Book Review: Giving Blood

SweetTitle: Giving Blood

Author: Leonard Sweet

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 368 (I read an e-book version on my Nook reader. My page numbers may be a bit different. I apologize in advance for any troubles this may cause.)

[Disclaimer: I was provided with a reader's copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I am happy to provide that very thing in the following blog post.]

Twitter: @lensweet

I once preached a sermon about the Bible. I think it might have been from John's Gospel, but I don't really remember. The sermon had something to do with the Scripture, the Bible, the Word of God–however you want to refer to it, that was the topic. It might have been about Jesus. I might have even trekked into the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and wrestled a bit with his idea that in his mouth the Word of God tasted like honey, but in his gut it was turning him inside out, upside down, and sending him scurrying off to the bathroom.

I don't really remember all the particular details of the sermon except for the end. I recounted a story about a tradition (perhaps apocryphal) that when young Jewish children first hear the Torah or first read it, they are given honey to eat. It is, so the story goes, to remind them of the sweetness of Scripture. So I preached my sermon and finished with a reading of Scripture. I then moved down to the floor where I had arranged a table with two or three jars of honey and some plastic spoons. That day, instead of an invitation hymn or prayer or announcements I simply invited the congregation to silently walk forward when they were ready. One by one they came forward and received a single spoonful of honey–pure, sweet, glorious, raw honey. It was a beautiful moment.

It was one of the best sermons I ever preached and easily one of the few, without referring to my journals, that I remember. It was a stroke of genius.

One time I went to hear a friend preach. He had just taken a position with a new congregation and it was his first sermon. I don't remember all that much about what he preached that day or what passages of Scripture he used, but I do remember that at all of us in the room had been supplied with a small can of PlayDoh! and that at some point he had us take the PlayDoh! from its can and work it with our hands. He said, "mold the PlayDoh! into the shape of what you think you would like to be or do with your life." I remember that as I shaped PlayDoh! and created a dream, so I can give that dream to God and allow him to shape me into something he can also use. It was a brilliant idea.

Leonard Sweet has written a large book about preaching. This is a thick book both in overall content and sheer girth: 369 pages (about 1/10 is reserved for end notes) and I only read an e-book on my Nook. To be sure, 369 pages was too many in my opinion for the very fact that at the end of the day, as Sweet himself notes, metaphors tend to break apart.  In the case of Giving Blood there was simply too much repetition and, in my opinion, he stretched the metaphor too far. Less is more and I think in this case the sheer volume and density of words was kind of overwhelming. Couple this with one of my pet-peeves, unbalanced chapters, and you end up with a lopsided book that despite the beauty of the metaphor was rather tedious (I was actually sick of the word 'narraphor' by page 50.) I really dislike when one chapter is 30 pages and another is 5. It's a personal thing, but there were times when I was convinced Sweet could have lopped off about 50% of a chapter and still made his point.

That being said, the metaphor is beautiful and I agree with a great portion of what Sweet wrote.  Preaching is, to me, exactly what Sweet calls it: giving blood. And unless a person has stood in the pulpit and preached a sermon, or spent time in the study during the week preparing (bleeding), or stayed up late on a Saturday night because there were simply no words, then they will not ever  understand what Sweet means by giving blood. Any preacher worth his salt does these very things. Then on Sunday mornings he or she has the audacity to stand up before people who expect a miracle and lay out their heart and mind and soul in mere words. People expect all their problems solved, all their questions answered, all their wounds balmed, and all their sins forgiven. Yet the preacher is tasked with standing and proclaiming the word of God to a people who will not listen and who will forget every single word by the time they cross the threshold of the back door.

Preachers give blood. And if preachers do not give blood, then perhaps they need to review if it is preaching they are actually doing. This is what we do week after week, in season and out, in good times and bad: we keep coming back for more because that is what we do. We preach. We cannot help ourselves. From near the conclusion of the book he writes:

Do you bleed over every sermon? Do you give blood through every sermon? Preaching is the discipline and craft of giving blood. (330)

It's true. Preaching takes years off our lives because we put our life into every jot and tittle we scratch across the paper.

