Summer Review: Peter

We’re moving this week, and I just can’t settle my mind enough to write. I keep thinking of what to pack next or what needs cleaned at our new place. Plus, last week’s post about Peter is still on my mind. So I’ve gone back in the archives and cleaned up a few other posts about Peter to share with you today. I hope you find something you haven’t read previously or something the Lord wants to use in your life right now. Choose one–or all!–to read. Continue reading

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

Escaping Stereotypes

I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience, our brains automatically stereotype based on personal observation and experience. What image comes to mind with each of these?

  • professional basketball player
  • soccer mom
  • construction worker
  • woman missionary
  • minister’s or pastor’s wife

If I asked for an image of a “dogwood flower,” you probably think of the white flower above (calm, pure, little tinge of pink on the edges), but the riotously-fuchsia flower on the left is just as much a dogwood as the white one!

Growing up, I had a really strong image of what a minister’s wife was “supposed” to do and look like. Because my own life and personality were so far removed from that stereotype, I struggled when that role became mine.

This month on Pastor’s Wives, I talk about it. Catch the post here, then leave a comment over there or come back and talk to me here. I’d love to hear what you think. Am I right in my advice? What would you add or take away?

God always knew you would be a #pastorswife, and yet He made you this way anyway! (click to tweet)

It’s in the Transitions…

Mark 1.

As John pulled Jesus up out of the water at His baptism, the Spirit of God came down on Him and a voice—the voice of God!!—said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). God was happy with the adult Jesus, with Who He had become in the thirty years of His life on earth.

Here’s a picture-perfect moment: Jesus dripping wet and blinking a little to clear the water from His eyes, the clouds parting and the sun shining through (that’s what I think “heaven being torn open” must have been), Jesus almost glowing in the fresh light and John the Baptist stepping back in awe. Jesus turns His face toward the light, and The Voice booms out.

Just picture it in your head…

But what happens next? As the sky closes back and Jesus’ beard begins to dry, it seems like Jesus should march out into the crowds, healing people and preaching powerfully.

That’s not what happens.

Transition #1: Into the Wilderness

In God’s economy, His pleasure with us doesn’t mean we get off the hook for the hard stuff. This is not a favorite-son-doesn’t-have-to-scrub-toilets scenario. Jesus doesn’t get a reward for making God happy. Check out Mark’s wording here.

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.  -Mark 1:12-13 (emphasis added)

Immediately (ESV and NASB) or at once (NIV), the same Spirit that had just descended onto Jesus drove him (ESV) into the wilderness. This was going to be the most difficult part of his time on earth except for the crucifixion. I imagine He got a weird look on His face, then He just walked up out of the river, past all the onlookers, and into the countryside. No time to prepare. No time to enjoy His most-favored status. What’s more, there was some force to this. (The AMP actually says forced.) Not that Jesus didn’t want to obey but that the urging was so strong it felt irresistible. The Spirit almost drug Jesus into that desolate, dangerous, diabolical place.

The Spirit almost drug
Jesus into that desolate,
dangerous, diabolical place.

Matthew says the angels only came at the end (4:11), so Jesus was alone. He had nothing to eat and nowhere to hide. That’s desolate. There were wild animals and the aforementioned lack of sustenance. That’s dangerous. And then, just when it couldn’t get any worse—when he was parched with thirst and literally starving, when He was at His very weakest—here comes Satan to tempt Him in three distinct and powerful ways. That’s diabolical.

I bet you’re like me, and you would love for God to be “well pleased” with you. You and I both look forward to that “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) we hope to hear when we get to Heaven. (Want to digress here? Read my post, The Cake and the Icing.)

God’s pleasure with us doesn’t
predict our comfort level.

I can bet you’re also like me, and you really don’t want the “wilderness experience.” (I don’t even want a camping experience, so…) We need to realize, however, that God’s pleasure with us doesn’t predict our comfort level. It is precisely those with whom He is well pleased who are pulled into difficult times of testing. There’s a great purpose in it (our strengthening and/or refinement and His increased glory), but that fact helps little when you’re in the middle of it. (Another possible digression: But Lord, This Stinketh. Yeah, I’ve written about these things before.)

In these days of easy-going Christianity, is it not well to remind ourselves that it really does cost to be a man or woman whom God can use? One cannot obtain a Christlike character for nothing; one cannot do a Christlike work save at great price.  –Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor

Too many people are
surprised when they obey
then difficulties arise.

