A Little Time Away

Most of you, like me, wear many hats. Over the past year, the time I have available to wear my “writer” hat has dwindled. I LOVE researching and writing Bible studies and reflection pieces for Not About Me, but I haven’t kept up with some other writing projects God has put on my heart. So I’m taking five weeks off to focus on other writing projects.

In the meantime, there are over 300 posts here on Not About Me. Use the search tool or look through the categories to find more about anything on your mind.

I’ll “see” you back here the weekend of October 16th, and hopefully I’ll have some good news and/or some special things to reveal!

Prioritizing the Person of Peace

Paul took off on his second gospel-sharing journey probably more than a year after the first journey ended. This time Silas went with him. Apparently, the two grew close while Paul was at the Jerusalem Council. In addition, Silas had returned to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to encourage the church there (Acts 15:22, 32), giving these new partners more time to get acquainted. (For more on the Jerusalem Council, see Antioch, part 2.)

Paul and Silas headed north out of Antioch. They probably stopped in Paul’s hometown of Tarsus. Then, they travelled through Derbe and the three cities where Paul had been persecuted on the first trip: Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. In Lystra, they picked up Timothy.

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Above All Else, Guard His Heart

I’ve read the statistics. Many full-time pastors don’t spend personal time in the Word of God. Sure they study the Bible in preparation for teaching and preaching, but they don’t just dwell in it for their own spiritual nourishment. This month on PastorsWives.com, I share a couple of ways pastors/ministers’ wives can facilitate (or at least not prohibit) their husbands’ time alone with God and His Word.

Check it out: Above All Else, Guard His Heart, then leave a comment there or come back here to let me know what you think. Any other ideas on this topic? I’d love to hear them!

Prioritize your husband’s personal time with God to see a stronger minister and a better #marriage. #pastorswives @Carole_Sparks (click to tweet)

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.

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(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.

When Guilt Grounds Me

I can’t even count how many times this has happened. At some point in the day, I stand in the middle of the hallway trying to decide what to do next. I wrestle with competing priorities. Do I write or exercise? Because there’s not time for both. Do I wash clothes or cook dinner? Because both need to be done. Do I call a church friend who’s having troubles or knock on my unbelieving neighbor’s door? Because Jesus calls us to encouragement and evangelism. So I stand there in the hallway with a dumb look on my face. Whatever I choose, guilt will accompany me.

From where you’re sitting there, outside my life and brain, it probably seems straightforward (I’ve told myself the same thing a thousand times): Organize your life better so you can do both. If that solution works for you, I am incredibly happy for you. In my case, more organization or scheduling just makes my life feel even more crowded. Most days, I have a list, which helps me get started, but all the entries on it are important! And it feels weird to put, “Call best friend” on my list. What I need is a guilt-free decision-maker. If you invent one of those, I’ll be first in line to buy it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
hot-air balloon inflating (c) Carole Sparks

There’s only one thing which helps me at all, and it takes incredible volumes of self-control. I ask the Holy Spirit to show me what God wants me to do in the next hour…or fifteen minutes (yes, even if it’s exercise or wash clothes) and then I try to let go of the rest. See, I think Satan latches onto us with all those things we didn’t do and loads those otherwise empty “loose ends” with brick-filled bags of guilt until we’re immobile, or at least ineffective. (We’ll come back to this.) That guilt weighs us down like sandbags on a hot-air balloon. The thing keeping me stuck there in the hallway is simple: I don’t want to feel guilty, and so the guilt is already strapping me to the ground.

I use the piles of dirty clothes
as an excuse not to obey.

I don’t think God is particularly concerned with how or when I do the laundry, except when I do laundry instead of obeying Him, when I use the piles of dirty clothes as an excuse not to call a friend or write or something seemingly more holy than laundry. (I say seemingly because I think our entire lives can be wrapped up in His glory, which is holy ground! Check Colossians 3:17 and 23.)

My responsibility is to trust
Him in the ordering of my days.

At the same time, He knows it must be done. So I also have to think He will create a time in my day or week when He releases me to wash all those dirty clothes. The pile may get bigger than I like, but time will open to do it. Even harder than household duties, God will block out spaces where obedience means I rest or spend time relaxing with a beloved friend. All without guilt. My responsibility is to trust Him in the ordering of my days, trust Him that the laundry will get done and the floors swept and the blog posts written.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
hot-air balloon takes off (c) Carole Sparks

You know that feeling of “this is where I need to be right now”? It’s when God affirms that you’ve been obedient, and somehow, in your heart, you know it. Why can’t we have that feeling most—or all—of the time? I think we can experience it a lot more often than we currently do.

When Satan immobilizes us or preoccupies us with guilt, we can’t be effective even when we are being obedient. In those times, we treat His Will like tasks to be accomplished. “Just lower your head and push through,” we think. I pondered this image the other day…

Life with my head down
     ploughing the ground,
No thought to look up
     No “Lord, fill my cup.”
Strain and pull
     cart never full...

Yeah, that’s all I have. I’m not much of a poet, but do you see how God isn’t getting any glory in that image? How it’s all about finishing but never being able to finish?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
hot-air balloon in flight (c) Carole Sparks

He picks one thing for
right now and I let the
rest fall to the ground…

I’ve got to hold my time and my days and my to-do list in open palms where He picks the one thing for right now and I let the rest fall to the ground until later—like cutting the mooring lines on a hot-air balloon. Then I can soar on the updrafts of His Will! Then I can be free to obey without distraction.

