Joey Sparks
14May/130

For Me & My Daughter’s Birthday

I'm barely a "May baby," as I was born in the evening hours of May 31st. But I love having a May birthday. Seems a lot of cool people have May birthdays. In fact, I know of two girls much younger and much cooler than me with May birthdays.

Lord willing, our daughter Hazel will be born no later than next week (week of May 19th). We're beyond excited and ready for her arrival. We're so thankful the Lord has entrusted us to our care. We pray we will honor him and her life as we raise her to know and be like Jesus.

Additionally, young Gabbi Cook--the daughter of college friends of ours--celebrates her 3rd birthday this Sunday, May 19th. This is awesome because Gabbi has just finished up treatments for liver cancer and a necessary liver transplant. It's been an emotional journey for us from a distance, so we cannot imagine the emotions the Cooks have gone through. We're all thankful to God that Gabbi is doing great now and we pray she'll continue to fight and grow strong in the years ahead.

Would you do me favor?

If you would ordinarily tell me "Happy Birthday" and/or "Congratulations" upon Hazel's birth, would you send $10 to pediatric liver cancer research in Gabbi's honor?

Her dad has humbly challenged those who love Gabbi to donate to this cause instead of sending her or them any kind of gifts for her birthday. So I'd love to simply pass the same challenge on to those who love me and my soon-to-be-born daughter.

Here's the basic information if you're willing to help out with this research:

If you can give Gabbi this present, please make checks out to “Children’s Hospital Research Foundation” and mail them to: 

Debbie Cook 
1902 Jamison Rd.
Fairview WV 26570

You can read Matt's full post on Gabbi's Facebook Page.

Thanks for reading and for your generosity. To God be the glory!

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17Nov/110

Check (or Change) the Label

James’ letter is full of imperative (command) statements. Many are instructions for action. So we commonly label the book as a treatise on practical, everyday Christianity.

Before James begins telling what to do, however, he commands us what to think. The first imperative statement in the entire letter is, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (Jas 1:2).

“Count it all joy” tells us to “label” times we face trials as “joy.” What we tell ourselves about ourselves and about what we feel has amazing power to direct our lives. That power can help us positively, or it can affect us negatively. James tells us that living lives of Christian action is founded upon honestly labeling all moments of trial as ultimately good.

http://flic.kr/p/85nWGi

Paul outlines the importance of how he “counted” his previous Jewish successes in Philippians 3:7-8. He says he counted them as “loss” and as “rubbish.” His new life in Christ would be built on a foundation of how he thought about his past. Following Paul’s logic about how we think about our lives leads us to how we’re able to do something as drastic as “label” times of trial as “joy.”

Paul says he counted his past as loss “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He began to think radically different about his past because of the assurance he had in knowing Christ. James builds his command off the same process.

James 1:3 says, “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” James says that we should “label” times of trial as “joy”—something radical, indeed—because of what we know about trials producing patience.

Paul, earlier in the book of Philippians, shows us a picture of how we go about “labeling” times of trial as “joy.” In chapter 1:12-18, he mentions two troubling scenarios: his imprisonment and the selfish preaching of fellow brethren (intended to attack Paul). He then clearly and firmly connects the two trials to the greater good of spreading the gospel. His imprisonment opened doors for him to teach lost souls. And though a result of improper motives, the selfish preaching of others still introduced audiences to the gospel. Talk about radical.

“Labeling” times of trial as “joy” doesn’t mean we pretend life is more pleasant than it really is, that we hide our honest emotions from others, or that we should like facing trials. It means that we change our thinking from the easy, worldly, perspective that all hope is lost and instead tell ourselves there’s more—and better—waiting beyond this life (Jas. 1:12). And that we know everything we experience helps get us there.

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5Oct/112

6 Ways to Run Off Visi–er, Guests

Who is the next person to obey the gospel where you are a member?

We don't know this person’s name, but we can know at least one thing about him or her. He or she will have sat in the auditorium for worship services before being baptized into Christ. This person may be here for several reasons: she has ties to the church and has been attending for a while; he accepted an invitation from a member; or she looked us up and is seeing if we offer something for her family. No matter the reason, modern converts first attend worship service(s) before coming to Christ.

Because everyone’s soul is of utmost spiritual value, we—as the church, but especially as individuals—must take seriously how we treat those visiting our worship services. If we do not want to take our responsibility seriously, here are some things we should do:

1) Welcome visitors.

Instead, welcome "guests."

The word “visitor” carries a connotation that includes “unexpectedness” and “unfamiliarity.” If we’re not careful, we can unintentionally send the message that we don’t expect others to come to worship, or worse, that we’re uncomfortable that they’re here. We would do well to welcome “guests” each week. Guest parking, guest packets, “We’d like to welcome all of our guests today,” etc.

