Book Review of THE GOD FIRST LIFE by Stovall Weems

The God First Life (Zondervan 2014), 172 pages with 8 pages of endnotes.

 

This book looks deeply at Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Stovall Weems explores the depths of this advice from Jesus by considering the concepts of first, which implies order; kingdom of God, which Weems believes is community with other believers; righteousness, which Weems interprets as the decisions we make to pursue and obey God: read the bible, help others, and live a life that honors God. And the result and all these things will be given to you implies freedom, joy and fulfillment. We find our greatest fulfillment when we partner with God and follow Jesus’ wise advice.

 

Here are four of my favorite excerpts from The God First Life.

  1. “My walk with God began solely and completely by his grace, and yet somehow I thought that everything after ‘the prayer’ was based on the sheer force of my own willpower and self-discipline. Every time I felt spiritually empty, lacking in zeal and power, I prayed to ‘get more’ of God, more of his nature, grace, love and power. The problem was that I didn’t need to ‘get more’ of God. I just needed to understand the treasure he’d already given me.  It wasn’t until nearly a decade after I was saved that I truly understood the power-of-God treasure that was within me. Paul tells us that we ‘have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.’ [2 Cor. 4:7] I was all too familiar with the earthen vessel. I knew every chip, crack, and leak in mine. I thought that the best way to ‘carry’ the power of God was to patch up that old clay pot and make it as strong and efficient as humanly possible. I wanted my vessel to be worthy of the treasure it was carrying. Even with all my good intentions, the point of Paul’s statement was totally lost on me. The jar will never be worthy to carry the treasure within it. In fact, the opposite is true—it’s the treasure that gives value to the vessel.” pp. 70-71.
  2. “John 13 tells us that Jesus left the table where the disciples were sitting. He took off his robe, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist, filled a basin with water, and then proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples. In Jesus’ day the outer robe signified a person’s position in society. Jesus wore the robe of a rabbi, signifying his role as a teacher. It was an honored position in Israel. When Jesus took off his robe, he was laying aside the symbol of his earthly rank. He was sending a message: Status does not define my disciples; servanthood does.  Next, Jesus put on the servant’s towel and washed his disciples’ feet. In doing so, he redefined greatness just like he redefined happiness. In his kingdom, we climb down the corporate ladder to success by taking on the identity of a servant above whatever other role and position we may have in life.  One of the most unexpected things about this account of the Last Supper is the statement that leads into the foot-washing moment. ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.’ [John 13:3] Jesus knew. He knew the extent of his authority: over everything. He knew where he came from and where he was going: from God and back to God.  Jesus was secure. He was not having an identity crisis at this moment. He was not pandering to his disciples for affirmation. He was doing what he had always done, teaching them how to love one another. Serving like Christ means serving from a place of strength, not of insecurity, compulsion, or the need for approval. We never have to prove ourselves when our identity is rooted in Christ. Our worth is not in question; only the condition of our heart.” p. 121.
  3. “From the time we are born, our soul (mind, will, and emotions) is programmed and shaped by our experiences. Everything we see, observe, learn, hear, and experience through our five senses is mapped out in the soul. Some of that learning is good, necessary, and intentional (like formal schooling). But a great deal of that programming is just plain toxic.  Everything from traumatic experiences (accidents, death, war, abuse), generational patterns (behaviors adopted intentionally or unintentionally from family), cultural patterns (prevailing ideas in our society)—all of these shape our conscience and program our mind and emotions in destructive ways. Sexual abuse in childhood, for example, warps the normal development of the soul. It fundamentally changes the way that a developing child will think, feel, and behave. A soldier returning from the horrors of war will have seen and experienced things that reshape the soul, and that soldier will look at the world through a new (and possibly distorted) mental and emotional lens.  When experiences like these are imprinted on an individual, the inevitable result is unhealthiness and injury to the mind, emotions, and will. See the problem? This vital part of the soul, which is responsible for making choices, is led to make those choices based on corrupted information. In most cases, this hurt soul goes on making those same unhealthy choices, establishing a pattern of sin and shame that continually repeats like a broken record. That pattern might lead to a coping pattern, such as drug or alcohol abuse, further fracturing the soul.  These tendencies toward wrong thinking, wrong behaving, and wrong choosing can run deep. We must be filled with the Holy Spirit so that those old patterns are erased and new, healthy, Spirit-led patterns are created. The Bible tells us to ‘throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ [Hebrews 12:1] The power word in that reference is “entangles.” Some translations read, “ensnares.” To ensnare means to set a trap. When we fall into the trap of sin, we are bound to its consequences and pain. Thank God that Jesus can truly set us free and make us whole again.” p. 139.
  4. “When you choose to live the God-first life, you are making the choice to restore order. Not things first, stuff first, or me first, but God first. When order is restored, blessing is released.  You will find that a world where you are not at the center is a world where happiness and blessing can be experienced—God’s way. The truth is that ‘first’ is not a place you can fill; it never was and it never will be. As long as you rule your world, the weight of it will fall on your shoulders, but when you step aside and let God step into his rightful place, the weight of your world falls on his shoulders. In the end, he is the only one who is truly able to hold it in place.  Everything around us and within us tells us that the secret to happiness is a world where it’s all about me. But Jesus consistently says the opposite. True success is not a world where I am at the center but a world where God is at the center and my life is in proper order. First place belongs to God alone.  Why do so few people in the body of Christ experience true blessing and freedom? They may no longer be bound in sin, but they are trussed up by the cares of this life—the baggage of their past, the worries of the present, and anxiety about the future. They are repeating old patterns, behaviors, and habits that shaped them in their old life, not realizing (or having forgotten) that God has given them everything they need to walk away from those things.  The God-first life comes down to decisions. Adam and Eve decided not to put God first. Faced with a choice that looked tasty and attractive and would put them in the know, they bit. And we do too if we forget that we’re not in the choosing game. We’ve decided, and now we need to simply maintain, what we’ve already committed to…” pp. 154-155.

