Watching and Waiting

The guard stands in the tower, eyes cast downward, searching through the thick night for any change, ears tuned for any out-of-the-ordinary noise. He raises his eyes to the distant mountains, their peaks muted by the sameness of the sky. He leans against the edge of the window for a moment, but he cannot relax. He will not descend until the sun ascends.

sandstone tower
watchmen’s tower in the Middle East (c) Carole Sparks

Even in the deepest, loneliest part of the night, the guard never doubts the rising of the sun. With absolute confidence, he glances to the east for a moment, eager to catch the first graying of the dark sky, the first dimming of the stars. Continue reading

What’s So Good about Good Friday?

I don’t like Good Friday. If any day should be called Black Friday*, it’s this day…

when Jesus, the Christ, had willingly walked into the clutches of His desperate and vindictive enemies,

when the Prince of Peace climbed onto a torture rack and endured hours of excruciating pain before finally releasing His Spirit,

when Messiah himself hung up there deserted by those He claimed as followers—nay, friends and confidants (John 15:15), Continue reading

Enough is Not Enough

In our culture, we take everything to extremes. Is no one else bothered by how the term binge has become socially acceptable? It means “a period of excessive indulgence.” Sure, I’ve done it, but no way that’s healthy! Binge eating, binge drinking (alcohol, soda, coffee), binge watching a TV series…none of these help you become a better person—especially a better Christ-follower.

In our self-gratification-centered culture, having enough no longer satisfies. Take Starbucks for example. They used to offer a “short” size. While “tall and skinny” are my preferred adjectives for far more than my lattes, what induced them to offer medium, large, and extra-large as standard sizes? Continue reading

Observations from Psalms

A couple of separate observations from my daily time in Psalms…

The Last Meal of a Condemned Man

People who don’t care about God seem to have an easy life. They don’t get up early on Sunday mornings (unless it’s to play golf). They take shortcuts to prosperity and seem unfazed by it. They focus on themselves and what they can see. Pride is so much easier than humility.

I get it. I think that way sometimes, too. So did David.

For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. -Psalm 73:3-5

Perhaps it’s God’s kindness that allows the “wicked” (I hesitate to use that term. It’s so not p.c.) to have such easy lives here on earth. Perhaps God gives them a few years of ease because he knows their eternity will be beyond miserable, like the last meal of a condemned man.

I’ll take today’s burdens
over tomorrow’s brimstone.

We who follow Jesus, on the other hand, struggle and suffer now (not all the time). Sometimes life feels like an endless series of burdens, but we face an eternity of ease. So let’s cut the others some slack. Let’s stop being jealous. Even though it seems unfair in the moment, I’ll take today’s burdens over tomorrow’s brimstone.

Roadkill

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. -Hebrews 12:1b-2a

 It’s one thing to see roadkill alongside the road when you’re driving. It’s quite another to see it when you’re on foot. There’s a nice four-lane near my home with sidewalk on both sides. It’s a great place to run. Except for the multiple incidents of roadkill. I once saw seven dead animals in a 1.5 mile span!

It’s distracting. I’ve finally trained myself not to look but I can’t escape the smell, and holding your breath while running isn’t a strong option.

In Psalm 59 (and many other psalms in this section), David is distracted by his enemies, accusers, and attackers. His situation distracts him so much that he can’t pray. He can’t run with perseverance the race marked out for him. You know what that’s like, don’t you? When difficulties arise in our lives—especially the social/relationship kind—it distracts us just like that roadkill distracts me when I’m running.

Our eyes drift to the side, to the ditches, where humanity reveals her pale, bloated underbelly. But we can discipline ourselves not to dwell there. God draws our gaze back to Himself. Then our breath evens out and our shoulders soften.

The key is to intentionally pull our focus back, to close that line of thoughts for awhile and focus entirely on our Savior. It takes practice, but it can be done.

Last meals, roadkill…you know, normal things you think of when reading Psalms. (click to tweet)

It’s Spring break at our house this week. I’ve been hanging out with my kids, and I didn’t pull away to compose a full blog post. I pray these random devotional thoughts from my last few weeks in Psalms encourage you. Let me know what you think in the comments.

PS – Aren’t you glad I didn’t include a picture of roadkill?

