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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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If I Were a Squirrel

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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Morning and Evening

A woman sits on her bed with her Bible open on her lap, and a pink highlighter.

Maybe it was the title of the blog that fascinated me. What woman wouldn’t want to sneak a look at a blog entitled “The Art of Manliness”? In a recent post, Brett and Kate McKay talk about the importance of morning and evening routines for building a successful life. Citing examples from the lives of men like Theodore Roosevelt, William Blake, and John Quincy Adams, they offer models of how men can lead lives of greater significance by paying attention to their daily routines.

“Imagine,” they say, “a string with a series of beads on it. The beads represent your goals, relationships, and priorities. Tip the string this way or that way, and the beads easily slide off and onto the floor. But tie a knot on each end of the string, and the beads stay put. Those knots are your morning and evening routines. They keep the priorities of your life from falling apart and thus help you progress and become a better man.”1

I agree with their philosophy, and I would contend that their advice applies to women as well. I can’t tell you how many times my well-intentioned plans for the day have fallen short, leaving me with a sense of frustration and guilt. At times the shortfall can be attributed to a poor start or a late finish. What do I mean by a poor start? For me it means that I am consuming too much media in the morning—watching or reading the news. Doing so gobbles up my time for prayer and Scripture reading. Late finishes can be blamed on a similar culprit—too much media, either movies, books, or news.

What are your time wasters?

How might your life look if you could carve out sensible, disciplined goals for your morning and evening routines?

If you and I were to put first things first in our routines, we could experience more of the peace that comes from a job well done or a life well lived. Join me this week in thinking about the goals you have for your life and how you might achieve them. Do so prayerfully, asking God to help you shape your day by paying more attention to how you begin and end it.

  1. Brett McKay and Kate McKay, “Bookend Your Day: The Power of Morning and Evening Routines,” The Art of Manliness (blog), September 5, 2011, accessed September 6, 2011, http://artofmanliness.com/2011/09/05/bookend-your-day-the-power-of-morning-and-evening-routines/.

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Have Some Fun!

a group of people swimming in a lake in the evening

“Adults never have any fun,” proclaimed my oldest daughter with the 100 percent certainty common to teenagers. This time I had to admit she was right, at least when it came to my life. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d really had fun. Was it on my trip to the grocery store or when I was paying bills or taking the dog to the vet or hurrying to meet a writing deadline or rushing to pick up a child from karate class or cooking dinner or meeting with teachers at my children’s schools or shopping for back-to-school clothes or arranging for home care for my elderly mother? Like yours, my days are packed, but not usually with things I love to do. As I reflected on my daughter’s remark, I started wondering if I would even recognize fun if it landed on my doorstep. Had I completely forgotten how to play? I hoped not.

I decided to break out of my routine and do something a little out of the ordinary. Unsure of what to do, I began by making a list of things I had done in the past that were genuinely fun:

  • crabbing
  • shelling
  • snorkeling
  • waterskiing
  • surf fishing
  • swimming in Lake Michigan
  • attending a baseball game
  • playing laser tag
  • shooting pool with friends
  • drift fishing
  • kayaking

Noticing that the most frequent theme threading its way through my fun list was water, I decided to rent a stand-up paddleboard and try my luck on Lake Michigan. Last weekend my children and I shared the board with hilarious results.

Why not consider adding a little fun to your own life? If you can’t remember how to play, try making a list of the most memorable fun you’ve had. Let it spark ideas for the present. Remember, one aspect of shalom is well-being. Perhaps a little burst of play is all that’s needed to put your world back into balance.

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Whirled Peas

an image of a Russian nesting doll

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “Visualize Whirled Peas”? I admit I got a chuckle out of it the first time I saw it. It’s such a refreshing alternative to slogans like “Embrace Peace,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Peace and Love,” or even “Girly Girls for Peace.” I’m tired of brightly colored bumper stickers and cheerful slogans implying that our search for peace is easier than it is. Such slogans seem rooted in the belief that peace is primarily a matter of willpower, something we can achieve if we all get together and try a little harder. While I’m all for togetherness and trying hard, I don’t think these can ultimately produce the peace we long for.

