Prof Karen Swallow is an amazing teacher. Once I can get all of the class members together I will post a group picture. The gentlemen sitting with Karen in the cafeteria are attendees of the Glen Workshop who aren't in her class this year. At lunch they had some questions about Flannery – which she was happy to answer.
Shirley Dobson told this story many years ago at a Women of Faith gathering in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is how I remember it:
Shirley and her husband had been associated with a rural retreat center for many years. It was a breathtaking location with many wooded paths lacing through the hilly acreage. During one of their stays at the center, Shirley was struggling with a burden that was all consuming. She told us that she prayed about it constantly, but could not escape her worries. Eventually, she came upon on a plan: she decided to find a rock to represent her concerns then place it at the foot of a favorite tree along a trail at the center. In that way, she said, she could physically surrender her anxiety to God and be free of it. Shirley did this and a sense of relief filled her.
Time passed. When Shirley was next at the retreat center the news was announced that the property had been sold, and the grounds would soon be closed. Shirley immediately thought of her “burden” rock at the base of the tree and ran quickly to the site to collect it. When she arrived at the spot, she saw that the roots of the tree had grown over her rock. There was no possible way for her to take it back – to pick up her burden again. She had given it to God and he obviously intended to keep it.
Shirley explained how shocked and embarrassed she was when she saw the rock… and how thankful. She told us that she then realized a pattern in her life: she would give her burdens to God in prayer, but later take them back again, convinced that God was not up to the task of caring for her problems. Seeing the rock, her burden, embedded in the soil, surrounded by the roots of the tree taught her the truth of the matter – God is able and God is faithful.
If you ever get the opportunity to speak to a three-year-old, ask them this question: “How old are you?” Chances are they will look you in the eye, hold up three fingers and say, “Free.” Ginny Junttila, my sister Claudia’s mother-in-law, who was a kindergarten teacher for decades, told me she had asked this question of many three-year-old children over the years and almost all of them had responded the same way. And then Ginny added, “Isn’t that lovely? Everyone should have a year to be “free,” don’t you think?”
Yes, I do think everyone should have a year, or more, to be free. And a place to be free, also. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christian churches were thought of as places where one is free? places where one is free to ask questions about Jesus and other important subjects? places where one is free to discover what it means to be truly human?
Perhaps we need to change our adult thinking and regain the unselfconscious mind of a three-year-old in order to grasp what it means to be free, to live in freedom in Christ.
“He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ ” (Matthew 18:2-4) NIV
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.
As my husband and I were walking into church on Sunday, I could hear laughter spilling out of the kitchen. Barely in the door, John, my husband, immediately engaged a friend in conversation; I turned toward the laughter. I walked across the spacious, light-filled foyer, past the comfortable couches and clusters of tables and chairs occupied by adults and kids, then glided by the large area where outerwear is hung up, highchairs are stored, and the church pigeon-hole style mailboxes fill an entire wall. Fair warning! If you attend Bethel with any regularity, you will be assigned a mailbox and will regularly be encouraged to fetch out the information.
I swerved deftly into the church kitchen and asked why everyone was laughing. My friend Terri held up a note card.
“A funny ‘Thank You’ note?” I queried.
“Not exactly,” said my friend. “What’s funny is that no one knows who this note is for. It is not addressed to anyone but simply says, ‘I want to thank you for the delicious dinner you brought for our family last week. The kids and I enjoyed it all. Your wonderful meal was a real time saver.Thank you again. Anna’ ”
“I found the note in my mailbox last Sunday, “Terri explained,” but I was not the one who made the meal. I thought, ‘This thank you note must be for Norma; she’s always making meals for others.’ So I put the note in her mailbox.
“When Norma picked up her mail on Tuesday before Coffee Break Bible study she read the note and said, ‘I wonder why I got this? I didn’t make dinner for Anna’s family. It must be Ginny’s.’ And Norma put the note in Ginny’s mailbox.
“Ginny came in on Thursday for prayer group and collected her mail. When she read the thank you letter she said, ‘Oh no! This is in the wrong mailbox! I didn’t help with that meal. It is probably meant for Barb,’ and she slipped the envelope into Barb’s mail slot.