Now I’m walking away. I’m going to meet my friend for coffee because that’s what I understand to be God’s will for my afternoon. I am not going to worry or stress over this blog post or the laundry piles or the carpet cleaner sitting in the middle of my living room floor.

At least I’m going to try.

Let go of the guilt from your unfinished to-do list and fly on the updrafts of God’s will! (click to tweet)

For further reading: Tyranny of the Urgent. It’s a tiny booklet by Charles E. Hummel that examines how we live under the pressure of “right now.”

Does your to-do list taunt you? Do you feel weighted down by the guilt of everything you didn’t do today? How do you deal with it? How do you cut the guilt lines? Please let me know in the comments. I’m still looking for answers!

When the Important Becomes an Idol

I like to cook meals for my family, and I think it’s important. In fact, I am called to take care of my family, and this is one of the ways I do it. There are many reasons I like to cook:

  • Physical health: variety of vitamins and minerals, reduced sodium and non-healthy fats, portion control
  • Exposure to new things: kale, turnips, zoodles (noodles made out of zucchini)
  • Family strength: Eating together has psychological benefits for the whole family.
  • Act of service: my love language
  • ‘Me’ time: I put in my headphones and zone out to the rest of the world.

But sometimes that important thing becomes an idol. I can tell when the transition has happened. I get upset when we’re not home in time for me to cook, or I turn down an invitation for something at 5:00pm because I won’t be able to cook dinner that day. (The fact that I’m an introvert makes this one easier, I know.) I search grocery stores all over town and pay whatever it costs to get that special item for a regular Tuesday night dinner. I work on my grocery list before I do my quiet time in the morning.

The things God gives you
to do are important.

Your potential idol probably isn’t cooking, but whatever you consider to be important in your life is important: children’s education, leadership position at church, work, physical fitness, sleep, even Bible study. As a thinking, Jesus-following person, you’ve probably eliminated the habitual sins and most of the unimportant time- and attention-guzzlers from your life. I’ve trimmed down my life over and over so that these days, I feel like most (not all, but most) of what I do is important and/or necessary. We can’t and shouldn’t quit doing those important things. Most are activities to which God has specifically called us. For example, being a parent and being a writer both fall into the God-called category for me. I shouldn’t quit either of them.  At the same time, however, either can become an idol.

Our activity can promise us everything and make us forget God.  -Deitrich Bonhoeffer (I Want to Live These Days with You, trans. By O.C. Dean Jr., 2007)

When I find myself acting like I described above, I know that cooking has become an idol in my life. Again. The key for each of us lies in maintaining our priorities so that the important things don’t lead to idolatry. And yes, my calling as a believer can become my idol. Sad but true.

I’m writing this so that I have something simple to grasp when I find myself in that place again. I pray that it helps you, too. Here goes…

The remedy for this type of idolatry? Retreat from the important thing and Recalibrate my priorities.

Retreat

The first challenge is recognizing the idol. In the habits of our lives, an idol is anything that interferes in our day-to-day relationship with God or that causes us to reject the leading of the Holy Spirit. (That’s not a definition of “idol” so much as an explanation of what happens when we have an idol.) Sometimes God lays a Bible verse out before me; sometimes I stop myself in the middle of a sentence when I really hear what’s coming out of my mouth. Sometimes, I think, “Why am I so stressed?” Then, I need to step back from the situation and confirm what I’m thinking.

At that point, I have to acknowledge my culpability—like a criminal putting his hands up when the police confront him. This is repentance: a “Yes, Lord, I’ve sinned” attitude that demonstrates my desire to change.

God may lead me to fast from the important thing. It is possible to not cook for a weekend. I can shut down social media accounts for a few days. I can leave the kids with their father or a grandparent for an afternoon. I can turn off the computer and spend that time in the Word instead.

Recalibrate

Moving forward, I have to pay closer attention to my thought processes (take every thought captive) and my actions for a while. It’s trite, but the saying, “Let your walk match your talk” applies.  I might…

  • “Own” a verse and declare it frequently over my situation. (Psalm 19:14, Hebrews 3:1, Hebrews 12:2, etc.)
  • Write myself a note on the mirror.
  • Ask for accountability.
  • Set myself a timer, especially for social media because some is necessary for my work.
  • Spend time meditating on certain, convicting verses. For example, Exodus 20:3 says, You shall have no other gods before me, or John 4:32, But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Every time I need to recalibrate, I pray, and I try to focus my mind more on constant prayer, after the pattern of Brother Lawrence.

Pay attention or your
priorities will replace
your Savior!

It happens over and over. I don’t do laundry for a couple of days, and suddenly the pile of dirty clothes overtakes the laundry room. Oh…we’re talking about priorities. I confess, laundry isn’t a very high priority for me. But the same thing happens in my spiritual life. I quit paying attention, and the important things in my life creep up to replace my Savior. Just like the constancy of laundry piles, I think this replacement of priorities will continue to happen until I’m perfected in heaven (though hopefully less and less as I mature).

With careful attention, with occasional retreats and recalibrations, I can correct myself when I replace the One who Calls with the calling.

Most of the things we do are important, even essential. We can’t eliminate them, but we also can’t idolize them. My #priorities are #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

What do you struggle to keep in its proper priority placement? How do you cope when it gets out of hand? I would love to hear from you! Just comment below.