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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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Got Milk?

Got Milk?

a close-up of the mortar in a brick wall

I remember receiving a note from my daughter’s school informing me that though the school year was nearly over, Luci’s milk account still had more than forty-five dollars. Further investigation revealed the not-too-surprising news that my daughter had not been drinking her milk. So I sat her down for yet another lecture, trying to convey the importance of establishing enough bone mass when she’s young so that when she reaches my age and beyond, she won’t suffer from fractures that could have been avoided. As you might imagine, my lecture didn’t convince.

Luci’s aversion to milk reminds me of a point Mark Buchanan makes in his book The Rest of God.

“God,” he says, “gave us the gift of Sabbath—not just as a day, but as an orientation, a way of seeing and knowing. Sabbath-keeping is a form of mending. It’s mortar in the joints. Keep Sabbath, or else break too easily and oversoon.”

Mark goes on to say that “Sabbath imparts the rest of God—actual physical, mental, spiritual rest, but also the rest of God—the things of God’s nature and presence we miss in our busyness.”

I remember working for a man who was a workaholic. Joe would spend hours at work every night. Though he was devoted to his work, he never seemed to stay on top of things. The more time he put in at work, the less productive he was. Or to say it more colloquially, the harder he worked, the behinder he got. At least that’s how his employees saw it.

Just because we devote boatloads of time and energy to something doesn’t guarantee a good return. Because time is such a precious commodity, let’s give some of it to God, who is able to transform the time we spend with him into mortar for our joints, ensuring that we will break neither too easily nor oversoon.

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Practical Peace

a little girl wearing bunny slippers pets a puppy

Are there practical ways to build more peace into our lives—things we can do to alleviate the stress and tension we feel? Happily, there are. You have probably considered several of these ideas already. If so, take this opportunity to review the options and then try a few.

  • Don’t bottle up your concerns. Instead, connect with friends who are able to provide a listening ear.
  • Limit your caffeine and sugar consumption.
  • Soothe yourself with a cup of tea. Green tea and black tea contain theanine, a substance that may have a calming effect.
  • Distract yourself by cooking a nice meal.
  • Drink a warm glass of milk. Milk contains tryptophan, a substance that can calm you.
  • Eat a little dark chocolate.
  • Hire help.
  • Take a bike ride.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Go outside for a few minutes every day.
  • Take a bath with lavender bath salts or oil.
  • Watch a funny movie.
  • Dedicate one evening a week to do something simply because you enjoy it.
  • Lie down and begin tensing and then relaxing your muscles, starting with your toes and working your way up to your neck and head. Tense each muscle group for five seconds and then relax for thirty.

None of this is rocket science. That’s the advantage. The psalmist’s vision of green meadows and peaceful streams isn’t just about heaven. We can begin to taste God’s rest right now. Adopting a few simple practices may be what you need to ratchet down your stress levels.

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a man with steam coming out of his ears

I am a self-confessed news junkie. Last month, however, I hardly tuned in to television news, preferring to get my fix through print media instead. As news reports kept pouring in, I surprised myself by remaining calm. Then I made the mistake of turning on the television, with very different results. Though the news was identical to what I had previously read, my response was notably different. As I watched commentators speculating on every possible scenario, I could almost see my anxiety rising like the red line on a thermometer. The takeaway was clear: watching televised news tends to trigger my anxiety. If I want to remain peaceful, I need to find a way to limit my exposure.

What are your triggers—the things that ramp up your anxiety, making it difficult for you to remain peaceful? Maybe it’s talking to friends who have a tendency to look at negatives more than positives. Perhaps it’s pressuring yourself to be perfect or comparing yourself to others or checking the stock market too often or packing too many things into a day or making a habit of asking, “What if, what if, what if?” We all have triggers that rob us of the peace we desire, draining our energy and making it difficult to live positive, productive lives. Avoiding these makes practical sense.

In the next few days, ask God to help you identify the unconscious triggers that threaten your peace. Then seek him for the wisdom to know how to handle them.

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a basket of speckled eggs, with one broken on the table

In the gripping novel Sister, a character by the name of Beatrice writes to her younger sister, Tess, about uncovering the roots of her own pervasive insecurity. The final abandonment came, she says, when her mother packed her off to boarding school. That was when her younger brother’s death and her father’s desertion coalesced into the overarching message that she was unwanted and alone. But now, as an adult, she has discovered a surprising truth. Rather than rejecting her, her mother had been trying to protect her by sending her away. Yet her essential problem remains: she is still broken, even if that brokenness is based on a misunderstanding.

