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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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Forgiving Those Closest To You

Forgiving Those Closest To You

hands from two different people clasp a yellow flower together

Isn’t it interesting how those we love the most have the power to hurt us the most? For those of us with children, we may find they know exactly how to push our buttons. That was the case for Marcy, a mother whose adopted son had hurt her deeply by his defiant, disrespectful behavior. One day, after he had thrown yet another tantrum, Marcy asked God to help her let go of the unforgiveness she felt.

She began reading Paul’s letter to a slave owner by the name of Philemon. Paul was begging Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave named Onesimus, who had stolen from his master. While he was with Paul, Onesimus had become a believer.

Words Paul spoke to Philemon jumped out at her: “If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. . . . I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!”

Marcy felt as though Jesus was using the lips of Paul to speak directly to her. With tears running down her cheeks, she forgave her son on the spot, deciding that forgiveness would characterize her dealings with him from now on. Each time he offended, she would forgive again, silently praying, Jesus, I charge it to you. Because she was able to forgive her son, he didn’t suffer from her judgments anymore. Eventually he gave his life to Christ.1

If you have been hurt by your children or someone close to you, take a moment now to take your disappointment to God, asking him for the grace to forgive. Then ask for the strength to keep on forgiving.

Lord I forgive ______________________. Help me to keep forgiving, trusting the results to you.

1. Quin Sherrer, A Mother’s Guide to Praying for Your Children (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2011), 109.

The Peace of Knowing Who You Are

sunlight beams through a window of a church at the Vatican

Who are you, really? Wife? Son? Mother? Grandfather? Student? Housewife? Doctor? Lawyer?

Without realizing it, many of us define ourselves solely in terms of external influences. If we have struggled with chronic illness, we may think of ourselves as sickly. If we have enjoyed great success, we may think of ourselves as winners. If we have failed, we may think of ourselves as losers. If we have suffered abuse at the hands of others, we may think of ourselves as victims.

Often we slip into these and other roles without really being aware of them. But by defining ourselves merely in relation to other human beings, we have adopted stories that may contradict the one story that should define us. That is the gospel story—the one that tells us we are sinners loved by God and saved by grace for a gracious purposeto become his sons and daughters. That is our true identity. If there is one adjective that describes who we are in Christ it would be “Beloved.”

I like the way Miroslav Volf puts it:

By opening ourselves to God’s love through faith, our bodies and souls become sanctified spaces, God’s “temples,” as the apostle Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 6:19). The flame of God’s presence, which gives us new identity, then burns in us inextinguishably . . . at times a temple in ruins, but sacred space nonetheless. Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer.1

As you go about your day-to-day routine, try visualizing the truth of who you are—a temple. A temple in ruins, perhaps, but still a place where God is pleased to dwell.

 

Rough Edges

a woman with curly hair smiles

All of us have rough edges, places in our lives that need smoothing out. Let me offer a superficial example. Most women I know have little difficulty finding something negative to say about their hair. I have more excuse than most because I have what some people kindly call naturally curly hair. If left to go its own way, particularly in high humidity, my kind of hair is capable of inflicting psychic damage on small children. I know this because I once unwisely opened the door to neighborhood children who, seeing my untended hair, promptly exclaimed, “Wow, it’s the Bride of Frankenstein!”

Last week I tried an expensive shampoo, touted to calm frizzy hair. What I didn’t know was that instead of smoothing out my hair, it acted as a volumizer. Imagine someone seriously overweight donning a fat suit, and you will get an idea of how this product affected my hair. It brought back the earlier conviction that my curly-haired parents should never have been permitted to marry. Allowing two such people to mate, I am convinced, constitutes a form of child abuse.

Over the years I’ve found that using a flatiron helps the most. Sometimes I have trouble getting all the kinks out in back, so I simply do a few quick swipes on the surface and let it go at that. The problem with such a strategy is that the kinks beneath the surface insist on asserting themselves, exposing the pretense that I have soft, manageable hair.

What’s the point of my bad hair complaints? Simply that each of us has our own set of rough edges to work out. True, we can make some surface changes. But these don’t really deal with underlying character flaws that keep asserting themselves despite our most determined efforts to hide them. Willpower by itself cannot contend with problems like low self-esteem, a quick temper, stinginess, stubbornness, laziness, judgmentalism, and negativity. The only power strong enough to straighten out any twisted elements in our lives comes from God. Today let’s ditch strategies that depend only on us, so we can follow God’s strategies for growing in his peace and grace.