2) Arrive on time.

Instead, arrive early.

Guests will almost always be early. We normally arrive on time so we can take care of “our business.” But creating a margin of time allows us to focus on the needs of others. We never have second chance to make a first impression on our guests. If we’re merely on time or late, we miss the first opportunity to get to know them.

3) Introduce yourself.

Instead, introduce them to other members.

Our mental definition of friendliness typically stops with introducing ourselves. But true friendliness happens when we introduce guests to others. It’s especially helpful to introduce them to those whom they may know or have something in common. How would you treat family from out of town if they attended worship? Why should it be any different for someone you just met?

4) Fill the pews.

Instead, sit somewhere so guests can sit with you.

The easiest way for guests to feel lonely is for them to sit by themselves. There’s no excuse for that to happen. You may need to sit on a different pew than you traditionally do. But is God asking you to serve yourself, or others? If you're not sitting with a guest, sit toward the front so they see you're excited about worship.

5) Eat lunch with your family.

Instead, carry guests out to lunch.

Pay for their lunch and spend time intentionally getting to know them. Don't worry about converting them at the table. Commit to learning who they are and building a friendship with them.

6) Hope you see them at the next worship service.

Instead, make a follow-up visit.

Make time in the day or two following their visit to stop by their house and give them some goodies. The Spring Meadows church in Spring Hill, TN, carries mini loaves of banana bread to Sunday guests every Monday evening (but it could be cookies, sourdough bread, brownies, etc.). Don’t leave your relationship with guests to the chance of time and circumstance. Go out of your way to show your love for their souls.

These six things are not horrible and unfriendly things to do. But if we’re unintentional about how we treat guests, we’re probably not sending the message(s) we think we are. Let’s be intentional and reflect God’s love as we interact with our friends and neighbors.

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30Sep/110

4 Rules for Praying Like Jesus

Though prayer is something we all acknowledge is necessary, we still struggle with how to pray. There is no greater example of an intimate prayer life than that of Jesus himself. Notice four rules by which Jesus abided as he prayed:

1. Be Honest. Mere hours from dying for mankind, Jesus honestly prayed in agony for another way to redeem mankind (Matt. 26:38-44; Lk. 22:41-44). He was searching for another way to fulfill the mission for which he was sent.

We must constantly fight the temptation to simply pray for what “sounds good.” God is bigger than we can ever imagine; he can handle anything we throw at him. A prayer life built around pious formulas is not the prayer life Jesus led nor the one God expects.

2. Be Specific. In Matthew 6, when Jesus taught how to pray, he was short, but still specific: he mentioned the kingdom, food, forgiveness, and protection from sin. In John 17—the real Lord’s Prayer—he prayed for himself, the apostles and disciples, and future believers.

It’s good to pray for faithfulness, healing, and general thanksgivings. But as Christians striving to grow, we should be about the process of self-examination. Continually unearthing personal needs and weaknesses enables us to bring them specifically to the throne of God.

3. Be Responsible. In John 17, Jesus continually emphasizes the work he’s done on earth leading up to the cross (17:4, 6-8, 12-14, 22-24, 26). Had he been irresponsible with his work, it would have been of little value to beg God’s blessings regarding his work. In the model prayer in Matthew 6, he shows that receiving forgiveness is contingent upon our forgiving others (6:12).

God is great and mighty. But he does not act in ways we can and should do for ourselves. Asking for someone else to forgive us is empty if we are unwilling to go to that person ourselves. Praying for the lost to come to Christ is misguided if we are unwilling to teach them or provide the resources necessary to reach them. We should pray for God to act, but we must also act in response to our own prayers.

4. Be Accepting. When praying in Gethsemane, in the same breath Jesus asked to have “this cup removed,” he also prayed “nevertheless, not my will by yours” (Mt. 26:39; Lk. 22:42). Jesus knew that prayer was more than just asking for escape and changing of circumstances; he knew that it was also about strengthening himself to face God’s will no matter the cost.

A godly prayer life doesn’t seek to align God’s will to our desires and wishes. A godly prayer life seeks to align itself with God’s will. God longs for us to ask and to ask big (Matt. 17:20-21). But he ultimately longs for us to be people who continually submit to his will in all things. Praying like Jesus is the only way for us to get there.

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27Sep/112

4 Things We Learned Rock Climbing

Over the summer, we carried 25 young people & adults (and met up with 25 more from Northport and 9th Ave in Haleyville) to Climb Nashville for an indoor rock climbing lock-in. Teens typically get excited for lock-ins of any kind. But we had a particularly fun time climbing and “hanging” out together.

