The Practice of Pondering (by Jean Fleming)

The following full-length article first appeared in Discipleship Journal (a discontinued publication of NavPress). You’ll find a condensed version of this article (with Ann Voskamp’s excellent photography) at Ann’s place today. Don’t miss it!

Giuseppe Momos' double helix spiral staircase in the Vatican
by Jean Fleming

Have you ever sunballousa-ed? If not, you should try it. Our Lord’s mother, Mary, did. It characterized her life.

The word sunballousa is Greek for “placing together for comparison.” In Lk. 2:19, the word is translated “pondered.” The Amplified Bible translates Lk. 2:19 this way: “But Mary was keeping within herself all these things (sayings), weighing and pondering them in her heart.” Later in that chapter, Luke says that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (v. 51, emphasis mine).

What things? The words of the angel Gabriel. The words of her cousin Elizabeth. The words of the shepherds. The words of the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah. Every developing event, every new word, might yield more light to this astonishing unfolding. So she kept adding to her treasure store. She held all that was happening in a precious bundle. Over and over again, she unpacked it and spread it out on the table of her heart. Each time she would arrange the pieces anew, placing the various elements in fresh configurations. Today she would, perhaps, place the shepherds’ words beside a passage from an Old Testament prophet. Tomorrow she might place the shepherds’ words beside the words of Gabriel. On Thursday she might consider the words of the shepherds as they related to Elizabeth’s greeting. Mary reverently held each word to the light and compared it with the other treasures in her bag. Her pondering shaped her mind and her days.

Mary’s pondering might be compared to the actions of a broody hen. The dictionary says the word brood means to warm, to cover, to spread over. One definition is “to have the mind uninterruptedly dwell a long time on the subject.” Another definition: “to mature anything with care.”

Recently, I was gathering eggs for a friend who was out of town. One hen was conspicuously broody. The other hens came running when I brought greens, but she remained hunkered down on the nest. As I picked up the eggs from the other nests, she observed me with a “don’t even think of reaching under me” glare.

And I didn’t She seemed so intent, so determined, so fixed on one thing. Perhaps this is what pondering does for us. And we, who lead such “flitty” lives, could learn from that hen how to dwell uninterruptedly for a long time on a subject and how to mature a thought by brooding over it.

Stair Stepping
Some words of the Apostle Paul have helped me to understand further what it means to ponder or brood. Paul exhorts the Colossian church and us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).

What does it mean to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”? I think Mary gives us a model. Her practice of pondering is typical of Hebrew thought patterns, which are circular, in contrast to Greek thought patterns, which are linear. Her thought pattern would look more like ascending a spiral staircase (always finding larger and more splendid rooms) than filling out an outline. She would rotate through the same ideas over and over again, gaining insights as she gave them another turn.

What insights can we gain by pondering Paul’s words to the Colossians?

A seminary professor once asked his students, “What is the most important word in the New Testament?” The students’ responses varied: “Love.” “Salvation.” “Redemption.” “Forgiveness.” The professor shook his head at each. He contended that the most important word is “let.” Three letters held together with an electrical charge.

Throughout the New Testament, this little word precedes great possibilities, opportunities to know more of God and His fullness. “Let” is a word that pleads with us to throw open some door inside ourselves to what God wants to do in us and for us. “Let” is an invitation, an appeal to the heart, an appeal to the will. “Let” in Col. 3:16 doesn’t stand alone in the Greek. It is one word with “dwell”: letdwell. Allow the Word of Christ to dwell in you richly. Practice sanballousa-ing.

There are no surprises in the meaning of “dwell,” only in the audacious reality. The Word of Christ will inhabit my life if I permit it. The believer’s life is the intended home, the settled abode, for the Word of Christ. Eugene Peterson in The Message renders the verse this way: “Let the word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives.”

“The Word of Christ”
In all the Bible, this phrase appears only here. Commentators agree that this phrase can mean either the words spoken by Christ or the words spoken about Christ.

But Paul himself clarifies his intended meaning of the phrase early in the book of Colossians. He speaks of “the word of truth, the gospel” (1:5). This good news was obscured in the shadows in the past but now is “disclosed to the saints” (1:26). Paul says he serves believers by presenting the “word of God in its fullness” (1:25). Each truth in the book of Colossians reveals that the Word of Christ encompasses more than a message of forgiveness and heaven, as wonderful as that is. The Word of Christ is the complete “package” available to us when we believe. He who is the Word imparts Himself and all that He intends, purchases, promises, and fulfills to us in the written word. In the Scriptures, God reveals Himself to us, shapes the life of Christ in us, and extends the work of Christ through us. Let that dwell in you richly.

“In You”
Jesus took a body: “The Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14). Now He calls us to let the Word of Christ be incarnated in us. The Word of Christ living in us reminds us that we are forgiven and must forgive others; that Christ lives in us to express His life to us and through us; that we are new creatures, beloved of God, bought with a price and not our own. This indwelling Word keeps setting the trash by the door, keeps throwing open the windows to let in fresh air, and keeps leaving notes on the bathroom mirror—reminders to love, to trust, to give generously, to speak kindly.

