A Barnabas Background Check

I’m no stranger to background checks, although that “last 5 addresses” part stumps me. We’ve lived a lot of places! More personally, it’s hard to know someone until you know their backstory. Barnabas has come up a few times in our walk through Acts, so this week, I offer you four descriptors for Barnabas as his own man, separately from Saul/Paul. I hope you see him in a fresh light when we’re finished. Continue reading

Not My Words But His

From my seat at my wide, slightly dirty office window, it seems there are plenty of words floating around out there these days, and maybe you don’t need any more words to fill your ears. So this week, I offer you only the Father’s words along with some of my images of His creation. 

Psalm 46

Table Mountain
Lion’s Rump from Table Mountain (c) Carole Sparks

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah

Ijams riverscape
Tennessee River (c) Carole Sparks

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.

God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Selah

Tarangire
Tarangire sunset (c) Carole Sparks

Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.

He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Selah

rainbow over the ocean
rainbow over the ocean (c) Carole Sparks

Just a little pictorial reflection on Psalm 46 to bring a bit more quietness and confidence into your day. My #CrisisResponse is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Let us know how God’s presence and power are helping you thrive in these difficult times. The comments are open for you!

 

Nameless: Naaman’s Wife’s Servant

Sometimes you can be unforgettable and yet remain nameless.

[Jesus] said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”  –Luke 4:24-27

In Elijah’s time, there was the widow of Zarephath. In Elisha’s time, there was Naaman the Syrian. Neither was a Jew. We don’t know the name of the widow, and we don’t know the name of the servant girl who introduced Naaman to Elisha, prophet of the One True God. Continue reading

Paul’s Preaching Pattern

I’ve never thrilled to the sermons printed in the Bible: Peter’s in Acts 2 and Acts 4, Paul’s in Acts 17, and others. They feel redundant because we’ve just been reading about everything they say. But as I stepped through Acts recently (search the tag ‘Acts’ for multiple resulting posts), I noticed a pattern in Paul’s sermon of Acts 13—a pattern that remains relevant for speakers and preachers even today. Continue reading

Nameless: a Woman in Tyre

Here’s the first study in our series about unnamed—but not unimportant—people in the Bible.

Jesus took off from Gennesaret, on the Sea of Galilee, after a confrontation with the Pharisees (Matthew 14:34-15:20), and He headed west, away from his normal stomping grounds. He probably traveled through the mountains of Upper Galilee, passing Gischala and Mt. Meron before he reached the coastal city of Tyre in Syrian Phoenicia. (Can you tell I just bought a Bible atlas? Yay!) His disciples must have wondered what He was doing. Continue reading

Ambition is a Dragon

I’ve found myself grappling with surges of ambition for the past few months, and I haven’t known what to do with it. At times, I’ve been frustrated, almost angry, because I know I could accomplish so much more, were I free to do it. At other times, I’ve been despondent, wanting to give up, because my efforts appear futile without the potential for real accomplishment.

Ambition is a dragon: hard to manage and never completely understood.

In 1960, no one had gone to the moon. What made people want to do it? Sure President Kennedy declared the goal, but the desire went beyond making a name for the scientists, astronauts, or country (Encyclopedia Britannica). I believe it was about seeing just how far humanity could go…about achieving something astounding primarily for the sake of achieving it

Does ambition exist for its own sake. I don’t think so.

When I finally confronted my own ambition, I started by pushing and pulling on a definition for ambition, trying to understand this dragon that has awakened.

What Ambition is Not

Ambition is not about expectations. Expectations are external, placed on me by my culture and social situation. Even my internal expectations for myself are informed by external factors. Ambition, on the other hand, comes from within and pushes out.

Ambition is not about goal setting. Like expectations, goals are external and often personality-driven. Goal setting lacks the deep-seated desire inherent in ambition. Goals are often tasks or plans I feel like I ought to do rather than things I am driven to do. While I may set a goal that reflects my ambition, goal-setting focuses on accomplishment without the underlying passion of ambition.

Ambition is not about zeal. Zeal is “fervor for a person, cause, or object; eager desire or endeavor; enthusiastic diligence; ardor” (dictionary.com). It has passion but lacks the accomplishment factor necessary for ambition—the opposite of goal-setting.

Ambition begins in desire,
bears fruit in drive,
and basks in accomplishment.

Ambition begins in desire. There’s something within me that earnestly wants/yearns for accomplishment in a certain area.

Ambition bears fruit in inner drive. I am willing to work as hard as necessary to achieve what I desire.

Ambition basks in accomplishment. I am satisfied only when my inner drive reaches fulfillment of what was desired.

(Those lines hold many more “I”s than you usually see in my writing. We’ll get to that.)

What Ambition Is

Next, I simply looked up the definition of ambition. There was no illustration of a dragon beside the entry.

“An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.” (dictionary.com)

(Again, the part about my honor, fame, and wealth: We’ll get back to it.)

So ambition is desire coupled with a willingness to work in pursuit of an accomplishment. Like many desires, a failure to fulfill it leaves one feeling dissatisfied…maybe even incomplete.

