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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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How To Remember

How To Remember

The word remember is engraved in stone

In the movie Gigi, Honoré Lachaille, played by Maurice Chevalier, and Madame Alvarez, played by Hermione Gingold, sing a song commemorating a romantic night spent together many years before. While he recalls an evening that was lit by a “dazzling April moon,” she declares that it was June and there was no moon. He mentions Friday, but she is certain they were together on a Monday. He envisions her in gold, but she swears she was dressed entirely in blue. Their contradictory memories swing back and forth throughout the song, which is capped by the refrain: “Ah, yes, I remember it well.”

The gentle humor of the lyrics points out something we all know—that people can remember the same event in very different ways.

The same is true when it comes to our ability to remember how God has acted, both in Scripture and in our own lives. Take the Israelites. After fleeing from Egypt, they could have built a society that mimicked Egypt’s cruelty toward the weak and defenseless. That’s often how things go when subjected peoples find freedom. The underdogs become the oppressors. Instead, the Israelites enshrined humane principles in their law regarding the treatment of slaves coupled with the obligation to welcome foreigners, laws far in advance of their contemporaries. They did this because their overarching memories pertained not to the evil they suffered but to the good they experienced from God’s delivering hand.

We, too, have been delivered by a loving and redeeming God. Basing our lives on this memory will free us from the danger of becoming more like the people who have hurt us rather than the God who has saved us. It will also free us from the memory of our own sins and failures as we choose to remember above everything the mercy and love that God has shown us.

 

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Seeing the Glass as Half-full

an image of a glass with water pouring in and splashing

Study after study shows that optimists are both happier and healthier than pessimists. Optimists experience less stress and don’t give up as easily as pessimists. They even tend to live longer. Unfortunately, I’m a pessimist. The online quiz I took proves it. So what should I do? Conclude that I was born a pessimist and will remain a pessimist? No, that’s way too pessimistic!

According to Martin Seligman, a clinical psychologist who has spent more than thirty years studying this topic, pessimists are capable of adopting a more optimistic approach to life. One way to do that is to change the way you explain your successes and failures. Typically, optimists are good at maximizing their successes and minimizing their failures. Say, for instance, someone compliments you for your cooking. You could explain the compliment to yourself positively by thinking, I have turned out to be a pretty good cook! Or you could brush it off by thinking, I guess I got lucky with that recipe. The first explanatory style takes credit for a job well done, while the second views the success as an isolated incident, not likely to repeat itself.

As Christians, we sometimes hesitate to take credit for our success because we don’t want to become proud. But what if taking credit where credit is due helps us to better reflect the joy we have in Christ, who, after all, has given us every reason to be optimistic?

What about our failures? We have to be honest about them as well, but failure doesn’t have to be something we get stuck in. Instead it can become a teacher, leading us toward greater insight. I remember traveling by myself for several days in Europe after a business trip. Whenever I got lost, instead of getting upset as I was accustomed to do when traveling on more familiar territory in the United States, I simply told myself, I don’t have to hurry. Anyway, I’m learning my way around. That little coping mechanism added peace to my adventure, keeping me from feeling frustrated and alone.

If you tend toward pessimism as I do, try a little experiment. Spend the next week trying to maximize your successes and minimize your failures. See if it produces a little more happiness in your life.

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Calming Your Inner Bully

a man is yelling and pointing his finger at the viewer

Rare is the school without an anti-bullying campaign. We know how easy it is for children at the receiving end of such behaviors to be devastated by them. The same is true for adults. Interacting on a regular basis with people who belittle and malign us is hazardous to our emotional health. Who wants to be around someone who communicates their contempt, with or without words, indicating that they think us boring, bossy, stupid, flaky, weak, inconsiderate, ugly, insensitive, worthless, or a failure?

But what if the bully is you?

I’m not implying that you bully other people. But, truth be known, some of us have a habit of bullying ourselves. Here are a few examples of things we might say to ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying to anyone else:

What an idiot!
Why can’t I do anything right?
God hates me.
I’m worthless.
Nobody likes me.
I look awful.
God won’t forgive me.