It helps me to remember that one reason Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians was to confront false teachers who divorced spiritually from everyday life. Paul says twice in this letter that every area of a believer’s life should feel the pressure of the gospel truth (Col. 3:17, 23). The effect of Scripture is not distant, abstract. It is personal and deeply relevant: “in you.”

The Amplified Bible reads “dwell in you [all its] richness.” The Greek word refers to God’s rich provision for His people. In Jesus Christ, a treasure trove beyond our imagination or comprehension is available to us—provisions of every sort for every need. The Word of Christ reveals and bestows God’s fullness to us.

My friend was not yet 40 and the mother of two adolescent girls when she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent cancer. Facing life-and-death issues, she asked God big questions. What does it mean to live well? To die well? What is health? Is there a difference between being healed and being cured? Lord, what do You want to say to me at this time?

My friend placed her questions beside the Scriptures. Seeking God’s mind and ways wasn’t new to her. But as she focused the laser beam of God’s Word on her questions, God unfolded more of Himself and His truth to her. At this time the doctors detect no cancer, but I think her greater treasure is in letting the Word of Christ dwell in her richly.

The circumstances of our lives can choke the Word or propel us to listen for God’s voice. I’m startled as I read these words of David: “The wicked are waiting to destroy me, but I will ponder your statutes” (Ps. 119:95). David, like Mary and like my cancer-stricken friend. sunballousa-ed. He put his worries beside the Word of God and allowed the Word to give him direction, courage, and joy.

Treasures During Trials
As I write this, the first anniversary of my mother’s death approaches. During her long fight with terminal illness, I traveled from my home in Colorado to care for her in Maryland. A month or more in Maryland, and then home to Colorado for a month, repeated again and again. I still can’t unravel all that was happening inside me during that time. The struggle didn’t take the form of grief I expected. I think my greatest grief arose from my inability to love my mother as I knew she needed me to. I knew that real love must come from God’s life expressing itself through me. I prayed for the Holy Spirit’s control in my life and surrendered to Him again and again. I confessed sin and lived in the richness of His Word.

During that period, God met with me day by day. In my quiet times, I felt His nearness and the relevance of His Words. I carried a stack of memory verses on walks. Some days I’d pull out the ones that spoke of joy and pray over them as I walked. Sometimes I’d place one card beside another so that one verse could shine light on the other. This radiance kept me going in the darkness of confusing emotions.

For four of the months I was at Mom’s home, the Lord impressed a different theme each month: joy, love, thankfulness, humility. I think God did this to remind me that I was under His training and in His care. I was a caregiver, but I was also a disciple learning at the feet of my Lord and Teacher.

Although this period has been one of the most painful in my life, I don’t think that the Word has ever ministered to me on a deeper and more profound level.

For example, one morning in my quiet time I read: “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7). The phrase “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” touched my spirit. “Lord,” I asked, “am I being overwhelmed by my feelings of failure to love my mom?” The King James Version uses the phrase “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” As I pursued the thought I discovered that overwhelmed is the same Greek word that Peter uses when he says that Satan seeks to “devour” us (1 Pet. 5:8). “Lord, is my grief over my failure excessive sorrow? And does it make me vulnerable to enemy attack and accusation?” I asked.

I thought of dear Peter, our favorite failure. His denial of the Lord is recorded in every gospel. Peter “wept bitterly” over his sin. His remorse was deep and agonizing, but it did not overwhelm him; it did not swallow or devour him. The next mention of Peter finds him in the midst of the fellowship. It encouraged me to see that although Peter was a weak and fearful failure, he was still following Jesus. Peter was there in the upper room when word came that Jesus had risen; Peter was there at the tomb as well.

These thoughts came upon me as a flood, not to drown me, but to sweep me into the arms of the Lord. Shaking with sobs, I could say, “Lord, like Peter, I’m a recorded failure. Failing, but still seeking to follow You, to be near You.”

The Word continues to speak to me regarding my time of caring for my mother. I have devoted a notebook to recording what God says about that period. His Words are like a flourishing vine growing inside me, attaching tendrils in dark crevices and on healing wounds. His Word dwells in me richly, and I am grateful.

Shared Treasure
But in God’s scheme of things, riches are never for hoarding. Were we to focus only on what sunballousa-ing can do for us individually, we would miss an important aspect of what it means to let the Word inhabit us. Thankfully, Paul did not neglect that aspect either. He speaks of letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly and corporately: “As you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to the Lord.” The indwelling Word produces an environment in which mutual edification and warning flourish amid joyful worship. John Henry Jowett wrote in Things That Matter Most: “When the divine life possesses the soul, it flows over in gracious ministries among our fellowmen. The affluence becomes an influence importing itself to others.”

A life enriched by the Word enriches others. Those who have tasted God’s grace can administer it to others. Those who have been warned by God’s Word can warn others. Where the gospel dwells richly, believers acknowledge their common heritage, their shared treasure, their common calling and task.

