The Bad Habits of Jesus : a book review

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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.

Toast

Summer 2016
Dear Jack and Mikala ~Best Wishes and God’s richest blessings on your marriage!
As author and theologian, Leonard Sweet would say, “Every item you value in your home should have a story that you can tell about it.” John and I hope this gift will be of value to you, Jack and Mikala, and here is a tale you can share about it.
Not long ago, Jack, you mother told me
that while shopping in Maple Grove, MN, she came upon a reminder that a family member, your great-great uncle on your Grandfather Gilmore’s side, Charles P. Strite, had invented the pop-up toaster. The reminder came in the form of a colorful kitchen towel that caught her eye. When she picked up the towel to look at it, she saw the words Fun Facts About Minnesota printed across the top, and MINNESOTA Birthplace of the Modern Toaster stamped in the bottom right corner. It was, she told me, a delight to her to think that this rather obscure fact regarding her great uncle would be made public in such a clever way. I found your mother’s story fascinating for my own reasons, and when I came upon the very same kitchen towel in a shop in Park Rapids, MN, I couldn’t resist purchasing it for the two of you for your wedding.
Your mother told me, Jack, that your great-great Uncle Charlie lived with your Grandpa Gilmore’s family for a time when they lived at 5124-11th Ave So., in South Minneapolis, that he worked as an engineer and had access to a workshop where he developed his idea for the pop-up toaster. The history of your Uncle Charlie’s wonderful invention is available on the internet under the title “Fascinating facts about the invention of the toaster by Charles Strite in 1919.” A copy of the information is included with your gift, as are a few different printed images of toasters that were in use prior to 1919, the year your talented ancestor invented the pop-up toaster and changed breakfast forever.
I don’t know what my growing-up years would have been like without the toaster! My mom was always making toast. If it wasn’t used during a meal, toast was used as the cure-all for just about everything that needed a healing touch in our home; from a youngster’s shock over a broken toy to a high schooler’s sorrow of a broken heart. It was the perfect treatment for illness, stress over a homework assignment or the pain of not making the team. Bread at our home was never anything fancy. In a family of 10 children, one is just happy to have bread — whatever was on sale at the local grocery store was what we ate at home, and we were thankful for it. But when Mom put the bread in your Uncle Charlie’s invention, it became something special – it became toast.
Where Mom found the time to care for us in this tender way, I don’t know, but she would wait patiently for the toast to pop up, and while it was still hot she put butter and jam on it and then carried it to us on a tray. The fragrance of the toasted bread, like incense, preceded Mom’s entrance into the room. After she set it down before us, grace was said: “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.” I must admit, life did seem much better after prayer, eating the toast and basking in some special attention from Mom.Many years after I left home I came across a little article about toast in some magazine or other. It made me laugh, and I knew Mom would get a kick out of it, so I sent her a copy. Here is a reprint for you of the “toast” article:

TOAST

From “Kitchen Essays” by

Agnes Jekyll, ca 1922

“Toast, to be good, demands a glowing grate, a handy toasting-fork, and a patient watcher…”

An anxious bride, humiliated by the sort of toast only a starving sparrow would relish, wrote to one learned in such matters, asking for a trustworthy recipe.

“Cut a slice of bread, hold it before the fire and say incantations,” was the unhelpful but only advice vouchsafed.

Mikala, I had the honor of being at the bridal shower held for you at your home and saw that you and Jack received a toaster as a shower gift, so Plan B for your wedding present became necessary. The idea occurred to me that “a toasting fork,” as mentioned in the article above, might be used for other things besides bread — such as marshmallows. None of your relatives has invented a pop-up marshmallow toaster yet, have they? Until then, please enjoy the toasting forks, tray, a Minnesota Fun Facts towel, and ingredients used in the preparation of S’mores. May you experience many years of joy together, Jack and Mikala, as you sit by a glowing fire patiently watching the marshmallows toast. No incantations necessary.

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Giving Blood – A Book Review

41HXk4yhp2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“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.

 

From Tablet To Table by Leonard Sweet – a book review

NFrom Tablet To Tableothing 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.

“The New Normal” – a book review

New Normal pictureThe New Normal, A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With –  by Thomas Ingram

What does the phrase “new normal’ mean, anyway? It seems that “new normal” has been applied to almost every aspect of our culture since 2007, when the US economy faced its most challenging downward shift since the Great Depression of the 1930s. To my way of thinking, “new normal” carries a negative connotation. It means that our robust American quality of life has taken a big step backward, and it is not going to return to its previous, presumably healthy, levels of enjoyment or accomplishment. Therefore a different, less vital, more difficult way of  life has ensued which is here to stay, so get used to it – this is the new normal. The Church has certainly experienced its own downward shift over the last decade or so, with yearly membership numbers declining in all mainline Protestant churches, and disdain for Christian beliefs and values being the norm in our culture. Is this the Church’s “new normal”? Dr. Ingram’s book helps us to consider this question.

In his book, The New Normal – A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With,  Dr. Tom Ingram demonstrates that skillfully researching a patient’s health history, ordering appropriate tests, determining a diagnosis and designing a treatment plan to establish a “new normal” for an ill individual can be life changing for the patient.  Dr. Ingram also uses this medical model to evaluate the ailing 21st century Christian Church in America. In his concise and witty book, Dr. Ingram observes the Church’s overall health, both by looking at some of the history of the Church’s past challenges, and also by using data collected from a website he created recently called the tenthingsproject.com . This website provided a space where non-Christians could vent their frustrations with the Church and Christians. In compiling and comparing the past and present information in the church’s health history, Dr. Ingram skillfully helps us see the parallels that exist between the health challenges of an individual, and those of the post-modern church.