In The God First Life, Stovall Weems is giving us biblical keys to victorious living: put God first, remember that it doesn’t depend on me and my power, it depends on God’s power in me. Serve others from the strength of knowing who you are in Christ and what gifts and assignments God has given you. Reconcile yourself with your past. Forgive those who harmed you and receive forgiveness from God and others who want to be reconciled to you. And honor the choices you have made soberly. Weems believes we can accomplish these things by contemplating deeply on Matthew 6:33 “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

You can find out more about Stovall Weems at www.stovallweems.com and www.celebration.org.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a free advance copy of The God First Life from Icon Media Group.  However, neither Icon Media Group nor any other entity paid me for my book review.  This book review of The God First Life originally appeared in jaynechaseloseke.com on April 17, 2014.

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Book Review of NAZARETH NEIGHBORS by Sheila Deeth

Nazareth Neighbors by Sheila Deeth (Cape Arago Press: 2014), 181 pages.

I just finished reading an advance copy of Nazareth Neighbors by my friend and author, Sheila Deeth. I was charmed. Sheila has taken Jesus’ parables from the four gospels and retold them using the narrative of Jesus’ childhood. She imagines Jesus as a small child, a school age boy and a teenager, growing up in Nazareth in Mary and Joseph’s home. By reimagining the parable of the good shepherd, the prodigal son, the lost coin and the pearl of great worth, and many others through the lens of a child, she is able to make the underlying lessons accessible and easy to understand.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Nazareth Neighbors.

“Do you suppose that sweet little boy, Jesus, growing up in the nice normal town of Nazareth, on its hill above the vineyards of the Jezreel Valley, knew what was going to happen at the end of his story? He obeyed his parents for all those years, growing ‘in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.’ Then he obeyed God, and gave his life for us.” (p. 3)

 

This is the frame of reference from which the narrator tells these stories about young Jesus Christ. In this next excerpt Sheila Deeth examines the parable of pouring new wine into new wineskins, but again from the vantage point of a young boy growing up in his parents’ home.

 

“Mary finally found a piece of cloth that was nearly right for Joseph’s robe. Then she asked Jesus to get a bowl of water from the river for her. He hurried away down sandy streets, feeling the wind on his legs. Then he scooped up water in his bowl and ran back with cold wet trickles dibbling onto his knees.

“Mary soaked the new piece of cloth in the water, rubbing it with stones and tugging and stretching at it, until she was ready to sew it onto Joseph’s robe.

‘Why do you do that?’ Jesus asked. ‘Why are you making the cloth all messy?’

‘I have to make it match,’ said Mary.

‘But the colors don’t match,’ said Jesus, and he was right. The robe was brown, and the cloth was grayish white.

‘I know,’ said his mother. ‘But I have to make the material match. If I sew something too new or too old into the hole it will just tear away. Then we’ll have a bigger hole to mend.’

 “When Jesus grew up, he remembered Mary’s cloth, and he remembered how to mend holes. When some important church leaders asked why he’d chosen such poor, uneducated people to be his most important disciples, Jesus explained, ‘I’m teaching something new. I’m filling in the holes in what you’ve learned. But I can’t teach people who think they’ve already learned it all. That would be like sewing new cloth onto an old garment. It would tear away and everything everyone knew would fall out through the hole.’” (p. 8)

 

This sweet vignette helped me better understand the new wineskin parable. Since I’ve never seen a wineskin I always had trouble visualizing what the difference was between old and new wineskins. Sheila points out that the parable isn’t really about the wineskins, it is about the old and new covenants. This final excerpt illuminates the parable of sowing seeds. Some seeds fall in rocky soil, some fall on the path, some fall amongst the weeds, and some seeds fall in rich soil.