We have yet to see, I suspect, the impact of a group of believers who are pondering God’s Word, letting it inhabit their lives, and allowing the affluence they receive to flow out in influence upon others. may the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, and may it richly overflow to all those who encounter you.


“The Practice of Pondering” first appeared in the NavPress publication Discipleship Journal, May/June 2001. Copyright © 2001, 2014 Jean Fleming, all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Jean Fleming is the author of Pursue the Intentional Life, A Mother’s Heart, Feeding Your Soul, and others. See for details.

Also by Jean Fleming: Open-Heart Bible Study

Spiral staircase photo credit: Phil Northam, via Flickr Creative Commons

Jean and Roger Fleming

Jean and Roger Fleming

Don’t Touch That Stove!

A poem after Ann Voskamp’s recent tweet on bitterness:

“Holding on to bitterness is like holding a flame in your own hand and wondering why you feel burned.”
– Ann Voskamp

Don’t Touch That Stove!

You who taught your children
to keep away from the stove—
why does your own hand
reach for the burner
and even carry the very flame
that scorches your palm,
now blistering? Quick!
Run to the sink. Turn
the faucet full blast.
Open your hand
under cold running water.
Break a leaf from the aloe,
slice it lenghtwise, lay its healing
thickness, cut side down,
on your palm. Close your fingers
and press the soothing fruit
to absorb into the burn. This
is what you should hold.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
(Ephesians 4:31)

An excellent article on forgiveness by Mark D. Roberts: How Can I Forgive Someone Who Doesn’t Admit to Having Done Anything Wrong?

Photography Lesson

The following is a found poem from Jennifer Dukes Lee’s piece at (in)courage today: Light, for Your Darkest Days. (Scroll down if you want to know what a found poem is, or how to write one.)

To learn the magic of light, she said, I needed to wake before sunrise. I needed to watch how light overtakes dark.

– Jennifer Dukes Lee

Photography Lesson

To learn the magic of light, wake
before sunrise. Stumble barefoot
on gravel. Chase light before dawn

in the silky mist of valleys
where landscape yawns.
Then wait. Press

one hopeful eye against
the viewfinder and capture
the last word:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

Have you ever written a found poem? The Academy of American Poets defines it:

Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.

A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet.

If you’ve never written a poem, try a found poem. It’s a gentle, fun, and easy way to dip your toes into poetry for the first time!

See more of my found poems here.

A Family Superstition

Sometimes I need to write something lighthearted and fun, even (or especially) when I feel like writing about other things. The following poem is for Tweetspeak’s current poetry prompt: Write a ballad about a family superstition. If you’d like to learn how to write a ballad poem (or if you just want to know what a ballad poem is), read Marjorie Maddox’s excellent, fun guide: How to Write a Ballad—which would also be a great teaching resource on the ballad form.

Making faces

A Family Superstition

I relished car rides, windows down,
air rushing, freeway speed.
Made faces with my brother (clown!),
heads stuck out in the breeze.

My index fingers pulled my mouth
to stretch the lips out wide,
and forced the eyelid corners down,
exposing whites of eyes.

Our older sisters (adult age)
would warn us with a grin:
Your silly face will freeze if you
make faces in the wind!

So now, though I still revel in
car windows opened wide,
I only make expressions when
my face is safe inside.

David making his "funny eyes" face

Photo credits:
Top photo by Jo Christian Oterhals, via flickr creative commons.
Bottom photo by Larry and Laura, via flickr creative commons.

Tennis Lessons

Daily Shoot 10.18.10 [Spherical/Curved]

What coach taught me:
When you serve, step up
to the line, bounce the ball

three times, and pause
for that calming breath—those habits,
those rituals will keep you

consistent. Toss the ball in a straight
vertical, to the highest point
of your reach. Keep looking up

even after you hit the ball.
Don’t get caught flat-footed. Stay alert
on the balls of your feet. Split-step as soon

as the ball zooms at you. If the ball is out,
call it out. Hit the ball on the rise
so it won’t continue on its

natural trajectory.
And keep up your
mental game.


Photo credits:
Tennis ball photo by Marie Coleman, via flickr creative commons.
“Serve” photo by mirsasha, via flickr creative commons.

Curbing Comparison (by Jennifer Dukes Lee)

The following article appeared at Today’s Christian Woman. Reprinted by permission of Jennifer Dukes Lee, award-winning journalist and best-selling author of Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval—and Seeing Yourself through God’s Eyes. Jennifer (and others) have traveled to Ferguson “to listen to people’s stories, and maybe to write some of those stories … to get a first-hand look at what’s been happening in Ferguson, to talk to people doing good work there, and to see how the Church can lead better in times like this.” Follow Jennifer on Twitter for updates.

I have asked Jennifer for permission to reprint her article “Curbing Comparison” because I identify so closely with every word.

365 Days (2009): Day 107

by Jennifer Dukes Lee

I learned early how comparison can wound a person.

I was 12 years old, sitting on a street curb with my friend on a July afternoon. It was so hot that the street’s tar bubbled up around our flip-flopped feet.

I had called a curbside meeting because I needed her ear. I don’t remember what had troubled me, but I do remember how I thought my heart might burst with sadness. Tears spilled down my face.