Researchers estimate that we have, on average, seventy thousand thoughts in the course of a single day. It’s inevitable that some of them will be negative. But when our negative thoughts greatly outweigh our positive thoughts, we have a problem. Many of these thoughts come to mind unbidden, operating just below the surface of consciousness. Writing them down can help us become more aware of them, forcing them out into the open so we can challenge their accuracy. Once we become aware of these internal dialogues, we can replace them with milder, neutral, or even positive statements that affirm the truth of who we are and what God thinks of us.

Why not spend some time paying attention to your thoughts today? Try writing down the negative ones, and then take each one to God in prayer.

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Traveling Mercies

the sun shines behind a mountain peak

I look up to the mountains—does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth! . . . The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever.
Psalm 121:1-2, 6-8

Psalm 121 is known as a psalm of ascent, one of a group of psalms prayed by Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship at three annual feasts. The psalmist looks to the mountains, perhaps wondering if thieves and robbers lurk there. Or perhaps he is thinking of the mountains around Jerusalem, longing to worship God in the Temple.

Each verse repeats a theme as if to underline or italicize it, highlighting the truth it affirms. And what is this truth? That on every journey—even on the journey of life—God is our protector.

Last night I was discussing the psalm with friends. Someone asked why the psalmist said that neither the sun nor the moon would hurt you. The phrase sounded strange. One person suggested that the psalmist might be referring to the sun and moon gods of the surrounding peoples. Another remarked on how difficult it is to live in a desert climate, where sunstroke is always a danger. Still another mentioned the link between the words lunacy and moon, wondering if the pilgrims who prayed the psalms would have linked the moon to mental instability. We concluded that in this case the sun and moon must signify anything that might terrify or threaten you by day or by night. Our discussion wrapped up when one friend attempted a modern paraphrase of verse 6, quipping:

The Dow Jones Industrial will not strike you by day,
nor the Hang Seng Index by night.

With that we parted. And when it was time to sleep, I did just that.

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Spiritually Ambidextrous

a person stands in front of a waterfall with arms outstretched, there is a double rainbow in the mist

What do Roberto Alomar, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, and Eddie Murray all have in common? If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, you may know that each was a talented switch-hitter, able to slug a baseball either right-handed or left-handed, depending on which would prove most advantageous against a particular pitcher. While many switch-hitters have to train themselves to use their nondominant hand, some have an inborn talent for it. These players are, of course, ambidextrous.

In his book A Grace Revealed, Jerry Sittser mentions a desert father by the name of Abba Theodore, who used the word ambidextrous to apply to believers who had learned to take both prosperity and adversity in stride. Given the choice, I’m pretty sure I would always choose prosperity over hardship.

As Sittser puts it, prosperity “makes God seem good, the world seem right, and faith seem natural, as natural as writing with the dominant hand. Obviously,” he says, “adversity does the opposite, making life hard for us. Temptation overruns us, doubt plagues us, routine bores us.”1

Even if we could chart a course toward perpetual prosperity, it is doubtful such a course would produce the peace we long for. Why? Because prosperity has its pitfalls. It can make us fat and dull, turning us into people of mediocre faith.

To the early Christians, Abba Theodore offered this wise counsel:

“We shall then be ambidextrous, when neither abundance nor want affects us, and when the former does not entice us to the luxury of a dangerous carelessness, while the latter does not draw us to despair, and complaining; but when, giving thanks to God in either case alike, we gain one and the same advantage out of good and bad fortune.”2

In the end, becoming spiritually ambidextrous is primarily an exercise in trust. We trust not in our circumstances but in the goodness of a God who loves us even more than we love ourselves.

  1. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Revealed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).
  1. Ibid.

