Tuesday, August 16, 2011

With by Skye Jethani

I was initially disappointed with With.  At first glance it was another one of those one-word titled manuscripts that are a fluff of common facts and anecdotal yarns spun in a way to tickle the minds of those blind to the emperor’s new clothes and designed to land on the bestseller’s list. Malcolm Gladwell did it with Outliers and Blink. And now Skye Jethani, is doing it with With, taking one-word titles to a new low by using a preposition, one of the English language’s lowliest parts of speech containing only a singular meaning. If it seems as though I’m tired of one-word book titles, you have it right. However, my initial reservations were blown to pieces by the time I reached the halfway point in the book. Despite his overuse of prepositions, Jethani has crafted an expose worth reading. Jethani confronts the comfortable mindsets of believers and non-believers in Jesus, exposing those mindsets as deficient to satisfy our deepest longings and relieve our deepest fears. Drawn from his experiences as a pastor and his research into current events, Jethani points to four attitudes that deprive us of intimacy with God and fail to relieve our fears.

Jethani’s four approaches to life are named, defined, and expounded in the first five chapters using personal anecdotes, observations from his life and ministry, and quotes from contemporary literature. Life Over God, the easiest to of the concepts to understand, is life lived apart from God; God is not part of the picture of daily living. Life Under God, is the second least difficult to understand. Commonly termed “legalism”, it is the belief that adhering strictly to a set of rules will provide blessing from God.

The next two approaches hit closer to home. The person living Life From God views God as a means to an end, perhaps not overtly, but holding an interior view that God’s gifts, His blessings, are more valuable than relationship with Him. Here, Jethani discusses consumerism and its contained spiritual lie, but his most valuable illustration is the wayward son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. There we see the son valuing his inheritance and his way of life over relationship with his father. Indeed, don’t we all sometimes feel that our relationship with God just doesn’t cut it and we’ll go out to eat, enjoy a movie, or indulge in some other pleasure to fill the void, while feeling secure in our salvation?

Finally, Life For God, is a life lived for the mission, the life-purpose, rather than for the One who created your life. It is a life lived for the purpose and authentication provided by accomplishing the mission or goal, rather than remaining in relationship with God and letting Him provide our value. The most poignant story Jethani related in this chapter is his encounter with Christian students at a Christian college who believed that God was disappointed with them because of their struggles. They weren’t living up to God’s standards; They felt that they had failed God. As I continued to read this chapter, I suddenly felt like I had gained understanding of the preceding chapters.

Everyone, everywhere, at some time, stands with their soul’s arms and feet stuck in one or all of these non-relational positions, like a cruel game of Twister, never able to reach the goal because the goal changes with each turn of the wheel. That’s exactly what I’ve found life to be like with a God who is spirit, interpreted by imperfect humans. I’m writing here about myself and the preachers in my life, from my parents to my friends to the ones in the pulpit. What God wants is relationship and we want it too, except we get scared and fall back to our fall-back positions which end up being one or more of these mindsets, Life For God, Life From God, Life Under God, or Life Over God, where we become users of God instead of people who value God. What is the solution? How do we move from these destructive attitudes to the faith and assurance we desire?

The lastl four chapters of With tell us the value and method of living Life With God, a Life With Faith, a Life With Hope, and a Life With Love. Life With God teaches us to treasure, unite with, and experience God. How do we do this? First, we must learn to practice prayer as communion with the Father, in constant connection with Him, even if no words are exchanged. Examples from the life of Mother Theresa and Billy Graham show how they prayed in just this way.

A Life With Faith is a life without fear. It is trusting surrender to the One who holds us. Not cited in this book, the 2nd Chapter of Acts song “Nobody Can Take My Life Away” (from the album Rejoice) illustrates this for me. “Nobody can take my life away, because I gave my life to You.” It’s that simple: we surrender our lives in trust and He holds our lives securely against all forces and foes and turns a dangerous world into a safe one. Jethani presents a modern example of this: the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose trust in God enabled him to walk into the dark places free from fear for himself or his wife and children.

Life With Faith is extremely important because it influences our entire vision of the world around us. With sobering words, Jethani writes: “An unaltered vision of the word means most other elements of the Christian life will fail to make sense to us as well.” The Christian life as Jesus posited it will seem unrealistic, impossible, and foolish.
Why is it so difficult for self-identified Christians to believe, let alone obey, [everything that] Jesus said? Well, if they still see the world as a fundamentally dangerous place in which their well-being is in constant jeopardy, then the call to love your enemy, give freely, and not worry can only be dismissed as ludicrous.
It is only when we live with God and come to experientially know his goodness and love that the shadows break and these commands begin to make sense. If I am eternally safe in the care of my Good Shepherd, and I come to see the world as a safe place, then I am set free from my fears. I am free to give rather than hoard. I am free to enjoy each day rather than worry. I am free to forgive others rather than retaliate against them. And I am even free to love the person determined to harm me.
In Life With Hope, Jethani discusses our search for meaning and significance and how we seek to satisfy ourselves with external constructs such as our career, our family, or deriving order and meaning from religion or morality. But they all may fall like a house cards as the squalls of life blow through our lives upsetting our careful constructs. We attain meaning and significance from God, not from what we do for God.
Are you married? Then engage your marriage with God and learn to love your spouse as God has loved you. Are you single? Then be single with God and devote yourself to him. Are you a mechanic? Then commune with God in your work and repair cars as an act of devotion to him. Are you an office worker? Then welcome Christ to your desk as you serve your employer. . . In other words, the fullness of Christian life can be lived anywhere, in any circumstance, because God is with us. No condition of life is more honorable than another, because nothing God does lacks value.
Jethani gives us the moving example of the African slaves brought in chains to our country, and specifically of a slave in Maryland called “Praying Jacob.” No one had worse circumstances than the slaves, but more hope in Jesus. As Praying Jacob said to his owner, “I have two masters—Master Jesus in heaven and Master Saunders on earth. I have a soul and a body; the body belongs to you, but my soul belongs to Jesus.” Jethani advises us to encourage our hope through regular corporate worship and snatched moments during the day when we can commune with God.

Life With Love starts with love that quelled a prison riot and focuses on filling ourselves with God’s love by practicing silence and solitude that we might more fully commune with God. God’s love binds us to him in a way that lets us see Him as He is and to see ourselves as we truly are: Beloved of the Creator.

At the end of the book are two short appendices. The first, Communing With God, contains some practical exercises and references. The second contains group study questions. And finally, the notes. My constant quibble with end notes is the inability to easily find them while reading. Because they are labeled only by chapter number and not name, you must first locate the chapter you are in, find its number, then the note. How difficult would it have been to include the chapter name in the notes?

If you, like me, abhor one-word book titles, get over it and take a look at With by Skye Jethani. Ignore the prepositional title and chapters and the difficult beginning and read it to the end for a look at renewed community with God and others, renewed faith, renewed hope, and renewed love.

NOTE:  the publisher has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for review.  I am glad they did; I might not have read it otherwise.
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God

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