She Was Looking for a Pail, Not a Provider

The woman trudged through the field, walking the path worn by ancient feet and cemented by the townswomen’s continued daily pilgrimage for water. She squinted in the sun and flapped her arms a bit to force air toward her armpits.

Someone was sitting by the well. She slowed her pace, hoping he would move on before she arrived, but he seemed to be looking at her, waiting for her. With twenty feet still between them, she could tell he was a Jew. Her back stiffened; her jaw clenched. She was not only a woman but also a Samaritan: already two strikes against her in the eyes of this self-righteous Jewish man.

John 4:4-14. Continue reading

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Generosity Opens the Door Wide

  • Jesus told Zacchaeus to climb down from the tree because they were going to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus “welcomed him gladly” (Luke 19:5-6).
  • Martha “opened her home” to Jesus when we walked into Bethany (Luke 10:38).
  • Levi, a former tax collector, “held a great banquet for Jesus at his house” (Luke 5:29).
  • A Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to have dinner with him in his home, and Jesus accepted his invitation despite knowing the critical nature of the man’s heart (Luke 7:36).
  • A former leper named Simon threw a dinner party in Jesus’ honor just days before His arrest and crucifixion (Mark 14:3, John 12:1-2).

Some of Jesus’ best, most
intimate teaching took place
over a meal in someone’s home.

Some of Jesus’ best, most intimate teaching took place over a meal in someone’s home. Women and men, Pharisees and tax collectors—all sorts of people—invited Jesus into their homes. Okay, sometimes He invited Himself. Still, in every recorded instance, He said “yes.” What if, here in the 21st century, ours was the home? What if Jesus used us to reach someone over a meal in our home? Continue reading

The Idol of Identity

Occasionally, the Lord leads me to write something I don’t want to write. I wrestle with Him for a while, and then I write it, wincing all the way through. I don’t want to write it because you, my readers, may misunderstand me. You may think I’m harsh or insensitive, and you probably aren’t going to like what I say. Why do I have to be the one to step on toes?!?

But this topic is heavy on my heart and has been for months.

Instead of God, we’re
worshiping ourselves and
we don’t even realize it.

I believe we have subtly replaced Who is at the center of our worship. Instead of God, we’re worshiping ourselves and we don’t even realize it. I’m not talking about idolizing possessions or status, about showing off or competing for the biggest house/car/salary. I’m also not talking about idolizing comfort, about seeking the easy way or avoiding conflict. This idol is far more personal and harder to see.

We idolize our internal “I.” Think I’ll call it Idolatry (notice the capital I?), and I see two ways we’re falling into this sin.

Extensive Self-Examination

Perhaps Socrates’ “know thyself” started it (although the phrase predates him). Our fallback position is to focus on our feelings, our experiences, our needs, while neglecting others. I had an old friend who called this position “navel-gazing.” Take a second to imagine the position of one’s body that’s necessary for navel-gazing. It’s a folding in on oneself, the head lost in the abdomen. And when we stay in that position for too long, we spiral inward…and downward. The more and harder we try to resolve our feelings on our own, the deeper into the mire me tread.

“We become what we think about all day long.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

If I think about my Savior
all day long, I will become
more like Him.

If I’m thinking about myself all day, I’m becoming more and more like myself. I’m not improving, growing, stretching. If I think about my Savior all day long, I will become more like Him, which is always a positive improvement.

On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.  –Psalm 63:6

I will consider all your works and mediate on all your mighty deeds.  –Psalm 77:12

How many of David’s psalms are about his problems, his crises, the unfairness of his life? And yet he manages to turn our eyes to worship in every instance. In the New Testament, Paul draws our minds to lofty things, often outside ourselves.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

I’m not talking about chemical depression but that funk into which we drift when we spend too much time, usually alone, thinking about how we feel. How much of our anxiety could we alleviate by simply shifting our focus? (This next part is where I’m treading very lightly. I have close family members in counseling.) Some people are in counseling, talking about themselves and trying to heal, when healing will only come from setting ourselves aside, from ignoring “I.” Sometimes the best thing I can do for me is to forget me for a little while.

