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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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Small Problems

Small Problems

a small group of lit matches rests on a piece of wood

In a hurry as usual, I climbed into the car to drive my daughter to school. When I turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. I tried twice more with the same result. The battery was dead! We would have to walk. At least it was a pleasant morning and we lived only a few blocks from school.

What, I wondered, had drained the battery? Then I remembered that the interior lights had been on when I parked the car in the driveway the night before. I had meant to investigate but had been too busy carting groceries, getting dinner, and helping the children with homework. If I hadn’t overlooked a little problem in the first place, I realized, it wouldn’t have grown into a bigger one this morning.

That’s how it is with most things. Small problems that are overlooked grow into bigger problems that can threaten the peace. Take my friend Jan. A mother of three, she confided not long ago that she was worried about two of her boys because she had caught them telling lies. It wasn’t anything big. They would say they were going to bed when they were really hiding under the covers playing video games. Or they would assure her they had done their homework when they hadn’t. Or they would blame someone else for an infraction they had committed themselves.

She was shocked to realize both boys had become inveterate liars. Why hadn’t she and her husband noticed the problem earlier? She wasn’t quite sure. Maybe their lies had at first seemed inconsequential. Maybe she and her husband had thought it enough to simply chide them. Maybe both parents had been too busy to pay close attention to what their children were telling them. Whatever the case, Jan realized that overlooking the problem had made it grow larger and more entrenched.

Every day a thousand things assail us. Overlooking some of them is probably a good idea. But ignoring the wrong ones means we are asking for bigger trouble later. Ask God today to help you pay attention to what matters so that small problems will stay small rather than crowding out the peace he has for you.

 

Healing

a child's face emerges from a bubbling pool

The man was lying on a cheap straw mat, propped up on his arms. He felt lucky to get a spot at the pool, where the ill gathered, but not lucky enough to make it into the water as soon as it began to stir. Like many, he was sure the pool’s curative powers were activated by a visiting angel who would stir up the water from time to time.

“Would you like to get well?” the rabbi asked, balancing on his heels to look the man in the face.

The question startled him. Didn’t this teacher realize he had been an invalid for thirty-eight years, almost as long as most healthy men live? Something in the rabbi’s tone, however, kept him from giving an angry retort.

Instead, he replied, “I can’t, sir . . . for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me” (John 5:7).

There! That should put a stop to the conversation.

Instead came the quick command: “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” (verse 8). The man felt something lift him to his feet. Hardly knowing what he was doing, he bent down to snatch up his mat. To the amazement of all, he simply gave a quizzical look and then began walking.

The odd question—“Would you like to get well?”—may cause us to wonder whether the invalid had wanted to be healed. Commenting on this passage, Mark Buchanan says,

“Sickness can actually steal the place of God. It can become the sick person’s center, the touchstone by which he defines himself. Illness is a tyrant with huge territorial ambitions. It is a seductress with large designs. It wants not only the sick person’s body. It wants his heart and mind also.”1

Pain, especially when prolonged, can be a vortex that is hard to escape. If you are praying for healing for yourself or others, ask God to restore both body and soul as a sign of his powerful presence and his promised peace.

  1. Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 150–51.

Happy Endings

a red apple grows in a heart shape

I am a sucker for happy endings. A few years ago I read an early twentieth-century classic in which the main character suffers a fall from the moneyed class into social degradation and a tragic, untimely death. Though I loved elements of the story and the writing, I closed the book in a huff, feeling I had been cheated. After investing precious time and emotional energy into a story about a character I cared about, I discovered there was nothing redemptive about her story. She was doomed from the start.

Though I was surprised by how affronted I felt, I realized where my sense of indignation was coming from: I do not believe in bleak endings.

This world does not always produce happy endings. But as a believer in Christ, I cannot embrace a story that does not allow for the possibility of hope. Hence my addiction to stories with happy endings, like the movie Dolphin Tale.