I think the best parts of the book were found in the 'Labs' and the 'Interactives.' These were short sections at the end of chapters where Sweet applied his principles to a passage of Scripture (e.g., Jonah) or shared some ideas or exercises for how to put into practice the subject matter of the preceding chapter. Of these two, I liked the labs the best. I especially enjoyed his various readings of the book of Jonah. I recall one time I preached a sermon from Luke 15 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That morning I didn't so much preach a sermon, but offered four different readings of the parable. That is, I told the story from four different perspectives–the father, the son, the older brother, and as a disinterested bystander. It was a lot of fun to see the anguished faces of the olders among us that morning as I 'tore apart the sacred story.' I still smile because for me it was enlightening and exhilarating to see the story from other perspectives than the same one I had always used.

I think this is the gist of this book. Preachers are called to bring the living word to life among dead and dying people. We will never do this if the people are bored. And we will not awaken them if the way we preach does nothing to spark their curiosity and arouse their suspicion. This is what I loved doing when I preached and why I waited until the last possible minute to script my sermons. I didn't want to know what I was going to say until it was time to say it. One time I preached a funeral sermon with nothing but my heart. No notes. No Bible. No nothing. I just poured out words and prayed that the Holy Spirit would do something with them. Sweet is absolutely correct that a lot of preachers tend to be rather boring. I think so boring even the devil won't hang around because the preacher is doing all his work for him by keeping the people sedated.

Sermons need life but if the preacher doesn't care, I can't imagine the Spirit does. What is the Living Word in the hands of a dead man?

One time I preached a sermon about Jesus' crucifixion. I don't recall all the specifics of the sermon, but I recall the conclusion. Sometime in the weeks leading up to the sermon me and one of the deacons had taken apart an old piano that was no longer in good repair. While doing so, we came across a large hunk of wood inside the old instrument. I'm not sure what purpose it served, but I do know that it probably contributed considerably to the weight of the piano. It must have weighed 150 pounds. It was solid. As soon as I saw it I was reminded of what may have been the crossbeam of the cross of Jesus.

Before the morning worship began that day, I had arrived early and strategically placed the 'crossbeam' in the middle of the sanctuary. I had also supplied a few hammers and scattered a large supply of heavy nails on the floor. After the conclusion of the sermon, I said something to the effect of 'we have all had a part in nailing Jesus to the cross.' I then invited the congregation to come to the center where the patibulum was located and pound a nail into it. I was amazed that everyone there participated. I kept the crossbeam in my office until I eventually left the church as a reminder of what we, the entire congregation, had said that day about our relationship with Jesus.

It's not so much, then, that Sweet is offering us a new paradigm for preaching or homiletics. He is simply putting down on paper what some of us had discovered a long time ago: images work because we all learn in different ways. In education we call this the 'theory of multiple intelligences.' I have a suspicion that we never really grow out of our particular intelligence for learning. That is, if I am a kinesthetic learner as a 10 year old, perhaps I will still be such when I am 20. It doesn't mean I cannot develop other ways of learning, but it does mean that perhaps I will always lean in one direction more than another. And perhaps–and here I agree with Sweet even if he says it more implicitly than explicitly–preachers need to take a long hard look at the way 'preaching' was conducted in the Bible and become more like those fellas who laid on their side for a year or cooked their food with feces than those guys who ramble on and on and on for years without end demonstrating to all the futility of a well mannered discourse to someone who learns by doing.

I'm sure a twelve year sermon from Romans is fantastic. But I'm sure it is also profoundly boring to most.

I think this is why God had the prophets in the Old Testament do some really strange things in order to get the attention of the people and why the Spirit animated the disciples so wildly on the Day of Pentecost that people thought they were drunk. Maybe we need to open ourselves to the Spirit. So maybe preachers can abandon, to an extent, the 'stand up and lecture people about what they should believe' style of preaching and instead adopt a way of preaching that  illustrates ways of believing, ways of growing up in Resurrection life, ways of being a follower of Jesus. You know, let the living word live inside us and bring the Word to life among us.

I read an e-book version of Giving Blood obtained through NetGalley for review purposes, but I will  purchase this book so I can give it more attention with my pen. Although I think the book is a little longer than it needs to be, I still recommend it. I would say give it to a younger preacher, but I think a lot of younger preachers already get this. I'd say give it to an older preacher who will either read it and change or who will laugh at you and prove why his ministry/congregation is ineffective.


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