy to receive my copy of Jesus a Theography from Amazon. I had pre-ordered it months before and was glad that it finally had arrived. I had read a previous collaboration by Sweet and Viola called Jesus Manifesto, an important book about restoring Christ to supremacy and sovereignty in the church, and I wanted to compare the two books. So, as is my habit, I set aside a half an hour to read before going to bed, and Jesus a Theography was the book of choice. Mistake. By the time I got to page 8 in the first chapter my heart was pounding so hard that I had to get up, go for a walk, pray, think, write and try to settle myself down. It was as though the book were digitalis, a medicine used to stimulate the heart.

How did this happen? Well, I was clearly unprepared for the power of the premise upon which Jesus a Theography is based, that being that Jesus is the subject of all scripture, not just the prophecies of the Old Testament, and 90% of the New Testament (which, by the way, the authors call The First and The Second Testaments). Viola and Sweet are not only referring to the typical Messianic texts and psalms in their book. Their intention is to show ”how the Jesus story recapitulates and replays major biblical dramas and narratives of the Hebrew scriptures,” and that, “ Jesus repeats, embodies, fulfills and completes the story of Israel in Himself.”  That is a thrilling point of view, and the cause of my pounding heart, I believe.  It is also one that requires scrupulous scholarship to present well. The authors state in the introduction, “..we are not writing this book for scholars but for the general Christian population. At the same time, we have provided endnotes for the benefit of scholars, academicians, and curious minds who wish to see the sources that have influenced some of our conclusions and delve into them deeper.” I appreciate all those endnotes, as I am among the curious. I also truly enjoyed the Appendix which lists The Post-Apostolic Witnesses, those who, in their body of work, have come to the same conclusion about Jesus and the scriptures as Sweet and Viola. These are old friends such as Justin Martyr, Augustine, Chrysostom, Wesley, Bonhoeffer, and Mears; and current teachers, preachers, philosophers and writers are also listed, including N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, Eugene Peterson, John Piper and Norman Geisler, and many others.

More than the research and resources that support this book, I love the sheer beauty of the story of Christ Jesus as it appears in the pages of Jesus a Theography.  The book takes us from Christ Before Time to The Return of the King, featuring events of Christ’s life told with so much power and glory that there were times I had to cover my eyes and say with David, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, I can’t take it in.”  Psalm 139:6

So, you are warned: be prepared to deal with a fully awakened and pounding heart when you read Jesus A Theography. But what a happy warning! For one whose heart has perhaps grown somewhat  slow and sluggish in a relationship with Christ, a little digitalis in the form of a book may be just exactly what the Great Physician ordered.

Christianity, Reviews, Uncategorized

A Surprise Lenten Book

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic
Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

We are now well into Lent, a time when Christians reflect on the life of Christ, especially His final days on earth, when He suffered and died on the cross for sinners. Lent is also a time for followers of Jesus to do some introspection, and humbly ask the Holy Spirit to help us sift through our attitudes and actions, and ‘put to death’ the areas of our life that muddy-up the beauty of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I have a couple of favorites books which I read during this season, and I was not expecting to use an additional book to help me learn humility this Lent, but one came my way as a gift. It is called Viral, Dr. Leonard Sweet’s latest release, published by WaterBrook Press.

I have to admit that Leonard Sweet is one of my favorite authors. He is shamelessly in love with Jesus Christ and His church, and is constantly seeking ways to bring the two closer together. He is also an academician with a sense of humor; a semiotics expert who carries Windex with him, and a guy who, especially in this digitally driven century, is surely one of the “men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel -read ‘the church’- should do.” (l Chronicles 12:32).

Being aware of these things about Dr Sweet made me pay attention to the sub-title of Viral, which is “How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival.” The word ‘revivalis not one that is very familiar to the church of the 21st century. A Guttenberger ( according to Dr. Sweet, “those who arrived from the twentieth century bringing with them influences and assumptions launched long before in the fifteenth century… They are the product of the movable-type technology perfected by Johannes Guttenberg in the 1400’s.”) is going to notice that word ‘revival’ and recall the history of its meaning more readily than a Googler will. (A Googler is from the “digitized, globalized group that spends much of its life getting to know one another in a virtual world.”) So why is the word ‘revival ‘on the cover of this book? And why am I using Viral as part of my Lenten devotions?

