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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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A Crash Course on God

A Crash Course on God

An image of waves of sound coming from a violin.

Imagine never being able to distinguish music from noise. Every song, every symphony, every note would sound garbled and unpleasant. You would struggle to stifle your laughter when you saw friends making fools of themselves by enthusiastically belting out the words to their favorite songs or gyrating crazily across the dance floor to a beat you couldn’t detect. And what about all the money spent downloading music and the time spent being hooked up to a gadget listening to a bunch of disagreeable sounds strung together? Wouldn’t it all seem rather bizarre?

That was Austin Chapman’s perspective for nearly 23 years. Born deaf, Austin was at peace with his situation. “All music,” he explains, “sounded like trash through my hearing aids.” But that changed the day he tried on a new pair capable of distributing higher frequencies with much greater clarity.

Suddenly the young filmmaker heard sounds he didn’t even know existed—the scraping of his shoe on carpet, the clicking of a keyboard, the whir of a fan. That night, friends decided to give him a crash course on music. He listened in amazement to Mozart, Elvis, Michael Jackson and more.

“When Mozart’s ‘Lacrimosa’ came on, I was blown away by the beauty of it. At one point of the song it sounded like angels singing and I suddenly realized that this was the first time I was able to appreciate music. Tears rolled down my face, and I tried to hide it….I finally understood the power of music.”1

Chapman’s story reminds me of my first experience with God. Before that, most of what I had heard about him sounded garbled and boring, a bit like trash coming through hearing aids. It didn’t move me, but instead left me feeling cold and a bit fearful. What little faith I had developed vanished shortly after I entered college. I did my best to make peace with my godless state as though it were completely natural, the only rational response to life.

But then God disarmed me. He surprised me by being real, by helping me see that the god I had rejected didn’t even exist. In truth, I had not discarded God, but only a caricature formed by my own and others’ misperceptions.  When the real God showed up, he changed my life. He upended my world. He blew my mind.

And he keeps doing it. Surprising me, taking me off guard, shattering my false images of him. And that is true for most of us as we live out the Christian life. In our sanest moments, we realize that the most important thing we can do is to pursue God, to hound him even, to prayerfully insist that he give us a clearer revelation of who he is because by doing so we are fulfilling the purpose for which he made us. It is in his presence that life and joy are to be found. Everything else—all the good things that clamor for our worship and insist on our undivided attention are revealed for what they are—beautiful trifles, when compared to God.

  1. Dylan Stableford, “Deaf man with new hearing aid hears music for the first time, asks, ‘What I should listen to next?’” Yahoo! News, The Sideshow (accessed February 8, 2018) posted on http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/deaf-man-hears-music-first-time-143827917.html

Praying the Attributes of God

Drawn from Ann Spangler, Praying the Attributes of God

 

My Worry Pie Chart

Cash and coins dangle from the inside of an open umbrella.

If I were to draw a pie chart labeled “My Worries” in order to track the source of my anxieties, 50 percent would probably be allotted to my children, 30 percent to family and friends, and 20 percent to financial worries. What about you? What would your chart look like?

Michelle Singletary is a columnist and the author of a book entitled The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom. Her answer to financial stress is to hit it head-on by undertaking a twenty-one-day financial fast. The basic idea, field-tested by members of her church, is to put yourself on a spending diet for three weeks, during which time you promise:

  • not to use any credit or debit cards;
  • to buy only what you absolutely need (like food and medicine);
  • to use only cash;
  • to forgo looking at retail catalogs, visiting malls or stores, or shopping online;
  • and to refrain from eating out.

The idea is to evaluate where you are spending your money so you can use your resources in a way that glorifies God and brings greater freedom to your life.

The world promises that purchasing new things will make us happy and that hoarding resources will make us feel secure. But God’s Word is countercultural—it’s only when we give what we have back to God that we can have true peace of mind.

If financial worries comprise 10 percent or more of your “worry pie chart,” why not consider reading Michelle’s book and starting the new year by undertaking a financial fast? Doing so will likely present its share of challenges, but it may be just what you and I need in order to experience more of God’s peace in the future.

 

 

Two Old Women Sitting on a Bench

An image of two old ladies hanging out together.

My mother lived to a ripe old age, but not, of course, without suffering her share of losses. But despite her growing confusion and forgetfulness in her last several years, she never lost her instinct to care about others.

Once, one of the residents in her retirement community got lost, despite the fact that they lived in a very small apartment complex with only two floors. Suffering from advanced dementia, this woman made her way to the office and announced that she had locked herself out of her apartment. Would someone let her back in? The woman behind the desk told her she had a key and would be happy to help. But no amount of persuasion would convince the elderly woman to step onto the elevator that would carry them both to her second-floor apartment. “No,” she insisted, “my apartment is on the first floor. I’ve never lived on the second floor!”

