I Am Not the Light of the World

Of Candles

12-30 2014 reflections (9)
candles (c) Carole Sparks

The electricity was out. No TV, no internet, not to mention no heat or means of cooking. I decided to read a book, so I lit a candle. Have you ever tried to read by the light of one candle? It’s almost impossible. By the time you get the book close enough to see the words clearly, you’re afraid the pages will catch fire. One candle, despite the beautiful imagery, is not very effective. Continue reading

The Blind Man’s Been Bluffed

Someone led him to his usual spot on the side of the road in Jerusalem. He made himself comfortable on this Sabbath morning and prepared to do the same thing he’d done every day for years. The same thing he expected to do every day for the next thirty years, maybe longer. It was his penance. For what, he did not know. He groped at his side for his bowl and cleared his throat. “Some alms for the blind? Can anyone spare a half-cent or a quadran?”

Sometimes people were generous, especially on holy days, when more people passed and more of them gave alms. Sometimes a wealthy man would put his hand in the bowl and rattle it but the weight of the bowl didn’t change. Strange that the poorer people never did that sort of thing. Rarely, someone would stop to talk to him; those were the best days. Continue reading

Fishers of Men: The Story Behind the Story

We open the New Testament and start reading in Matthew. Okay, we skip the geneaology (but we shouldn’t!) After everything surrounding Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1-2), He’s suddenly a grown-up, and His cousin John is out in the wilderness preaching (Matthew 3). Jesus gets baptized by John, then He’s tested by Satan. Right after the testing, he starts preaching, and then, toward the end of Matthew 4, Jesus calls Simon (a.k.a. Peter), Andrew, James, and John to leave their fishing nets and follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Pastors love this story. It looks like these two sets of brothers meet Jesus and just turn their lives upside down without a second thought, walking away like something from the Pied Piper. But that’s not the case. In fact, they had known Jesus for at least a few months. They had already seen Him in action and even talked to Him. Walk through this with me… Continue reading

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!

When in Doubt…

When in doubt, just don’t leave.

I love to push into the Gospel stories, to take the people who populate them—the ones we’ve flattened into two-dimensional adjectives—and refold them like origami so we can see more of their personalities, more of their faithfulness.

Recently, Thomas has been on my mind. You know, “Doubting Thomas.” All we seem to remember about him is that he questioned Jesus’ resurrection. But tradition has it that Thomas travelled all the way to India and died there for his faith. That’s not the legacy of a skeptic.

John 20:24-29.

Thomas drew a metaphorical
line in the sand.

The first time Jesus appeared among the disciples, it was Sunday evening, the same day He arose. Thomas wasn’t there. We don’t know where he was. When he caught up with the rest of the disciples later, he just couldn’t believe what they said about Jesus being alive! He knew these guys; he’d spent the last three years with them; still, he couldn’t trust them enough to believe that. Thomas drew a metaphorical line in the sand: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were…I will not believe” (John 20:25).

We cast Thomas in a bad light here, but he wasn’t any different from the other disciples. Peter and John hadn’t believed Mary on that first morning. Remember? They had to run to the tomb and see for themselves (John 20:1-10). This resurrection thing was brand new. Even the night before Jesus’ death, no one understood what was going to happen. I don’t think Thomas was doubting Jesus so much as he was doubting his fellow disciples.

Thomas may have been a doubter,
but he wasn’t a deserter.

Thomas dug his feet into the sand behind his metaphorical line for a week. He didn’t go away, but neither did he believe. Don’t miss this: Thomas didn’t leave! He may have been a doubter, but he wasn’t a deserter.

The next Sunday night, all the disciples gathered in that same room—including Thomas—and Jesus appeared again. He was just there.

One second, no Jesus.

The next second, Jesus.

He greeted everyone perfunctorily, then turned straight to Thomas. He didn’t scold Thomas or withhold anything from him. He simply stretched out his hand and asked Thomas to touch Him. He gave Thomas what he needed in order to believe. With His actions, He answered Thomas’ doubt, then He commanded Thomas to believe.

Thomas immediately confessed his faith: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). There’s no greater acclamation.

I don’t know about you, but I have doubted. Sometimes, I still doubt. Maybe you should call me “Doubting Carole.” That’s why Thomas’ story encourages me so much. Like him, there’s more to me than my doubts. Like him, I can live with those doubts for a little while, until Jesus answers them.

