Authentic Generosity Springs from Humility

We get so we can give.

Why does God give us things (tangible and intangible)? First, because it’s in His nature. God is generous. But second, we get so we can give.

From my car to my children to the love I show my neighbor, everything I have is, in a sense, on loan from God and on its way to someone or somewhere else. I am the conduit of His blessing for others. The things He gives me are mine for the time it takes them to pass through my hands, through my circle of influence. Like an earthen ditch flowing full of water, some of God’s blessing soaks into the earth over which they pass, and so I am blessed as all these things pass through me.

That last paragraph is where I want my mindset to remain. I’m not often there, which is why I write this month about the connection between humility and generosity. Continue reading

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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

The Strength of His Presence

The actions (or inaction, actually) of three Hebrew friends led to a confrontation with Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon. They did not prostrate themselves in front of a huge golden image, so Nebuchadnezzar ordered that they be thrown into the furnace.

We started this story last week.

Daniel 3.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s calm response to Nebuchadnezzar infuriated him even further than before the confrontation, and his attitude toward them changed (Daniel 3:19). I think he stopped seeing them as employees who made a mistake and began seeing them as subversives, intent on undermining his authority. I can imagine an “after all I’ve done for you!” attitude. He turned to some workmen nearby and ordered them to heat the furnace as hot as it could possibly go. Continue reading

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.

Hosea: Obedience before Prominence

When you think of seminary, you probably think of clean-cut guys with starched shirts and a penchant for substitute swear words. These are the men God calls into church leadership…at least according to our stereotypes.

This is why I love the minor prophets of the Old Testament. These individuals, specially called by God to be His spokespeople, don’t fit our stereotypes. Yeah, it’s the rebel in me. There’s Amos, a farmer who insisted he wasn’t even an apprentice prophet. There’s Jonah, who straight-up rejected the calling to be a prophet. And there’s Hosea, who married a promiscuous woman. Let’s talk about Hosea and Gomer for a few minutes. (I wanted to title this post “The Seminarian and the Sl*t,” but I just couldn’t publish such a crass word in the title.)

Hosea 1:1-3.

Hosea was a single guy when the word of the Lord first came to him, and my study notes say he prophesied for something like thirty-eight years, so he must have been fairly young when he first heard from God. Not everyone got such personal attention from God during those days. This was a pretty big deal. We don’t know whether he was pleased or petrified to receive “a word,” but I bet he wasn’t very happy with that first command!

Hosea probably had a picture
in his mind of the ideal wife…

I can imagine marriage was already on his mind. Almost everyone got married in those days—sooner rather than later. When he realized God was calling him, perhaps he imagined the ideal woman to accompany him on this mission to speak for God. (I know I’m reading a lot of modern-day culture into this, but stick with me. There’s a point.) She would have been young, faithful, pure…a companion to make him look good and help him fulfill his duties…a Proverbs 31 woman back when that was a new concept.

But no.

God’s first words for Hosea aren’t a message of castigation, a call to repentance, or a scourging of idol worshippers. They’re not even for anyone else to hear. In a very personal command, God tells Hosea to go marry a woman who had already “been around the block,” who had a reputation for immorality and probably for cheating on one man with another. Not an honorable woman. Not the makings of an ideal ministry leader’s wife. I wonder what Hosea’s mother thought.

For six years, God was
shaping Hosea’s family life
…and Hosea’s heart.

It wasn’t enough just to marry her, just to go through the symbolism of the ceremony. No; he had to make love to her and get her pregnant three times. Assuming Gomer got pregnant right away, and they had a baby every two years, that’s six years. Six years with no big messages from God. Sure, God told him what to name the children and why, but Hosea didn’t get the classic, stand-on-the-steps-and-pronounce-judgement type of prophecies during that time. Those came later. For six years, God was shaping Hosea’s family life…and Hosea’s heart.

Hosea would later become well known in Israel, but before he could be prominent, he had to be obedient. He had to forsake common sense and well-intentioned plans for the uncommon sense of God’s plan. (This uncommon sense is rather a theme of mine.)

If you’ve read Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers (which I highly recommend, by the way!), or even if you haven’t, you can imagine a young pastor marching into the seedy part of town, getting down on one knee, and asking a scantily-clad woman of questionable reputation to take the diamond ring in his hand and marry him. Sounds crazy!

His experience gave Hosea
the education to speak
with God’s heart.

Yet this was the experience Hosea needed in order to be an effective prophet, ridiculous as it sounded to everyone around him. He knew heartbreak when Gomer left him and shame when people talked about her “taking up with” someone else. He watched his children suffer in their mother’s absence. Now imagine how he cried as he pleaded with Israel to come back to God. The experience (Hosea 1-3) gave Hosea the education to speak with God’s heart, to know what God went through—if on a much smaller scale—when Israel wandered from her Bridegroom.