“The problem was,” she says, “knowing the reason I was insecure didn’t help me to undo the damage that had been done. Something in me had been broken, and I now knew it was well intentioned—a duster knocking the ornament onto the tiled floor rather than its being smashed deliberately—but broken just the same.”1

Like Beatrice, we may suffer from unintentional wounds inflicted during childhood. While greater self-understanding can be helpful to the healing process, understanding alone cannot put us back together because broken is still broken. But unlike characters in a novel, we have access to a Healer who is able to transform us, using the hurt we have suffered for a purpose yet to be revealed.

Today as you seek the Lord, who is our healer, ask him for a deeper understanding of the roots of your brokenness. Then pray that he will touch you with his healing and redeeming power.

  1. Rosamund Lupter, Sister: A Novel (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 117.

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Be Kind To Yourself

a seedling grows out of moss and is fed by the rain

Imagine your heart as a garden. As the plants grow, enriched by sun and rain, other things begin to grow as well. Tiny seeds, once dormant, have begun to sprout. Now imagine that the gardener comes along and is surprised by what she sees. The garden she once envisioned has been replaced by one that includes several strange plants, already deeply rooted.

Disheartened, she could simply throw up her hands and walk away, leaving the garden to fend for itself. Or, disliking the invaders, she could try tearing them out, risking damage to the other plants. Or she could approach the situation more calmly, deciding to become familiar with each new plant so she can tend the garden more effectively.

In the garden of your heart, emotions like joy, happiness, awe, and compassion spring up. But other emotions grow there as well—anger, shame, fear, disappointment, jealousy. Like the gardener who is surprised by what’s growing in her garden, we can be taken off guard by our emotional reactions. Disliking what we see, some of us respond like the disheartened gardener, thinking nothing can be done about our most deeply rooted feelings. So we let them run riot, allowing them to overrun the rest of the garden. Others of us are like the gardener who is so distressed by what she discovers that she destroys the garden in her haste to rip out the unwanted plants. We do that when we treat ourselves harshly, with self-condemnation, trying to suppress or destroy feelings we would rather not have.

Like gardens, our hearts won’t flourish under harsh or neglectful treatment. Far better to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion as we learn to handle feelings we’d rather not have.

The next time you feel angry, disappointed, hurt, anxious, or ashamed, don’t rush to bury the feeling and don’t scold yourself for having it. Allow yourself instead to experience the feeling and think about what caused it. Remember that emotions are neither good nor bad. What matters is how you respond to them. Taking a more accepting approach to unpleasant emotions will keep them from controlling you, enabling you to experience greater peace and emotional healing as you begin to understand yourself better.

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Be Curious

A woman holds a magnifying glass up to her eye.My daughter has the gift of intellectual curiosity. Remember those rapid-fire machine guns that always showed up in the old movies about gangsters? That’s how fast Katie can spit out questions that are too hard for her mother to answer. Because of her penchant for seeking answers to life’s many mysteries, she loves the saying about curiosity killing the cat but satisfaction bringing it back.

When it comes to curiosity, most of us would benefit from becoming a little more curious about our own emotional reactions. Take anger. What is really powering it? Frustration, fear, sadness, hurt? In her book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg points out that being angry often indicates that we have made a negative judgment about someone.

The stranger who cut me off in traffic: he’s a jerk. The surly clerk behind the counter: she should be fired. The teacher who gave my child a failing grade: he’s incompetent. On and on the judgments go, powering our anger despite the fact that there may be a thousand explanations for why people do what they do. Maybe the stranger who cut us off was heading to the hospital with chest pains. Perhaps the clerk was going through a divorce. Maybe the teacher who failed our child is simply telling the truth. The point is that we can never fathom another person’s heart.

Tverberg points out that Jesus warned his followers against calling anyone a fool because to do so was to render “the final verdict on the person. . . . A person who is ignorant can learn, but for a ‘fool’ there is no hope,” she says.1

I don’t think Jesus was telling us to throw out our brains when he told us not to judge. He wasn’t urging us to paper over sin or act as if nothing was wrong. But he was saying we are not equipped to judge another person’s heart. Only God knows people well enough to do that. To judge others is to be guilty of arrogance because it means usurping God’s power and authority.

The next time you discover you have rendered an angry judgment against someone, ask God’s forgiveness. If you’re angry at yourself, remember that God is the only wise judge, even of your own heart.

  1. Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 113–14.

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Embezzling From Your Own Life

a woman reclines on a couch surrounded by shopping bags

Who or what is stealing your peace? We know the usual suspects—the things that add worry, strife, and difficulty to our lives. But what if the robber-in-chief is an invisible culprit, operating behind the scenes to slowly but steadily drain peace from our lives without us noticing? What then?

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work on the Sabbath stresses the importance of attitude when it comes to celebrating Sabbath.

“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day,” he says, “must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”1

What a striking phrase—the one about embezzling from your own life. Heschel is saying that greed causes us to betray ourselves, to do something that’s both foolish and immoral, filching riches that are meant to characterize our lives. Riches like trusting that we belong to a Father who will provide. Riches like being at peace because God is in charge. Riches like enjoying life’s simple and most satisfying pleasures.