In doubt, stay close…
stay where Jesus can
reach out to you.

As believers, the key for you and me when we doubt is that we don’t leave. Like Thomas, we stick around. We continue meeting with other believers. We keep searching our Bibles for answers. We persist in prayer (even when we think, “Umm, I don’t know if you’re even there, God.”). Like Thomas, we simply stay close, stay where He can reach out to us. The day will come—I know it will because I’ve been there—when He removes the doubt and our belief resurfaces. Then we, like Thomas, can exclaim without reservation, “My Lord and my God!”

Got doubts about faith issues? Just don’t leave. Wait on Jesus to reach out to you. via @Carole_Sparks #NotAboutMe (click to tweet)

Can you recall a time when you experienced serious doubts about God? I can, and my faith is stronger from having experienced that! Let me know how you persevered through doubts or how this post affects you…or anything else you want to say in response. That’s what the comment section is for!

The Power of Peace

The Muslim persons greets other people with As-salaam ‘alaykum, “Peace be upon you.”

The traditional Hebrew greeting is Shalom aleikhem, “Peace upon you.”

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, hippies in America greeted each other with “peace.”

We used to live in a place where “Peace be upon you” was a standard, repeated part of our everyday interactions. We said it so often that it had no meaning. But even at its best, such a greeting offers only a wish for peace. It has no power and guarantees no outcome.

When Jesus said it, on the other hand, this phrase was profound.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. –John 14:27

Since the formation of the Hebrew nation, peace had been part of spoken blessings. The Lord told Aaron (through Moses) to speak this blessing over the people:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. –Numbers 6:24-26

Jesus’ peace is more than a
polite blessing or a wish.

With Jesus’ incarnation, the Lord turned His very literal, human face toward them/us and now, near the end of his time on earth, He gave them peace. Not just a blessing or a wish, not just a polite thing to say. This is real, almost-tangible peace that changes hearts. That’s why Jesus said He wasn’t giving as the world gave (not just a wish or blessing). Now they had the power to calm their hearts, to assuage their fears.

Imagine a grandmother on her deathbed. She has a sentimentally and financially valuable ring—one she inherited from her grandmother, one with more stories than you can remember attached to it. She places the ring in your palm and folds your fingers around it. Then, holding your fist closed with both hands, she explains how she wants you to have the ring. This is what Jesus did in that moment.

He didn’t loan them peace.

He didn’t let them look at peace but keep it for himself.

He didn’t let them take peace for a test drive and return it later.

Powerful peace was
permanently theirs.

No, powerful peace was permanently theirs. He’d been carrying this peace around with him all the time. Maybe it’s why people were so attracted to Him, why they inexplicably trusted Him. Now, He gave that peace to His disciples (without losing it for Himself). He folded their hearts around it and made it their own.

On that night, which culminated in his arrest in Gethsemane, I like to think this was a quiet, intimate moment. Jesus told the disciples that they didn’t have to be afraid. Why not? Because peace is powerful. If you’ve felt the real thing, you know it.

Later in the same conversation, Jesus returned to the subject of peace.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. –John 16:33

I’m thankful I don’t have to watch in confusion while Jesus is arrested, beaten, and killed. Even though the disciples ran, they did eventually come back. They didn’t leave the movement. Those nuggets of peace had already begun to work powerfully in their hearts.

We have the same powerful peace
that the disciples received.

My daughter had surgery last week. One of our friends was diagnosed with cancer yesterday. Our nation is still reeling from a mass shooting in Orlando. The presidential candidates snap at each other like two roosters in a cock fight. The world…at least my world…is full of trouble. It’s not the my-Savior’s-dead kind of trouble, but it can be overwhelming. On the outside, peace looks like nothing more than the wishful thinking of a polite greeting. But as believers, we have those same nuggets of peace in our hearts. Here’s the fantastically-amazing thing: Giving away peace doesn’t minimize it in the giver; if anything, it enlarges by dividing.

Let’s redefine peace as the power that comes from the presence of Jesus in our lives.

Then, let’s commandeer “peace be upon you” as an expression of our desire for others to know that same peace.

Let’s redefine peace as the power that comes from the presence of Jesus in our lives. (click to tweet)

I didn’t even touch on how His peace sustains me through these days. What does peace in a time of crisis mean to you? How does it affect your perspective on today’s world? Let me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!