“Barb came in early this morning to attend to the communion trays, spied something in her mailbox, found the thank you note and read it. She considered the situation and decided, ‘This card is not supposed to be in my mail. I better check with the women in the kitchen this morning. They will know who should get this lovely thank you note. ‘ ”
“And whose is it?” I asked.
“No one knows!” burst out Terri. “Did you make a meal for Anna and her family?” she asked me. I shook my head no.
I never did learn who made the meal for Anna and her children, but I love this story. It says so much about the women of Bethel Church:
- They care for those in need.
- They don’t take credit for an act of kindness they didn’t do.
- They assume the charitable act was done by another and want them to receive the thanks for it.
- They see the humor in what might be judged an aggravating situation, and…
- They check their mailboxes!
I lost the quote for the article I was writing, then I lost my patience and finally, I lost my cool. Why, oh why didn’t I use a post-it note to mark the quote in the book? Too busy? Too lazy? Too proud? All three?
This frustrating moment conjured up for me the ending of an old story. Remember the glorious conclusion of Noah’s Ark? “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Gen 9:16) What a revelation! The first sticky-note reminder ever produced was the rainbow which God stuck in the sky as a prompt to himself that the earth would never again be destroyed by a flood. The rainbow, this gorgeous, vast, visual statement of count-to-ten restraint and love is not primarily a reminder directed toward us, it’s a reminder meant for God – imagine that! If God uses post-it notes to help his memory, then what’s my problem?
“With humility comes wisdom,” says Proverbs. And it appears that a few post-it notes can’t hurt, either.
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.
“There’s no blood on the pulpit this morning.”This is what Mabel Boggs Sweet, mother of Leonard Sweet, the author of Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching, would say if she were listening to a bad sermon. Mabel Boggs Sweet was a preacher herself and, therefore, had earned the right to make such an assessment. But then, don’t all of us who listen to a preacher’s message make a judgement every week about what we have heard? What makes a sermon bad or good? Why is it some preachers can make us levitate with joy as we listen to them, and some make us want to leave the building through the closest exit? And especially in this visual age, how can a preacher deliver a dazzling, image rich message? Is there a way to preach to and reach this generation of sermon listeners?
Giving Blood (2014 Zondervan) was written to offer a fresh transfusion of life to those who have been called to write and deliver sermons. Dr. Leonard Sweet, who is one of the most creative and engaging preachers you will ever hear, has written over 1500 sermons and understands the process, pain and passion of this vocation. He also understands that it is way past time that preachers were equipped with skills to interact in the TGIF – Twitter, Google, Instagram, Facebook – world. Drawing on his background in semiotics, preaching and teaching, and incorporating the use of narraphor (narrative + metaphor), Sweet expertly and invitingly encourages preachers to review, rethink and renew their approach to telling the story of Jesus. “Semiotic preaching differs from traditional sermon building in its insistence on seeing the sermon itself as an incarnational medium..In semiotic preaching we return to the roots of our faith, and to a form of conveying truth favored by Jesus himself.”
A word about the organization of the book. Sweet uses blood as a metaphor throughout his book as the framework for the content. The title, sections, chapters and “labs” are all identified with names that are related to blood: blood types, streams, flow, cells, vessels, thinners, poisoning, etc. Rarely does a metaphor lend itself to such broad use without breaking down somewhere. Yet in Giving Blood the metaphor of blood holds up throughout the book’s entirety, and in all its applications.
Many people consider the use of the word “blood” to be politically incorrect and offensive, and therefore to be avoided at all cost. Sweet mentions in the Introduction that he did his best to come up with another more suitable less controversial metaphor for preaching, but could not find one. “Something kept pulling me back to this biological symbol for life and the organizing symbol of the Christian faith. The metaphor kept me in its grip no matter how hard I tried to wrestle free. What you hold in your hands is my surrender and my limping free of that street fight.” I believe the reader will see that using blood as the metaphor for preaching in Giving Blood was not only the right choice but its use brings unity to the many facets of the topic in an ingenious way.
For anyone who is interested in sermons and preaching for any reason, including critiquing a weekly sermon, I recommend reading Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching. Even as a layperson, it was a fascinating and enlightening book.
Full disclosure: I am not a preacher, pastor, elder or deacon, but I do participate in a weekly church service. I read an early version of this book. My opinions are my own.
Nothing 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.