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Ann Spangler's sensitivity to the ever-changing spiritual and cultural climate in which we live has enabled her to address themes of profound interest to many readers.
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Who's In Charge?

Who’s In Charge?

a pug is on a leash

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of a fascinating book entitled The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living. In it he offers a particularly useful piece of advice that will help you keep the peace or restore it once it’s been lost:

“Restrict the expression of your anger to the incident that provoked it. Be as critical or annoyed as you like.”1

But make sure your words remain focused on the incident that made you angry in the first place. If you do that, you will probably not say anything permanently damaging to yourself or others.

Telushkin is not telling us to ignore our anger or to stuff it in a box but rather to put a leash on it. Similarly, Paul tells the Ephesians “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, rsv). Paul assumes we will get angry. The point is what we do with our anger. Do we control it, or does it control us? Paul also sets limits to our anger by saying we should never let the sun go down on it. In other words, don’t go to bed angry.

For some of us, anger has always been a problem. Getting it under control is a huge challenge. It’s like trying to leash train a dog that’s always been allowed to run wild. At first the dog will strain at the leash, pulling you down the street and barking at every other dog in sight. But if you’re patient and persistent and know even a little bit about dogs, you will eventually be able to train it to walk beside you. You can do something similar with your anger.

If you have a hard time putting your anger on a leash, consider getting help, perhaps taking a course in anger management. And don’t forget that another name for the Holy Spirit is the Helper. Ask God to guide you through the power of the Spirit, helping you to learn how to control your anger so it no longer controls you.

1. Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), 34.

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Depression

a shadowy standing figure of a person

Kathy Cronkite, daughter of the famed newscaster Walter Cronkite, has written about her struggles with depression, describing what it felt like:

I walk outside, it’s the first day of spring, sun shining, breeze wafting, birds singing—so what? My baby gives me one of those dazzling you’re-the-only-one-in-the-world smiles—so what? My best friend calls with good news, my boss gives me a raise, my husband cooks my favorite meal—so what? None of it touches me, nothing makes me smile. I’m one beat off, one step removed from all around me. . . . Although I am no longer suicidal, as I write this the weight is still on my shoulders, the stone sits in my stomach, my face wears a tight mask. I don’t give in to it. I keep myself moving, the battle invisible even to those closest to me. But now, at least, I know what’s dogging me. I know this will not last. I am not going to die. I am not going to feel this way forever. The world is not crumbling. I am not crazy, or bad, or lacking in faith or in discipline. I have a disease. It’s called depression.1

Those of us who have never suffered from clinical depression have little idea of how dark the darkness must be for those who do. If you suffer from this disorder, you may wonder how you will ever experience God’s peace. Though I have no easy answers to offer, I can say with confidence that God has not left you and he will not fail you—ever.

Today I pray that he will find a way to encourage you and give you hope. I pray that he will hold you, strengthen you, and put you on the path toward peace. I pray, too, that you will discover medical and practical help to ease your suffering. I pray that the Lord, who knows the inner workings of the mind better than any psychologist or psychiatrist, will bring his healing power to all who suffer from depression and other mental disorders.

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Connecting the Dots

a woman wears a polka-dotted blindfold

Steve Jobs gave the 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. He told the audience that his decision to drop out of college years earlier was the best one he’d ever made. Why? In part because dropping out of required courses that bored him made it possible for him to drop in on any courses that interested him. One of these was a course on calligraphy, a class that seemed entirely impractical, focusing as it did on all the minute details that make for great typography.

“None of this,” he told the Stanford students, “had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward ten years later.”

Jobs drove the point home again, saying, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”1

As Christians, we trust in something far better than our “gut” or “karma.” In these uncertain times, it’s worth remembering the advice of one of the world’s most successful men. No matter how hard we try to peer into the future, we can never connect the dots looking forward. Only God can do that. Even now, God is at work connecting the dots of our personal stories, working out his plan for all those who love him.

  1. Steve Jobs (commencement address, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, June 12, 2005), “‘You’ve Got to Find What You Love,’ Jobs Says,” prepared transcript, Stanford University News, accessed January 5, 2017, http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html.

 

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“God grant me…”

an image of mountains during sunset with the words, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

Last year someone gave me a journal on which these words are printed:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

Though I use the journal regularly, I confess that I’ve secretly disliked the prayer printed on the front cover. Why? For one thing, the pages of my journal are filled with the names of those I am praying for, people who desperately need something to change in their lives. They need healing, peace, provision, salvation, wisdom, rescue, hope. They are people who are out of work, who have lost a loved one, who are in jail, who are depressed or dying. It seems an assault on faith to embrace a prayer that implies that some circumstances will not likely change. For another, this prayer challenges deeply embedded beliefs about my own ability to change things. After all, I am a fighter, not someone who gives up. I am active, not passive. Or at least that is how I like to see myself.

