Joey Sparks
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).

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.

3Jun/080

Fun & Helpful Flickr Tool

I love the online photo community Flickr. It's a great place for finding and uploading digital copies of interesting photographs. We even have an official Midway Youth Flickr Group.

I ran across a site called Tag Galaxy the other day that makes finding useful photographs both easy and fun. Enter a photo tag, and start clicking on various "subtags." Eventually you can view the photos on the globe containing all the tags you selected. You can even open individual photos in Flickr.

19Oct/070

First Things First — Bulletin Article 10.14.2007

As our minds are turned toward the precious lives of our young people this weekend, there is one lesson we should commit to instilling within them. It is a principle we all utilize, no matter our spiritual condition. Dads use it loading the car for vacation. Moms calculate it when they make their grocery runs. Children need it when placing their toys back into their toy box. When there are a lot of items that must fit into a defined space, math dictates that the biggest items must go in before smaller items. When I went to Sam’s this week to buy food, it was a tight squeeze to get everything into their supersized buggies. In order for things to fit, the two 35-lb jugs of frying oil had to be in at the bottom. The biggest boxes remaining had to be next to the oil to complete the bottom level. Only then could the rest (bags, smaller boxes, etc.) fit within the buggy. To have done otherwise would have left no room for the biggest items (or resulted in crushed smaller items).

When we view all of the “stuff” we could be doing with our time, energy, and money, we need to humbly ask ourselves what we should be doing. If we fail to put the biggest (most important) opportunities first in our lives, we will fail within them. Families fail when its leaders fail to put it in the center of their lives. Sports teams fail when its members fail to emphasize teamwork. College students fail when being in college becomes more important than being a student. We as Christians will fail when we decide there are more important things than our relationship to the Lord.

Jesus words are clear in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” He essentially says, you will have what you need when you choose to honor me before and more than anything else.

Centuries prior, Solomon outlined this principle as well. Notice his words in Proverbs 3, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil...Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (3:5-10). When we commit to blessing the Lord with our lives, time and money—before we use those things for anything else—he will in turn bless us. Marshall Keeble is often attributed to describing it that as we shovel out the window (giving to God), God is shoveling in the door (with a much bigger shovel).

We see a picture of this principle in Matthew 8, when Jesus explained this to a disciple. “Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’ Was Jesus uncompassionate toward this man’s loss? Was he calloused that the man needed to bury him? Of course not. Some scholars argue that the man’s response was a typical excuse in the first century (like saying, “the dog ate my homework”). Made up or not, Jesus makes a clear point: nothing is as important as following him. Is burying the dead important and necessary? Absolutely. Just not as important as one’s relationship to Christ. The disciple was making something more necessary than it truly was.

We must fight this same temptation every day. Grades are important, but not most important. Scholarships are important, but not most important. Social leadership is important, but not most important. Jobs and career-planning are important, just not most important.

When we begin to truly put God in our lives first, then everything else will fit into place. Go ahead and put it to the test...see if he doesn’t bless your life.

Thanks again for your efforts this weekend!

4Oct/070

An Open Door for Effective Work (09.30.2007 Bulletin Article)

When Paul was concluding what we know as 1 Corinthians, he tells the Christians in Corinth that he is remaining in Ephesus a little longer. Additionally, he tells them why he is remaining there: “for a wide door for effective work has opened to me…” (1 Cor. 16:9).

On several occasions in the New Testament, the imagery of a door is used to represent opportunities. Jesus said “I am the door” (John 10:9). The only way to the Father is through Jesus (John 14:6). When Jesus told the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25), the bridegroom came and took the prepared virgins, leaving the unprepared searching for oil: “And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready when in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut” (Matt. 25:10). The finality of judgment is represented by a closed door. That’s a pretty clear image. When Jesus spoke to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3, he said the following words: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). We have the privilege of opening the door to allow Jesus into our lives. He’s done the work, we have to be willing to open our lives to his will.

Hopefully, we see the power of the door analogy in scripture. Likewise, we need to see the opportunities literal doors present us in this life. How often do we remember that souls live behind the many doors in our communities? Probably not as much as we need to. Not as much as Jesus does.

What has happened to the practice of door knocking? Like so many other things, it is fallen by the wayside because it seems confrontational and outdated. And yet, there are some people who might only have the opportunity to hear the good news about Jesus if someone lovingly visits their home.

We always have the opportunity to tell our neighbors about the love of Christ. Specifically, next weekend we have a marvelous opportunity to tell the community that the Lord loves them and that the church at Midway cares about them. Next Saturday, we will spend several hours knocking the doors of the communities around us to inform them specifically about our upcoming Youth Weekend. Generally, we want them to know that we are a loving group of Christians seeking to serve and obey God.

Many of us aren’t thrilled when someone we don’t know knocks on our doors. Yet we would all do well to greet them with love and hospitality. That itself may be an opportunity to share the gospel with others. Improving our response to the practice will help us as we spread our good message.