We should, therefore, expect difficulties to arise precisely when and because we experience the favor of God. I’m not trying to be fatalistic or pessimistic, and I’m not trying to create problems where there are none. I just think far too many people are surprised when they obediently respond to the Holy Spirit’s pulling, then instead of getting rewarded, difficulties arise. If it happened to Jesus, we should expect it to happen to us.

Transition #2: Into Ministry

Sometime after the forty-first day, when Jesus had returned to civilization, when He had rehydrated and recuperated, He began proclaiming the good news of God (Mark 1:14). He loved to talk about the Kingdom of God, didn’t He?

Recall the sequence of events here:

  1. Jesus got baptized.
  2. God was pleased.
  3. Jesus was tempted.
  4. Jesus started preaching.

God was pleased with Jesus’ heart
prior to anything Jesus did.

Did God express His happiness after Jesus did a bunch of things for Him? No. It wasn’t the successful resistance to temptation or the powerful, spot-on preaching that pleased God. He was already pleased before any of that happened. In fact, besides getting baptized, Jesus didn’t do anything. God was pleased with His heart—with Who He was—prior to anything He might do.

This is nice, but what’s it mean for us?

  1. We don’t have to meet a standard of behavior or go through a series of “qualifying rounds” before God likes us. Remember David, the shepherd boy who was chosen to be king? As Samuel stood in front of David’s good-looking brothers, God told him, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
  2. His pleasure empowers us. This isn’t in the Gospels, but I think the presence of the Holy Spirit on/in Jesus gave Him the strength to withstand Satan’s temptations and the wisdom to proclaim the Kingdom so boldly. He was a man, tempted as we are, yet He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). He always knew exactly what to say to the people in front of Him—friend or foe (e.g. John 3 and 4). Now we have that same Spirit and that same accompanying power!

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.  -John 14:16-17a

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…  -Ephesians 1:19-20

When we read between the lines, or at least between the paragraphs, of the Gospels, we discover God’s pattern at work in humanity. We can expect trials, even when we feel closest to God, but He will empower us to overcome them.

What can we learn from the transitions in Mark 1? Probably more than you think. (click to tweet)

Have you experienced that intimacy of God’s pleasure only to feel like you were thrown to the wolves the next moment? Did it surprise you? What advice would you give others who face similar circumstances? Let’s share our stories for His glory! Check out the comments below.

The Skeletons in Jesus’ Ancestral Closet

We all have those stories, some more painful than others: the embarrassing stories of our ancestors. In East Tennessee, almost everyone has a great uncle who either made or ran moonshine—sometimes one of each. Many of us know family stories of bank robbers, army deserters, cheaters, or gamblers. These are the stories we pull out for entertainment at reunions or with the teenager’s new boyfriend or girlfriend. One day, I’m going to write a book of stories about my grandmother and great-grandmother. You wouldn’t believe some of the things they did!

Other stories are buried further back in the closet, back where the bare light bulb at the top of the chain doesn’t shine. These are the stories we wish we didn’t know, the stories to which our parents only allude, and then only when no one outside the blood family can hear, and which they always accompany with a raised eye-brow that says, “Nothing further need be said.”

Still, those buried stories creep out to define us in our most vulnerable moments.

They tell us we can’t change our fundamental nature.

They tell us we will end up just like that relative.

They tell us we are weak.

They tell us we don’t really believe or we’re hypocritical.

They tell us we will fail before we even begin.

Jesus had skeletons in His closet, too.

Matthew 1:1-17.

Sure, there’s Abraham and King David, King Josiah (who discovered scrolls in the decrepit temple and called the people to repentance, 2 Kings 23) and Shealtiel (who led the returning Israelites to rebuild the temple after the exile, Ezra 2:2). But there are other men and women…

Tamar (Genesis 38). After her husband died, Tamar seduced her father-in-law so she could get pregnant.

Ahaz (2 Kings 16). This King of Judah sacrificed his own son to a Canaanite god. He took all the silver and gold from the temple and the royal treasury and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria (16:8), trying to buy protection for Judah. Later, he desecrated the temple in numerous ways, too.

Rahab (Joshua 2). She hid the Israelite spies who surveyed Jericho before its fall. She even lied for them, deceiving her own government. But don’t forget, Rahab was a prostitute.