Power Struggles and Other Stressors

a mother and daughter face each other in conversation

I remember having a power struggle with one of my children that centered on whether or not she was going to make her bed. I won’t go into the details, but I assure you it wasn’t pretty. I can’t remember whether I won. The only thing I remember is how awful I felt afterward. I didn’t want to give in because I thought more than a neat bedroom was at stake. It seemed to me that if my daughter failed to obey me in this one instance, she would find it easy to do so in others. While that may have been true, I think I could have used other techniques that would have done less damage to our relationship and that wouldn’t have ended in the dreaded power struggle.

It takes wisdom to know where to invest our emotional resources. My guess is that most of us err on the wrong side of the equation, becoming emotional about things we should either ignore or learn to handle more calmly.

Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology, reminds us of the physiological toll that chronic stress takes, promising that “if you experience every day as an emergency, you will pay the price.”

Sapolsky goes on to explain,

“If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never store any surplus energy. You will fatigue more rapidly, and your risk of developing a form of diabetes will even increase. The consequences of chronically activating your cardiovascular system are similarly damaging: if your blood pressure rises to 180/100 every time you see the mess in your teenager’s bedroom, you could be heading for a cardiovascular disaster. . . . If you are constantly under stress, a variety of reproductive disorders may ensue. In females, menstrual cycles can become irregular or cease entirely.”1

Body and soul, mind and emotions—we are complex interweavings, fearfully and wonderfully made but sometimes all-too-easily damaged. Today, let us ask God for wisdom in preserving the health he has given us.

  1. Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 13.

Custody of the Eyes–and Ears

a little girl has her hands over her eyes

A friend of mine was assailed by sexual temptation whenever he walked across the University of Michigan Diag, a large open space in the center of campus. Why? Because in warm weather, hoards of scantily clad female students would pass through on their way to class. His solution? He simply took off his glasses, which transformed his Diag experience into a complete blur. Though he didn’t know it, he was practicing what classic spiritual writers have called “custody of the eyes.”

This discipline of monitoring what we allow ourselves to focus on can be useful for dealing with a variety of situations—at the beach, for instance, or when reading or watching television or movies. Though it may sound quaint in our sex-saturated society, it’s a discipline based on the practical recognition that visual cues can introduce powerful temptations. The same is true of listening to gossip or to certain kinds of music. Instead of maintaining complete openness to every kind of stimuli, we guard ourselves against whatever might negatively impact our spiritual health.

That means we also need to guard against extreme violence or obscene materialism. The former can lead to heightened anxiety or tolerance of violence, while the latter can lead to a lust for more. That’s why I refuse to watch horror movies and why I canceled my subscription to “Architectural Digest.” The triggers may be different for you than they are for me, but the point is we need to identify them and limit our exposure. Contrary to what we might think, visual and auditory stimuli are not necessarily neutral. They can shape our thoughts and actions in surprisingly powerful ways.

Our Daily Bread?

many loaves of dough ready to be baked

My friend Christine was surprised by her daughter’s tears.

“Emma, what’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to go to college,” she sobbed.

“But, honey, your grades are great. What are you worried about?”

“You and Dad say college is getting so expensive and the economy is terrible,” Emma said. “I’m afraid there won’t be enough money.”

It took time, but Christine was able to address her daughter’s fears, assuring her that they had been saving for her education and that there would likely be financial aid as well.

This incident reminds me of something in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus urges his disciples to ask for many lofty things. He begins by teaching them to address God as their Father in heaven and urges them to make his name holy, or hallowed. He teaches them to pray for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done. Then, in the middle of the prayer, he veers in a far more practical direction, teaching them to pray for daily bread. By using the term bread, he is referring to food in general.

New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey points out the uncertainty about the translation “daily” because it is based on the Greek word epiousios, a word that appears nowhere else in recorded Greek writings. Basing his interpretation on a very early translation of Scripture, he makes a persuasive case that this phrase is best translated not as “Give us this day our daily bread” but as “Give us today the bread that does not run out.” While the first form of prayer asks for enough for today, the second asks God to relieve us of the ongoing anxiety that we will not have what we need. Yes, we may get bread today, but what about tomorrow and the day after that?

The next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer, remember that you are asking your heavenly Father to deliver you from the fear of not having what you need. By alleviating that fear, God helps us enjoy a sense of peace and well- being, not only about today, but also about tomorrow and the day after that.

Fixated

a laser beam points at the pupil of a blue eye

Have you ever tried shining a small laser beam to see if your dog will play with it as it bounces across the floor? This little prank inspires gales of laughter from my oldest daughter, who delights in finding dogs that are compulsive enough to take the bait. It is amusing to watch them pounce—first this way, then that—in their quest to capture the elusive red light. The only problem is that playing with dogs in this way seems to increase their compulsiveness.