 

One rainy morning, Mary gave Jesus an extra thick slice of bread for his breakfast and some goat’s milk to drink. Then Joseph took Jesus by the hand and said, ‘You’re a big boy today, young man. Today’s the day you start helping me in the fields.’

‘I want to help in the workshop,’ Jesus replied, but Joseph said he’d have to be even bigger to do that.

“Jesus and Joseph set off with their donkey through the streets of Nazareth. Jesus’ friends were kicking a rather soggy ball around. But Jesus splashed proudly in puddles, thinking how nice it was to be doing something new. Soon he’d even be old enough to go to the synagogue school. And after that he’d grow up to be a carpenter, just like his cousins.

The red roof of the synagogue shone in the falling rain. Jesus dawdled, staring at the older children who’d gathered on its walls. He even began to climb the hill toward them, but Joseph pulled him back. ‘Not yet, young man. You don’t start school today.’

‘But I want to study the scriptures,’ Jesus said. ‘I want to learn about God.’

‘Today you’re going to study God’s creation,’ Joseph replied, ‘and learn about seeds.’ So Jesus shook the rain out of his eyes and followed Joseph and the donkey to the field. A heavy sack rattled on the donkey’s back, and Jesus asked what was inside. ‘My tools,’ Joseph replied.

‘Oh good,’ said Jesus. ‘Can we do some woodworking in the fields? Are we going to make a gate?’

‘No,’ said Joseph. ‘These are my tools for plowing. I’ve got my blade and handle and grain, and the donkey’s harness too.’

“When they reached the field, Joseph rested the wooden yoke on the donkey’s neck and attached the plow. The dusty ground had turned into thick soggy mud. But the mud crumbled like cake as Joseph guided the donkey and plow over it.

“Jesus rolled the earth between his fingers. ‘It feels like bread dough,’ he said, but Joseph said, ‘Don’t eat it.’

“Jesus pointed to some stones tossed up by the plow. ‘They look like raisins, Dad!’ But Joseph said don’t eat them either. Instead he asked Jesus to pick up the stones and move them out the way. Soon the field was full of churned up earth, black and shining in the rain, with rows of stones like fences at the edge. ‘What do we do now?’ Jesus asked.

‘We plant the seed,’ said Joseph. He pulled a bag out from the bottom of his sack and hung it around Jesus’ neck. The cloth was scratchy and heavy, and seeds flowed like a river in its folds.

“Joseph tucked a bigger sack under his arm. Then he showed Jesus how to scoop the seeds and scatter them on the ground, like waterfalls of grain. ‘Don’t let too much seed land on the road though,’ said Joseph, pointing to flocks of birds which swooped down hungrily to eat whatever they could. ‘And not on the rocks; there’s not enough soil there for them to grow in.’

“Jesus scattered his seeds very slowly and carefully, shouting at the birds when they got too close. ‘It’s not your seed, birds. This is to make people’s food.’ Then he tripped over some thorns, and Joseph pulled him out.

‘Don’t let too much seed land in the thorns either,’ said Joseph.

‘Don’t let me land in the thorns!’ Jesus replied, rubbing mud over his scratches and cuts, while Joseph smiled at him.

“When all the seed had been scattered, Joseph pulled one of Mary’s old long brushes out of the sack on the donkey’s back.

‘What do we do with that?’ Jesus asked.

‘We spread the earth on top of the seeds so birds can’t eat them all.’ Then Jesus swept the brush gently back and forth until all the seeds were hidden. The brush was ruined afterward, of course, but Joseph said he’d make a new one soon.

“In spring, Jesus started going to school, but he checked on Joseph’s field every day before walking up the hill. Tiny seedlings appeared from the seeds in the ground. Some plants grew tall really fast, but then they withered in the sun. Others poked their heads above thorns, then shrank away and died. But the seeds sown on well-tilled soil grew thick and strong until harvest. Joseph’s two bags of grain turned into more than a hundred bags. Then Jesus smiled, pleased at what his work, and God’s sunshine had done.

“One day, Jesus told his friends to make their lives like a farmer’s well-tilled field, so the seed of God’s word wouldn’t land on dry stones or be choked by weeds, but would grow a hundred-fold in their lives too.” (pp. 52-54)

Nazareth Neighbors is 57 chapters long. Each chapter is two to four pages long and covers one parable. Each chapter ends with a simple prayer. Reading one chapter to a child at bedtime could be a lovely bedtime story. Nazareth Neighbors is now available in an e-version at amazon.com. A hard copy version will be available from Cape Arago Press in April, 2014.

 

Other books by Sheila Deeth include:

The book review of Nazareth Neighbors originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on April 2, 2014.