Today is Maundy Thursday, the day when Christians recall Jesus’ Last Supper before his death on the cross. The gathering that Jesus entered into with his disciples on this night was the Jewish celebration of the Passover meal. At Passover, the ancient Story of God’s Covenants with and faithfulness to Israel are recalled. On this particular Passover, the Last Supper, Jesus added a new chapter, a New Covenant, to the Story. This New Covenant, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” (John 13:34) helps us to grasp that the Story, the Bible, is not primarily a collection of rules, it is a love Story.
All of us have a story. I wonder, who holds the copyright to your story? Apple? Amazon? People Magazine? Jesus made sure he cited the source of his Story: “I don’t speak on my own authority. The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it.” (John 12:49). Maundy Thursday is a good day to remember stories, and to ask ourselves if the righteous one, Jesus, holds the copyright to our story.
Speaking of stories, here is a touching tale. Sadly, I have lost the name of the person who originally shared this anecdote, but it is so good I wanted to share it with you. If you know the author of this piece, please email me and I will gladly cite the source. Thanks!
“A woman had held a Bible study in her home for a number of years. One day, a young neighbor and new member of the Bible study group stopped by to talk to the hostess. The new Bible student expressed her concern about the way the Old Testament stories were going. ‘So much violence and confusion, and such terrible things are happening,’ she said. ‘You know what this Story needs?’ the woman offered, ‘It needs a hero.’ At this, the hostess of the Bible study took the young woman’s hands in her own, looked into her eyes and said, ‘Keep reading. He’s coming.’ ”
Image is of “The Last Supper” by artist Janefargo.
Author Leonard Sweet’s mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet, shines like the finest gold in Sweet’s most recent book and semi-memoir, “Mother Tongue: How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story” (NavPress, 2017).Written using the metaphor of a memory box, Sweet presents his family’s story by employing chapters titled with memory box “artefacts,” for example, “Ma’s Wedding Ring, Dad’s Hellevision,” “Polio Braces,” “Lye Soap,” and twenty-two others. Sweet composes the chapters as spectacular dioramas or stage settings so that the reader can step directly into the home and lives of the remarkable family of Leonard L. and the Reverend Mabel Boggs Sweet and their sons, Leonard I., Philip, and John.
Although Mother Tongue is the tale of the Leonard L. Sweet family, Mable Boggs Sweet was the powerful hub of that tribe and home – and what a home it was. Set on “Hungry Hill” in the town of Gloversville, N.Y., Mabel Boggs Sweet, “an early woman preacher, a church planter, and lay theologian,” (xxiii) took a low profile in public ministry after her marriage and the birth of her three sons. She shifted her outreach from the tent meetings of her time to her boys, whom she saw as her new mission field, and she made their home a “religious community.”(51) Had Rod Dreher been writing “The Benedict Option” (PenguinRandomHouse, 2017) then, he might have used the Sweet household as his model for Christian family life.
Mabel Boggs Sweet, a dynamic Pilgrim Holiness preacher, instituted a family pattern of prayer, Bible study, evangelism, and excellence in academics and musical skills for her sons. Sweet, in his evocative and image-rich way, makes clear that these activities were done to form Christ in the Sweet boys, and with a heart for reaching the lost. Not one to keep the good news of Jesus Christ to herself, the boys struggled with their Mother’s outgoing style of evangelism. Even so, writes Sweet, “In spite of all the embarrassment as kids growing up, we got the sense that to be a follower of Jesus is to be heir to an extraordinary heritage, host to the very Son of God, and harbinger of a promised future….”
In the chapter that features the artefact of an “Upright Piano and Soundtrack for the Soul,” Leonard Sweet describes the way in which Mabel Boggs Sweet put her boys to bed: “But mostly Mother would tuck us in musically. We would call down hymns we wanted her to play, and she would either play them by memory or look them up in one of the many hymnbooks scattered on the piano or stored inside the bench. If a radio pulls sound out of the air, prayer pulls sounds out of the heart. The assumption was that our musical requests would reflect the need of our hearts at that moment. There was hardly a problem that didn’t have disharmony as its cause, and there was hardly a problem that a song couldn’t cure.”
It is clear in Mother Tongue that Jesus was first and foremost in Mabel Boggs Sweet’s mind and heart, and she imparted the Jesus-way of life to her boys. This could lead one to believe that peace and perfection were everywhere in their home, but not so. The Sweet clan was a fully human family in our get-real modern world. Together they experienced rejection and shunning from church leaders and fellow church members, suffered the physical results of professional medical negligence, endured the brutal effects of polio, and lived through the destructive, rebellious years of teenage children. Despite these devastations, Mabel Boggs Sweet persevered as she followed her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and clung to the Truth in her role as a mother and a preacher.