The biggest hurdle many of us face is that of fear. Maybe it’s the fear of having the door slammed in our faces. Maybe it’s the fear of a barking dog. Maybe it’s the fear of saying the wrong thing. Maybe it’s the fear of doing something we’ve never done before. As understandable as those fears are, we must realize all of them are centered upon the wrong thing: us. If we are convinced the community needs to know about Jesus and how to obey him, then we need to spread the gospel because it’s God’s will and not our own. If we’re going about the Lord’s business, then we have no reason to fear. That’s why Paul told Timothy the following in 2 Timothy 1:6-7, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God...for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

I hope you’ll prayerfully consider the opportunity to tell the community about our upcoming Youth Weekend. Please make your plans to stay after the PM service tonight. We’ll meet on Saturday, October 6 at 8:30 am to begin knocking. If you are unable to be here at 8:30, let me know, and you can join up with us when you are available.

Let’s commit to doing the Lord’s will and making his love and grace known to the world...starting with the world around us.

11Jul/070

A New Life in a New Home — Bulletin Article 07.01.07

This past week, Amanda and I began moving into the minister’s house adjacent to the parking lot. We are thrilled to finally be closer to the building and to the Midway community. We look forward to the opportunities opened by living here in the house. We are truly thankful to the elders for allowing us to live in the house and for all the work they have put into updating it prior to us moving in.

There are often new attitudes and practices that accompany a new move. We as human beings view our new surroundings as an opportunity to improve certain aspects of our lives. Generally, we hope that a new place will give us new enthusiasm, motivation, and resources to live comfortably.

Paul addressed a closely-related spiritual concept in writing to the church at Ephesus. Notice his words in Ephesians 4:17-24:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

As Christians, we are to show the “new” way we know exists in Christ—a way that’s different from the world. In exemplifying this new way of life, Paul teaches there are several things we must do:

Put off the old self. All of us have struggles and temptations that we associate with the worldly way of thinking and living. We must continue to put that old way of life to death in order to follow Christ. The wording here is akin to Jesus’ words in John 11:44. After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus says, “Unbind him (from the garments of burial), and let him go.” Likewise, we must put off the garments of death to live the new life.

Be renewed by the spirit of the mind. In order to please God with our lives, we must have a change in our spiritual attitudes. This principle is reminiscent of Paul’s words in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” A change of life only happens after we have had a change of mind. Truly changing our attitudes and perspectives is difficult—but it’s necessary if we are to have a Christ-led life.

Put on the new self. Paul described one who has put on Christ in baptism as “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). There is a new way of living that is expected for all Christians. We often view this only as a list of “don’ts” that hold us back. Yet, here Paul says the new self is “created in the likeness of God…” Living as the “new self” in Christ means living like God in righteousness and holiness. May we keep our feeble minds from confusing that lifestyle with a list of limiting rules.

Amanda and I are excited about our “new home” across the parking lot. May we all be excited about our “new home” in Christ.

1Jun/070

How to Identify a Christian — Bulletin Article 06.03.07

There were many great things said about first-century Christians as they went around sharing the good news and love of Jesus Christ. One of those great things is found in Acts 4. The rulers and scribes in Jerusalem had Peter and John before them because they had been preaching Jesus. In verse 13, the text says, “they recognized that they [Peter and John] had been with Jesus.” What an amazing accusation!

We must ask ourselves, “Do others recognize that ‘we know Jesus’?” Brother Gus Nichols preached a sermon entitled, “How to Identify a Christian.” It featured an acrostic format spelling the word “Christian.” Here is that outline:

A Christian is:

CONVERTED - Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:2-3

HUMBLE - But He gives more grace. Therefore He says:”God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. James 4:6-10

REVERENT - Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:28-29

INNOCENT - Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world Philippians 2:14-15

SANCTIFIED - I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:1-2

THANKFUL - Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

INFLUENCE - “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16

ACTIVE - Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13

NEW CREATURE - Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 2 Corinthians 5:1

God bless this week...

7May/070

2007 Connect Retreat — Waiting to Change the World

Amanda and I just returned from Lake Guntersville State Park in Guntersville, Alabama from our 2007 Connect (7th-12th grades) Retreat. Retreats are one of the most--if not the most--inspiring times spent with young people.

We focused on not "Waiting to Change the World" as a take-off of John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change." Our lessons focused on the actions of the Samaritan woman in John 4 who changed her world after her encounter with Jesus.

After a wonderful weekend of reflection, one of "those moments" happened on the way home. I was scanning the radio for stations with a signal and "Waiting on the World to Change" started playing. I turned up the volume since it was part of our focus for the weekend. When it got to the chorus, the kids on the bus starting singing "waiting to change the world" instead of the original lyrics. Pretty cool moment. There are good young people out there--and most of them aren't waiting around to change the world for good.

Filed under: Bible, Midway, youth No Comments
16Feb/070

90 & Counting

One of the unavoidable last names at Midway is "Blanton." There are several main families, all of which are connected somehow. The "senior" Blanton is Brother Lynn Blanton, a former deacon. his son Edward currently serves as an elder.

This Sunday (02/18), Brother Lynn will turn 90 years old. Not only is it a tremendous achievement from a numerical perspective, it's amazing to see how active he still is. He still gets outside every day, takes his walks, makes repairs around the house, and even helps with the family's farming efforts (only recently did he stop driving the tractor).

In today's Daily Mountain Eagle, they ran a nice piece on Brother Blanton's birthday and his tremendous love for his family. We are blessed to be part of his life by working with the church at Midway.

As younger folks, we are thankful to have such good examples as Brother Blanton and we know we will be better off because of his influence in the church and the community.

Filed under: Jasper, Midway No Comments