All 50 of us got together around 2AM and sang a few songs, then discussed what things we witnessed throughout the night that could help us in our spiritual lives. Here are five of the things we talked about as a group:

1) We need others to do difficult things. The only way I’m remotely safe high up on a wall (with no padding below) is if someone else is below belaying for me. A belayer uses a clip that utilizes gravity as a brake in case the climber slips off the wall. He or she just hangs there until they start climbing again or are let down slowly by the belayer. So, first of all, we need someone else to make sure we don’t fall. Next, we need the encouragement provided by the belayer and others on the ground. We heard the sound of “you can do it” and “hang in there” throughout the night. Hearing positive words of praise helps us reach the top. Finally, we need others to help us find ways out. It’s easy to get so focused on everything going around you that you don’t see the next hand or foot grip. But the person below—who has a different perspective—can see things you don’t see. He or she can help you navigate out of a difficult situation.

Similarly, God has never intended for Christians to navigate through life alone. There are times we need one another to keep us from falling, “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death” (James 5:20). We also need encouragement daily from one another, “exhort one another every day...that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Finally, we often need the advice of others because they can see thigns we don’t see, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20).

2) The best time for distractions is not while you’re on the wall. One of our teen girls was climbing while her older sister belayed for her (I won’t mention names). When the younger sister was almost to the top, her older sister below screamed, “Did you remember to get the cooler off the bus?” When you’re confronting fears and reaching new heights, the last thing on your mind is whether or not you “remembered the cooler.” It’s easy for us to get distracted spiritually. We can’t afford to get distracted by criticism, hypocrisy by others, frustrations, or fun as we work in the kingdom. Nehemiah recognized this when he told Sanballat and Tobiah, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). How many times have we abandoned the work of the Lord to check if we “got the cooler off the bus?”

3) We learn best by doing. The Climb Nashville staff taught the group of belayers in about 20-30 minutes. They utilized a hands-on approach and made the students put into practice what they learned in order to be certified to belay. In a more traditional classroom setting, it may have taken much longer to instruct that group of people about procedures and potential problems. We do a good thing by emphasizing Biblical learning; we need to teach the Bible in a classroom setting. Many who neglect this opportunity weekly should re-evaluate their decision. But we must also never forget that we grow most and best by daily doing what our God teaches. “But the one who looks into the perfect law,the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts,he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25).

4) It’s not the real thing. Indoor rock climbing is an exciting thing to do. The night we spent doing it allowed us to challenge ourselves and have fun doing so. It’s a great way to learn and gain experience in a controlled and safe environment. But it’s not real rock climbing. We don’t actually go anywhere. We get to the top, then turn around and slide back down. Likewise, some of the things we do within the church and especially in “youth ministry” are intended to train young people and families in a controlled and safer environment. They’re still very real experiences, but they’re not intended to be the end in and of themselves. We should pray for opportunities to put the spiritual habits we build into practice in the world around us. “Pray also for us, that God mayopen to us a door for the word,to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3).

23Sep/110

You Are the Shortest Distance

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

The shortest distance between children’s hearts and Christ is their parents (Deut. 6:6-9).

From the beginning of creation, God designed the world to operate through parents raising children, who then become parents who raise their children, etc. Modern societies spend countless hours and dollars attempting to transform current generations into upstanding citizens. Yet God’s design places them into the care of people who are relationally and emotionally in the best situation to protect them, teach them, and introduce them to Him.

  • They are blessed to listen to you pray thanksgiving for their food.
  • They are blessed to see you show affection to your spouse.
  • They are blessed to interrupt your quiet personal study of God’s Word.
  • They are blessed to notice your graceful and calm response to difficulties at work.
  • They are blessed to discuss perplexing spiritual questions while you’re in the car.
  • They are blessed to ask you about sensitive and embarrassing things they hear at school.
  • They are blessed to cry on your shoulder when you tell them about death, pain, and loss.
  • They are blessed to observe that your commitment to the Lord guides your every decision.
  • They are blessed to approach God’s throne while you tuck them into bed each night.
  • They are blessed to receive the discipline you lovingly provide.
  • They are blessed to hear your words of praise more often than words of correction.
  • They are blessed to witness your example of service to the Lord and others.
  • They are blessed not just to have someone. They are blessed to have you.

The ugly side of this blessing is that parents are also the shortest distance from their child’s heart to hypocrisy, apathy, resentment, and rebellion. Each day’s decisions are building something in their hearts. You have the opportunity to ensure what it is.

