Sweet Spots

Ideas and messages from Len Sweet.

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Surprised by Paradox

Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World

By Jen Pollock Michel

Reviewed by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.


          I was first drawn to the title. Len has always been a champion of “both/and” and even pushed it further to “both/and/also.” He’s also said many times that to get comfortable with Christianity, you have to get comfortable with paradox. By now you know that I’m usually in love with the books I review. Messaging with Jen, I told her that she was probably going get sick of herself by the time I get through tweeting through this book. Yeah, I loved this book.


By the author’s admission, this book began in a counselor’s office. Years of lugging the bag of sorrows of a blood relationship had taken its toll. She needed light for groping her way out of this tunnel with two exits—basically suffer or sever. In a “Sweetish” question, the counselor asked, “What if there’s a third way?” Michel needed to find and where she had previously imagined only either and or. When you lean not on your own understanding, you find wisdom in the way of paradox. 


The back cover of the book lays out its direction: “While there are certainties in Christian faith, at the heart of the Christian story is also paradox. Jesus invites us to abandon the polarities of either and or in order to embrace the difficult, wondrous dissonance of and.” The book is laid out in four parts: Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, and Lament. Taking up the Incarnation, she refers to Jesus as “the great I AND.” “The Incarnation—the paradox of God made human—teaches us to look for God in the and.” (27) She invites readers to imagine the possibilities of and. “One important lesson of paradox is that we are not always confined to choosing between two dreaded alternatives. Faith doesn’t always divide the world into two clean halves of right and wrong. In those places of seeming paralysis… we can surrender our straightjacketed imagination and look for the creativity of the incarnate God—And the love of the great I AND.” (30)


          In case you don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself from some of these outtakes:

          “I began to understand that when I asked for one-word answers from God, when I wanted faith to read like instructions from Ikea, I was likely asking the wrong kinds of questions. It’s the paradox of the incarnation that reminds us God is the author of both and and.”


God clothed Himself with flesh and wiggles His way into the world through a womb. A new Adam came to set the record straight… The I AM became the I AND, and we have seen His glory. It is a paradox…”


A hard word can be a means of grace. When we rightly identify a wrong we suffered, when we take up courage to tell the difficult truth, the injuring party is invited to pursue more life-giving ways in the relationship. Hard words seek to heal, not to rend.”


The gospel, as enfleshed mystery, has strong enough arms to hold slippery things, fitful things. The story of a God itself won’t be buckled down and made to sit still.”


Grace, as another example of paradox, forces us to confront the perplexing nature of God, that He is bothering severe and loving; the gospel cannot be reduced to saccharine sentiments.”


A book about paradox is a book about spiritual posture: the posture of kneeling under God’s great big sky and admitting that mystery is inherent to the nature of God. As soon as we think we have God figured out, we will have ceased to worship Him as He is.”


When a bush is alight and yet alive, that’s the very place for removing our shoes. There’s a whole lot of promise in a little bit of wondering.”


We’ve come to an unassailable confidence that mystery, by dint of inquiry and scientific effort, can be wrestled and pinned down and made to cry uncle. We are no longer victims of the unknowable… The great modern lie is one of infinite human autonomy and control.”


The troubles we regularly bring to God might be more closely examined for what they reveal about the things we treasure, the things we most vigilantly protect, the things we cannot lose.”


Jesus strides by, calling out the good news …the Kingdom of God is at hand. We can’t know everything that means, but by faith, we follow this Jesus, falling in step behind Him. Because the thought of flying right-side up sure sounds good.”


Another paradox is this, that while grace is the news we most long to hear, it’s one of the hardest things to grasp in life with God.”


“‘Follow the food’ is one way of saying that the incarnation is a kind of hermeneutic of God’s story. It teaches us to embrace the material world rather than despise it. To understand something about God…we need bodies.”


Pride is a slippery slope—but so is false humility. I can’t imagine it pleases God any more to hang our heads and shuffle through life, mumbling apologies for our gifts and passions and looking at the floor…This is not the great, mysterious and of Christ in you.”


God’s love is surprisingly indiscriminate, His favor roving and resting upon this who seem least deserving of it. God’s Grace is evidenced in His patient pursuit of the mucking-it-up.”


It can be the paradox of the impolite plea—this unholy wondering in the midst of suffering—that brings us face-to-face with God.”


Lament isn’t the road back to normal. It’s the road back to faith.”


I told you. Do yourself a favor. Get it. Devour it. Then let it marinate.


You’re welcome.



12 Gifts of Christmas

12 Gifts of Christmas     Lectionary 22 December 2019 Fourth Sunday of Advent   Matthew 1:18-25   Text to Life     Okay, its December 22nd. How stressed out are you?   Do you still have a closet full of stuff you keep meaning to wrap but somehow haven’t…
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Dream Weaver

Dream Weaver Story Lectionary 15 December 2019 Third Sunday in the Advent of Our Lord Joseph’s Dreams (Genesis 37) Daniel’s Dreams (Daniel 2 and 7) The Lord’s Prophecy According to Joel (2) Psalm 2: God’s Praise to His Anointed Psalm 24: The Lord’s Blessing Psalm 80: The Lord’s Restoration Psalm…
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Kiss and Tell

Kiss and Tell     Lectionary 15 December 2019 Third Sunday of Advent   Matthew 11:2-11   Text to Life   This time of year, car dealerships offer big holiday sales to clear out inventories. They are trying to make room for next year’s new “improved” versions of vehicles. But…
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Holy Land Christmas

This last week, I got to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Israel. My wife and I were on a cruise for our 25th anniversary. Israel was one of our stops.  Being in the Holy Land this time of anticipation was awe inspiring.  You see, we also got to visit the Mount of Olives.  The place where Jesus ascended and will one day come again.  Both places carry a sence of Advent. Bethlehem, the place of His Birth and incarnation and The Mount of Olives, the place of His return and our inspiration.  When I say inspiration, I mean it this way.  Jesus who was Spirit, became flesh so that we, as flesh, can be made into spirit.  Bethlehem was the birthplace of our redemption, our return to God.