After repeated attempts to convince her otherwise, the woman in the office finally gave up and called a family member to come and help. But the relative she called could not come for at least another hour. Noting the situation and her elderly friend’s agitation, my mother assured the staff member that everything was going to be all right. Because she knew it was futile to try to convince her friend she had always lived on the second floor, she didn’t even try. Instead she simply settled her arthritic back onto a bench outside the office, sitting beside her friend until help arrived.

I like that story because it says something important about the comfort we derive from each other. Often we don’t want people to solve our problems as much as we want them to sit down beside us, comforting us with their presence. Two elderly women, both confused, sitting quietly on a bench together. That speaks to me of the gift we can be to each other, even in our weakest moments.

Future Peace

An image of a bridge with the far end bathed in golden light.

No matter how much peace you and I taste in this world, it will not be enough, not nearly enough. The shortfall comes from the fact that we are still living in a broken, disordered world—a place in which children are trafficked for sex and where greed causes financial meltdowns and where politicians grub for power and where we are not all we should be. For perfect peace, we need a reckoning—a true and perfect judgment that will only come, Scripture says, when Christ returns.

The final judgment is that moment when God will say, “Enough!”

Enough chances, enough choices, enough time to turn and do the right thing. What have we done? How have we lived? His judgment will be both a seal and a sentence—a period at the end of our story and a verdict on how well we have lived it.

The last judgment is not something Christians should anticipate with terror. Instead, we should welcome it. As N. T. Wright observes, “In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be.”1

But knowing our own sins and failings, how can we look forward to judgment? Wright points out that future judgment is “good news, first, because the one through whom God’s justice will finally sweep the world is not a hardhearted, arrogant, or vengeful tyrant but rather the Man of Sorrows, who was acquainted with grief; the Jesus who loved sinners and died for them; the Messiah who took the world’s judgment upon himself on the cross.”2

Meanwhile, as people who have tasted God’s mercy, we are called to spread the Good News while there is time for people to respond. Then, when judgment comes, they will, instead, find mercy.

 

  1. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008), 137.
  2. Ibid., 141.

What Are You Stuck On?

An image of an open wooden treasure chest with jewelry spilling out of it.

Children are good at exploring. But sometimes their curiosity leads to painful lessons. Take the toddler who sticks out his tongue to “taste” a frozen lamp post. Ouch! It’s not fun to peel your tongue away from a subzero piece of steel.

Spiritual writers sometimes use the word attachment to describe what happens when we become so stuck to things or to people that these connections separate us from God. Because we’ve given our hearts to them, we are not free to give our hearts to God.

Chuck De Groat points out that attachment describes “a heart ‘nailed’ to something or someone, bound to it, enslaved to it.”1

I think that’s a pretty good picture of what can happen when we commit our affections to things that lead us away from Christ. It could be anything—pleasures, relationships, expectations, beautiful objects, money, success, food. We humans are good at stuffing ourselves to the brim with all kinds of substitutes. The trouble is, they never satisfy our longings.

The bad thing about getting stuck to anything except God is that we lose our freedom. If you feel dissatisfied, ask yourself whether you might be attached to something—or someone—that is interfering with your relationship with God. If the answer is yes, turn to God, asking him to free you. It may be that some difficulty or challenge will form the environment for God to free you. Whatever the circumstances, be willing to do what it takes to regain your freedom in Christ.

 

  1. Chuck DeGroat, “Risk Much. Fail Often. The Wisdom of the Desert,” The New Exodus (blog), August 26, 2009, accessed November 30, 2017, http://www.drchuckdegroat.com/2009/08/risk-much-fail-often-the-wisdom-of-the-desert/.

 

The Place of Desire

Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin: two women whose names rarely end up in the same sentence. In fact, the two might seem a universe apart. But author Ronald Rolheiser manages to pull them together, observing that the lives of both were powered by great energy directed toward great desire. Mother Teresa’s all-consuming desire was to love God by serving the poor. It was a singular, passionate longing that shaped the course of her life.

Janis Joplin was a woman whose passionate desires also shaped the course of her life. But as Rolheiser points out, “Joplin could not will the one thing. She willed many things. Her great energy went out in all directions and eventually created an excess and a tiredness that led to an early death. But those activities—a total giving over to creativity, performance, drugs, booze, sex, coupled with the neglect of normal rest—were her spirituality. . . . In her case, as is tragically often the case in gifted artists, the end result, at least in this life, was not a healthy integration but a dissipation. She, at a point, simply lost the things that normally glue a human person together and broke apart under too much pressure.”1

In truth, most of us fall somewhere between Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin. Though we hope we are closer to the former, we sometimes act in ways that betray our divided hearts, causing further disintegration in our personalities and in our relationship with God and others.

The more we are transformed by the Holy Spirit, the more our many desires will be reordered into the one great desire to know God, loving him as we are loved. As Søren Kierkegaard has famously said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” And as Jesus has said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8, niv).

1. Ronald Rollheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 8.

 

Gentle at All Times

“How many people can stand on a blue whale’s tongue?” My daughter loves stumping people with bizarre questions about animal facts, and this is one of her favorites. You can’t dodge the question by pointing out that no one can stand on the tongue of the largest animal in the world and live to tell the story. Unless you answer fifty, you will flunk her quiz.