So often we don’t recognize greed for what it is. Because so many of us have bought into a lifestyle that requires amassing more and more wealth, we may mistake greed for industriousness or even prudence, little realizing how costly our greed has become.

Like a receding tide exposing what lies beneath the surface, the recent economic downturn has shown many of us how flimsy and fragile the things we depend on really are. If you suspect that greed has been embezzling your peace, tell God you want it to stop, and ask him for the grace to change.

  1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 13.

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a young hipster woman with cool sunglasses

I remember the day my daughter started unpacking the social dynamics of her middle-school class, listing who was in the cool group and who wasn’t. I found it interesting that most of the girls I liked best were in the latter category. Stick with them, I advised. Among them were girls who were funny, kind, fun, modest, intelligent, and sensitive. Girls who would make great friends, I thought.

Though I remember from my own middle-school days how appealing cool can be, I also remember the pressures on kids who did everything they could to be part of the “in” group, sometimes throwing their values—as well as their friends—under the bus if that’s what it took.

For many of us, the pressure to be cool still persists, though it’s not as obvious. Our kind of cool might require having the right kind of house or car. Or it might mean dressing in a particular way or having the right relationship or having children who excel at everything. It might even mean going to the right kind of church. Our need for cool stems from insecurity. Uncertain and uncomfortable about who we are, we define ourselves by what others think of us. But a lifetime of being cool won’t deliver what we want—the sense that at the core we are acceptable and lovable. That only comes as we sink our roots into God.

If the need to be cool still lingers in your life, be honest about it, asking the Lord to help you grow beyond it. Tell him you want the kind of security that comes from knowing how deeply he loves you. As you grow in that knowledge, let his Spirit release you from the constraints you have placed upon your life so you can become the wonderful, unique person God intended you to be.

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If I Were a Squirrel

blurred city street lights on a dark night

Squirrels are famously persistent, a trait that often gets them what they want but sometimes gets them killed. They get into trouble when they persist in a strategy that simply doesn’t work. Ever notice how many roadkill victims are squirrels? Perhaps that’s because they have only one strategy for what to do when they are trying to cross the road and encounter oncoming traffic—scurry back to the side of the road they started from.

We look at the squirrel and scoff, wondering why they don’t adopt a more flexible strategy for evading oncoming traffic. As human beings, we realize that we have the cognitive ability to change course as needed. But if this is so, why do we so often return to failed strategies for coping with stress, trying the same unsuccessful solutions over and over with little effect?

Let me give you an example. Say you work with someone who annoys you. Despite your prayers for patience and for her to change, her annoying habits persist. So you redouble your prayers. While prayer is always a great strategy, you may need to add something to it—like taking action. It might, for example, be advisable to speak kindly but directly with your coworker about whatever is causing the difficulty. You might say something like this:

“When you interrupt me, it makes me feel as though what I have to say is unimportant.”

The conversation may be uncomfortable, but it’s likely to yield better results than a strategy that encourages passivity and ends in pique.

Prayer is always good. But prayer that is never accompanied by action may simply be a passive and ineffective way of dealing with problems that are stealing your peace. Ask God today for wisdom in changing your strategies for dealing with stress.

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Sleepless Anxiety

An illustration of a girl on a bed, imagining sheep jumping over a fence

My daughter had a habit of falling out of bed when she was a toddler. Fortunately she slept in a bed that was fairly low to the ground, and when she fell, it was onto soft carpet. Still, no sense taking a fall in the middle of the night if you don’t have to. The problem was solved when I found a railing that fit snugly under the mattress, keeping her sound asleep and safely in bed until her “holy rolling” days were over.

Though I’m not sure why, I am also more prone to rolling off the edge at night—not onto the floor, but into thoughts full of doubt and anxiety. Somehow darkness magnifies the troublesome issues that crop up in the daytime. If you’re like me, you may find yourself trying to solve your most nettlesome problems in the middle of the night. I can assure you it’s a strategy that rarely works.

So how can you counter this problem? One thing you can do is simply to remind yourself that night is always a terrible time to solve anything. To reinforce the thought, try conjuring an image of a hamster running endlessly on a wheel. Then promise yourself you’ll deal with the issue that’s bothering you, but not until morning. Write it down if you have to. After that, roll over and go back to sleep.

If sleep still eludes you, try doing what Paul urged the Philippians to do—pray about everything, and thank God for all he has done. Don’t pray anxiously and endlessly; pray simply and with as much faith as you can muster. Then thank God for all that is good in your life, making sure your prayer of thanksgiving is at least as long as your prayer of petition. After you’ve done that, imagine the Father standing at the edge of your bed, placing a guardrail of peace around it to keep you safe.

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