I wiped my cheek with the back of my hand and started to confide in her.

“Oh-OOOOH-ooh,” she interrupted me. “Sounds like trouble in paradise.”

I remember how she rolled her eyes, how her blonde ponytail whipped through the air when she shook her head—and how it felt like she took satisfaction in my momentary troubles.

My friend saw only the outside of my life, only the parts that looked like some version of paradise. The truth is, I did have a good life. I lived in a nice house, earned good grades, wore nice clothes, had dependable parents. Our family gathered around our dinner table almost every night, just after the six o’clock whistle blew from the top of the town’s water tower.

My life wasn’t perfect, but to my friend, it must have looked rather Beaver Cleaver-ish. My friend lived in a single-parent, low-income home. School was difficult for her, and her big brother was often getting into trouble.

When my friend held her life up next to mine, she saw a trash heap next to a gold mine. And I can’t say for sure, but I walked away from the curb that day believing that, somewhere deep inside her, she felt a little bit better because I was hurting so badly.

Curbs are everywhere

Turns out, our little-girl penchant for comparison grows up with us.

Turns out, women can be 25 or 55 or 75 and still trying to figure out how they measure up to one another.

Turns out, there are curbs everywhere.

The curbs are on Facebook and at the city park. There are curbs on Twitter and the blogosphere and in churches and school gymnasiums and the carpool lane.

It gets hot out there on the curb, where people’s envy bubbles up like tar. We’re comparing waist sizes, square footage, IQs, kids’ report cards, approval ratings.

Comparison is a quiet vulture, swooping in to peck its sharp beak at our joy, our camaraderie, and our witness to the world.

We compare our trash-heaps days to someone’s paradisiacal online updates. We might be tempted to roll our eyes at the precocious comments that some preschool mama quotes. Somewhere inside of us, we might be turning green with envy at another writer’s bestselling book, a former colleague’s success in a new business venture, another couple’s second trip to the beach in a year. We might even quietly harbor a sense of satisfaction when the object of our envy stumbles.

Comparison is folly, and no one wins—or ever has.

We’ve been measuring ourselves against one another for approximately forever—sometimes with deadly consequences.

Cain compared himself to Abel, with a jealous anger that ended in his brother’s murder. Joseph’s brothers, moved by envy, sold him into slavery. Jesus’ disciples bickered and compared themselves to one another on several occasions.

Paul pointed out the foolishness of it all:

But in all this comparing and grading and competing, they quite miss the point. (2 Corinthians 10:12, The Message)

We might not be killing our sisters or selling them off to the Egyptians. But are we killing each other’s spirits? And are we killing our own souls?

Are we, as the verse says, missing the point?

Someone always gets hurt when we compare, even if we think it’s a secret battle we’re fighting on the inside. It hurts us, and it hurts the person sitting on the other side of our envy. Comparison creates an us-versus-them mentality that can rob the body of Christ of its unity and fellowship. And it can open up doorways to petty criticism of the people we believe are “living in paradise.”

Psychologists tell us that when we feel inadequate, we might try to protect our own self-worth by diminishing the work of those we envy. Cheap shots are delivered. Snickering ensues. We might get annoyed at the Facebook posts of the person who ran another ten miles, lost another ten pounds, or gained another ten followers. And when they’re not looking, we might try to knock them down about ten notches.

My friend Carey told me the other day how a group of moms had made fun of her for being a “Pinterest mom.”

“They talked about how bad Pinterest moms make them feel for not making cute valentines or throwing ‘extreme’ birthday parties,” Carey said. “It was hurtful. I have never in my life gone overboard on my kids’ birthday parties in order to make someone else feel bad. I do it because creating special things brings me joy.”

When we compare our insides to someone else’s outsides, we hurt them. And we hurt ourselves. I’m convinced that comparison is one of the biggest joy-robbers and dream-shredders in a Christian’s life.

The Comparison Monster wedges its ugly self smack-dab between us and whatever God is calling us to do: start a blog, write a song, lead a Bible study, apply for a promotion. Nothing will kill a dream faster than looking at the life of someone who’s already living your dream, then believing it’s too good for you.

If you can’t do it like her, why try?

Can’t blog like her? Forget it.

Can’t make a difference like your friend does? Throw in the towel.

When we compare, we forget the value of our own lives. We forget that we’re the only “us” that the world will ever get.

We forget that God made us incomparable. We forget that we are so exceptionally crafted as to make any comparison invalid.

For the sake of ourselves and our sisters, we have to stop this. Life is not a competition. We’re actually all on the same team, and it’s called the body of Christ.

The greatest antidote to comparison

One of the greatest antidotes to comparison is praise. We can praise God for what he has given us and—this one might be harder—praise God for the unique gifts he has given to our sisters. Instead of envying them, we can rejoice with them. Consider what would happen if we started celebrating other’s victories instead of trampling on their parades. What if we started living out God’s call on our lives, without worrying whether we’ll measure up to some invisible standard? What if we picked up some pom-poms and cheered on our friends instead of picking up sticks or stones?

What if we ditched the lists?