What’s the remedy? Serve others. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, tutor an international kid, help with VBS, or if you like animals better, spend a day at the ASPCA. (Keeping it real: I’ve not done a good job of this recently.) We take the step of serving, of lifting our eyes up and off ourselves, and God responds by pulling our focus outward. Then we find your own problems shrink. Not by comparison—“Oh, my life is at least better than theirs.”—but by thinking about someone other than ourselves.

In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  –Philippians 2:3b-4

How do we balance? Self-awareness is good. We can and should know what we’re good at, where we need to improve, what sorts of things trigger our strong emotions. We also need to recognize when we’re spending too much time on our internal status.

Preoccupation With Identity

Maybe it starts in preschool, with Jesus Loves Me. We sing a song that, while true, is clearly more about us than about Jesus.

There are a few worship songs in the rotation now that do the same thing. Pay attention at church this Sunday or on Christian radio. Ask yourself, “Who is really the subject of this song?” Sometimes, it’s us instead of God. I’m concerned.

Who I am is not nearly as important as Who God is.

When we talk about our identity in Christ: child of the King, chosen, valued, etc., we’re not wrong. Peter said,

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession… -1 Peter 2:9a

But our identity has a purpose. Don’t overlook the second half of the verse.

…that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  –1 Peter 2:9b

Without including our purpose, we will worship ourselves instead of the One Who called us. We will focus on the rewards of Heaven rather than the privilege of being in the presence of God. We will sing praise songs that celebrate us and push our Creator into a supporting role. (I’m kinda hung up on the second half of Bible verses.)

What’s the Remedy? Make it our mission to discover more about Jesus. Get to know Him better by connecting with Him through His Word, nature, worship services, and conversations with other people. Keep the focus on simply knowing Him and enjoying Him.

Also, let’s link our own identities to His, prioritizing Who He is over who we are. As a Christ-follower, our identity is inhabited by Jesus’, so the more we know Him, the more we’ll know ourselves, and the better we’ll understand our place in relation to him. (Hint: It has to do with “confident humility.”)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?  –Psalm 8:3-4

We must unflinchingly raise the name of Jesus above our own names and identities.

I am who I am so I can
talk about Who Jesus is.

How do we balance? We DO have value. God DOES love us. We ARE His children. We can’t and shouldn’t deny any of it. But God wants us to use these facts as entry points to the life of faith, not end goals.

John the Baptist used questions about his identity to point people to Jesus. In the same way, my “I” stories must be bridges to Him.

“A positive self-identity is not the end goal” and other counter-cultural things we need to tell ourselves in the church today. Because my #identity is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

This was tough to write. I don’t want to be harsh or overly critical. Please, before you jump to any conclusions or feel like I’m judging you, reach out to me in the comments (or privately through Facebook or Twitter). I would love to talk through identity and self-examination some more because this is just one side of the beginning of a conversation, and I am certainly not an expert. Let me hear from you!

Spiritual Maturity and Sentence Diagrams

If you’re of a certain age, you remember diagramming sentences in elementary/middle school. If you’re a #wordnerd like me, you don’t just remember it, you enjoyed it! Yes, I am that weird kid who diagrammed sentences just for fun.

So when I showed up in New Testament Greek class and my professor started diagramming some of Paul’s sentences in Greek, I was delighted. A couple of them took up the entire board! (We were then using dry erase markers on white board, not the chalkboards of my grade school years. Ah, progress.)

When I come upon a long,
complicated sentence, I fall
back on sentence diagramming.

Paul could write some of the longest sentences. I often get lost in them. But when I do, I fall back to some mental diagramming. (Confession: if it’s extra-difficult, I might draw the diagram in my q.t. journal. Am I alone in this? Probably.) Hopefully, I’m not alone, however, in finding real spiritual truth in a well-diagrammed sentence.

Take this one, for example.

Colossians 1:9b-12.

