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.
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.
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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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 ‘revival‘ is 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?