16Sep/110

Faughn Family List: Unbreakable Sports Records

Adam Faughn, over at Faughn Family, is starting a list of posts ranking the most unbeatable sports records of all time. He's invited me and two other great guys to help him compile and describe the records along the way. Today, he's revealing the introduction for the list. The list itself begins Tuesday. Don't miss it...it'll be a blast! The 50 Most Unbreakable Records in Sports

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9Sep/110

To Each Is Given For the Common Good

Tim Cook at Apple: “This is the most focused company I know of, am aware of, or have any knowledge of... We say no to good ideas every day.” Cook then pointed out to analysts that every single product the company makes would fit on the single conference table in front of him. “And we had revenue last year of $40 billion." (courtesy Seth Godin)


One of Apple's primary reputations is simplicity. At first glance, this quote seems to support the notion that "less is more." And maybe it does. But notice his assessment of the company is "focused." Cook (Apple's new CEO & Auburn University Alum) implies that saying "no" to good opportunities frees them up for the best opportunities. It allows them to focus their efforts on what they do best, not everything they can do.

As members of the Lord's church, while we're expected to do as much good possible, we're not expected to do everything possible. Several times in the New Testament Paul develops the connection between the church and the body of Christ. The most developed of these passages is in 1 Corinthians 12:4-31. In the immediate context, he's discussing the church's use of spiritual gifts. But the main principle in the heart of the passage is for everyone to do his/her part. It's a glaring temptation to try to be well-rounded and raise our children to be well-rounded. Doing so to the detriment of our strengths causes the whole body to suffer.

Isolate what you do well. Give it and your life fully to the Lord and His work. And don't feel guilty for not doing something that is someone else's strength.

7Sep/110

Some Things Are Just Obvious

Sights, smells, and sounds. All three can reveal where we’ve been or what we’ve been doing.

We can easily tell when someone’s been...

  • At a BBQ restaurant
  • Running around or playing outside
  • Cheering for their favorite sports team
  • Hunting or fishing
  • Cutting grass or working in the yard
  • Receiving devastating news
  • Out in the rain

I wonder what the Jewish Council saw or heard that caused them to say about Peter and John, “And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13b)? It’s likely the council members had seen the two men traveling with Jesus before. But it’s also likely the previous statements about them being bold, “uneducated, common men” connected them to Jesus as well. They would have placed Jesus in those same categories as well. (Uneducated refers to the formal level of studying the law, not mental capacity.)

What does the world today need to see to recognize that we’ve “been with Jesus?”

  • Jesus himself said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
  • The “Fruit of the Spirit” are obvious characteristics of the Christian life (Gal. 5:22-23; cf. Matt. 7:20).
  • Peter reminds persecuted Christians, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers,they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Pet. 2:11-12; cf. Matt. 5:16).
  • Paul commended Christians in Thessalonica, “Andyou became imitators of usand of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with thejoy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lordsounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (1 Thess. 1:6-8, emphasis added).

Who are the people in your life whom you know “have been with Jesus?” Are you living so that others know you “have been with Jesus?”

6Sep/110

The Gym

Dear journal,

I've been needing to write this for some time now. I've known the truth about my situation but have not admitted it to myself. I am not in the physical shape I need to be in. I need to lose quite a few pounds and lower my cholesterol. I also have high blood pressure, don't sleep well, and run out of breath quickly. But those are all really connected to being overweight. I know taking care of these problems will make me feel better and lengthen my time here on earth.

I've tried to talk to my Doctor about it, but surely he's too busy to really care about my health, right? I know that's his specialty, but his answers are so easy to say but really hard to do. He says the main thing I need to do is exercise regularly. He highly recommends me join the local gym.

I love the idea of exercising with other people. But I'm not sure I can find the time very often. I mean, most days after work, I've only got five or six hours left to eat dinner, watch my favorite TV shows, help with the kids' homework, and surf the internet. Someone told me the gym is open in the morning, too. But as it is, waking up as late as I do, I'm already rushed for work. I want to exercise, but I clearly don't have any time during the day.

And besides, though I love the idea of exercising with other people, I'm not sure I want to exercise with those people. Most of the people that go to the gym feel way too good about themselves and their bodies. They clearly don't want someone there who’s chubby and out-of-breath. If I went they would judge me. None of them know what it's like to struggle with their weight. There are other people at the gym--some of the most prominent gym members, in fact--who are nothing but hypocrites. I've seen some of them in the drive-through line at Dairy Queen; I've seen others buying sugary drinks at the grocery store. Why should I commit to helping myself if other people aren't doing the same? Not to mention no one's very friendly at the gym, anyway. All they want is my money each time I go.

So, I guess after thinking about it some, I'll wait a little while longer before I go exercise at the gym. I know I need to, but I just can't bring myself to do it. I'll start exercising one day. I really will. Maybe when the kids' sports season is over; or I may have to wait until after they graduate. Their social well-being is more important than my weight, right?

Again, I WILL decide to do this. And when I do, I won't let anything stand in my way.