I write today to anyone who’s ever felt delayed after knowing God called you to something. There’s an experience—probably an off-the-wall, unpredictable experience (or three)—that you need in order to really do what you’ve been called to do. Instead of resisting it, instead of questioning the common sense of it, instead of rushing into the calling, let Him lead you through the intervening experience. It is actually part of the calling, just not the part you expected. Let His uncommon sense prevail. He can use your life so much more fully in the aftermath.

Hosea’s obedience probably looked crazy to everyone else. Yep; sometimes that happens. #NotAboutMe #UncommonSense (click to tweet)

Know what I’m talking about? Have you felt called only to be delayed (from your perspective)? What strikes you about this idea? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

The Balance Between Liberty and Licentiousness

I know that’s an old-fashioned word, licentiousness. It just means indulging your sin nature, allowing yourself “license” (the root word) to do whatever you want. It’s liberty taken to the extreme. It’s stretching through purpose for self-indulgence. I just couldn’t think of a more exact word, so I took a risk and used this one.

As I spent my quiet time in Galatians over the last weeks, this verse stood out:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. -Galatians 5:13

So many of God’s good
gifts turn to sin when
we take them to excess.

So many of God’s good gifts turn to sin when we take them to excess. It’s like dark chocolate. One piece of really good dark chocolate tastes wonderful and actually has some health benefits. A whole bar of dark chocolate leaves a funny taste in your mouth and actually damages your overall health. That’s what we tend to do with God’s blessings.

Think about it:

  • Love gets twisted into lust.
  • Food overfed becomes gluttony.
  • The conveniences of life such as curb-side service and internet, when overindulged, generate sloth.
  • The tangible blessings of home, cars, clothes, etc. find us prideful or envious, depending on who has them.
  • Sleep, when overused, contributes to escapism and/or laziness.
  • Even Bible study (How could there be anything wrong with Bible study?!?) can become the end goal, the feel-good thing, a source of pride as we acquire knowledge.

To put it bluntly, we tend to pervert for our personal pleasure that which God has given us for His glory and our good.

God wants us to enjoy His
creation and the blessings
of living in it.

The backlash to a self-indulgent lifestyle is one of asceticism, a rejection of comforts and pleasures altogether in favor of extreme abstinence. But God gave us love, food, sleep, and all these other things. He wants us to enjoy His creation and the blessings of living in it.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights… -James 1:17

In I Want to Live These Days with You (8/11), Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the functional purposes of our homes, eating & drinking, clothing, and relaxation but demonstrates how they are also meant to elicit enjoyment.  Of the ascetic life, he writes, “Where people are robbed of the possibility of bodily joys, when their bodies are used exclusively as a means to an end, there we find an assault on the original right of bodily life.”

So how and where do we find the necessary balance? Let’s consider these four ways to check your licentiousness without losing your liberty.

  1. A greater delight in the Giver than the gift

As you sit down to that sumptuous meal, where does your mind go? To your palate and your stomach or to the one who caused these foods to grow and provided them to you?

  1. A steady diet of God’s Word, and not just the parts we like

Keep yourself grounded by digging into difficult Scripture as well as reviewing the comfortable chapters. For example, test yourself for sinfulness in passages like 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, which covers sexual immorality, but also relish your protected citizen status in sections like Romans 8:31-39. Sit under Christ-centered teaching that doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable commands and standards of the Bible even while it celebrates the love and blessings found in following God.

  1. An intimate dedication to the work of the Spirit in our lives

Learn how to hear the Holy Spirit and practice responding promptly. (There are books for this, or talk to a trusted adviser.) He will prompt you to step away from certain worldly pleasures when you need it. Your willingness or unwillingness to obey demonstrates your attachment to that pleasure. For example, Paul told the Corinthians that married couples might sometimes abstain from sex in order to focus on prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5) even when God normally smiles on sex within a marriage. For me, an unwillingness to fast when prompted by the Holy Spirit shows me that food has taken too high of a priority in my life.

  1. An ongoing identification with the person of Jesus

Jesus could enjoy a good meal with the best of them…and the worst (e.g. Zacchaeus). He supplied wine for a wedding (John 2:1-11) and a picnic for a crowd (John 6:1-14). He probably enjoyed the foot rub that came with having oil poured on His feet (John 12:1-11), and He could let down His guard to play with children (Luke 18:15-17). This was a man who enjoyed His earthly life. But He also knew when it was time to get serious, to say the hard things, and finally, to release it all.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! -Philippians 2:8

What is the purpose
of sheets?

Imagine you just bought a new set of sheets. They’re 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton, and they feel good. You crawl under the covers and snuggle down. But your purpose in the bed is not to enjoy the sheets. It’s to sleep. What if you were so busy enjoying the sheets that you didn’t sleep? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The purpose of the sheets is to help you sleep better, and they will, if you keep everything in the proper perspective.

In the same way, God gives us so many good things to help us live this life on earth not only with purpose but also with pleasure. He told the Israelites, “Open your mouth and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). If we’ll stay grounded in the four things above, we’ll learn how to enjoy the pleasures without obscuring our purpose.