Any of us can look back on our childhood lives and remember the lists that shaped us: honor rolls published in the local paper, school-play casting calls, homecoming courts, birthday-party invitations, and more. When we grow up, the lists grow up with us: the Fortune 500, the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, the Top 100 Bloggers, the richest, the sexiest, the most relevant. Even Christian leaders have come up with online lists to tell us which authors are the most influential.

In a world of list makers, we can begin to live only for the Maker’s list:

Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20, KJV)

We can link hands and elbows as we sit on the curb of life. We can brush away each other’s tears, squeeze each other’s hands, and cheer wildly when it goes well for our sisters. I have plenty of friends who have attained a great amount of earthly success, while remaining humble and true to their callings. I have pledged to them that I won’t compare their beautiful lives to mine, and I’ll never cut them down when they’re not looking.

We can sit at the curb together and say this pledge to each other: “I promise that I’ll be for you.” And we can curb our comparing, at the feet of our incomparable Savior.


Photo credit: amber dawn pullin via flickr creative commons

Fishing Tip

(For Tweetspeak Poetry’s August theme: “Gone Fishing.” Submit your own poem, or submit your photo for the photography prompt!)


Don’t look
for the trout itself
camouflaged from above.
Look instead for the shadow it casts,
a silhouette imprinted
on the sand,
luring fishermen with
the evidence
of its presence.


Do you know anyone who has had a powerful influence on others, yet is low-visibility himself or herself? I play on the worship team at church. Musicians are high-visibility and often (even weekly) receive thanks from others in the congregation. In contrast, children’s Sunday school teachers minister powerfully to the children, yet no one sees them. For example, many people, even church leaders, are not even aware that my husband was a Sunday school teacher. In our church, children’s teachers serve in basement classrooms, low-visibility yet strong in influence. Find a low-profile servant of Christ, and thank him or her.


Making History (or Not)

yourworkmattersgraphic_0(For The High Calling community writing topic: Your Work Matters to God. Visit The High Calling for more posts on Your Work Matters to God!)


I was running afternoon errands and pulled into a parking spot between the Rockrimmon Library Branch and Safeway. First on the list: return library books.

Near the library entrance, I spotted a bumper sticker that said, “Well-Behaved Women Don’t Make History,” which immediately triggered some thoughts, including:

The woman who peeled the backing off this sticker and pressed it permanently onto her rear windshield—what is she like?
What does she mean by “well-behaved”?
What do poorly behaved women do?
If she knew me, would she consider me “well-behaved”?
If so, would she disdain me for being well-behaved and not the type to make history?
What does “making history” mean to her?

Making history typically means that, years and decades and centuries from now, people will know about her actions and influence. Making history implies that our lives are recorded and remembered. Making history means being famous.

I walked into the library with my 9-year-old son. We dropped our books through the book return—a delightful, mysterious hole in the green wall leading to the sorting room, whose door is secured with a digital combination lock that beeps when they push the combo numbers. These librarians are serious about protecting our books.

It occurs to me, now as I write this, that no one knows the names of the librarians and volunteers working behind that wall. They are sorting books, many of which will be transferred by unseen library drivers to several other branches in the Pikes Peak Library District. Without their work, we readers wouldn’t have such convenient, organized access to picture books, novels, how-to books.

And history books.

Each non-famous book sorter is not making history, but without them, we couldn’t read about those who did.

After the book drop, my son and I separate, looking for more books. We pick up our holds from the holds shelf, go to the library computers to put more books on hold (and now I am thinking of all those IT workers who set up and maintain the computers, whose names will not be recorded in any human history book), then walk out in the summer brightness to get milk and mangoes at Safeway. Friends have invited us for dinner, and I want the mangoes to make a spinach-mango salad.

My son is good company; Byron makes even errands fun. He smiles a lot, he makes me smile, and he tells me he likes my smile.

We plan to go on vacation soon, so Byron will need a sitter for his two guinea pigs. He tries to hire his standard go-to for this job, but that neighbor will be away at Boy Scout camp. Another neighbor boy down the street can do it, though. Byron wrote a list so the sitter can easily remember what to do.

The guinea pig chores list:


The last item on the list: Smile (optional).

Your great-grandchildren probably won’t be reading about you in their history books. No one is keeping track of the fact that you found a good deal on mangoes. Your dishwashing and lawn-mowing won’t be recorded. The world will never know that you spent the afternoon finding Lego pieces for your child.

In God’s history books, your work does matter. But believing that, and smiling about it, is optional. (See #8 above.) Choose to believe it: your work does matter to God.. It’s “making history,” redefined.

Smileworthy, isn’t it?

Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.
–1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)


(For Tweetspeak Poetry’s laundry poem prompt.)


All my laundry is white.
No strategically chosen colors,
no distracting patterns
to hide any stains.
I hang them in the sun
and something in the light
makes them bright again
and warms a nearby stone
where I can rest.

Choosing the Best Books for Our Children

I’m a home educator. Every July I buy the books and supplies we need for the school year. In case you, too, are deciding what books to get for your child, I am posting a 2008 article I wrote for parents of young children. (This article is also a downloadable PDF file. The full contents of the PDF follow.)