Here’s why: Peace is something only God can give. Here’s how Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, puts it:

“There will never be peace in the world until there is peace in nations. There will never be peace in nations until there is peace in communities. There will never be peace in communities until there is peace in families. There will never be peace in families until there is peace in individuals. And there will never be peace in individuals until we invite the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts.”1

If you want to visualize world peace, imagine yourself holding one of those Russian nesting dolls, only yours is shaped like a globe with progressively smaller globes inside. Start opening the globes. When it’s time to pull out the last and smallest one, you will find the hidden heart of peace. It’s not a globe but a small figurine that looks a lot like you—a person in whom Christ’s Spirit lives. He is the one we call the Lord and giver of peace.

  1. Rick Warren, “A Time for Reconciliation,” session 3 of The Purpose of Christmas: A Three-Session, Video-Based Study for Groups and Families (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), DVD.

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Blame

an image of clouds trying to hide the sun

Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism in 1950, at a time when little was known about this neurological disorder. Remarkably, she became a renowned animal scientist, an author, and a professor at Colorado State University. In a particularly poignant scene from the HBO film that was made about her life, the doctor who diagnosed her condition callously explained to her mother that autism was caused by a mother’s coldness to her child.

At around the same time, another nonscientific theory was circulating in psychiatric literature about the cause of schizophrenia. This theory was so popular that someone invented a fancy adjective to identify the supposed culprit. Schizophrenia, it was asserted, was caused by “schizophrenogenic” mothers. Of course, later research debunked the notion that anyone—including mothers—had the power to cause schizophrenia in their offspring. Instead, it was linked to a neurochemical problem.

Because we mothers are good at blaming ourselves for everything under the sun, I hardly think we need the assistance of the medical community to make us feel guiltier than we already do. Of course, mothers aren’t the only ones who heap blame on themselves. As Erma Bombeck once famously quipped, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” It’s also the thing that keeps on stealing—our peace.

So how can we get free of the guilt?

Studies have shown that those who have a strong internal sense of control—people who think their actions cause much of what happens around them—have far greater stress responses in the midst of uncontrollable events than those who do not. So if you are a person who feels in charge of your life, you are at risk for greater stress because you will have a tendency to take responsibility for things outside your control.

Let’s stop accepting blame for things we haven’t a hope of controlling. While we’re at it, let’s stop kidding ourselves that we are in charge of the universe. Instead, let’s remember who is, calling on his name and trusting in his care.

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Peace Takes Time

A beautiful silver pocket watch.

Last weekend I purchased a new watch. I’d done my homework, trolling the Internet in search of the best price. Then I decided to check out Macy’s to see if they had it in stock. They did! Better yet, they could size the watchband on the spot so I could wear it instantly. I decided to pay a few more dollars rather than ordering it online and waiting for it to arrive. Like most people, I enjoy getting what I want when I want it.

The other night I was talking to one of my daughters about a behavior issue.

“Why don’t you ever apologize when you’re wrong?” I asked her.

“But I do,” she countered.

“Yes, you say you’re sorry, but your tone of voice makes it clear you don’t mean it.”

“That’s because you always make me apologize right away. I might be sorrier if I had a little more time to calm down and think about things.”

Her observation made perfect sense. Now she has a little more space before she is expected to take responsibility for what she’s said or done.

It strikes me that my hurry for her to make peace (with her sister, in this case) was misguided. Like anything good in life, peace takes time. But most of us want it right here, right now. And no wonder. It doesn’t feel good to lack peace. Being without it when we think we need it most can tempt us toward hopelessness, making us doubt we will ever experience the peace God promises. But our journey toward peace will deepen as we make God the goal of our lives, living for him, trusting him, seeking to please him. If we do that, we will one day turn around, surprised to find his peace has been worked into our hearts, even though we don’t know how.

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Stressed?

A close-up of a dog chewing on a toy.

Imagine that you are subjected to a series of mild shocks, equivalent to the static shocks that come from rubbing your foot across the carpet. As the shocks keep coming, you feel more and more stressed. Now imagine that your next-door neighbor experiences the exact same series of shocks. The only difference is that she is allowed to run over to a candy bar sitting on her dining room table and begin chewing it after each shock. Some time later, you develop an ulcer while your neighbor does not. If you think that the candy bar made the vital difference, you would probably be right.