“Mother Tongue: How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story” is a frankly intimate and revealing book. Pain is present in these pages, but humor, beauty, love and wisdom are paramount. There is no doubt about who the central character of the narrative is, or what heritage has been passed from Mother to sons in this story: it is Jesus Christ – King, Shepherd, Lord, and Lover of Mabel Boggs Sweet’s soul.
Mabel Boggs Sweet’s life was lived in the Refiners fire, a complex process that produces the finest gold. Her life of burnished gold is truly the most precious artefact in “Mother Tongue” and is what shines so luminously in Leonard Sweet’s outstanding book.
The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us the Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong
by Leonard Sweet
Happy New Year! Have you made any New Year’s resolutions yet? If not, maybe this is the year to think about initiating some “bad habits.” The Bad Habits of Jesus (Tyndale, 2016) by Leonard Sweet is a fascinating commentary on this very edgy aspect of Jesus’ ministry style. Sweet’s cliché-crushing book is captivating and provocative: while it extols Jesus’ reputation as a remarkable teacher, it also addresses many questions about Jesus’ radical approach to life. Sweet, with his sagacious wordsmithing skills, has given readers a world-tilting look at the way in which Jesus, through his unorthodox bad habits, refracted, refashioned, and redirected the Jewish lifestyle of his day.
Written in short, fast-paced chapters, Sweet has chosen to present fifteen of Jesus’ surprising behaviors — activities that would probably raise eyebrows in polite society even now. Jesus frequently did and said things in his ministry that pushed past well-established societal and religious boundaries. As Sweet reviews these controversial events he brushes back familiar notions about the accounts as though they were cobwebs and presents to the reader fresh and culturally perceptive impressions of the incidents.
One insightful chapter in The Bad Habits of Jesus is “Jesus Spent Too Much Time With Children.” Sweet explains that children in Jesus’ day were considered, at best, to be nuisances. With that in mind, one can imagine the confusion and irritation of those who heard Jesus proclaim that to enter the Kingdom of God one must become like a little child! Sweet asks, “Why was Jesus’ sensitivity to children so heightened, which was so strikingly out of sync with the dominant cultural norm of his day? Maybe Jesus was stalked by the nightmarish Massacre of the Innocents that attended his birth… The Prince of Peace entered this world only to prompt the piercing cries of innocent children being slaughtered. It was a soundtrack surely his soul could never mute.” (115,124)
Another chapter that I value highly is “Jesus Enjoyed the Company of Women (Not Just Men).” Jesus, who was unmarried and had an inner circle of twelve male disciples, was unfailingly kind and compassionate to the women who came to hear him. Sweet writes, “In the Scriptures, we see numerous encounters Jesus had with women. In addition to the woman at the well, Jesus did not scold the woman who touched his robe as he traveled, but commended her faith. He did not automatically condemn an adulteress but spoke with her and forgave her sins. He healed a woman with demons, believed to be Mary of Magdala, who then became one of his most trusted disciples. We know of women who funded Jesus ministry…” (151-152) Jesus’ association with women astonished everybody, says Sweet, “even his own disciples.”
As the consummate rabbi, the deeds and words of Jesus — including the disturbing ones — were intended to teach about God and God’s Kingdom. The subtitle of Sweet’s book points this out telling us that Jesus’ bad habits are meant for “Showing Us The Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong.” Here is the counterintuitive, paradoxical outcome for Jesus’ startling conduct: undeniably good results came from what was judged to be bad behavior at the time.
It might seem that a book about Jesus’ bad habits could leave a poor impression of Jesus on the reader, but rather, in giving us the lowdown on Jesus’ bad habits, Sweet has lifted Christ high revealing his love and compassion for the marginalized, the penalized and the disenfranchised.