The Worst Networking Opportunity Ever

The Calling of Levi (part II)

We were watching Jesus call Levi, the tax collector, to be His disciple. Flip back to last week’s post for a refresher, if you need it. Otherwise, let’s keep going.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me,” and Levi followed Him (Matthew 9:9). The pattern was the same for Simon (a.k.a. Peter), Andrew, James, and John (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus Embraces the Messes

When Levi stepped out from behind his collection booth, I imagine Jesus put His arm around him and they had a little chat as Jesus steered him down the road away from the toll booth. When Jesus finally stopped, they were standing at Levi’s own gate. Jesus looked at Levi, looked at the house, expectantly looked at Levi again…until Levi invited Him in. Yes, and everyone else. “C’mon in, y’all!”

Jesus walked straight
in to Levi’s mess.

Don’t miss this. Jesus walked straight in to Levi’s mess. Levi had no chance to wipe up his bathroom or get the expired milk out of the fridge. He didn’t get to forewarn his friends about what kind of person Jesus was and how they should behave in response. He didn’t make Jesus wait outside while he got his affairs in order. No, Jesus walked right into the house, embracing it and everyone in it!

We want to give Jesus
the impressive, pre-packaged
parts, but He want our
whole lives.

In the same way, we don’t get to choose what parts of our lives welcome Jesus. He walks in to all of it—the straight and the messy, the tear-stained and the laugh-creased, the half-worked jigsaw puzzle still out from Christmas and the brand new shoes you bought on sale after Christmas. We want to give him the good parts, the impressive pre-packaged parts, but He wants it all. Let him be the good friend who doesn’t care that your trash is overflowing and who thinks your one weird friend is delightfully quirky.

Jesus Embraces the Masses

Back in Capernaum that night, Levi threw a big banquet. He invited everyone in town who would still talk to him. That wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop. There were other tax collectors. There were probably some known criminals, some prostitutes, and some people who just didn’t fit the established protocol.

The Pharisees didn’t approve of what they saw. They stood outside with their noses in the air and grumbled among themselves. Finally, someone grabbed one of Jesus’ other followers as he walked by. (Maybe the follower was coming back from the bathroom. Only outhouses in those days, you know.)  If he’d been speaking today, he might have said, “What is that leader of yours thinking? Why are you all eating with these filthy people? You know, they don’t have any worthwhile connections. If Jesus is really planning to start a global movement, he’s off on the wrong foot. This is a terrible place to network.” (For what he actually said, click here.)

Why did Jesus eat with
tax collectors and sinners?

The Pharisees thought they could do it on their own. They didn’t think they needed a backwoods itinerant preacher to show them the way to Heaven. The people in Levi’s house, however, were all too aware of their frightful failings. Jesus ate with them because they were Levi’s people, because they knew they needed saving, and perhaps because they were frustrated with a religious system that categorically excluded them.

Jesus phrased it like this,

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.  -Mark 2:17

Where are you spending your time? (This really convicts me.) Are you playing it safe, keeping clean and rubbing shoulders only with other clean freaks? Do you think only Jesus can manage a life among “tax collectors and sinners”? Or do you think He was setting an example for us when he sat down to eat there? I think He gave us an example here and elsewhere. Are you embracing the messiness of real life outside our Christian bubbles? Are you friends with people who don’t follow all the religious laws and don’t know the standard order of worship in our American churches? This is an area of the Christ-Life in which I know I really need to grow.

Bad Networking or Good News-Bearing? Two perspectives on a New Testament party. (click to tweet)

There are so many spiritual applications here. I’ve hardly scratched the surface. What moment in this story sticks in your mind, convicting or encouraging you right now? How is God applying His Word to your life through my imagery? I’d love to hear about it in the comments

Jesus Peeled Off Labels

The Calling of Levi (part I)

Bonnie and Clyde, peas and carrots, Smith and Wesson. Some things just go together. The phrases come out more like one word than three: peas-and-carrots. I do it to my kids, running their names together into one long, slurred, barely distinguishable word. But when they hear it, they know I’m talking to them!

Tax collectors and sinners. It’s probably not a common pairing for you, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the two were synonymous. They belonged together, and the phrase was best said with a slight sneer (something of the Snape variety, for any Harry Potter fans). If you chose to become a tax collector, you were kicked out of the synagogue, ostracized in your community, and equated with pagans. You were a traitor, and that was the worst kind of sinner.

Of Levi (a.k.a. Matthew), the tax collector-cum-apostle, we have no back story. What made him choose Rome over Jerusalem? I want the story to be a like a Dickens novel where there was some family crisis and he had no choice. But maybe he wasn’t all that religious anyway, or he was from another part of the country, so no big deal to lose his ties to the community. Maybe he was just greedy. Tax collectors could make a lot of money, especially the unscrupulous ones.