Sound far-fetched? A physiologist by the name of Jay Weiss performed a similar experiment on rats. He let one rat run over to a piece of wood and gnaw on it after each shock. That rat was far less likely to develop an ulcer than the one that experienced a series of shocks with no relief. A masochistic variation on Weiss’s experiment delivered a series of shocks and then allowed the stressed rat to run across the cage and bite another rat to its heart’s content. Guess what? All that biting worked wonders! It seems victimizing others is a great stress reducer.1

So what’s the takeaway for us? Should we all be eating more chocolate bars or beating up on others whenever we feel frustrated? Of course not. The point is that our stress has to go somewhere. Unless we find positive ways to release it, either our bodies will absorb the stress or we will find harmful ways to release it.

One of the best stress relievers known to humankind is exercise. We know that psychological stress can activate the body for a fight-or-flight response even when none is needed. Exercise uses up the energy that the body is prepared to expend, thereby relieving the stress we feel. Other strategies, like talking to a friend or distracting yourself with an activity you enjoy or even imagining that you are doing something pleasant, can also offer relief. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of ignoring stress. Instead, look for practical ways to relieve it so you can experience more peace in your life.

  1. The experiments are described in Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 255–56.

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Fantasies

pink cotton candy

I remember my first trip to Disneyland. My friends and I were so enthralled with Fantasyland that we spent most of the day there. We were having such a good time that we nearly forgot to visit the other attractions in the park, places like Adventureland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. That’s not really so different from what happens when some of us get lost in our personal fantasies.

We fantasize about a relationship, hoping that a certain person will one day fall in love with us. Or we fantasize about an improbable career, like becoming a famous artist, actress, or movie star. And who hasn’t fantasized about winning the lottery? There’s nothing wrong with having dreams, of course. But fantasies are unhealthy because by definition they are based solely on our imaginations, untethered to reality.

If fantasies are so unrealistic, why do we cling to them? One reason is that they can produce a kind of sham peace. Unsatisfied with life right now, I can distract myself by imagining a beautiful future. The problem with fantasies, of course, is that they can be instantly demolished by the pinprick of harsh reality. While fantasies may calm and console us for a time, they will eventually come to an end. The person we are fantasizing about falls in love with someone else. We grow into middle age no closer to becoming a rock star. We hit retirement with precious little money in the bank. That’s when the pseudopeace we’ve derived from our fantasies quickly dissolves, leaving us deflated and depressed.

Feeding on fantasies is like eating cotton candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

If we make a habit of it, we will suffer from spiritual and emotional malnutrition because falsehoods don’t have the power to nourish. Instead, they steal our attention and energy away from the grace God gives us to live in the present, helping us to build a better future.

What fantasies are you harboring? Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal them to you. Then ask for grace to let go of them so you can take hold of the good life God has for you.

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Seeing Through Darkness

Several pink bleeding heart flower blossoms.

One of the conditions of childhood, at least my childhood, was to envy the animal kingdom for powers I did not possess. Wings were a particular object of my longing. If only I could soar like a hawk through the sky, then I would be happy. One of my daughters suffered the same malady. Her condition, however, manifested itself as feline envy. She wondered why God hadn’t enabled her to see in the dark like a cat.

Now, thanks to modern technology, she no longer needs to accept her biological limitations. Instead, she can purchase a reasonably priced night vision scope, one that relies on starlight, moonlight, and infrared light to pierce the darkness in front of her. Such scopes are great for warfare, hunting rabbits, spotting boats on the water, observing wildlife, or in my daughter’s case, satisfying whatever random curiosity she might have about what is lurking in the dark. I imagine it would have come in handy for Tarzan and Jane, surrounded as they were by all those jungle creatures.

When it comes to seeing through the darkness, there are additional possibilities. In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff processes his grief by observing:

“Our culture says that men must be strong and that the strength of a man in sorrow is to be seen in his tearless face. . . .But why celebrate stoic tearlessness? Why insist on never outwarding the inward when the inward is bleeding? Does enduring while crying not require as much strength as never crying? May we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it?” He goes on to say, “I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.”1

Could it be that by letting others see the crushing burden in his heart, Wolterstorff became more open to seeing theirs? Opening ourselves to the pain of others is not necessarily a path to peace. But it can be. Particularly when doing so makes us sensitive to suffering in a way we had not been previously. That’s when we can sit down beside someone and ease his or her burden simply by acknowledging that it exists.

1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 26.

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