But here’s another question: who has a tongue that’s even more powerful than that of a mega-ton whale? The answer, of course, is that we do. Good old Homo sapiens—the species with the most powerful tongue in the world. James observes with frustration,

“People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. . . . Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” (James 3:7-10).

Yesterday I was reading a book about all kinds of high-minded ideals, like loving others even when they don’t deserve it. The book made me feel good, as though I had become more virtuous simply by reading about virtue. But then a quarrel broke out in the kitchen. Irritated that my peaceful day was being disrupted by two children who couldn’t stop arguing, I yelled at them, telling them in no uncertain terms that I had had enough!

As my words trailed off, it occurred to me that the virtuous feelings that had filled me just a few seconds earlier had been replaced by a whole lot of anger. My daughters weren’t the only ones in the house guilty of breaking the peace.

Like James, I am frustrated, aware that I can praise God one minute and then speak harshly the next. But James also says that the wisdom of heaven is “peace loving” and “gentle at all times.” Today I pray that God’s wisdom will do in me what I cannot possibly do in myself—make me gentle at all times.

Rejoice!

A heart made of vines with red berries sits on top of a snowy ledge.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is one I hadn’t even heard of until a few years ago when I listened to James Taylor singing it on his Christmas album. About this time of year, I find myself humming it wherever I go, perhaps because it’s such a perfect fit for our Michigan winters with their landscape of hard, white earth set beneath a lid of thick, gray skies. And yet so much wonder and worship attend the song that it cheers my spirits. The song is called “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and its lyrics were written by Christina Rossetti, a famous English poet. The poem wasn’t set to music until twelve years after she died.

With or without music, it makes a beautiful prayer:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Yes, Lord, I give you my heart.

Memory Loss

In the image, a person forms a circle around the setting sun with their index finger and thumb, focusing the shining light.

Memory loss is something many people fear, not just because it’s inconvenient to forget everything but because forgetfulness can be a sign of encroaching decrepitude. Increasing forgetfulness can signal that a mind once agile and quick is now on the decline, encased in a body that has also seen better days. Anyone who has dipped a toe into old age, or knows someone who has, realizes that whoever invented the phrase “the golden years” deserves the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There’s nothing golden about the loss of so many of our basic faculties.

Scripture repeatedly speaks of the importance of remembering, no matter how young or old you are.

Remember, God says, that I rescued you from Egypt.

Remember that I led you through the desert.

Remember to follow my commandments.

Remember to be kind to strangers because you were once strangers.

Remember my promises. I will always remember you.

With God and in God and through God we remember the love story of salvation—a story that is both ours and his to commemorate and to live.

Mark Buchanan points out that faith without memory will quickly morph into something less than faith. “Our faith,” he says, “is rooted in memory, so much so that one of the key works of the Holy Spirit is the ministry of reminding (see John 14:26). The day we forget the works of God, from ages past until this very morning, is the day our faith starts to deform into something else—mythology, ideology, superstition, dogmatism, agnosticism, fanaticism. Remembering well is essential to an authentic, living faith.”1

Today let us ask the Spirit to stir up the memory of all God has done for us from ages past until this very morning. And let us enjoy the peace that comes from knowing that God still remembers us.

1. Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 197–98.

The Face You Deserve

An image of a close-up of a woman's face.

Oscar Wilde once said that by the time people are fifty, they have the face they deserve. I suspect he meant that a lifetime of choices will shape our souls in a particular direction, which will be tellingly reflected in our faces.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a nineteenth-century Christian by the name of George Müller. A remarkable man who cared for more than 10,000 orphans and established 117 schools, educating more than 120,000 children, Müller apparently did his job so well that some people faulted him for educating the poor beyond their station in life. With that kind of heart for the underprivileged, it’s no wonder someone once remarked that Müller “had the twenty-third psalm written in his face.”1

But as a youth, Müller made choices that were shaping him not toward grace but toward ruin. While his mother lay dying, fourteen-year-old Müller was roving around half-drunk with friends. A liar and a thief, he was imprisoned for stealing when he was only sixteen. Then, as a college student, he gave his life to Christ as the result of being influenced by Christian friends.

Though Müller published the answers to his many prayers for God’s provision, thereby influencing people to give, he never directly asked anyone for money to support his orphanage. The donations came pouring in unsolicited, often just in the nick of time. On one occasion, when there was no food, Müller gathered the children around the table to say grace. As they finished praying, a baker knocked on the door with more than enough bread to feed everyone.

Müller’s primary purpose in establishing an orphanage was to encourage Christians to believe that God could supply their needs. He wanted to make a public display of God’s faithfulness by showing how the Lord would provide for the children in his care.

Today let us thank God for revealing his faithfulness through the life of this good man. And let us ask God to shape our souls into the likeness of his Son so we can reflect his peace to others as well.

  1. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 71.