A Year in the Psalms

I’m still looking back at 2017, in which the Lord called me to spend my daily quiet time in Psalms. For the whole year. I read through the entire book twice, covering one psalm each day except for Psalm 119, where I covered one section a day. That left me about two weeks at the end of the year to dwell in the Christmas story. Continue reading

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)

Bible Study: Making the Familiar Fresh

I’ve been in church my entire life—since before my 0th birthday, which means even in the womb, I heard Scripture, singing, and prayers. As of this week, that means I’ve been going to church for more than 44 years. (Yes, it’s my birthday week. Woohoo!) As pre-teens/teenagers, my sister and I read the Bible through annually for several years in a row. As an adult, I’ve spent time in the Word almost every day for the last twelve years (at least). I’ve done dozens of Bible studies and heard innumerable sermons.

So there are certain parts of the Bible that are as familiar to me as the back of my hand. My memorization may be a bit messed up from switching translations over the years, but I know these passages. When I contemplated spending this year in Psalms, I knew such familiarity would confront me in certain well-known chapters. Why do I say “confront”? Because that extreme familiarity makes it difficult to see/hear anything fresh from the words on the page.

The Holy Spirit stirs our
ever-changing experiences in
with His never-changing Word.

I believe, however, God always has something fresh to say through the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit stirs our ever-changing experiences in with His never-changing Word. That’s why people say, “It’s like I never read that verse before!” He applies His Word to our life in new ways because we are always in a new place. In other words, it’s our experiences that change the relevance of Scripture, not the Scripture itself that changes. Isn’t it remarkable how the Bible can do that?

sheep-psalm-23
sheep on a rocky hillside in Lesotho (c) Carole Sparks

So there I sat for my quiet time on January 23rd, looking at Psalm 23. What can I do? How can I read it? What could I possibly add to the books and sermons I’ve read/heard from these six verses?

At the Spirit’s prompting, I began to re-write each verse in my own words, based on my own life right now. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at first. The result was something very personal and very fresh, a reflection of what I know about Jesus, the Shepherd-King.

As I share my…paraphrase (using the word very loosely), I encourage you to try this next time you come upon an all-too-familiar Bible passage. And just so you know, I had to go in afterward and look up the references to other verses; I don’t just have those things in my head.

Psalm 23

according to Carole, near her 44th birthday

Because God is in charge of my life, nothing I need is missing.

He shows me good times to rest and good places to be nourished,

both of which restore me at the soul level. He leads the way along the life progression that’s right for me so I and those around me cannot help but praise Him.

When I feel like things couldn’t get any worse, like I’m about to die, and like I’m all alone, I don’t have to be afraid. Even at those times, He is near though I can’t see His light. His correction actually comforts me because it shows that He loves me (Proverbs 3:11-12/Hebrews 12:5-6).

He spoils me right in front of people who hate me. He blesses me, calls me out, and sets me apart for His purposes (Ephesians 2:10). He is wastefully, extravagantly generous toward me.

I am confident of His never-ending love for the rest of my life and of my spot in Heaven thereafter.

Have you ever tried rewriting Scripture like this? It’s not inspired or anything, but it can be a special moment. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Bible Study: the Holy Spirit stirs our ever-changing experiences in with God’s never-changing Word! (click to tweet)

Check out this fun, faith-filled alliterative approach (see what I did there?) to Psalm 23 from April Yamasaki and Mel Sawatzky!

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.

My Christmas List

I felt like I was drowning. It was a week before Christmas Eve—early Saturday morning. Our tree wasn’t up, our lights weren’t hung, and only a few gifts were wrapped. Some gifts still weren’t bought (not my usual pattern: I’m an early shopper). I had baked absolutely nothing. I hadn’t even decided what to bake. Because I felt so behind-schedule, I was short with the kids and impatient with their father. I couldn’t even enjoy a Christmas party the night before because I resented all the work it took to bring dishes for the potluck. (Brutal honesty here.)

As I sat down for my quiet time, I wrote, “Christmas is rushing toward us like a tidal wave.” A few minutes later, I opened my Bible to Matthew 11 and sought the next paragraph. (For more on how we do our quiet times, click here.) Do you know the last paragraph in Matthew 11? I literally laughed out loud when I read it.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  -Matthew 11:28-30

I warped peace and contemplation
into pressure and obligation.

I had warped this season, which is supposed to be about peace and contemplation, into a season of pressure and obligation. I needed the kind of rest that only comes from Jesus.

