Featured Reviews

Marlena Graves – Bearing God [Feature Review]

Bearing GodA Fresh Perspective of a Classic Story

A Feature Review of

Bearing God: Living A Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters
Marlena Graves

Paperback: NavPress, 2023
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Reviewed by Jeff Kennon

There’s no way of knowing when I first heard the story. Chances are, growing up in church, I heard it before I was able to read. But one thing I do know is that I have heard it and read it thousands of times. I’ve even written a sermon or two on it. When I encounter this story of Jesus and his disciples, I always tend to put myself in the place of one of the disciples. I think that’s what most of us do. Here is Jesus, in a boat, asleep. But remarkably, he’s sleeping in the midst of a violent storm. Meanwhile, his disciples who are with him, are freaking out. They have the last breaths of their lives in view and so they wake up Jesus. Not sure if they knew what would happen by disturbing Jesus’s sleep, but at least they could all be awake as the boat capsized and they all drowned. But Jesus does what Jesus always does. Out of the chaos comes peace. He calms the storm. And the disciples did what they always did, stood in awe wondering who this Jesus is.

Again, when it comes to this story, I always put myself in the position of the disciples. What would I have done if I were them? How would I have reacted? Would my fear have been any less? Marlena Graves however, in her book Bearing God: Living a Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters, introduced to me, through her own surprising encounter with this story of Jesus, a new perspective. What if I were the small boat? For Graves, “it occurred to [her] that, like Jesus’ mother, Mary, and like a fishing boat in which Jesus curls up to sleep, I too, am a God bearer.” In fact, she writes, “we are all Marys, or in this case, all little vessels carrying Jesus as we journey throughout our lives” (4).

It’s this metaphor of one being a small boat or vessel which harbors Jesus that Graves weaves in and out throughout Bearing God. And this leads to her asking herself along with her readers what this means for our everyday lives? “If I am sailing out to sea bearing Christ in me, what do I need to know?” she asks. Her response? “I need navigation instructions. To know God’s will” (7). But what is it to know God’s will? What does it look like to be led by Him?

It’s this question of what it means to be led by God that Graves seeks to flesh out through five of her six chapters. The chapter titles themselves clearly reveal the substance of finding and following God’s will. They are fittingly titled: 1) Led by love of God and neighbor; 2) Led by our loves and joys; 3) Led by our place; 4) Led by discernment; and 5) Led through our end.

I list Graves chapter titles because sometimes, when we begin to think about reading a book of discovering God’s will, we come to it with preconceived ideas (maybe this is just me) of it helping us in how to find the right major in college or right job or right mate, etc.. Now there is nothing necessarily wrong with this approach per se, but I feel that Graves’s book goes much deeper. And it also offers greater freedom. It doesn’t bog one down in guilt caused by a threat of missing God’s will. In fact, in her chapter on discernment, she writes of the school of thought that says, “Love God, love your neighbor, and do what you want—as long as it is out of an expression of love for God and neighbor.” Bottom line: “We must make the best decision we can” (67).

There are a couple of chapters in Bearing God that really grabbed my attention. The first is Chapter 2: Led By Love of God and Neighbor. I feel this is the heart of Bearing God. From Graves’s writing, I can feel her passion and conviction about how we need to take care of one another. And I can also feel a pinch of hurt of how we as church folk have not done very well in this area. “Theologians attribute the goodness of non-Christians to common grace,” writes Graves. “I wish such grace were more common among Christians” (19). Appropriately, Graves is also adamant to point out that the love and goodness we show to others are not deeds that lead to a press release. “Let’s be careful of doing ‘mighty things’ for God when God merely asks us to do little things with great love,” she writes (16).

The second chapter that caused me to pause was Chapter 4: Led By Our Place. “Our spiritual formation…and journey…into the Kingdom, happens in a particular place: right here in these circumstances. This location. These waters,” writes Graves. It doesn’t happen “over there, where we assume things would be smooth sailing” (31). Rough times, according to Graves, don’t necessarily mean we should seek new terrain. However, the other side of the coin is that it is important that we be wise about our place. Graves writes that “it’s not always wise to take the higher-paying job away from family, friends, and other members of your Christian community” (48). A community with iron-sharpening relationships is important so the place where those friendships are developed must not be quickly abandoned for promotions and financial gain.

Bearing God is a short book. It’s only around 80 pages. Depending on how fast you read, you might be able to finish it in an afternoon. One might also say that it is not complex. It’s easy to understand (which I feel is a vital strength). However, though it is short in length, it left me long on contemplation. And though straightforward (I’ve been told to love others since I was in children’s Sunday School), it moved me deeper out to sea in how I love others. In fact, I feel this is the point of Graves’s book. In the beginning, she quotes John A. Shedd as writing that “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” (1). So we must “go out to sea to live and serve as Jesus rests and relaxes in our lives, in our boats,” writes Graves. “Hopefully, he will be able to get comfortable” (76).

Jeff Kennon

Jeff Kennon lives in Lubbock, Texas where is the director of the Baptist Student Ministries at Texas Tech University. He is also the author of The Cross-Shaped Life: Taking On Christ’s Humanity, published by Leafwood Press. You can find him online at www.jkennon.com.

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