King David (2 Samuel 11). Despite being “a man after God’s own heart,” David stayed home when he should have gone to war, spied on a bathing woman from his rooftop, then was so overcome with lust he brought her into his bed. She got pregnant, so then he had her husband killed to cover it up.

Jesus’ ancestral history
never made him stumble.

Yes, Jesus had some pretty scary skeletons in His closet, but these facts never stopped Him.

Tamar and Rahab’s promiscuity didn’t cause Jesus to hesitate when he told the woman caught in adultery, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

Ahaz’s disrespect for the temple didn’t give Jesus pause when he created a ruckus in the temple and chased away all the money-changers (Matthew 21)

David’s lust didn’t make Jesus stutter when he said, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

Jesus fit into a long
line of faithful and
unfaithful…

Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but never forget He was also the Son of David. He fit into a long line of faithful and unfaithful, honorable and horrible, successful and scandalous. He knew His ancestry couldn’t make Him or break Him. Jesus was Who He was supposed to be.

So are you and I. Don’t let the skeletons in your family closet divert you from God’s purposes in your life!

The skeletons in Jesus’ family closet couldn’t make Him or break Him. Nor do ours. (click to tweet)

Do you have embarrassing—even shameful—family stories? Have you ever thought of Jesus’ genealogy in this way? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below. I love hearing from my readers!

The Best Christmas Verses in the Bible

We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas the other night. I love it when Linus walks to center stage, drops his blanket, and recites the Christmas story from Luke 2. Sometimes, I say it along with him.

But this year, as I stood in a special night of worship, singing mostly Christmas carols, a different set of verses unexpectedly rang through my heart:

Christ Jesus…being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
Rather, he made himself nothing
By taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
By becoming obedient to death—
Even death on a cross!  -Philippians 2:5b-8

Is this not the essence of Christmas? It’s not Jesus’ coming as a baby that saves us for His glory. It’s His death. It’s not the peacefulness of the manger scene that informs our daily lives. It’s His life-long attitude of humility.

Consider…

Made himself nothing  A stable, some animals, a carpenter, and a teen-aged girl: an out-of-wedlock baby in an out-of-the-way town. On the surface, he’s the opposite of special.

The very nature of a servant  Excluded from the inn, He was equal only to some shepherds.

Made in human likeness  Crying, hungry, wholly dependent on others for every need…yes, He really was a real baby.

Found in appearance as a man  Jesus grew up like any other boy, experiencing all human life has to offer for someone in His station.

He humbled himself  As an adult, He wandered the countryside with no home. He touched the untouchable. He washed His own disciples’ feet.

Obedient to death—even death on a cross  To cap it all off, He willingly underwent the basest and cruelest form of capital punishment when he hung bleeding and naked on a wooden cross.

God’s purpose in Christ’s
presence culminates in
the cross.

Yes, the baby in Bethlehem is already our Savior and Lord, but without “the rest of the story,” we wouldn’t know how to follow Him. These verses encapsulate the events and the purpose of not only His arrival but His life. God’s purpose in Christ’s presence on earth doesn’t culminate in the manger but on the cross.

Don’t stop there, though. We still have a celebration!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place 
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth
And every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.     -Philippians 2:9-11

He began in the lowest of places: out behind the only inn in a little backwater town, admired by no one but some shepherds. But He ends in the highest place, with everyone—those who love Him and those who don’t—bowing in the greatest show of honor ever conceived.

Now that’s Christmas!

The best passage about #Christmas isn’t found in Matthew or Luke. What could it be? (click to tweet)

Have you ever noticed the Christmas-ness of a passage we don’t usually associate with the holiday? I would really love to hear about it! Please bless us all by sharing below.

Paul’s Inauspicious Beginning

We all know the dramatic story of Saul’s conversation on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and how he went from persecuting Christians to being principal among them and, most would say, the first cross-cultural missionary. No doubt, his calling was clear and certain.

Paul didn’t tell any
of the leading Christians
for a long time.