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Hidden Things

a little boy holds a teddy bear

“Everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open.” Mark 4:22

Heather Rowe read these words from Mark’s Gospel with the sudden impression that God was about to reveal something important about her husband, Paul. Despite their love for each other, she felt frustrated by her husband’s insensitivity, hostility, and social awkwardness. He often withdrew when others were present, preferring to play video games or read. His comments sometimes bordered on cruelty. He never seemed to care how she felt, despite all her attempts to tell him. Feeling guilty about her reactions to her husband’s behaviors, she cried out to God, asking him to transform her:

“Lord,” she pleaded, “my husband’s arrogance, his cynicism, his neglect, his hostility are laying heavily on me like a massive weight!”

“Why are you wearing them?” The question came suddenly.

Startled, she realized she had been taking these things on herself by the way she had reacted to him over the years.

“What are you going to do with them?” God asked.

She responded by saying she wanted to nail everything to the cross—all the arrogance, pride, resentment, cynicism, neglect, and hostility.

“What do you have left?” God seemed to say.

“I am seeing a lonely, frightened little boy.”

“Do you think you could love him?”

“Oh yes, I could love him. I could take him in my arms and comfort him.”

Later, she explained, “God told me to try to see that lonely, frightened little boy every time I looked at my husband. He told me to look beyond all the other rubbish because he took all of that on himself on the cross.”1

A short time later, Heather discovered that her husband had Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. No wonder he acted the way he did. Greater understanding has brought with it greater peace, though there are still struggles. By coming before God in prayer and by listening to his Word, Heather has experienced God enabling her to accept and love her husband, despite his challenges.

Like Heather, we cry out to God about our own difficult relationships.

Like her, let us trust him to respond.

  1. Heather Rowe, “My Husband Has Asperger Syndrome,” Woman Alive, accessed November 21, 2016, http://www.womanalive.co.uk/articles?articleaction=view&articleid=546.

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Is That All There Is?

two hands are cupped, with colored lights shining on them

In the category of “Most Depressing Song in the History of the World” comes Peggy Lee’s classic hit, “Is That All There Is?” In case you are too young to remember it, I will offer a recap. Throughout the song, the singer croons about notable life experiences, things like her house burning down, a visit to the circus, falling in love for the first time. After each, she poses the plaintive question: “Is that all there is?” Lamenting over life’s many disappointments, she refuses to kill herself lest death itself might also disappoint her. In some ways, she sounds like the pop version of the teacher in Ecclesiastes, who proclaimed, “I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind” (2:17).

Paul, on the other hand, tells us that though much in our world is broken, it is not meaningless. On the contrary, what meets the eye is not all there is. There is so much more.

Reminding us that we belong to heaven more than earth, Paul promises that Christ will one day take our “weak mortal bodies” and transform them into something glorious like his own. Not only that, but the Lord will accomplish this feat by using “the same power with which he will bring everything under his control” (Philippians 3:21). One day, we will realize that nothing in this world is outside the overwhelming power of Jesus Christ. Everything—even mental illness, decrepitude, and death—will give way to him. Everything that causes us anguish will be defeated and overturned.

I have a young friend who is autistic. On that day, she will become fully herself. My mother is slipping into dementia. She will be restored. My sister died suddenly, at the age of sixteen. She will be raised up.

What in your life has been disappointing? For whom do you grieve? As you bring each one into view, remember that everything, everywhere is going to be conquered by the same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead and that will surely raise us from death to life.

Is that all there is? Not on your life!

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Destination

A photo of Westmister Tube station in London.

If you have ever been to London, you have probably ridden on the Tube, the city’s subway system. The first time I traveled there on business, I felt intimidated until I learned how easy it is to get around. As in many cities, the various subway lines are color-coded so you have merely to pinpoint your destination on the map and then take the appropriately colored line to reach it. To figure out which way to go, you simply locate the last stop on the route in the direction of your destination. Since each route is labeled according to its final destination, it is easy to avoid hopping a train heading the wrong way. So if you are at Westminster and want to go to Whitechapel, for instance, you have to take the green line labeled Upminster.