At first I was tempted to give the journal away or consign it to the trash bin. Instead, I forced myself to use it. I kept it because I suspected that God was trying to get my attention. After all, this prayer has hit a chord with millions of people who have struggled with various kinds of addiction. Surely there was something I needed to learn from it.

As I began to unpack the prayer, I considered the obvious—that it expresses the starting point of faith, which is my own inability to provide for anyone’s deepest needs, including my own. To reach this place is to face reality, to let go of illusions. To stop kidding myself about what I can and cannot do. Though illusions can be comforting, they keep me leaning into my own limited powers rather than God’s all-sufficient power. Contrary to first impressions, the serenity prayer is not about giving up but about letting go so God can do what only he can, and that is to bring healing, peace, salvation, wisdom, rescue, and hope to those who need it. There are of course some things in life that we can change. That’s why the whole prayer goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Bizarro World

a cottage is built upside down, with the door in the roof, which is the foundation

Some of you are probably too young to remember Bizarro World, a fictional place introduced by DC Comics in the 1960s. This strange, cube-shaped planet, also known as Htrae (Earth spelled backward), is populated by Bizarro and his sidekicks, who are weird mutations of Superman and his friends. Their Bizarro Code goes like this:

“Us do opposite of all earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!”

Besides regrettable deficits in the grammar department, Bizarro World also has a rather strange monetary system, as evidenced by the salesman who hawks Bizarro bonds with the catchy slogan: “Guaranteed to lose money for you.”

A fan of all things Superman, comedian Jerry Seinfeld is one of several who have helped enshrine Bizarro World in popular culture. In one episode of his sitcom, Seinfeld’s character discusses the pilot for a program with executives from NBC. Hoping to up the ante, his friend George Costanza tries to negotiate for more money. But as a result of his bungling, the pilot is canceled and later reinstated for less money. “You don’t negotiate to get a lower salary!” Jerry exclaims. “That’s negotiation on the Bizarro World!”

What could Bizarro World possibly have to do with biblical peace?

Well, look at it this way. When Jesus came, he turned everything upside down. He said the first would be last and the last would be first. He said that when someone strikes you on your cheek, you should turn the other cheek for the next blow. He said if a person takes your shirt, you should offer your coat as well. He said that anyone who wants to be great should humble herself like a little child. Following Jesus as he turns your world upside down is the only way to true peace, strange as that may seem.

Compared to Christ’s Kingdom, our world is not that dissimilar to Bizarro World. On planet Earth, life doesn’t work the way it was meant to. But fortunately for us, Christ is not content to leave it that way. Instead, he has begun to remake the world one heart at a time, spreading his peace, establishing his love, enabling us to live the life he offers.

 

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The Greatest Surprise

majestic purple night sky, with dawn just beginning

If someone were to ask me what the greatest surprise of my lifetime has thus far been, I would have to say that it was the shock (and that is not too strong a word) I felt when I encountered God’s love for the first time. I was in my twenties, recently graduated from college and struggling with any number of confusions. Into this mess, God made himself known in a way beyond my imagining or hope. Before that, I had thought of God—if I thought of him at all—as a distant figure. I wasn’t too sure he existed. If he did, I was pretty certain he would not want anything to do with me. That the opposite was true took me off balance and disarmed me. That he would reveal a deep tenderness toward me was even more shocking.

It is now Christmas Day, many years after that initial discovery.

We are familiar with the glitter of the season, but we often miss its glory. That God would decide on a solution to the sin problem that involved becoming one of us should continue to surprise and shock us. It should challenge the things we think we know about God, especially any designation of God as unloving, distant, or uncaring. And it should rattle our assumptions that we or anyone else is unlovable or beyond his help. To harbor such thoughts is to disregard the evidence. It is to be disloyal to the one who made us and disloyal to ourselves as people who are loved and cherished by the most important person in the universe.

This year, as you ponder the meaning of Christmas, ask God to help you penetrate the mystery of the Incarnation more deeply. Tell him you want to celebrate all he has done. Then ask him for the grace to be ready—for he is coming again!

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Christmas Eve Praise

a blue night sky with one bright star

What hymn has been performed by more than three hundred artists, including Enya, Boys II Men, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, Mahalia Jackson, and Mannheim Steamroller? I’ll give you a hint: the Bing Crosby single sold more than ten million copies. Another clue—the music was composed and sung on Christmas Eve nearly two centuries ago in a small town in Austria. And another—the lyrics were written by a priest who was the illegitimate son of a poor woman and a mercenary who had deserted both the army and his family. And one more—the melody was written by an obscure composer who studied music secretly because of his father’s opposition.