I am using Viral for devotions because I caught a glimpse of my resistant, stiff-necked self in Dr Sweet’s book. Thereafter it didn’t take long for my lessons in humility to start, and a time of reflection to begin. As I read about the differences between Guttenbergers and Googlers in Viral, Dr Sweet pointed out how the Guttenberg culture, the culture to which Dr Sweet himself belongs, lost its way in the proclamation of the gospel. Becoming proficient in the skill of using the printed word, Guttenbergers became entranced with the words themselves, the systems developed, the numbers of churches built and the dollars raised as a result. In doing all these things we became distracted and forgot about our relationship with the One who loves us so; our love affair with Jesus wasn’t #1 on our list anymore. The greater our success, the more we Guttenbergers did. We recorded our events and accomplishments so we could teach other Guttenbergers how to do the things which we had done. Much good was accomplished in the name of Christ, but we forgot about the personal side of our relationship with Him. The more we used our skills at developing programs and putting by-laws in place, the further away we wandered from the Lover of our Soul, and the less we were able to establish relationships with those who were in need of Him. Our journey away from Jesus took a while, but eventually we managed to get totally absorbed in our forms, proclamations and propositions. Then out of nowhere came the Google generation, the “relationships are us” tribe, who believe that being connected to others is the only way to travel through life. Think this is a coincidence? Or is this God’s way of saying it’s time for a sweeping change? I believe this is an important question that Dr Sweet poses in Viral, and one that caused me to reflect … a lot.

Ouch. It hurts to see these faults of Guttenbergers – my faults. And what happens now? It’s pretty obvious that the digital world is expanding daily, and the Google generation with it. What should my response be? Resist? Complain? Run for the hills? Lent is a time of repentance, so repenting is probably the best place to start.  Perhaps then we can turn away from our faults and toward some very good news, which is, Dr Sweet says, that the Googlers have been designed and equipped by God to see life in an amazingly new way. And, God has put before them the wonderful possibility of being involved in a great revival by using the viral speed and power of social networking to spread the word about the greatest relationship out there, the relationship with Jesus Christ. They can, if they chose,  share the astonishing story of the One who is so concerned about us that He gave up His life for our sakes. Once Googlers know the authentic love of Jesus, they will not be shy about inviting all in their group to ‘friend’ Him, and learn more about Him, says Dr Sweet. The possibilities of this type of Christ-sharing are endless, just as the variety of apps for our digital devices is endless, and the potential results are mind-boggling.

I am very thankful to the person who sent me this book, and I now think I understand why the word ‘revival’ is on the cover. I have finished reading Viral, but am keeping it close by throughout the rest of Lent. It is a reminder that change is hard, but that the Creator God is always changing things up – doing new things. Where would any of us be if God had not done the phenomenal new thing of raising Christ from the dead?  That was the most amazing revival ever, don’t you think?

Christianity, Writers/writing

Favorite summer book of 2011

Walking the famous labyrinth on floor of Chart...
Image via Wikipedia

In
architecture, a labyrinth is a construction consisting of a path that spirals
inward; they are often inlaid in the tiled floor of a church, or in a garden
space. They are a type of puzzle, sometimes called a maze. Some have many paths
that lead to the center, but ultimately there is only one true path and one
true center. Labyrinths are places of discovery – both internal and external
discovery. To my mind, a book written in a ‘labyrinthine’ style would be a
composition that is a mystery, or a puzzle, which combines spiraling, kaleidoscopic
plot lines created to bring the reader a sense of adventure, tension,
involvement and internal and external discovery. The Seraph Seal, by Lori Wagner and Leonard Sweet, is just such a
book, and is my favorite book of the summer of 2011.

This is a
book about end times, centered on the figures of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse
– and there the comparisons to all the other end times books stops. Seraph Seal does not fit the pattern of
other end time stories, and that is one of the things I truly appreciate about this
exciting and suspenseful book. Here’s why: I think our generation has done
exactly what the generations who waited for the Lord’s first arrival did – we have
decided that Jesus must return in a tightly specific way because of our
interpretation of the scriptures. Who were the ones who completely missed
Christ’s humble birth? It was those who knew the scriptures backward and
forward, and should have been the first to recognize Him. The Seraph Seal made
me think differently about Christ’s second coming. I had to take a serious look
at the way I put God’s Word in a strangle-hold of my own interpretation. That
was a moment of internal discovery for me.

As in his
non-fiction, Dr. Sweet has made good use of the information in our present age
to help us imagine the future. Technologies, social networking, imperiled
earth, air, fire and water, and a non or anti-Christian culture in America and
the world ring too true to be comfortable. In fact, my only criticism of the
book is that it is so dark. I don’t know whose idea it was, Dr Sweet’s or Ms
Wagner’s, to include the character Seraphim in the book, but I am very thankful
for the beautiful image and levity that the hymn singing bird brings to the story!

Another
valuable discovery, an external one this time,  was that as much as I want a ‘new heaven and a
new earth’ to appear (Rev 21:1), I cannot expect anything new to come
painlessly. It was hard to read page after page of destruction described as the
old earth fell away in The Seraph Seal. And yet, there must be some kind of
tearing down of the old to have anything new appear. It made me pay closer
attention the first two words of the five word prayer that John the Revelator
exclaims at the conclusion of the book of Revelation, “Even so, come Lord
Jesus.”

I loved the
ending of the Seraph Seal, too. It was surprising, imaginative and hopeful:
like the well being we feel when a mystery has been solved, or when we have
walked successfully through a labyrinth.