Three character qualities of Jesus stand out in these verses: gentleness, humility, and restfulness. Go back and read the verses again. Do you see it? Those who tie themselves to him (the yoke) learn from him because of his gentleness and humility, but I believe even those who just happened to come near Jesus when He was on earth experienced these things as well. Isn’t that why people were so attracted to Him?

So I can learn that peaceful kind of attitude?

I don’t have time for that! Didn’t you see how behind schedule I am right now?!?

Deep breath. Let’s go a step further here. As Christ-followers (because Christian means “little Christ”), we have Jesus in us already (John 15). That means His gentleness, humility, and restfulness (among other things) are already part of our spiritual composition, already existing in us even as they continue to mature (re: Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23).

If we are already little Christs…

If the Holy Spirit guides and empowers us (John 16:12-15)…

If our standard for living is Jesus’ example…

Then our lives should, like His, exude these character traits regardless of our circumstances. It should be that anyone around us experiences gentleness, humility, and restfulness just by being in our presence and especially by interaction with us.

I don’t use that word, “should” lightly. I really can’t stand it. But in this instance, I had an obligation to change my attitude. “Should” works.

So I made a list. I checked it twice. It had nothing to do with others being naughty or nice. Actually, I wrote it on my bathroom mirror, and I check it every time I stand in front of the sink. On my wish list and my gifting list, I have three things:

  • Gentleness
  • Humility
  • Restfulness

It’s a simple practice, but it’s working. It keeps me in prayer, keeps me taking a deep breath and resetting my attitude—especially about what’s decorating my house and what’s in my oven.

I want my Christmas
to be about gentleness,
humility, and restfulness.

I want my Christmas to be about gentleness, humility, and restfulness. Saturday morning before my tea got cold, I submitted my holidays to the Lord Jesus, and asked for these three things— not just for myself but as the gift of presence I will give everyone around me.

One small step to exchange pressure and obligation for peace and contemplation at #Christmas. (click to tweet)

What about you? How do you cope with the hectic pattern of the holidays? Share about that below, or share a verse that has helped you manage the season well. Thanks!

Don’t Quit on Your Quiet Time (Part I)

You all better hold on because I’ve been thinking about this one for a while!  In fact, I had to divide it into two parts.  The F.A.Q. section will post in a couple of days.

Do you remember those offering envelopes from the 1970s and 80s?  I know some of my readers weren’t even born then, but if you’re of a certain age and you grew up in church, you know what I’m talking about.  Sometimes they were pink, of all things!  They had these little squares at the bottom or on the side where you checked off things you had done that week:  present (Wait, what?), on time, attended Sunday School, brought Bible, read Sunday School lesson, tithed, read Bible daily . . . things like that.  Anyway, you got a score based on how many boxes you could mark.  Can you imagine?  “Mom, I made a 70 in Sunday School this week because I forgot to take my Bible!”  But that’s how it was.

Somewhere along the way, shortly after we quit using those envelopes, we shifted from “read Bible daily” to “had a quiet time.”  No, we didn’t check off a box any more, but it became one of the, umm, qualifications of a good Christian.  But many of us didn’t change what we actually did.  We just kept reading the Bible every day.

And then, one day we thought (although we would never admit it), “I have been reading this same book since I was eight years old.  It’s getting kinda old.  If I miss this one day, it won’t matter.  No one will know anyway.”  One day turned into two, then a week, then a month, until finally, our daily Bible reading (a.k.a. quiet time) could be described as ‘sporadic’ at best.

At a certain point in that “somewhere along the way”—a point that would take me pages to explain, so just trust me—someone showed me that daily Bible reading and having a quiet time are not the same thing.  A quiet time involves three things:

  1. Resetting your focus on the Lord
  2. Hearing from the Lord (usually through His Word plus the Holy Spirit)
  3. Responding in obedience.

But you can’t just check these three things off on your mental Sunday School envelope each morning and be done with it.  Actually, if you are really focusing on Him, you’ll find it so much more fulfilling than getting 100% in Sunday School ever thought about being!

People say, “I don’t know how to do a good quiet time.”  We try to complicate everything, to think there’s a specific process–almost a formula or incantation–that we must perform in order to have a “good” quiet time.  A good quiet time is any moment in which we reconnect with God.  A great quiet time is when the repercussions of that moment stretch throughout the day.

That being said, allow me to offer a few principles based loosely on Hebrews 5:13-14.  And if you didn’t grow up with those church envelopes, it will still be good “food for thought” (haha!).  But first, consider this:

“The Jewish approach to Scripture is that we don’t read the Bible but rather that it reads us!  . . .  Mere exposure to [the Word] does not change us into agents of the kingdom.” –Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford in Right Here, Right Now

Sit down at the dining room table.