Human beings can act as compulsively as puppies at times, becoming fixated on things we think will make us happy. You see it in the lives of celebrities who wreck their lives and relationships in pursuit of success. Or business executives who, despite their wealth, are consumed with greed. And what about ordinary people like us? Some of us suffer from small compulsions—feeding an addiction to shopping, for instance—because it yields a burst of positive feelings. Others among us may fixate on finding the right man, bouncing from relationship to relationship or refusing happiness as a result of this obsession.

Fixations are like targets attached to a brick wall. No matter how many times we aim at the bull’s-eye, even the sharpest arrows fall to the ground.

I must confess that I have my own fixations. Their names are Katie and Luci. I want my daughters to be happy, good, successful, prosperous. The trouble is, no matter how hard I try, I can’t make their lives conform to my ideal, regardless of how much I pray for them, plead with them, or try to help them. Perhaps it’s time to take the target off the wall, lay down my bow, and ask God to dismantle the brick wall. Doing so doesn’t mean I stop working and praying on behalf of my children; it simply means I am choosing not to fixate on a goal I’m not capable of achieving.

What about you? What targets are you aiming for? Have they kept you from knowing more of God’s peace? If so, tell God you want him to tear down those targets so you can instead take aim at things like seeking first his Kingdom and doing his will.

Faulty Alarms

brown eyes that are distorted by purple stripes look anxiously at the viewer

Here’s a list of the things my children have already survived: automobile accidents, bird flu, cancer, and kidnapping. If you think that’s impressive, listen to what I’ve managed to live through: bankruptcy, an airline crash, a stroke, robbery, and attempted murder—yes, murder! Okay, well, maybe not. It’s just that all these are things I’ve worried about at times, my anxious mind propelling us into disasters that never happened. Can you relate?

Most of us waste precious time and energy dealing with threats that never materialize. Still, worry can be useful if it wakes us up to impending problems, motivating us to seek solutions in response. Worry is a good thing when it serves as a helpful alert. The problem comes when worry morphs into a faulty alarm that won’t stop ringing.

Here are a few practical tips for turning off your worry alarm.

  1. Since worry is often powered by thoughts that develop below the surface, slow down and think about what you are thinking. Write down whatever undercurrents are powering your anxiety.
  2. Once you have these thoughts on paper, examine them rationally. Pretend you are a trial lawyer, looking for holes, distortions, and inaccuracies in your thinking. Are you taking the whole picture into account or only emphasizing the most negative dimensions? What evidence refutes or supports your thoughts?
  3. Based on your rational examination, formulate a response that is more realistic than your original thoughts. For example, you might conclude, “Just because my son received an F on his last algebra test doesn’t mean he’s going to flunk out of school.”

Perhaps the most effective way to deal with worry is to “de-catastrophize” it. We do this by facing it squarely, asking ourselves what’s the worst that could happen. Then we think about what we would do to cope with the situation. Doing so may help diminish our anxiety and give us a sense of healthy control.1 As you take these steps, be sure to ask God to guide your thinking through the power of his Spirit.

 

  1. These practical suggestions are drawn from William Sanderson, “Why Do People Worry and How One Can Overcome It?,” interview by Cheryl Washington, Good Day New York, Fox Network, July 14, 1992, transcript accessed October 10, 2011, http://www.ctcli.com/worry.html.

When It’s Good to Procrastinate

a person is asleep on a couch, completely covered with a blue blanket

Most of us procrastinate. We put off doing things we fear or dislike, stretching a dental checkup from six months to twelve, paying the bills at the last minute, cramming the night before a test. Though procrastinating can keep anxiety at bay for a short while, in the long run, it acts as a catalyst for worry because we cannot dodge our responsibilities forever. Putting them off only increases our fear, making it more potent as the deadline draws near. Still, I can think of at least one instance in which procrastination may be an effective strategy.

Try this: At night, whenever you are tempted to worry, say to yourself, “I’ll worry about it in the morning.”

If you are afraid you will forget about it, write it down. Then leave it until the next day. Why? Because our brains have a way of dramatizing situations at night, letting fear grow out of proportion to reality. Worrying in the middle of the night is like stepping onto a bullet train headed to a future that doesn’t exist. It will only exaggerate our problems and minimize the list of possible solutions, setting us up for more anxiety.

By contrast, daylight can act as a powerful counterbalance to unbridled worry. It can erase or diminish our anxiety, reducing it to more manageable proportions. In the daytime, our brains are less gullible, decreasing the chance that we will embrace high-anxiety scenarios and increasing the chance that we will find positive ways to cope with our problems.

Tonight as you go to sleep, remember, as Philip Gulley has said, that

“fear can keep us up all night long, but faith makes one fine pillow.”1

 

  1. Philip Gulley, Hometown Tales: Recollections of Kindness, Peace, and Joy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 161.

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.