4 ways to enjoy the pleasures of life without obscuring the purpose. via @Carole_Sparks #NotAboutMe #ChristianLiberty  (click to tweet)

What do you think? How do we balance the pleasures and the calling to purity in the Christ-life? Honestly, I’m just trying to work through all this, and I’d love some input. Leave a comment. I’ll try to give a thoughtful reply.

The Ones Who “Also Ran”

The last two weeks, our entire schedule was disrupted. We don’t watch a lot of television, but we didn’t even change the channel during this time. We stayed up late, eyes glued to the screen. Breakfast found us checking news feeds for updates, and TV during dinner? Yes, for these two weeks, it was acceptable! As you probably guessed, we are Olympaholics! It doesn’t matter what sport or what level of competition (heats, semifinals, medal rounds), we watch it. We even have special words that only come out every two years (because we’re just as bad about winter Olympics). For example, eating during a good competition is an Olympicnic.

Of course, we rooted for the USA (final medal count: 121!), but we also cheered for anyone who was trying their hardest and anyone representing a country that hadn’t ever won a medal, such as Singapore in men’s swimming 100m butterfly.

What makes the Olympics so special?

  • The comradery: Bolt and De Grasse (sprinting) smiling and joking as they crossed the line in the semi-finals of the 200m.
  • The sportsmanship: Hamblin and D’Agostino (running) help each other up after a fall in the 5000m qualifying race, the USA women’s gymnastics team cheering each other on as they competed.
  • The patriotism: Ryan Crouse (shot put) at 23 years old, 6’7”/245lbs., with tears in his eyes as they played the national anthem; Michael Phelps (swimming) looking the same even after standing on the highest podium twenty-two times before.
  • The joy: Nijat Rahimov (weightlifting) of Kazakhstan dancing when he won gold.
  • The celebration of the human body’s ability rather than its appearance.
  • The platform for Christ: testimonies of Helen Maroulis (wrestling), David Boudia and Steels Johnson (synchronized diving), among others.

My favorite tweet from the Olympics:

The Olympics are rich with lessons for our spiritual lives, and you’ve probably read multiple articles to that effect. Let me add one more. *smile*

These guys got lapped.
In the Olympics.

The image that sticks in my mind even after the closing ceremonies is this: Mo Farah of Great Britain fell in the 10,000m finals then surged ahead to win gold—an amazing feat. As he ran around the track alongside the Kenyans and Ethiopians, they passed a couple of runners. These other guys got lapped. In the Olympics. Farah has been winning these middle/long distance races for years. He was the favorite, and most commentators could have predicted the top five, if not the exact order of their completion. How discouraging for the rest of the field.

What does an Olympic runner think when he gets lapped? (click to tweet)

It makes me wonder what was going through their minds in those moments, as they watched the backs of Farah and the others speed past them.

Did they regret their decisions to travel to Rio?

Was their effort worthless?

What was the point of running, knowing they would not win?

I don’t think they thought any of these things.

Paul told the Corinthian Christians, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24…Is anyone surprised by my choice of a verse? I doubt it!). We need to be careful here to see what Paul intended and what he didn’t. He did not say, “Only run if you can win.” He also didn’t say, “Do whatever it takes—even cheating—to win,” or “Hey, everyone is a winner.”

When Paul said run in such a way as to get the prize, he meant run as if you will win, run your absolute best every time, put in the work to win even if you know you can’t.

But why bother?

Very few of us will reach the pinnacle of achievement in our given fields. As a Bible study writer, I will never be Beth Moore or Kay Arthur. That doesn’t mean I’ve missed my calling. It doesn’t mean I shut my computer and walk away. I will strive to be the best regardless of how much attention I get. Because somehow that’s where God’s glory lies: in my best effort. As my friend, Leigh Powers, put it in her post about the Olympics, “We are not defined by what we achieve but by what Christ has done for us.”

Mo Farah and Usain Bolt were designed to run, then they were cultivated to reach their peak potential. But so were those guys who got lapped. They may not go home with medals around their necks, but I believe they did their absolute best. They still made their countries proud. They are still Olympians.

At some level, the Olympics are no longer about the individual athletes but about their nations. In the same way, the things to which God calls us are not about us but about Him.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters… -Colossians 3:23 (Yep, Paul again.)

Even if you can’t win the prize, run (or whatever your version of running is) as if you were going to win. You were created to do it, you are called to do it, and now you are cultivating your ability to do it.

So run your race.

Represent your faith family and your God.

Relish the privilege of appearance regardless of the final standings.

I’m called to run my race regardless of the final standings because the race is not about me. (click to tweet)

What was your most inspirational moment in the Olympics? What made you think twice? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Update 9.20.16   Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern-day Olympics, established the Olympic creed after being inspired by a speech he heard (given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot). Looks like he thought the same way we have here! This is it: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”