Seeking the King

Have you set out your nativity scene (or scenes) yet? Which people from the story are on your mind this Christmas? Every year, God brings one segment of the scene into the spotlight for me, and I find myself thinking about him/her/them throughout the holiday season.

This year for me, it’s the wise men. I know why. I recently started working for a nonprofit that supports internationals and the wise men were the first non-Jews…the first border-crossers…to worship Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  –Matthew 2:1-2

The magi came to worship him.

What’s east of Jerusalem? When I was a kid, I thought these guys were from China and places close to China. After all, the song says, “We three kings of Orient are…” To me, the Orient was where Oriental people lived. (No offense. It was the late 1970s. “Political Correctness” wasn’t a thing yet.) Little did I know that the Orient includes Arabia and that the “near East” was just as exotic as the “far East.”

Also, I thought they were kings. (The song is so wrong!!) They were more like Daniel and the guys who served with him: astrologers, scientists, magicians.

star-watchers
wise men
internationals
foreigners
strangers
seekers

Star-watchers from the near East. That’s Persia, southern Arabia, and Mesopotamia (NIV Study Bible notes for Matthew 2:1). These days, we know these areas as Iran, the Saudi Arabia/Yemen/Oman/U.A.E., and Syria.

They were internationals. And they worshiped Jesus as a king. Before anyone other than the shepherds of Judea realized it, these foreigners knew Jesus was something special.

I’ve written about all the characters in your nativity sets. Find the one the Holy Spirit has put on your mind this Christmas and dig into their story. You might learn something new. You might grow closer to “the one who has been born king of the Jews.”

Remember too, “King of the Jews” is what Pilate wrote on the placard above Jesus’ head when He hung on the cross (John 19:19).

The Cast of Christmas: Zechariah & Elizabeth

The Cast of Christmas: Mary

The Cast of Christmas: Joseph

The Cast of Christmas: Shepherds

The Cast of Christmas: Simeon

The Cast of Christmas: Wise Men

Wise men: the first internationals to worship Jesus, the first to recognize He was a king. My #NativitySet is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Which “character” from the Christmas story is the Holy Spirit using in your life right now? Please tell us who and why in the comments in below. I would love to hear what’s on your mind!

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Our Identity Has a Purpose

or The ‘That’ We Can’t Delete (originally a 3-minute speech for Enrich Writer’s Conference)

As a writer, I’ve been told to ferociously edit, to remove unnecessary words and watch for repeated words. I’ve learned to limit my uses of ‘so,’ ‘like,’ ‘that,’ and similar words.

But sometimes we need to keep the ‘that.’

For the grammar nerds among us (if you don’t love grammar, you can skip this paragraph), the ‘that’ I find so important is not a demonstrative adjective or the introductory word for a descriptive clause. This ‘that’ leads into a purpose clause. One thing happens in order to produce the following thing. Purpose clauses may begin with that, so that, in order that, or lest.

The biblical authors knew we needed purpose clauses, and the translators, when the text called for it, used ‘that’ or ‘so that.’

We find a crucial example of ‘that’ for a purpose clause in 1 Peter 2:9.

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

If we stop there, we feel pretty good about ourselves. We are chosen, royal, holy, and special. That’s awesome. I feel super-good about myself when I read that.

But there’s more.

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

The first half of the verse reveals our identity. The second half reveals the reason we’ve been given the identity. It declares our purpose: to declare the praise of him who called us.

These days, our Christian culture focuses a lot on identity. There are songs and sermons about it, t-shirts you can wear, and signs you can hang in your house. The things you’ve read about identity are absolutely true, but it’s an incomplete truth without the attached purpose. Focusing so heavily on our identity makes our faith about us rather than about God and His glory.

IMG_0096
Mt. Kilimanjaro (the snow-capped one on the right) (c) Carole Sparks

Our identity is not the summit of the mountain we’re climbing but the equipment we shoulder to climb it.

02-28 ready to run this year shoes race
new running shoes (c) Carole Sparks

Our identity is not the gold medal for which we strain but the shoes we lace up to run the race.

Our identity is not a landing point in our faith but a launching pad.

…that you may declare the praises of him who called you…

So let’s take our identity, our chosen-ness, our special-ness, and let’s embrace it! Let’s declare it! Let’s scream it at Satan and hold our heads high! But then, let’s buckle that belt of truth on tightly (Ephesians 6:14) and step into our purpose, which—no matter what your calling—is His Glory!

Our identity is pointless without the purpose for which it was given. On purpose clauses, words our editors like to delete, and the reason we are who we are in Christ. My #identity is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

How does your identity equip you to fulfill your purpose in Christ? Have you tended to rest in identity without considering the attached purpose? I know I have. Whatever you’re thinking, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

 

More on identity: The Idol of Identity and Q & A with John the Baptist

More on not ignoring the second half of the verse: Stillness

 

There’s good, then there’s Good

“You’re good people.”

I heard it again last weekend. What do you say to that? “Umm…thanks?”

I live in the south, and most of us are good…at least we’re polite and nice. Our mommas told us, “Be good!” every time we went out the door. We wait our turn; we try to help people; we give Christmas gifts to our mailmen and garbage collectors. We try our best to be nice (except on college football Saturdays, but that’s another story). Continue reading

Generosity Pays Attention

It is said that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. I recently heard someone say, “Our mouths close; our ears don’t.” Think about that one for a second.

And of course, there’s James…

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.  –James 1:19

There is a type of generosity that costs nothing materially but takes supreme effort in our distracted-to-death culture: the generosity of attention. Continue reading

Demolition is Messy

When the Israelites paraded around Jericho, God demolished the walls of the city (Joshua 6:20). What the text doesn’t mention, however, is the cloud of dust that must have risen into the atmosphere and all the rubble that must have remained on the ground from the walls, not to mention the noise it made when it fell! I think when the Israelites “charged straight in,” there was some up and over to their straight line.

Last fall, I wrote about the walls Satan builds around our hearts—an image the Lord gave me as I prayed for someone I love. I shared a detailed study of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 with you. Paul said we have other-worldly weapons which “have divine power to demolish strongholds,” arguments, and pretensions” (emphasis added).

Since I wrote about demolition, we did a major remodel in our home. We knocked out the center wall to create an open floor plan. Here I was, praying for spiritual/emotional walls to crumble, and God gave me a tangible wall to demolish—one I couldn’t ignore, right in the middle of my house. I would say that’s crazy, but truth is, that’s how God works. 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!

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