As in my experience of traveling by subway, it helps to have our final destination in view, lest we lose our way along the journey. In his first letter, Peter says that all who follow Christ are “temporary residents and foreigners” (1 Peter 2:11). Likewise, Paul reminds us that we are citizens of heaven and not of earth. In practical terms, that means it’s a mistake to treat this life as though it’s all there is, trying to squeeze from it everything our hearts desire and then letting inevitable disappointments cast shadows on our faith.

Paul Tripp points out that even if we are confused on this point, “God always responds to us with eternity in view.”1 No wonder we don’t always get what we ask for. God is using a different timeline, a different end goal, allowing the difficulties and trials we face to shape us toward heaven. Peace comes, in part, from letting go of our limited time horizon in order to grasp hold of the eternity God promises.

  1. Paul Tripp, Forever: Why You Can’t Live without It (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 34.

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Is There a Terrorist in Your Life?

a heavy wooden mallet is poised above an egg

Some of us live under the rule of terrorists—people who will do their best to make our lives miserable if we don’t do what they want us to (and even if we do). These kinds of terrorists often start young—think of the toddler who throws nonstop tantrums or the child who whimpers whenever she’s displeased. Adults, of course, can be the worst terrorists of all. Think of chronic complainers, whiners, controllers, and “cling-ons,” as well as those who are verbally and physically abusive. Emotionally immature, they create an atmosphere that can poison the peace of anyone in their orbit.

When such people are at work, sabotaging an organization, Edwin Friedman calls them pathogens, identifying them as people who

are invasive of other people’s space by nature;

lack the ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors;

cannot learn from experience; and

have lots of stamina.1

Dealing with such people can be extremely difficult. If you are in an abusive situation, you will need outside help to stay safe. But the best way to deal with the ordinary, run-of-the-mill terrorists is to address their behaviors by changing yours. Stop allowing yourself to get sucked in every time they throw a fit. Find ways to create space in the relationship. Set boundaries you will not allow them to cross without appropriate consequences. Decide that you will stop overfunctioning so they can stop underfunctioning. And don’t forget to pray for them while you’re at it.

  1. Drawn from David W. Cox, “The Edwin Friedman Model of Family Systems Thinking: Lessons for Organizational Leaders” (essay, 2006), accessed October 27, 2016, http://www.vredestichters.nl/page6/files/artikel%20Edwin%20Friedman.pdf.

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Inside Your Head

an image of a brain crowded with words

Consider the following scenario. It’s been a great morning. Feeling energetic, you’ve already accomplished several things on your to-do list. Plus your boss complimented you on an important project. You feel happy and at peace.

Then you notice that you have an e-mail from your child’s school, the kind that informs you of his latest grades. Opening it, you note with distress that he’s just gotten an F on a test. You get a little jolt of adrenaline. Why didn’t he study harder? He never listens. Everything you’ve tried to do to help him has failed. Last week he got a C- and now it’s an F. What if he has to be held back? You doubt he’ll ever make it to college. No one will hire him if he doesn’t have a degree. He’s going to be poor for the rest of his life.

What has just happened? You have gone from zero to sixty in the space of seconds. Starting with a bit of bad news about Johnnie’s grades, you now have him living in poverty for the remainder of his earthly life, despite the fact that he’s only twelve years old. One of the problems with anxiety is that it accelerates our fears, taking us to places that don’t yet exist and presenting us with problems we don’t need to solve—like Johnnie’s future homelessness.

Picture anxiety as a kind of laminate spreading across your brain and locking you inside your head. Pinging back and forth, your anxious thoughts accelerate, making it hard to focus on anything else. Then picture something else, a word from God forming in your mind: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6, niv).

So you direct your thoughts away from Johnnie’s bleak future and toward the Lord himself, calling to mind the ways he’s helped you in the past and thanking him for them. Lingering over God’s faithfulness, you then ask for help in dealing with the present situation, trusting in his guidance, which will come in God’s good time. That is the way toward peace.

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