10-08b Wizarding World of Harry Potter (7) Gringotts dragon
dragon at Gringott’s – Universal Studios (c) Carole Sparks

Ambition seems to live down there with instinct or natural talent. I don’t think everyone feels it like this, and it’s not something I can create within myself. Even with my most self-disciplined, most goal-oriented mindset (Yes, I’m Type A. You should know that by now.), ambition gets beneath all that.

For a long time, I pushed ambition down, thinking it was  not Christ-like or unseemly. It starved like the dragon in the vaults of Gringott’s. Right now, though—right now—I am quite literally at the midpoint of my life. I turned 47 last week. You can’t get more middle-aged than that. And ambition has reared its ugly head. (Is it an ugly head? Are dragons ugly? Maybe, but they are also beautiful.) I can feed it, or I can starve it and sink down with it into oblivion.

What does God want? Ahh, there’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Dragons are hard to manage, and I’m a mere human.

Are there things He wants me to do…to accomplish in this half of my lifetime? Is ambition His vehicle to accomplish them through me?

I’m drawn toward these desires,
as if they must be done–with
or without me.

I ask because much of what I want to achieve doesn’t seem to be about me. (Maybe I’m completely delusional. You can tell me in the comments if you think so.) In some ways, I’m drawn toward these desires, as if they must be done—with or without me. And in many ways, the accomplishment will be enough on its own. I’m not seeking accolades or attention for my own sake. If I garner attention, I want to deflect it to the God who created and supplies me.

What the Bible Says

Enough musing. Here’s what the Bible says about ambition.

English versions of the Old Testament do not have the word “ambition” or “ambitious.”

In the New Testament, simple “ambition” is a positive condition. The Greek word translated as “ambition” or “goal” begins with philo, like Philadelphia (city of brotherly love) or philosophy (love of wisdom). It may mean “loving or fond of honor” but in the Bible it has to do with a healthy desire to improve one’s self or surroundings. A synonymous verb is aspire. Paul used it of himself and when encouraging others.

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.Romans 15:20

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…1 Thessalonians 4:11

We make it our goal to please [God], whether we are at home in the body or away from it.2 Corinthians 5:9

But more often, the New Testament pairs ambition with selfish. In these cases, the translation comes from a single Greek word which means “those who seek only their own,” having selfish or mercenary motives (For both Greek words, see Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament.) It’s easy to see that “selfish ambition” is always sinful.

Among other instances, Paul included “selfish ambition” in his lists of sinful behaviors in 2 Corinthians 12:20 and Galatians 5:19-20. Both times, “selfish ambition” comes right after “fits of rage.” Wow. James said selfish ambition leads to false, worldly wisdom and disorder (James 3:14-16).

“Selfish ambition” is when I want to be put on a pedestal, when I want the achievement for how it makes me look and feel or what I get from it (attention, income, etc.). Consider the contrast Paul makes in this famous Philippians passage:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Philippians 2:3

Paul doesn’t use the aspirational ambition word here. He is talking specifically about the selfish ambition he typically groups with other sinful actions. Thus, the antithesis of selfish ambition is… humility!

How do I pull the “selfish” out of my ambition … and keep it away?

I can have ambition that looks
to the interests of others.

On this end of all my thinking and researching, I believe I can have ambition that looks to the interests of others. For example, the founder of a local nonprofit has grown his organization to serve hundreds of people because he knows it’s in their best interests, not because he wants to be famous or respected. That’s humble ambition, but I imagine there are times when he has to step back and tightened the humility reins on his ambition dragon.

Ambition is a dragon, difficult to train and prone to occasionally eat people. I need to pay attention to it at all times. I can ask myself, “Do I want it because I want it…or do I want it because it would be better for everyone?” Can I make that determination from within myself? Not always.

Two ways to tame ambition:

  1. Keep a close eye on my humility.
  2. Test my desires in the presence of trusted friends who are well-acquainted with the Holy Spirit and with me.

If I can keep the dragon of my ambition in hand, I can say with Paul:

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  –Philippians 3:14

The sweet spot of achievement:

ambition (desire + determination)

harnessed by

humility (right understanding of how you compare to God).

Ambition is a dragon, difficult to train and prone to occasionally eat people. But I’m trying to tame it because my #ambition is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you confronted ambition in your life? Have you felt the word applied to you judgmentally? Have you seen it encouraged when it fits with God’s will? I would seriously love to have your input on this challenging topic! Drop a note in the comments please.

Related: Confident Humility is not an Oxymoron

To read: Humilitas by John Dickson (I just finished this one.)

Just Pick Up Your Mat

I hope you enjoy this #FifthFriday #FlashFiction based on John 5:1-15.

Zeb wasn’t particularly mystical. If he hadn’t seen it with his own two eyes, he wouldn’t believe it himself. But people had been truly healed at Bethesda pool—people he’d seen suffer for years. That’s why Zeb stashed his wheelchair at the bottom of the steps every morning and dragged his body up the steps and across the colonnade. Every morning, he staked out a space as close to the water as possible, but every morning, others arrived before him.