Jesus was already
looking into Levi’s heart.

While we’re asking questions to which we don’t have answers… Did Levi remember the first time Jesus walked by, tossing his coins into the basket? I imagine Jesus was alone that first time. Then the next time, a few people were with him, then more and more followers until the group got so big it clogged up the traffic flow and people in the rear started complaining. I imagine Jesus looked Levi in the eye every single time he passed. I imagine he began to smile at Levi—something no proper Jew would ever do.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

One day, Levi was working in his tax booth outside Capernaum, as usual. He didn’t witness the healing of a crippled man after some friends lowered him through the roof. He didn’t know about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who witnessed that healing (Matthew 9:1-8). He was just minding his own business, trying to make a little money.

The crowd around Jesus was unmistakable as it approached his booth. He straightened up a little, checked his change drawer, and started plotting a way to carry all those coins home safely. As it happens, he wouldn’t carry even one coin home that day!

Jesus walked up to Levi, looked him in the eye, and said two simple words: “Follow me” (Mark 2:14). Oh, to hear the monologue in Levi’s mind at that moment! Surely, he hesitated for a second, surprised, just taking in the situation…or maybe weighing the cost of obedience.

Have you been there? Have you understood Jesus’ call and made that split-second decision that changed your life? Have you traded being an outcast for being part of His inner circle?

And then, to hear the thoughts in the mind of Peter or John, guys who never missed a Saturday at the synagogue, who grudgingly paid the tolls, and who tried to avoid anything even vaguely resembling “tax collectors and sinners.” They were among the first Jesus called, and they would have never guessed He would invite someone like Levi! That’s just not the way things were done. Were they shocked? Maybe a little embarrassed?

Jesus didn’t see the label.
Jesus saw the person.

But Jesus didn’t see the label, glued on by cultural pressure and religious obligation. Jesus saw the person. Jesus cut through all the red tape, all the layers of Pharisaical self-righteousness, all the ties to Rome. He saw a man who longed to follow Him, to be accepted, to be included. He saw a man who didn’t need someone to remind him of his failings or to supply him with a list of wrongs. He saw a man who was ready to believe.

Levi didn’t protest. He simply stood up, and he followed Jesus down the road.

What happened to the toll booth? Was there a back-up collector there to take over? Did people just plow through without paying? Neither Levi nor Jesus seemed to care, so I guess we shouldn’t either.

Labels. I couldn’t see the potatoes inside because of the big label on the bag. When I opened the bag at home, half of them were rotten!

Labels. Is it ironic to write about a guy named Levi, when Levi-Strauss is one of the most prominent clothing labels in the country?

Labels obscure so much
of who we really are.

Labels. We all wear the social kind. It seems impossible to function in our society without them. And yet, like the label on the bag of potatoes, they obscure so much of who we really are. Hopefully, that hidden part isn’t rotten, but you get my point. Jesus didn’t let labels influence his estimation of a person. It takes some major intentionality, but we’re called to do the same.

We’ll keep going on this story next week.

Jesus is still peeling back the labels on people, revealing their hearts. (click to tweet)

What label do you enjoy? What label do you hate? What label on other people blinds you to their true nature? I hope this post has given you something to think about. If you would like to leave a comment, I would appreciate it!

Twenty Years and Five Ideas

hands-weddingMy 20th wedding anniversary was this week. We didn’t do anything major. We tend to do big things on odd years, like 11. We just went out to dinner at our favorite local restaurant and tried to remember if we went there for our first anniversary. Conclusion: probably.

But the milestone has made me reflective. What have I learned in twenty years of marriage? Here are the five biggest things.

Jesus first.

Prioritize your relationship with Jesus above your marriage relationship. Not church. Not Bible studies. Not believing friends. Not children. Just Jesus. If your number-one goal is to know Him, imitate Him, please Him, your marriage will be better. If your spouse has the same goal, your marriage will be great! I don’t mean ‘great’ in the everything-is-roses sense but in the rock-solid, nothing-can-separate-us sense.

Nothing will impact your marriage
more than taking your eyes off
your spouse and putting them
primarily on Jesus.

That kind of priority starts with a daily quiet time. You may call it something else and you may not do it first thing in the morning, but time in the Word of God every day has to be non-negotiable. It wasn’t that way for us twenty years ago. He almost never had a quiet time, and I only did it during an organized Bible study, or I’d read the Bible out of obligation. But these days, vacations mean we get to spend extra time in Scripture, and even the busiest days of the year still find us with a warm cup and an open Bible every morning.

