Mother Tongue: How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story
By Leonard Sweet
–Review by Paula Jones
In Leonard Sweet’s latest offering, he offers his readers the best he has to offer––his mother. And because mothers usually have the greatest influence of anyone on our lives, and because in Sweet’s own words, “Mothers cast long, long shadows,” his mother’s story is in many ways his own story.
The Christ-inebriated life of Mabel Boggs Sweet can best be summed up by 1 Corinthians 2:2- For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Obsessively in love with Jesus, and committed to be faithful to his calling, she chose a life of continual crucifixion with Christ. Consequently, her life was filled with the trouble of a determined disciple. She was rejected by her church; her home was shunned by family members; and the institutional church attempted to prevent her from pursuing the call to preach by recalling her credentials. Nevertheless she persisted as an epitome of faithfulness, sustained both by the present grace of Jesus and the future hope of his realized Kingdom. Her faith gleamed.
In a world of material poverty, her life was in no way impoverished. Neither was it perfect, and that is a huge relief to this reader. Jesus himself pointed out, “No one is good—except God alone.” ‘Perfect’ people, proving to be impossible standards to live up to, are always difficult to like, and I would have liked Mabel.
As Leonard Sweet provides a personal and intimate portrait of a perfectly imperfect woman who was sold-out to Jesus, he discloses his own problems living with the formidable “force of nature” that was his mother. Growing up is never easy, but living with a paradigm of virtue would be especially difficult for any young adult trying to make his or her way in the world.
Many young people, dealing with dissonance between what they have assumed about their inherited faith and what they are daily experiencing, often leave their religious communities, but even as Leonard Sweet refuted Christianity and ran away in revolt, he was borne along against his will by his mother’s persistent prayer, his childhood training at her knee, and a relentless Holy Spirit––a united force that eventually led to a new defining commitment to Jesus and new mission in life.
Leonard Sweet begins this combination biography/treatise on faith by challenging the false dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, arguing that, “Objects are the bridges that connect emotion and reason, the right brain and the left brain.” He then proceeds to tell his mother’s story using material objects that are to him honored heirlooms––divulging twenty-four personal stories that each reference a ‘family jewel.’ These jewels include everything from government-issued cheese to mange medicine to Mars bars. Together, these stories merge and converge into a sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking chronicle. (Compare, for example, the hysterically humorous birds-and-bees heart-to-heart between Leonard and his father, and his mother’s heartache and heartbreak when a legalistic church heartlessly declares her preaching credentials null and void).
Dealing with cruelly harsh judgments and rejections from those who should have been her strongest allies took a heavy toll on Mabel Boggs Sweet. “She felt isolated in every way––personally, intellectually, culturally, professionally, and relationally, and the worst torture is solitary confinement.” In recent years, Leonard Sweet discovered the depth of his mother’s depression. He discovered a letter hidden away in her Bible, a farewell message to her family. In reflecting on the question, “What kept Mother from acting on her note?” Sweet offers four excellent insights, to which I would suggest one more, quoting from Sophocles: Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life. In waging a daily war in her inner person, she fought a praiseworthy battle. Those who have lived with depression or lived with the depressed often find themselves counseled with the well intentioned but crippling words, “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” Sweet offers a different frame of reference, a perspective that more accurately lines up with the character of a merciful and loving God: I believe suicide victims will be met by Jesus personally at the gate. He will embrace each one and say, “Son/Daughter, you found it a little too much for you, didn’t you?”
As engaging as these stories are, they do not exist for their own sake. Each narrative directs the reader’s attention to deeper spiritual realities, realities that are just as germane to the 21st century follower of Jesus as they were to the 1st century disciple. The very fact that Leonard Sweet draws on material objects to talk about spiritual truth can be traced to his mother’s “delight in the luminosity of God’s creation.” “She had little use for specific sacraments but had a deeply sacramental view of life where the harmony between spirit and matter is seamless.” Mabel Boggs Sweet could never be accused of dualism.
Sweet confesses the self-awareness that his “whole ministry is both a reaction against my upbringing and a reflection of it.”
Because the earliest inroads into his heart were cut and cleared by a mother who fed on divine discourse with the Father, as each chapter transports the reader deeper into Mabel Boggs Sweet’s world, it reveals durable and resilient connections between her own life and that of her son. For example, the stances that Mabel Sweet assumed were usually righteously radical. Although committed to the primacy of scripture, she refused to be shaped by shallow interpretations, understanding that the law can impede faith. When criticized for dressing immodestly (which meant her clothing was too tight for those in the Pilgrim Holiness Church), she insisted that “‘modest’ dress was an appearance that sought God’s pleasure, not anyone else’s.” Although she “staked her soul on there being one way to the Father––through Jesus Christ the Son––she saw many ways to Jesus.” Unlike many in her day, she thought faith traditions could learn from each other, and she believed that “some portions of Scripture applied to a culture that no longer existed.” In many ways, she was a woman ahead of her time, as is her futurist son.
Throughout his childhood, Leonard Sweet was privileged to observe a woman who, although she never claimed to have untangled the mystery of faith, strived to be radically biblical. It has obviously affected him as he too has been known to take courageous stands himself (though at no point in Mother Tongue does he try to impress anyone by describing any of his own skirmishes with legalistic religion). Like mother, like child.
If one is familiar with Sweet’s body of work, they will recognize his mother’s influence throughout his writing and ministry. As the son of a preaching woman, Sweet has been highly supportive of women in ministry. (Thank you Mabel!) As an advocate for narrative preaching, Sweet learned the value of story from his mother, of whom he writes, “In a world of make-it-up-for-yourself unscripted spiritualities, Mother insisted that the life of her boys be a scripturally scripted life.” Like her son, she too possessed a “quiver of metaphors” that she used for teaching purposes. Leonard Sweet’s mother was the first one to teach him the value of image in programming the brain. In an age when many churches saw science as the enemy, Mabel Boggs Sweet appreciated it as a gift fueled by a hunger to know and discover God. Like mother, like child.
Finally, both Sweet and his mother are masters of wise and pithy maxims. In her journals and sermons, Mabel can take credit for such truisms as, “Only the Word has the last word,” “For religion to restrict God is irreligious,” and “Who wants to get to a man’s heart through his stomach? Who wants someone who loves to eat, not loves to live?” Sweet packs his own writing (and this book) with his own epigrams: “Mother didn’t look for burning bushes. She was one,” “Everyone will have crosses to bear and one cross to die on,” and “Humanity without humility is the definition of inhuman
ity.” Like mother, like child.
Mabel Boggs Sweet’s life was a reflection of the Beatitudes. She was blessed because she was meek, a word that literally means she possessed power under control. She was blessed because she hungered and thirsted for righteousness—for the bread of heaven and the living water. She was blessed because she was pure in heart––willing one thing with an attentive spirit that so desired God that she was not searching for less important things. She was blessed because, when reviled, she responded with patient endurance.
Because Mabel Boggs Sweet faced some of the same problems faced by female ministers today, this book that will be of particular interest to women in ministry. It is also a joy to read for those who have a fondness for mountains, who dote on Appalachian culture, are lovers of the antiques that transport us back to earlier days, or who simply enjoy a good read.
It is understandable that Sweet would want to introduce us to his mother because in introducing us to his mother, he repeatedly introduces us all to our Father. Sweet’s inheritance is one he can be proud of in the very best sense of the word pride.