Choosing the Best Books for Our Children

Monica Sharman

Summer 2008


[T]o give the children of the world the words they need is, in a real sense, to give them life and growth and refreshment.

- Katherine Paterson, Gates of Excellence, (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), page 6.

A child without words starves. But what are the words they need? What will we give our children for their nourishment? How can we tell which books will give them life and growth and refreshment? We have limited opportunity to place good books in their hands—books they will open, words that will come before their eyes and into their hearts. How can we choose wisely?

In evaluating children’s literature, I’m afraid there can be no checklist. Books and people interact with each other in a way that goes beyond a clinical evaluation. A book that deeply moves one individual may bore or repel another individual. Your “Top Ten” book list will not be identical to your mother’s, your best friend’s, your pastor’s, your spouse’s, the Newbery Award list, the Caldecott Award list. Whether you seek to know if a book is a good book, or whether you want to know what makes a good book good, the first and best thing to do is … read. Keep reading. Be a good reader. And as you read, ask yourself, what do I consider valuable and worthwhile in children’s literature? It is your own task and cannot be done for you. The path before you requires time, effort, energy, sacrifice, but it is a path of reward, enrichment, learning, and fun! Read, read again, and read some more!

Is this a “good book”?

Think of your favorite book. What do you love about it? Why did you read it over and over? What makes it attractive and precious to you? This is just one of the ways I would answer.

An Internal Connection

Language helps shape our thoughts and emotions. Lack of words causes tension. Because the complexities of spirit and soul develop well before language, children often experience life with feelings they are yet unable to express. Then, in a good book, they recognize themselves or their experiences (internal or external), and breathe a sigh of relief and gratitude. A good book releases the inner tension and frustration in a child who lacks the words to communicate, even to himself, his own life.

I didn’t read Bevery Cleary’s Ramona books until I was in my thirties. While reading Ramona the Brave, I wept. All those books are the work of a genius. I think those are good books, and, like Katherine Paterson, I tried to figure out why.

Is it because she is easy to read? She is, but so is “Run, Spot, Run.” Is it because her settings are contemporary and her characters familiar? They are, but there are thousands of books fitting both descriptions that never capture a fraction of Cleary’s devoted readership …

Cleary has the rare gift of being able to reveal us to ourselves while still keeping an arm around our shoulder. We laugh (ha ha) to recognize that funny, peculiar little self we were and are and then laugh (ahhh) with relief that we’ve been understood at last.

- Paterson, pages 41–42.

So Katherine Paterson explains. A good book helps a child articulate thoughts and feelings he cannot put into words himself. It makes an internal connection with and for the child. A good book becomes a kind of companion which assures the reader that he is not alone.

Character Growth

A problem or conflict appears in every novel. How did the main character move through the story? By the end of the book, is he a different person than he was on page one? Character growth is in every good book.


Does the book feed and renew my sense of wonder? Does it invoke in me amazement and awe at everyday things? In Katherine Paterson’s Invisible Child, in the chapter, “In Search of Wonder,” she lists three aspects of wonder in a story:

  • Wonder of nature and human nature (setting, characters)
  • Wonder in the telling (language, style)
  • Wonder behind and beyond the story (the story’s shape, flow, theme)

I also recommend Katherine Paterson’s Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children, and The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children, for insightful and profound thoughts on children’s literature.

Does it have value?

If we say with the psalmist, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless,” (Psalm 101:3) the task before us is to ask ourselves, Is this book worthless? Or, better yet, Does this book have value? Use this verse as your standard, pray for God’s guidance, and read!


Besides being a good reader yourself, ask yourself questions.

What kinds of characters do you want your children to read about? Role models? Characters they care about and identify with (though the characters would be terrible role models)?

What is the book’s tone? Is it didactic, trying to teach the reader a moral lesson? Is it believable, genuine to its setting and characters?

What do people I respect consider good books? It’s always a good idea to get recommendations from people whose literary opinions you respect.

Have fun!

You are in a good place, having to determine your child’s reading list. Enjoy!

Open-Heart Bible Study (by Jean Fleming)

In the foreword to Pursue the Intentional Life, I mentioned the article “Open-Heart Bible Study.” Many people have been looking for this article, and I’m delighted to make it available here (with thanks to Jean Fleming for her permission). This article, which first appeared in Discipleship Journal (a discontinued publication of NavPress), will also be linked at the (in)courage Bloom Book Club wrap-up post for this book.

by Jean Fleming

When we approach the Scriptures, too often we grab our tool box of the mind—the concordance, dictionary, commentary, notebook, and pens—and neglect the essential intangibles of the spirit and heart.

Bible, altar, Studland church, Dorset

A curious, capable mind alone cannot invade the deep spaces of this Book. An academic approach to the Scriptures may be fascinating, but it cannot take us beyond the outer husk of truth. To taste the sweet fruit within, we need more than gray matter.