This morning, only one person blocked his path to the water. It wouldn’t matter. If the waters moved, someone else—someone with two working legs or a friend—would reach the water before he could. Maybe this daily labor was his penance. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be healed.

The warm sun convinced Zeb a short nap wouldn’t hurt anything, and he was almost asleep when someone spoke to him. He looked up, blinking, at the man standing over him.

The man squatted. Now they could speak eye-to-eye. “Do you want to get well?”

Did he want to get well? What
sort of fool question was that?

Did he want to get well? What sort of fool question was that? Of course he wanted to get well…didn’t he? Some part of his heart pushed the idea aside. His recklessness and arrogance had made him this way and stolen his bride thirty-eight years ago. Did he really want to get well?

Short of breath, Zeb grasped at the obvious. “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” It wasn’t an answer to the man’s question, but it was the best Zeb could do in the moment. Maybe this guy would hang out and help him win the race into the water.

The man’s next words startled Zeb into obedience. He said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Zeb obeyed without thinking. When the man straightened up, Zeb stood up too. Then Zeb bent over, rolled up his mat, and walked away. When he reached the bottom of the steps, he saw his wheelchair tucked behind a bush. Only then did his knees go weak. He was walking! He turned around, trotted back to the top of the steps, and scanned the crowd for the One who had healed him. The man was gone.

08-28 Greece (133)
Greek colonnade (c) Carole Sparks

Zeb leaned on a column, puzzling over his next move. What should he do first? Where should he go? Who should he tell? Well, the “who” question was easy. Across the thirty-eight years of his disability, he had pushed away everyone who cared and everyone who offered to help. There was no one left who would celebrate with him.

Perhaps the best thing to do was offer thanks to God. Zeb made his way to the temple. He didn’t realize it was the Sabbath.

Before he took two steps on the main street, a Pharisee tapped him on the shoulder. The short man’s frown extended to his hairline like a mask he couldn’t remove. His stubby finger jabbed at Zeb’s mat under his arm. “It. is. the. Sabbath!” the man barked, his finger punctuating each word, “The. law. forbids. you. to. carry. your. mat!”

“Umm…” for the second time in an hour, Zeb wasn’t sure what to say. “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ So I did.”

Even thinking about the
man who healed him brought
a smile to Zeb’s face.

Two other Pharisees had descended on this exchange. One asked, “Who was this guy? Who told you to pick it up and walk?” But Zeb had no idea who the man was. Still, even thinking about him brought a smile back to Zeb’s face. He turned to a shopkeeper along the street and asked the man to hold his mat until evening. The Pharisees shoulders slumped as they looked around for someone else to correct.

An hour later, Zeb was standing (because who would sit after thirty-eight years of not standing?!?) in the temple courtyard when he heard the same voice he’d heard by the pool. He wandered toward the crowd around the man and asked someone at the back, “Who is this guy?”

“Where have you been?” the guy snorted. “This is Jesus. Some people say He may be the Messiah!”

Zeb shuffled to the front of the crowd and found himself face to face with Jesus. Then Jesus looked him directly in the eye and said, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Zeb blinked slowly as Jesus returned to his teaching.

Zeb turned his eyes toward
Jesus again…He really was
the Messiah!

What could be worse than thirty-eight years of pain, shame, loss, and struggle? Eternity apart from God, that’s what. The Sabbath school answer popped back into his head despite the fifty-year span since he had learned it. It wasn’t wrong. Zeb turned his eyes toward Jesus again, the Teacher’s words muted by the volume of Zeb’s own thoughts. He really was the Messiah! It was completely clear now. Zeb’s feet danced a little shuffle, responding to the fresh light in his eyes. Jesus looked back toward him, and a smile stretched His lips as if they shared an inside secret.


There’s a lot of my own imagination built around the story John gives us in his gospel. Maybe you picture it differently. That’s okay. Here’s my take-away based on the true parts of the story:

Jesus asks a seemingly easy question that’s actually very difficult. That’s how he often worked. I once heard someone say, “You answer with your heart before your mouth.” It’s true, isn’t it? And Jesus was the master of asking just the right question…usually the one you don’t want to answer. Remember the woman at the well (John 4)? She tried to avoid the difficult question by distracting Jesus, but it didn’t work. This time, the guy is so focused on his one way to be healed that he misses Jesus’ point.

Sometimes, we think Jesus needs to fix our circumstances or help us achieve a personal goal that will make our lives better. Like this disabled man, we focus entirely on the foreseeable outcome, even if it has frustrated us again and again. Jesus’ question wasn’t, “Do you want to get in the pool?” It was “Do you want to be healed?” What question is Jesus asking you? Are you mishearing Him because you’re so focused on your existing plan? He has a way for you to get what you really need, even when you don’t know what that is. But it’ll take a little obedience.

Jesus has a way for you to get what you really need, even when you don’t know what that is. A little #BiblicalFiction for some #FifthFridayFun via @Carole_Sparks on #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

What do you think about this fresh take on a familiar story? Is there a moment you want to remember? Something you want to apply to your own life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

This is not my first time in this passage. For more on Jesus’ side of the story, check out God’s Priority: His Kingdom from way back in 2012.