It’s one sentence in my NIV, and the ESV includes the first half of verse 9 in the same sentence. If not periods, Paul could have at least used some bullet points in this section. I won’t force a sentence diagram upon you now because it might unearth long-buried nightmares, so let’s turn it into a list. We like lists, don’t we? I took a little time to dig out  the key words (watching for prepositions and paying attention to punctuation) then bulleted some questions I asked myself as I studied this.

4 Marks of Spiritual Maturity

One whose life is worthy of God and who pleases God (v. 10) will model these four traits.

  1. Bearing fruit
  • Is my life producing/causing good in the world?
  • Are people learning about Jesus?
  • Are needy people blessed?
  • Is my church better/stronger because of my service there?
  • Do my thoughts and actions honor the Lord?
  1. Growing in knowledge of God
  • Do I know more than I did last year about God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit?
  • Am I more familiar with the Bible now?
  • Do I know how to apply biblical truth to life situations (wisdom)?
  1. Being strengthened to have more endurance and patience
  • Does it take me longer to get angry now?
  • Can I withstand longer/harder trials?
  • Do I seek Him more often than I seek His solution to my problems?
  1. Giving joyful thanks to God
  • Am I perpetually thankful for my salvation?
  • Do I find ways to give thanks regardless of my circumstances? (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
  • Do I see God’s blessings in my life—the good parts and the bad?
  • Is my perspective on life characterized by joy?

2 Notes of Caution

I’m sure you know what I’m about to say, but it’s easy to overlook the bigger picture of God’s Word when we zoom in so tightly.

  1. Doing these things doesn’t qualify us for heaven. God qualifies us through Jesus (v. 12b). Instead, these “marks” are evidence of what God has already done in our lives.
  2. God doesn’t supply this list so we can judge others but to affirm for ourselves that we’re on the right track. This is one of many passages designed to encourage us.

There’s so much more to this set of verses. We could go in ten different directions with all the Truth Paul packs into one long sentence. My goal today was to give you (or remind you of) one tool for dissecting the Scripture. (Oops—I switched from English to Biology.) I don’t know about you, but turning Paul’s long sentences into bullet points (a sneaky half-diagram) helps me understand, remember, and apply the guidance God has given us through Paul.

This is not middle school English, but we can use sentence diagramming to clarify Paul’s super-long sentences. #BibleStudyTools #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Do you remember sentence diagramming? Have you used it in your personal Bible study? Any other good suggestions for understanding Paul’s grammar? Or more personally: How have these verses spoken to you? Is there a particular one of my questions the Lord has highlighted for you to ask yourself? Any way you’d like to answer in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

A Small League of Unrecognized Radicals

Biblical flash fiction based on John 19:38-42 (and the other gospels).

“Get me an audience with Pilate. Now.” Joseph’s servant nodded and stepped away, soon lost in the dispersing crowd, but Joseph couldn’t move. He tried not to think about the twelve-year-old who had amazed him in the temple more than two decades earlier. He forced himself to breathe again and steadied his hands.

Now for the eyes. They hadn’t left Jesus since a centurion thrust his spear into Jesus’ side. Look away, Joseph. You have to look away. You have to take care of this, even if He isn’t what you anticipated. Jesus deserves that much. Continue reading

Generosity is Openhanded

In the first half of this year, we considered generosity, my #OneWord2018, by its source and relationship to other biblical concepts. For the latter half of this year, we’ll look at various types of generosity and related Bible instructions.

These days, we call it charity—the concept of sharing money or goods with those who need it. (In King James English, charity was a synonym for love. Check 1 Corinthians 13. I was so confused when I was a kid.) When we think of generosity, most of us start here.

Openhanded Giving

Continue reading

Q & A with John the Baptist

Sometimes I wish we still wrote pamphlets with incredibly long titles.* If so, this post/pamphlet would be: “’Who are You, Then?’ and Other Questions Asked of John the Baptist Which He Probably Also Asked Himself,” or “Two Sides to the Conversation: John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Religious Leaders” or “The Confluence of Identity and Faith, as Presented in John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Temple Delegation.” Actually, those sound like master’s thesis titles, and I promise this is not a thesis!

We’ll just stick with “Q & A.” Continue reading