What intangibles of the spirit and heart do we need to bring to Bible study? If I were to choose one verse to capsulate the essential attitudes I believe God looks for in His people as they approach His Word, Isaiah 66:2 would get my vote. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” We don’t hear much about sticking a humble and contrite spirit and a good solid tremble in with our Bible study helps, but without them we will always shuffle around the edges and never penetrate to the heart of God’s riches.

Let’s take a look at three essential attitudes and why they are important as we come to understand the Scriptures.

A Humble Spirit

First, we need a humble spirit. A humble spirit grows in a proper understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to Him.


God looks for a particular spirit as we come to His Word precisely because it is His Word. The Bible is communication from the high and lofty One, the One who lives forever, whose name is holy, but who lives with the person of humble and contrite spirit (Isaiah 57:15). This Word is the most complete revelation given of the God who is eternal, divine, holy, and personal. God has “exalted above all things [His] name and [His] word” (Psalm 138:2). God gives His Word a place of highest honor.

When we grasp something of the reality that it is God’s Word, we realize that we cannot come to this Book on an equal footing with it. The human mind cannot fathom the thoughts, the character, the Person of God.


Jack, May, and Gail are people who approach the Scriptures with humble spirits. Jack and May, a vibrant Australian couple, had come to Christ in middle age. As new believers unfamiliar with the Bible, Jack and May felt they needed to start at the beginning and at the bottom. They bought and read a Bible written for children before progressing to an adult Bible.

At conversion, Jack and May, like us, got their first really good look at who they are and, more importantly, who God is. Seeing themselves in their sinfulness and need and God in His pristine holiness left them little confidence in their own abilities to understand the thoughts of God. They would start where babes start.

Like Jack and May, Gail came to the Scriptures with childlike humility. When I met Gail I was particularly impressed by her spiritual depth and insight. I wanted to know something of her story and what kind of spiritual help she had received. Her tale was one of ignorance, frustration, perseverance, and blessing.

Gail’s first attempt at Bible study ended in tears; she couldn’t answer any of the questions. The doors of comprehension were bolted. The windows were boarded over. Not a shred of light seeped in. She read and reread, but her effort yielded nothing. Why could a more-than-reasonably-intelligent woman not understand even one question? she wondered. Her hunger and frustration drove her to call out to God, with weeping, “Please help me to understand.”


The next morning she got up to try again. This time the door gave way; the windows of her soul let in the light; the Book came alive.

Jack, May, and Gail are not models of humble spirits because they were ignorant and admitted it, but because they continued in that same spirit, aware that they don’t come to this Book as God’s equals in intellect, character, or experience.

Gail’s story seems to me a parable. God withheld from a bright woman the ability to understand the Bible so that He might implant a deeper lesson in her life. God can open or close this Book to us. An intelligent, inquiring mind is not enough. While most people do not find the Bible to be a completely closed book, Gail’s experience illustrates a spiritual truth. Even scholars remain in the outer courts, handling the outside of spiritual things, unless God admits them into the holy of holies.

God calls us to emulate this spirit of humility and hunger whether we are accomplished students or new converts. Intelligent, diligent, careful study is important, but the Bible doesn’t relinquish its bounty to high IQs and polished exploratory skills alone. While it is true that the Bible is in many ways like any other book, it is absolutely unique. This Book reveals “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (1 Corinthians 2:7). Wisdom that no eye has seen “but that God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:10).

Biblical truth isn’t discovered; it is revealed, interpreted, explained, taught by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God alone knows the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:11), and He communicates “spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:13) to the human spirit. The language He uses is not Greek, Hebrew, or English; it is spirit. The Holy Spirit whispers it to humble spirits.

So, like the psalmist, let us cry out, “Let me understand the teaching of your precepts” (Psalm 119:27). Charles Simeon (1758–1836), an English preacher who taught others how to preach, wrote, “The more lowly we are in our own eyes, the richer communications we shall receive from Him.”


A Contrite Spirit

Next, we need to have a contrite spirit. A contrite spirit has an acute awareness of its failings. This awareness is accompanied by deep distress over them and gratitude that there is a place of refuge in the mercy and grace of God.

The concordance defines contrite as “smitten, maimed, dejected.” It only follows that if we get an accurate picture of ourselves in our fallen humanity and of God in the splendor of His holiness, we will be a bit bruised by the contrast. As Isaiah lamented after seeing the Lord in His glory, “Woe to me!” (Isaiah 6:5).

But, of course, the glory of the gospels is that “the bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3). Jesus doesn’t break but, rather, He blesses those who are poor in spirit and who mourn over their sin (Matthew 5:3-4). “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

The Word comes in love to bruise as well as to bless. If we come the Word as self-sufficient, self satisfied consumers of blessing, the blessing cannot penetrate the armor of self. The Word of God must pierce our thick skins, must strike stinging blows at times, must put our hips out of joint, must hold a mirror before our faces that we might see what our sin is doing to us. The Word must wound before it binds up. Otherwise, far worse sores fester out of sight, waiting to erupt and destroy us. A contrite spirit welcomes God’s work that reveals who we really are. It limps to the throne of grace to receive the healing balm.