As is illustrated in The New Normal, when a diagnostician has completed the ill person’s work-up and meets with him or her to determine the next step in treatment, an important question is asked of the patient, “Are you ready to get better?”  At this point the patient has a choice to make, one that could represent a “new normal”. As is stated in the book, “It is a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple: for one answer requires nothing of the patient, while the other answer may take everything they’ve got.”

In the book we read that this same question, “Are you ready to get better”, can be asked of the Church. Dr. Ingram emphasizes this point by relating the story in John, Chapter 5, in which Jesus says to the paralyzed man by the Pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be made well?” Amazingly, the paralyzed man does not answer Jesus with a clear “yes”. How puzzling. Why wouldn’t the man eagerly say yes? Could it be that the afflicted man is not ready to change? Perhaps he does not want the dis-ease of being made able bodied, and therefore held accountable for his actions? Might the Church have the same paralyzing affliction, and be hesitant to get better for the same reasons? Is the Church’s “new normal” one of inaction and powerlessness in our culture?

Not necessarily, according to Dr. Ingram. The Church can still chose to be obedient to the One who is our source of life and health, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can initiate service to the ones most in need, most alone, most marginalized in our communities, and there bear good fruit to the Lord. In the chapter called Treatment Plan, Dr. Ingram offers some ideas for activities to get Christians moving, active and involved in rehabilitation, knowing that when we have served “the least of these, we have served the Lord.” In this way, it might happen that followers of Jesus could turn the idea of a “new normal” in the Church from a negative to a positive statement. Will this rehabilitation be easy – no. Dr. Ingram admits that asking the post-modern person to exchange self-absorbed living to sacrificial giving is only possible because “with God all things are possible.” Matt 19:26.   He states that the powerful inducement for this change is that the way, truth and life of Kingdom living, the person of Christ, is “with us” in all that He asks us to do in obedience to Him. We aren’t left alone by the  One who assures us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matt 28:20. He will be with us as we follow Him in the way, he will enable us to see Him as the truth we need to guide our choices, He will ultimately be our source of life during the tough times. He will be our “new normal” and our source of joy. That is definitely a “new normal” the Church can live with.

Book review:ME and WE – God’s New Social Gospel by Leonard Sweet

Book Review

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.

 

Book Cover for Fierce Convictions        I have just finished reading “Fierce Convictions —  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I knew a little about Hannah More (1745 – 1833) prior to reading this book, particularly that she was one of the Clapham Sect http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/119725/Clapham-Sect, with William Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England. But “Fierce Convictions” makes clear that there is quite a lot to know about Hannah More.

Dr. Prior has done a marvelous job of writing a thorough, balanced biography of Hannah More, who accomplished so many feats  in her lifetime that it’s mind boggling. One should remember that she did all these things: write acclaimed poetry and plays and a novel, start a school for women, speak persuasively to the upper classes of England about abolition of slavery and reach out to the poor of her area by starting Sunday schools which were vehicles for literacy, at a time when being a woman was a liability to doing any public work at all. Astounding.

Dr. Prior has given us a wealth of finely researched information about Ms. More’s successes and charming ways, but she also tells us about her failures and her blind spots, thus helping to form a better, more complete, more believable picture of the subject. We are also kept aware throughout the book of the historical and cultural period in which Hannah More lived, which for 21st century minds, had some very perplexing and troubling customs. As far as the readability of the book goes, there are quotes from writers of the mid 18th century that are challenging to be sure, but Hannah More’s life is so interesting, and Dr Prior’s writing is so engaging,  that it is worth the reader’s effort to work through those passages.

After reading this book, I have compiled the Top Ten Admirable Attributes of Hannah More:

  1. She was bright, articulate and witty.
  2. She was from humble birth, was modest and self-effacing.
  3. She was a Christian who grew in her faith, and changed her manner of living to reflect that growth, including modifying her opinion on the cruel treatment of animals.
  4. She wrote a play in 1763 at age 18. It was published in 1773. By the mid 1780s had sold 10,000 copies.
  5. She was unstoppable in her efforts to end slavery and to bring about moral improvement in England.
  6. She was able to cross societal boundaries, both to the upper classes and lower classes, with grace; she was able to cross religious boundaries with an open mind and heart.
  7. She was able to survive great personal setbacks and attempts to destroy her good name. She didn’t recover quickly, but she didn’t quit living her life.
  8. She was generous to a fault with her time, talents and money in her efforts to help those in need.
  9. She had great friends: Dr Samuel (“Dictionary”) Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Edmund Burke, Elizabeth Montagu, William Wilberforce, John Newton, John Venn, and many,many others.
  10. She wrote her bestselling, most imaginative, most widely read works after age 60.

You can read all about this amazing woman in “Fierce Convictions — The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I believe that this book should be on the reading list of every young woman. I have asked our local library to purchase a copy for their shelves, and will encourage them to include it on the list of suggested books for Women’s History Month 2015.

This is Dr. Prior’s second book, the first being “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.” I look forward to reading many more books from Karen Swallow Prior.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was sent an Advance Reader’s Copy of “Fierce Convictions” by Nelson Books for the purpose of reading and reviewing the book. My comments and opinions are completely my own.

“Fierce Convictions” by Karen Swallow Prior – a book review