Come to your quiet time expecting to hear from Him. 

What do you do at the dining room table?  Or rather, what are you supposed to do?  (We use our dining room table for an office, art desk, and Lego-building space; that means we have to eat at the kitchen table, but just go with me here.)  The point is, when you sit down at the table, you expect to eat.

Quoting John Piper, Jonathan Parnell (at desiringgod.org) encourages us to bring our minds and hearts into a “hungry readiness to hear the Lord himself speak kindly and deeply and powerfully to our souls.”  (See, he said “hungry.”  I knew this analogy was good!  Just kidding.)

Say the blessing.

Center your focus on him through prayer.

Thank God for His Word.  Praise Him for being a revelatory God, which means He wants to be known by His people.  Ask the Holy Spirit to meet you there.  Ask Him to show you something of Himself as you study.  Ask Him to change you as a result of the time you spend exclusively with Him.

Cut off small bites and chew.

Slow down in your reading. 

Treat the Scripture like your favorite meal, enjoyed rarely and savored.  Again, this is not just “daily Bible reading.”  There is no prize for completing more chapters than anyone else, as if we were in a hot dog eating contest.  You don’t pick up a whole steak and stuff it in your mouth then try to chew (forgive me for that analogy, vegetarians).  You cut off bites—preferably small bites—and you chew them thoroughly before you swallow.  Approach the Scriptures with the idea that every paragraph has value, that every sentence was intentionally included.  Take a couple of sentences and see what the Holy Spirit can show you.  This works best (especially if it’s new to you) in the letters of Paul or Peter.

Perhaps it’s left over from those years of “daily Bible reading,” but we tend to fill our quiet time minutes with reading the Word so that we don’t have to do the actual work of hearing Him and obeying!  Plus, if you read too much, you are just going to forget most of it anyway.  James (1:23-24) said, Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  We are to look intently and continue in that state of having looked so that we don’t forget but instead, we do/act/obey (James 1:25).

Read a few verses or as much as a paragraph.  Think about what it means.  You probably know the context, and that helps.  If nothing strikes you, check the cross-references for other related verses.  After you consider what it meant to the author and to his first audience, focus on what it means for you.  This second ‘level’ of meaning is directly related to the first, but we live in a very different culture and a very different century.  Let the Holy Spirit guide you in this, and test any understanding against Scripture as a whole.

Digest.

Let the Holy Spirit use God’s Word to change you.

In eating, this is where your body really goes to work.  It takes awhile, and it often affects you for hours (sometimes in a negative way, like if you ate beans & rice!).

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal.  But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.  And you can feel it inside you.  If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.  You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.  It’s hollow.”  –e.l. konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Is this not what we often do with the Word of God?  We accumulate knowledge, then let it rattle around inside us, doing nothing but creating noise.  So let what you have come to understand sink into your mind and heart.  Paul said, Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you . . . (Colossians 3:16 NASB).  Toward the end of your set-aside time with the Lord, give yourself a few minutes to sit and ponder.  Think of Mary (Luke 10:39), just sitting at Jesus’ feet, soaking in everything He says without any agenda of her own.  This is meditation.

If you are at a loss, ask yourself any or all of these questions.

  • What does God want you to do with what you’ve learned? (James 1:22-25)
  • What change do you need to make in your life in response to what you’ve studied? How, specifically, are you going to make this change? (Write it in your journal.)
  • How does this thought or information apply to your day?
  • Is there anyone specific with whom God wants you to share these thoughts?

Then, before you close your Bible, put your thought(s) in that part of your mind where you store things you seriously need to remember for today, things like “pick up kids at 3pm.”  As a matter of discipline, remind yourself of what you studied as you go through your day.  I’ve heard of people setting their watches to beep every hour, taking a moment before opening Facebook, writing something on the bathroom mirror, and other similar reminders.  It’s up to you.

Remember, “You are what you eat!”

My husband likes to brush his teeth just before he goes out the door:  after coffee, breakfast, shower, everything.  So more than a few times, the rest of us stand at the door, waiting on him while he runs back to brush his teeth.  It’s become a joke.  As we open the door, someone will ask, “Dad, have you brushed your teeth?”  When your quiet time takes on value and affects the rest of your day, it will become an absolutely essential part of your routine.  Just as you would NEVER leave the house without brushing your teeth, you will think it entirely unacceptable to walk out the door before you spend some quiet, alone time with God.