It is clear that God values a contrite spirit, but do we? Let me illustrate. A mature believer in the Sunday school class I attend confessed her failure to share the gospel with family on a recent trip. She said she had been unfaithful and asked us to pray for her. Her words bruised me. I, too, often lack the courage to speak the message God has entrusted to me. I was ready to stand and say so. But before I could, the class rallied to erase her discomfort. With the kindest intentions, they assured her that God had used the time and that contrition was unnecessary, even out of the question.

Just as I became aware of my sin and need when I heard her confession, my heart is made sensitive by the Scriptures as I see God’s plans, commands, and promises. But always I must be alert to the tendency to undermine or dismiss the response of contrition. This tendency makes us discriminating “partakers,” straining out anything unpalatable to us, instead of devoted servants.

Apart from the Holy Spirit’s enlightening ministry to our spirits, not merely to our minds, we will certainly accept or reject the thoughts of God according to our reasoning. We cart along Bible study baggage of which we are barely aware. John R.W. Stott wrote, “It is essential to give up the illusion that we come to the biblical text as innocent, objective, impartial, culture-free investigators, for we are nothing of the kind.” We must face our defects—and acknowledge that we have barely begun to face them. We must acknowledge our biases and blindness—and know that we are still blind to them. We must come as open-minded and openhearted as we can—with the full realization that we are entangled in the sticky web of our humanity. And we must grieve. This is contrition.

Trembling at His Word

God wants us to come to the Bible as those who tremble at His Word. That means we need to take God seriously and believe God is who He says He is, that He thinks and acts just as He says. Trembling at His Word is the equivalent to the “fear God” used so often throughout the Scriptures.

Years ago on an Okinawan beach, my husband and some of his friends spent the day reading together passages from the gospels that took place by the water. The day climaxed with a fish and bread dinner on the shore after they read of Jesus feeding the multitudes. As they ate, my husband noticed a man watching them from the cliffs above. Roger climbed up to talk with the man and to invite him to join them. The man turned out to be a young Marine involved in Satan worship. As they talked, Roger thought of Jesus’ encounter with the demoniac (Mark 5:15ff.) that they had read earlier in the day. Roger extended his New Testament toward the Marine. The man began to tremble violently and ran off.

This is not the trembling that God honors; nevertheless, his trembling puts me to shame. James 2:19 says, “Even the demons believe … and shudder.” It seems the demons in him grasped more fully than I do that this Book is alive, powerful, dangerous.

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Bible brings me into direct contact with the clear-eyed gaze of Jesus Christ. As the demons know, this Word is not something to be trifled with.

Josiah was the kind of “trembler” God esteems. During his reign the long-neglected Book of the Law was found in the Temple. When Josiah heard the message of the book and realized the extent of the nation’s disobedience and the judgment that would surely fall on them, he tore his clothes and wept in anguish (2 Kings 22–23).

Josiah came to the scrolls with a prior commitment to obey them with all his heart and soul. He reinstituted celebration of the Passover and began a vigorous campaign to rid the land of false gods. His responsiveness characterizes the man or woman who takes God’s Word seriously.

A trembling heart prepares our spirits for greater intimacy with God’s Word. As a teenager, E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary to India for 50 years, would press his lips to passages that spoke to his heart. Jones’s holy kiss seems to me to express the same spirit the writer of Psalm 119 recorded: “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches” (verse 14). “Your statutes are my delight” (verse 24). “How sweet are your words to my taste” (verse 103). “My heart trembles at your word” (verse 161).

When we take God’s Word seriously, our hands hover over our Bibles in anticipation.


God said His Word is the necessary bread that will satisfy (Isaiah 55:1-3; Matthew 4:4). It is like snow and rain that come from heavenly realms to the earth for a purpose. God’s Word comes to nourish and refresh, to make fruitful and effective. The Bible is not ineffectual; we can expect something to happen when we receive God’s message to us (Isaiah 55:10-11).

A spirit of anticipation banishes a blasé approach to Scripture. A trembling heart does not tolerate the thought that it is okay for “mature” believers past the first flushed excitement of life in Christ to stifle their yawns.

Before you open your Bible, stop! Reflect. Kneel. Pray. This book is spirit, and you need the indwelling Spirit working on your spirit to receive spiritual truth. The Author of this book is your Interpreter. Who else knows the deep things of God except the Spirit of God? He comes to read to your spirit the language of your Father. The translation you need is something more than Greek or English. The Spirit works both to bruise and soften your spirit and then to unfold the mysteries of God to you when you can receive them. Be alert to your spirit because it is a Book interpreted Spirit to spirit.


“Open-Heart Bible Study” first appeared in Discipleship Journal (Sep/Oct 1995). Copyright © 2014 Jean Fleming, all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Jean Fleming is the author of Pursue the Intentional Life, A Mother’s heart, Feeding Your Soul, and others. Visit for details.

FREE PRINTABLE: Would you like to hand out free copies of “Open-Heart Bible Study” in your Bible study group? Download this printable version.


Photo credit (Bible): MattLake (Creative Commons license)

Photo credit (girl reading Bible): Brielle King (Creative Commons license).