“Bethlehem” by Chicago
“Bethlehem Morning” by Morris Chapman 

Pastor’s Prayer for 15 December 2019

Heavenly Father,
you call us to prepare for the coming of your Son:
forgive us our unreadiness to receive him.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus,
you were proclaimed by John the Baptist:
help us also to prepare your way.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Holy Spirit,
you speak through the prophets:
make us attentive to hear your word.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

–The Book of Common Worship, The Church of England (Advent 3 Penitence)



Movie Review by Teri Hyrkas
Tolkien, the film is about the youthful years of English writer J.R.R. Tolkien, well known author of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was released in the US in May, 2019. The screenplay was written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and the movie was directed by award-winning Finnish director Dome Karukoski. It stars Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien and Lilly Collins as Edith Bratt, Tolkien’s boarding house sweetheart. According to Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Wikipedia and others, Tolkien bombed at the box office. The film cost approximately $20 million to make and has grossed only about $9 million as of the date of this writing. Rotten Tomatoes, a well known source for measuring the critical response of viewers to a given movie, assigned Tolkien a score of 51%… obviously not an “on-trend blockbuster.”
There were plenty of reviews that panned the movie. I think I can guess why critics and moviegoers might be inclined to disparage and be disappointed in Tolkien. The special effects and cinematography of director Peter Jackson’s film production of The Lord of the Rings (TLOTR) are so spectacular that they have become permanently embedded in the public consciousness. I believe Jackson’s movie scenes are inextricably linked to the author, Tolkien, because of the strong connection between Jackson’s movies and the books. Therefore, the very name “Tolkien” conjures up visions of TLOTR’s heart stopping special effects, phenomenal topographies and larger than life mythical creatures as created by Jackson.
By comparison, Karukoski’s Tolkien has only brief flashes and short, gauzy representations of fantasy-like moments and dragon-filled visions. Indeed, Karukoski’s most vivid, disturbing Jackson-esque scenes are related to Tolkien’s military service during World War I. In these, Tolkien – the young soldier – encounters the brutal actualities of modern warfare. Woven through these devastating war scenes, Karukoski has cinematically placed fleeting, dream-like images of demons and heroes. It was no surprise, then, to read the frequent objections made by reviewers of Tolkien which boiled down to, “It did not have the impact of a REAL movie. It is only a biopic — boring, banal and lacking in imagination.”
However, poor box office results and unreasonable disappointments of critics do not reflect on the quality of the moviemaking, the level of acting, or the value of the story portrayed in Tolkien, all of which I rate far above Rotten Tomatoes’ 51%. Rather than being about the extraordinary adventures of a Hobbit, Tolkien is a movie is about three kinds of love that J.R.R. Tolkien experienced in his young adulthood: Love of truly committed friends; love for a cherished soul mate; love of language and story.
The events of the film move through Tolkien’s young life and start from the “impecunious circumstances” which cause his widowed mother to move with her two young sons from a picturesque rural setting to an apartment in the industrial city of Birmingham – a dwelling found for them by Fr. Francis Morgan, a Catholic priest and friend of the family. Not long after the move, Tolkien’s mother dies. Fr. Francis, now the legal guardian of the Tolkien brothers, again provides aid by finding a benefactor who accepts the orphans into her boarding house. J.R.R. is then enrolled in King Edward’s School, where he excels as a student. King Edward’s is the location where Tolkien meets three young men who become his closest friends during his youth. The companions form what they call an “unbreakable alliance” that carries them through the years at King Edward’s School and on to university. This is the first love and “fellowship” of Tolkien’s young adult life.
It is at the boarding house that sixteen year-old Tolkien meets 19 year-old Edith Bratt, another orphan, and they fall in love. Their relationship is interrupted when J.R.R. fails to earn a scholarship to Oxford. Tolkien then grudgingly agrees to cooperate with Fr. Francis — who swore to Tolkien’s mother that he would see to it that her son went to university — and refrains from having any contact with Edith until he is twenty-one. J.R.R and Edith’s love for each other seems unlikely to survive the forced separation. Edith is the second love in Tolkien’s life and the challenge to their relationship is pivotal to the movie.
What about Tolkien’s calling as a writer? It is before the war as a student at Oxford that Karukoski depicts Tolkien as recognizing his third love — love of language and story. In 1913, after years of studying the classics, J.R.R. decides to change his major to English language and literature. This is clearly the correct course of study for him because in 1915 he graduates with first-class honors.
But it isn’t until twenty-two years later, in 1937, when he is a professor of English at Oxford, that Tolkien takes to heart a random line from a student’s paper and begins to write The Hobbit. An instant success, this book, according to the movie, fulfilled the pledge that the four young friends of the “unbreakable alliance” made to each other at King Edward’s School: “To change the world through the power of art.”
It is true that Tolkien is not an on-trend blockbuster movie, but it is also true that it is a beautifully rendered, well acted portrayal of the quiet,yet influential life of a beloved author and the integral part that love plays in helping him to use his art to change the world. As Christmas approaches, the season in which love Himself is born, Tolkien just might be the perfect movie to watch with your family.
Merry Christmas!

A Supernatural Leap

A Supernatural Leap Story Sermon 8 December 2019 Adam is Hiding (Genesis 3) Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22) Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3) Songs of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15) Prayer Song (Habakkuk 3) The Song of Deborah (Judges 5) Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:1-10) Isaiah Responds to…
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