Joey Sparks

Thanksgiving 2011

Psalm 23


Words of Wisdom: Ask for It!

In early 2003, while in college at FHU, we had our social club officers' retreat at a house on Kentucky Lake. We arrived late Friday evening, so we didn't see the lake until Saturday morning. When we awoke to see it and its surroundings, we were amazed that the lake's surface was totally frozen. Prior to that morning, every time in my life I had seen a body of water, it was always moving. But not this time. It was still and it was solid. I always think about that lake when I read James 1:5-8.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

The first clause of the passage reflects some of James' almost-sarcastic humor. Who, exactly, does not need more wisdom? The "if" sounds as though it's a limiting condition, but realistically, it's a universal statement. Everyone needs more wisdom.

What are we asking for when we ask for wisdom? We commonly think of wisdom as more than just knowledge. It's the practical application of knowledge. Another concise definition I've heard is, "Wisdom is the ability to see potential results before making decisions."

During what situations, then, should we ask for wisdom? The easy answer is, "in everything." But the contextual answer is that of trials that test our faith and reliance upon God (1:2-4). We need the Lord's guidance, direction, and peace when our souls are tested by life's hurdles. Trials easily become watershed moments; we either draw nearer to God and His people, or we push away from His goodness. Thus, we especially need wisdom in the face of trials. So we must ask for it. Additionally, the verb in the Greek emphasizes the process of "keep on asking." We need wisdom continually, thus we must ask continually.

God guarantees that he gives wisdom. But it's not a blank check. Notice how we are supposed to ask: without reproach, in faith, with no doubting. This is where it hits us the hardest. It's easier to simply ask for wisdom than it is to confidently ask for wisdom.

James illustrates our doubting with the simple, but common, sight of water. Its waves are continually driven and tossed, he says, by the whims of the wind. Their direction, strength, and frequency are determined by forces beyond their control.

We will encounter countless storms, criticisms, and confusions in this life. But we cannot be controlled by them. We must be confident, trusting, and solid as we ask God for direction and guidance.


Amanda’s Chocolate Chip Pound Cake

  • 1 box Butter Cake Mix
  • 1 small box chocolate instant pudding mix
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
  • 1/4 Cup Water
  • 1 Cup Canola/Vegetable Oil
  • 8 oz sour cream
  • 6 oz chocolate chips 
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Grease and lightly dust bundt pan with flour
  3. Mix first 7 ingredients until combined. Stir in chocolate chips.
  4. Bake for 1 hour, or until toothpick is clean when inserted in center of cake.

James tells us, "Count it all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds." It's difficult to "label" tough times, tragedies, and discouragement as anything that's good. Yet James tells us to consider those opportunities as "joy."

Though difficult, he does not expect us to do something this extreme without any assurance about future results. In fact, the very reason he says we should "count it all joy" is that we "know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness" (Jas 1:3). He points to the foundational principle that testing and proving our faith will always lead to strengthening it into faith that lasts. He then instructs Christians to, "let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (Jas 1:4).

We can know with certainty about the connection between trials and steadfastness, but we must let it take place. This is the second of James' imperative statements in this letter; yet it is one that we must allow to happen in our own lives. We can't force it to happen. We can't fast forward to a time where it's already happened. We can't negotiate the length of time in which it happens. We can't eliminate the pain accompanied with the trial itself while it happens. But we can--and James says we must--target our attitudes in a godly direction because of our conviction and the assurance that it does happen.

Enduring trials will never be easy. They rarely, if ever, taste good on their own. We must continually mix them with healthy attitudes and heavy doses of God's promises. Then, despite our skepticism and short-sightedness, we must allow the oven of time, faith, and God's providence to deliver the sweet steadfastness of trusting Him. Delicious.


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.

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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The Truth About Trials

When we find ourselves in the midst of a "trial," we often focus on the trial itself. We commonly believe several myths about trials:

  • They're always someone else's fault. (Another person, God, the devil)
  • We are the only one experiencing trials. Our trials are far worse than anyone else's.
  • Once we become Christians, trials happen less often, don't hurt as much, or stop altogether.
  • Once we deal with a significant trial, all future trials disappear or become really easy to handle.
  • Removing or ending the trial will eliminate all pain associated with it.
  • If we can just fix all the problems we're facing, we can be happy.

The Bible is clear we must address problems for which we're responsible. But we commonly shirk responsibility for those things and focus our energy upon fixing things we cannot.

So don't miss James' first imperative statement--one of many--in his letter. "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds" (1:2). Before we can "count it all joy" when we face them, we should observe a few truths that counter the false assumptions we believe about trials.

  • Christians are not immune to trials ("my brothers"). In fact, the trials for these Christians resulted directly from their commitment to Christ.
  • We will face trials ("when you..."). He didn't say "if you..."
  • We will continually face trials. “Trials” is plural.
  • We won't face the same trial/trials over and over ("trials of various kinds").
  • We aren’t the only ones facing trials. It was written to Christians in the first century and has applied to everyone since. We may feel alone at any given time, but that doesn't mean we are alone in our struggles.

We must exchange our dependence upon misbeliefs for confidence in the truth. Once we do, we can begin to "count it all joy" when we face trials.


SEC Helmets: White Editions

There are two "hard-to-look-bad" elements for football helmets: 1) a gray facemask and 2) a white shell. With the flexibility and crispness of white in mind, here are the helmets of the white:



Classy look for UGA. Their standard red is one of the best in the conference, so it's no surprise it looks great in white. Too bad they choke when they attempt uniform gimmicks.


Not a bad look for the Gators. Not sure it helps the current lid, though. That font needs to go.


Vandy looks sophisticated in the white. Maybe even in a admiral-dress-uniform way. It doesn't top the classic look of the gold, but it's still slick.

Ole Miss

Not a fan of Ole Miss in the white. And it wouldn't look good with their standard gray pants.

Mississippi State

Not a foreign look for State in the white, as they've done it before. The maroon helmet helps them look a little more intimidating on the field.


Arky may have the most to gain with switching to white. I'd at least like to see it at home with their red jerseys. And maybe it'd encourage someone to drop black from their unis.


Again, not a totally foreign-idea, as Coach Perkins went white during his tenure in the '80s. Clean and classic. But not near as iconic as the crimson lid.

Which is your favorite white edition?

(South Carolina, Tennessee always wear white, while Kentucky introduced a white alternate this season; Auburn wears white each week and LSU will wear a white version of their helmet on October 22nd--but with old gold--as part of their Pro Combat set.)

Much credit to Fraser Davidson for his PSD templates. His site has a wealth of inspirational sports design inspiration.

*The marks and identities represented belong to the respective schools. I in no way claim ownership and in no way stand to profit from the depictions here.*

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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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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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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).


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.