The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us the Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong by Leonard Sweet is crisp and refreshing; it will certainly prompt the reader to reconsider the well known and often quoted stories about Jesus. The book’s short, stand-alone sections make it a great volume to read on the run; it would also be a great book to read with friends, especially so because a discussion guide is included in the final chapter. Treat yourself to a copy of The Bad Habits of Jesus and meet the passionate, spirited Messiah who amazed the masses and scandalized the religious authorities of first-century Jerusalem. It’s the perfect book to start the new year — you might even find a few bad habits of Jesus that you want to develop as you enter 2017.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2 To start with, I almost didn’t sit next to her because of a seating error. By the time everything was corrected, I had to move several seats further back in the plane. I caught sight of a golden head of hair and heard a melodious voice say , “Hi,” as I schlepped my belongings to a seat that was very close to the bathrooms. “Hi,” I mumbled as I glanced her way. I was being anti-social for a good reason; on the hour drive in to the airport I had come down with a cold. Has that ever happened to you? At 8:30 a.m. you are as healthy as a ripe tomato, and by 9:30 a.m. you have a headache, intense sinus pressure, runny eyes and nose, and a cough, with three hours on an airplane coming up. Once on the plane, I was trying to disappear into my seat so that I wouldn’t be ejected bodily from the jam-packed Delta flight by passengers who were thinking, “It’s her! The one with Kleenex falling out of her pockets. She’s the Jonah who brought a plague into the aircraft! Throw her out the cargo doors.”
Even before the cold bug dragged me down me, I had been living with a mill stone tied around my heart. I was on my way to visit a sister, the dearest of saints, hoping and praying that, by God’s grace, forgiveness would be extended and a relationship would be restored; but I knew there was no guarantee that either of those things would happen. Then this cold had descended like a judgement – was it a sign that I should wait until another time to bring up tough questions? Should I play the “I’m sick” card and let my sainted sister care for me, as I knew she would? Or was the cold a diversionary tactic, an irritating distraction, meant to thwart the purpose of the trip? I blew my nose and pondered these things.
In my seat, I turned 45 uncomfortable degrees away from my seatmate to decrease the possibility of cross-contamination from my cold germs. It wasn’t until the attendants came with the food cart that I faced directly forward. Both my seatmate and I decided to partake of the snacks offered. We both stowed the books we had been reading and put our trays down, but before she put it away, I saw that my neighbor was reading a study on the book of Ephesians. Ephesians! A surge of Holy Spirit electricity shot through me. Soon, the flight attendant came by with bread and wine – well, lukewarm coffee and pretzels, actually, but it might as well have been the elements, because a gracious communion meal began right there at the back of the plane.
And we did commune, finding a lot of common ground: we were both from families of ten children; both raised Catholic; both of us had sisters who had taken vows in a community of nuns; both of us were facing challenges within our birth families, and we both were following the One we love, the Lord Jesus, into new places.
My seatmate’s name, I finally learned, was Meg. Meg asked the most amazing, generous questions, about my life and family, and the reason for my trip home; she also asked questions about the dearest of saints that I was going to visit. The two of us exchanged a lot of information in the short period of time we had together. Just before the plane landed, Meg turned to me and said, “I can see that the enemy could really cause trouble in this situation with your family. I would like to pray for you – may I?” I looked into her blue eyes, and nodded yes. Meg then prayed for my health, peace, open hearts, healing, pure motives and the presence of the Holy Spirit to direct all events. She prayed for other things, too, but I don’t know what they were because at that moment I began to realize what I was experiencing: God had sent a messenger, an angel – albeit a flesh and blood one – to minister to me on this difficult journey home, and I was overwhelmed with amazement and thanksgiving. When Meg said “Amen”, I asked if I could pray for her, also. In my prayer for Meg, which was one of gratitude for God’s tender care in all areas of Meg’s life, and an acknowledgement that what the Lord does “is marvelous in our eyes,” I thanked God for sending a ministering angel named Meg to sit next to me on the plane. Meg did not dispute that this was true, so I have decided that until Meg or the Lord says otherwise, I will believe that God did provide an angel that day to encourage His ill, crabby and troubled child.
Meg and I said our goodbyes as we deplaned. She came across my line of vision one more time as she walked jauntily down a long corridor to the main doors of the airport. I saw her from the back, her hair golden and shining, but there were no other signs of heaven around her – that I could identify, anyway.
The visit with my sister went very well. It was a good, difficult, painful, scary and beautiful four days. We talked, prayed, laughed, cried and got angry, but we spoke the truth in love to each other. Forgiveness flowed and healing began – even my cold got better fairly quickly. My sister is the dearest of saints to me – but she is as human as they come; as fatally flawed as me and the rest of the human race. I am so very happy, and relieved, that it was possible for us to spend time together, and that the time was God honoring and fruitful. I made my way home from that visit filled with hope.
And Meg? Was she an angel or an earthling? Well, I have tried to reach her via email; there has been no response – yet – so the jury is still out on that question. But no matter what the outcome, whether she is of earth or of heaven, she was most certainly a gift of encouragement from God at a time when I desperately needed it, for which I am very thankful.