If you guessed the hymn “Silent Night,” you’re right.

The lyrics were penned by Joseph Mohr in 1816. Two years later, on Christmas Eve, he asked his friend, a teacher and church organist by the name of Franz Xaver Gruber, to set his poem to music. Gruber produced a melody and a guitar arrangement for the song, which the two men sang on that night in 1818, backed by a choir in front of the main altar at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. By the time the hymn became famous, the melody was variously attributed to Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. It wasn’t until 1994 that Gruber was authenticated as the composer.

Why not spend this Christmas Eve meditating on the lyrics of the most popular Christmas carol ever written?

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

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I Can’t Do This!

a man sits by a stream with his face in his hands

Author and pastor John Van Sloten remembers his response to the news that his infant son Edward had Down syndrome. Driving home from the hospital after visiting his wife, he could no longer keep it together.

“I couldn’t stop crying. . . . When I got home I ran down the hallway, fell face-first onto my bed, and screamed out to God, ‘I can’t do this . . . there is no way in the world I can handle this. . . . I cannot do it!’

‘You’re right. You can’t, John,’ was the response. ‘But I can.’”1

It wasn’t until three months later, during a weeklong trip to Rochester, New York, that Van Sloten began listening to what God was trying to tell him. During that trip he had three surprise encounters with young men diagnosed with Down syndrome, each of whom seemed to be a living contradiction of the fears he had for his young son.

“The night after arriving home, I sat down to journal about my amazing Rochester adventure. Then it hit me. That night, three months ago, while I was lying in bed running all those awful scenarios of how terrible being Edward’s dad was going to be, God already had the events I’d just experienced in mind. God knew. Right down to the last detail, each of my anxious imaginary scenes was recast, retold, and redeemed.”2

Not long afterward Van Sloten felt the call of God on his life and began the transition from land developer to church pastor. Years later he reflected on how God had transformed his worst day into his best.

“Many times over the course of my life,” he says, “I’ve experienced this retrospective recalibration of painful events. Time would bring a perspective that sometimes brought about a dramatic redemption of the situation. I wonder if, in the end, we will all experience one big retrospective moment before the very face of God.”

What is it you are having a hard time accepting right now? Ask God to help you listen to what he is saying. Trust him to “recalibrate” even your worst day—to recast, retell, and redeem it in a way that brings him glory.

  1. John Van Sloten, The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive, 2010), 40.
  2. Ibid., 45, 47–48

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Running on Empty

a person runs on a treadmill

What if you were tethered to a treadmill running at about four miles an hour? There is no off switch on this treadmill and nobody around to release you from the tether. Even if you were in great shape, you wouldn’t survive the experience. On and on you would run until your body finally gave way.

This is a picture of what life can ultimately feel like when you are constantly running after things the world thinks are valuable—money, power, sex, security, prestige. No matter how hard or how long you run, you will never be satisfied—the treadmill just keeps going. In the end, your wholehearted pursuit of such things will destroy rather than fulfill you.

If this is so, why do we keep pursuing what will not satisfy? One reason is that we get a temporary sense of well-being. With enough money in the bank, we feel secure. With children in the best schools, we feel confident they will succeed. With each new purchase, we get a little hit of pleasure. There’s a lot of positive reinforcement. But the system only works if we keep on keeping on, finding something else to feed our pleasure machine. The problem comes, of course, when the system is disrupted and the machine breaks down. We lose a job, our investments sour, a child strays, we become ill. When some or all of the things we counted on to make our life feel meaningful, safe, and pleasurable are taken from us, what then?

Such disruptions can be incredibly painful and frightening. They may throw us into a season of tremendous anxiety. We may for a time feel exhausted, empty, and lost. But what if they are, in the end, a godsend, an opportunity to get free from the tether, to stop living on a treadmill and begin living a life of greater peace and freedom?

If you find that you are spending time on that treadmill, ask God to free you so you can pursue the peace that comes from having his goals and desires at the center of your heart.

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Ultimate Investments

an image of the ruins of a stone house in a valley

I live in an older home in an older neighborhood. Friends sometimes comment on how much character my house has with its crown moldings, arched doorways, and built-in bookshelves. But as anyone who has ever owned an older home knows, character does not come cheaply. There is always something to fix, patch, improve. No matter how much effort and money I put into it, I know my house will eventually crumble into nothing. That’s the truth about most things. They will not last.

But some things will.

Our souls will. But that’s not all. The work we do for Christ and in Christ—that will last too.

As N. T. Wright puts it, when it comes to building for God’s Kingdom,

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. . . . You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.

“Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.”1

So today let us remember that because of what Christ has done in our lives, we are called, as Paul tells the Romans, to live a life of goodness and peace and joy, seeking first the Kingdom of God.

1. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008), 208.

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