Forgiveness reigns. Apologies rule.

Forgiveness is a choice. You’re never going to feel like forgiving someone when they’ve hurt you. Do it anyway. Take a break for an hour or so, if you need it, but if your spouse asks for forgiveness, give it. For small things, ask God to help you forget it. That’s the simplest way to move forward. For the bigger things, ask Him to help you learn from it and release it. Releasing isn’t the same as forgiving. Releasing means it doesn’t affect you anymore.

The magic words of
marriage: “Forgive me?”

When you’re on the other side of the situation, ask for forgiveness. Do it straightforwardly, as in, “Will you please forgive me for…?”.  Yes, it’s humbling, but it’s the closest thing to magic words I’ve ever seen.

With that being said, it’s okay to go to bed angry. Sometimes you’re both tired, and the best thing you can do is get some sleep. In the morning, your perspective will be so much better. You’ll probably realize how silly you were the night before, then apologies and forgiveness will come easily.

Keep embarrassments private but broadcast accomplishments.

Be that place of unconditional comfort for your spouse, where he knows he won’t be “outed” the next time you go to a party. Really listen when she talks about her struggles. Validate those feelings, even if you don’t really understand. Receive his failures as an intimate gift that he won’t share with friends. (Kinda stereotyping here, so your spouse may be different.) Think about “flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23) as including “mind of my mind.” My secrets are as safe with my spouse as if I’d never spoken them, but without the negative self-talk.

Be your spouse’s biggest
cheerleader – in public and
in private.

Praise your spouse publicly and frequently, in subtle and blatant ways. For example, I rarely bring up my seminary degree in public, but my husband will mention it any time we talk about seminary. He champions my accomplishments and unwaveringly believes in my future success.

Another example? So glad you asked. A few months ago, I was ready to quit writing altogether and find a job with a consistent paycheck. When I suggested this course of action to my husband, he gently refused it. He reminded me of my Call to write from the Bible. His encouragement helped me re-believe in myself. It was a private moment, but he stated his faith in me out loud—exactly what I needed.

Express love in front of others—especially your children.

We saw this couple French kissing at the gas station the other day. Eww! That’s not what I mean.

Touch, hold hands, smile at each other, ,say “I love you.” Make it obvious that you enjoy being together. Your children are blessed by that assurance. (It’s been said a million times that the best thing you can do for your kids is love their other parent.) Other people are encouraged as well. Don’t get mushy or sappy, and don’t fake it. People can see right through that. But the no-touching policy your private Christian school enforced no longer applies once you’re married.

img_7876-2
(c) Carole Sparks

At the same time, don’t hide it when you’re not feeling so loving. I’m not suggesting you have a big fight in front of your Bible study group, but if you fought on the way to Bible study, it’s okay to talk about it honorably. Let others see that you have “issues” as a couple, but make sure they see you resolve those issues. There are no perfect couples, and your transparency may be exactly what another couple needs to work through their own problems or seek help elsewhere.

What does it mean to “talk about it honorably”? Guard against belittling your spouse or trying to convince people you are right while your spouse is wrong. For example, you might say, “Since our finances have gotten so tight, we argue more. We’re really trying to trust God here, but sometimes it’s hard.” That brings me to the last point…

Tell your stories so they’re more about God than about the two of you.

If you come to our house and have dinner at our table, be sure we’ll ask you these two questions:

  1. How did you come to know Jesus as your Savior?
  2. How did you meet/fall in love with your spouse?

God’s timing is the theme
of my marriage story.

I love it when those two stories intertwine! The story of my marriage is nothing if not a story of God’s timing. Every major event in the last twenty-one years is clearly linked to God’s hand in our lives! I wish I could tell you…

What about your story? You know God gave you your spouse, even if you weren’t following Him when you met and married. How can you shift your perspective on that story to make God the hero in it? When He gets glory from your recounting of your marital relationship, you’ll find He gets more glory from the day-to-day circumstances of your marriage.

Five ideas from a 20-year marriage…because my #marriage is #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

If you’re married, with what do you agree? What have YOU learned? Married or not, what caused you to raise your eyebrows here? What do you want to remember? Let’s start a conversation in the comments!

Check out this post on Intentional Parenting for my 5 Best Marriage Book suggestions.