At the lowest point of the narrative, when all the other characters have fallen into despair about the possibility of saving the life of a dolphin called Winter, a father reminds his son of a poem they used to recite together:

I must down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by.1

As the two reminisce, the father says to his son, “Just ’cause we haven’t got to where the star is taking us doesn’t mean it’s the wrong star.” This line is the turning point of the movie. It injects hope and galvanizes the characters to achieve what had seemed impossible only moments earlier.

No matter how bleak things may look, our story is going to end well as long as we trust Christ. The excruciating details of the life we now live are not building toward a tragic ending but toward a redemptive finale in which every one of God’s promises will be fulfilled.

No wonder we’re wired for happy endings. God has stitched hope into our souls, giving us the strength to go on.

  1. John Masefield, “Sea Fever,” in Salt-Water Ballads (New York: Macmillan, 1913), 59.

 

De-stress Your Life

an image of a frog peeking out of the mouth of a statue of a smiling pig

Want to know the leading cause of stress? Here’s what one perceptive observer has concluded:

“Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it.”

Or how about this:

“I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.”

Or this:

“Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.”

Or even:

“When I hear somebody sigh, ‘Life is hard,’ I am always tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?’”1

A little humor can help break up the stress we feel, easing the intensity of the moment. Perhaps it can even do more than that. Norman Cousins, former editor of the New York Evening Post, famously claimed that nonstop doses of Vitamin C, coupled with a diet of humorous books and movies, healed him of ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease that causes pain and stiffness, primarily in the spinal joints. Though his claims were never clinically verified, it’s clear that all those Marx Brothers movies he watched had a positive effect.

“I made the joyous discovery,” he said, “that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion-picture projector again, and, not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free sleep interval.”2

Laughter can at least help put our problems in perspective, breaking the cycle of worry and anxiety. If you’re in the market for some good laughs, try a few of these classic films to get you started: Groundhog Day, Big, Duck Soup, The Pink Panther, or The Trouble with Harry. Even better, make sure you get your fix of babies and toddlers, whose laughter is infectious, even if your “fix” merely includes getting a few good laughs from YouTube.

 

  1. Quoted in Elizabeth Scott, “Funny Stress Quotes to Brighten Your Day,” https://www.verywell.com/funny-stress-quotes-3144661.
  2. Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 43.

Humility

An image of a tiny plant pushing through a crack in the pavement

Recently I had a chance to meet one of my heroes, a woman by the name of Temple Grandin. Perhaps you have seen the movie that was made about her remarkable life. A successful scientist who happens to be on the autism spectrum, Temple has remarkable humility. She’s also very funny. Here’s what she said when asked whether it would be a good idea to cure autism if we had the capability:

“In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive. After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.”1

When the movie about her was still in production, she was interviewed by BEEF magazine. (She is, after all, an animal scientist.) I loved what she had to say about the perils of impending fame:

“I have to remind myself not to get a big head. You know what happens. Just look at statues of famous people; they all have pigeon poop on them.”2

When it comes to humility, I am reminded of the phrase “gateway drugs.” Does that sound strange? Here’s the connection. Humility, it would seem, is a kind of “gateway virtue”—the entryway to the rest of the virtues. To use another metaphor, humility provides the soil in which all the virtues can flourish. Sir Thomas More once characterized it as “that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” The word humble, is, in fact, related to the Latin words humilis and humus, both of which mean “earth.”

Pride, on the other hand, has an unyielding quality to it. It’s like a slab of cement from which nothing grows but weeds that spring up between the cracks.

Scripture links pride to judgment and destruction, while humility is linked to wisdom and favor. If we long for more of God’s shalom, we need to embrace the virtues, especially humility.

1. Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 122.

2. Temple Grandin, “Temple Grandin Talks about Her Upcoming HBO Biopic,” BEEF, October 31, 2008, accessed January 20, 2017, http://beefmagazine.com/cowcalfweekly/1031-temple-grandin-hbo-biopic/.

 

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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