But here’s something really interesting. Paul talks about it in Galatians 1. He describes his conversion and what a complete change it made in him. Immediately, he began sharing with anyone who would listen in the Damascus synagogues, causing a major uproar! But even though his conversion was so phenomenal and he knew he was called to reach the Gentiles, he didn’t tell any of the leading Christians for a long time. In fact, after a few days in Damascus, he went away from the seat of Christianity (Acts 9:19-22, Galatians 1:11-17). Doesn’t that seem backward to you? Shouldn’t he go tell the leadership team in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t he start right away? But look at the next few verses:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. … Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. -Galatians 1:18-19, 21-22

I bet you’ve never heard a sermon preached from these verses. I haven’t. But there’s some real wisdom here for those of us called to something public. I’m talking to you, writers and speakers!

Three Years

Three years he remained anonymous. God called him to share Christ with the Gentiles—a totally new thing—but Paul waited three years. Jesus Himself (!!) appeared to Saul/Paul after His ascension, and yet Paul didn’t write a book, hire an agent, or start a speaking tour. He didn’t even start building a platform. (My writer friends will understand that one.) He went off by himself. So maybe he needed a little space to digest what happened on the way to Damascus and to reflect on this radical new perspective. Or maybe he realized the wounds he had previously inflicted on Christians were just too fresh. We don’t actually know why Paul went away or what he did for those three years, but I think he sought solitude because there was so much he had to unlearn from his days as a Pharisee. He knew he wasn’t spiritually mature enough to lead anything.

Get Acquainted

Finally, Paul thought himself ready to begin his ministry. So he printed some business cards, then he scheduled a social media blast and recruited a street team. He worked his connections to get a speaking engagement in a mid-size auditorium. Wait, what? He didn’t do any of that. He quietly entered Jerusalem and tried to connect with a disciple or two, but they were still afraid, even after three years! Finally, Barnabas convinced Peter to meet Paul, and Paul stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Peter was an experienced preacher and minister, a man who knew Jesus personally and who understood what “go ye therefore” (Matthew 28:19 KJV) really meant. In other words, Paul found a mentor.

Saw None of the Others

During those fifteen days with Cephas/Peter, Paul shared his faith all over Jerusalem, but he never met any of the other original disciples (Acts 9:28, Galatians 1:19). He wasn’t interested in networking with people who would further his career. In fact, I bet the only reason he saw James was because James just dropped by Peter’s house one day while Paul was there.

Personally Unknown

After those fifteen precious days with Peter, Paul went home to Tarsus. (Galatians says the more general Syria and Cilicia, but Acts 9:30 specifies Tarsus.) Jesus knew a prophet is never honored in his own country (John 4:44); it’s almost a proverb. On top of that, Paul didn’t know any of the believers in that region (Galatians 1:22). It wasn’t a logical destination for him. And yet, God began to give him an audience there—in an unlikely place at an unlikely time.

To summarize (in present tense), Jesus gives Paul an assignment. Three years later, he gets a couple of introductions, frightens a bunch of believers, then goes where no one knows him. He is not famous or popular. Not an auspicious beginning to such a profound calling.

I wonder if Paul expected more. I wonder if he was frustrated with the length of time in Arabia and the lack of recognition in Judea. I would have been. Would you?

Sometimes we have to
“grow into” our calling.
(click to tweet)

What’s my point? Calling and the ministry it produces may not be consecutive. Sometimes we have to “grow into” our calling.

More than ten years ago, I first understood God calling me to speak and write, but at the same time, He showed me I had too much pride and too little wisdom. I doubled Paul’s three-year absence, leaving more than six years before I even began blogging. The lesson we have from Paul, which is the lesson I’m still trying to learn, is to be patient. That means…

  • Not to force the ministry, like Paul waited those three years.
  • To keep working even while we’re learning, like Paul shared in Jerusalem.
  • To find a mentor, like Paul found Peter.
  • To know some people aren’t going to “get it,” like believers were frightening by Paul.
  • To take the less-prestigious, less-popular roles and wait on God, like Paul went to Tarsus.

Personally, that means I’m trying to be satisfied with my platform, with the reach of my Twitter feed, with the many (that is, all) influential people who still don’t know me. I’ll take the opportunity in front of me even when it doesn’t seem promising. And I’ll try not to scare too many people in the process.

Paul didn’t become the best-known Christian EVER over night. Likewise, our calling takes time. (click to tweet)

How’s your calling coming along? Are you frustrated by a lack of progress? How does Paul’s example help you be patient? Write me a note in the comments so I know I’m not alone on this!