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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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Facing the Tension Inside

Facing the Tension Inside

The image is a close-up of a tulip with frayed and jagged edges.

Have you ever noticed an area of dead or browning vegetation where the surrounding area is green? Or a rotten egg smell in the yard? Or hissing or blowing sounds coming from beneath the earth? Or dirt blowing into the air? Or bubbling in a flooded area? Or fire coming out of the ground? If so, don’t ignore these signs. If you do, boom! Everything in your world might suddenly explode, simply because you didn’t pay attention to the signs of a natural gas leak.

Similarly, a pattern of ignoring signs that something is not right in our own lives can create enormous destruction, hurting ourselves and others. Here are a few signs, for instance, that married couples should never ignore:

  • yelling and name calling
  • violent disagreements
  • feeling misunderstood most of the time
  • rarely or never having sex
  • constant television or computer use
  • repetitive conflicts with no resolution
  • rarely engaging in meaningful conversation
  • desire to escape

Ignoring these and other symptoms of marital discord can create bigger problems that may eventually destroy the marriage.

Similarly, whether you are single or married, you can’t afford to ignore emotions and behaviors that are often symptoms of deeper problems, things like frequent crying spells, overeating, undereating, irritability, indecisiveness, drug or alcohol abuse, isolation, anxiety, forgetfulness, or fatigue.

It can be hard to face up to the tension and stress that’s building inside us. We’d rather ignore it. But doing so makes it impossible to get the help we need—and there is help. Today, if you sense something is not right, ask God for the courage to face it and the wisdom to know where to get help.

Misjudging God

The image shows a father tenderly holding his young child.

Imagine that you are a five-year-old child. In the course of a week, six things happen that affect your perception of who your father is:

  1. he surprises you with a shiny bike on your birthday,
  2. he takes you to breakfast on his day off,
  3. he says you are beautiful and he loves you,
  4. he refuses to get you a dog,
  5. he tells you that your mother has left and she may not be coming back, and
  6. he says he has to leave you in the care of relatives for a while so he can take care of important business.

How would you deal with receiving three good things from your father’s hand and three bad things? Would you accept both the positive and the negative as coming from a father who can always be trusted, or would you let the bad things overshadow the good, making you feel abandoned and unprotected?

Now think about how you might feel if you were fifteen and the same things happened. By now you realize that your mother cares for no one but herself, and despite your father’s pleading, she has run off with another man. You also know your dad is going away for a few days so he can make a last-ditch effort to get your mother back. You realize, too, that he is right about the dog. Even being near a dog tends to throw you into an asthma attack.

At fifteen you understand circumstances that would have baffled your five-year-old brain.

What’s the point of this little exercise? Merely to get you to think about how easy it is for us to misjudge God simply because we are human beings who are unable to comprehend all God’s motives. As his children, we are called to grow in trust and confidence, knowing that whether life pays us back in positives or negatives, we can be confident we are being cared for by a Father who is always worthy of our trust.

Sometimes Discomfort Produces Peace

The image shows a man plunging underwater, almost hidden by bubbles.

Most of us find it relaxing to spend a few minutes soaking in a bath or a hot tub. But have you ever tried submersing your body in fifty-degree water for any length of time? It feels like being encased in a giant ice pack. Though this kind of therapy is popular in Europe and goes back to ancient Roman times, Americans have been slow to catch on. But the pleasure of soaking in a cold plunge doesn’t just come from the relief you feel once you’re out of it. Patients who use this therapy report decreased pain, even several hours later.

A recent convert to cold plunge therapy, I have learned about some of its touted benefits, which include improved circulation, less inflammation, a strengthened immune system, and a better mood. Though not recommended for pregnant women or people with heart conditions, cold plunge therapy is a natural way to get healthy and stay healthy. But if you’re anything like me, you have to try it before you believe it.

Something similar happens when it comes to spiritual disciplines like fasting. Abstaining from food for any length of time can seem like torture, especially if you are just beginning. But if you make fasting a regular part of your life, you will find that it can increase your spiritual awareness, underlining the seriousness of your prayers and helping you develop more self-control.

But don’t do it to impress God or others. That’s a downward path. Do it because you love the Lord and because you want him to know how hungry you are for the peace he promises.

 

 

Easter Happened!

sand pours through the open fingers of an upraised hand

Today as you prepare for the greatest celebration of the Christian year, take some time to reflect on the fact that Easter commemorates the most revolutionary event in the history of the world. Jesus defeated death by submitting to it, overthrowing its hold on every human being who believes in him. If that’s not cause for celebration, I don’t know what is. Here is a remarkable poem by John Updike that brings the truth home.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike

Feeling Edgy?

An image of tulips with the words I am thankful for today

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to distract a toddler by handing him a toy in exchange for the dog bone he just picked up? Distraction is a time-honored parenting technique—one that works so well we really ought to try it on ourselves, especially when we start becoming frustrated and irritable.

Say, for instance, that you are feeling energetic enough to tackle your monthly bill-paying responsibilities. (That would be me a while back.) But before you begin, you remember the TV is on the blink. You fiddle with it for five minutes, concluding that you need to call your service provider. You hold the phone for five more minutes until a lovely, lilting voice comes on the line with the promise of help.

Over the next forty-five minutes, you do everything she tells you to, answering questions, pushing buttons, checking connections, and observing blinking lights on modems while she tries to find a fix from eight thousand miles away. Then you’re put on hold. You glance at your watch to discover that fifteen more minutes have elapsed. Then the woman comes on the line again, telling you she may need to schedule a technician. She asks if it would be okay if she sent you a new receiver. You say yes, and it takes a mere ten minutes to arrange. By now you know that with everything else you still have to do, there is no way you are going to get those bills paid tonight.

Normally I find situations like this frustrating. But that night I was able to distract myself by asking the woman where she was located. Her answer: the Philippines. I expressed concern about recent flooding there. She told me it was still raining hard and a few of her coworkers hadn’t been able to get to work. Then it occurred to me that I am fortunate to have a phone, a TV, and a dry roof over my head. When we finally hung up, I felt at peace, though the bills hadn’t been paid and the TV hadn’t been fixed.

We all face unexpected problems that eat away at our precious time and energy. If we want to remain peaceful at such times, we can do so by distracting ourselves with gratitude. Positive distractions can prevent negative thoughts from growing and festering. Feeling edgy? Go ahead, distract yourself!

Stop Worrying About God’s Will

A girl sits on a barrier in the middle of a pathway, swinging her feet

“Stop asking God to show you his will for your life.”

That’s Francis Chan’s unorthodox challenge to earnest Christians seeking to know God’s plan. As Chan points out, all that seeking, praying, talking, and fretting about God’s will may be signs that you are not looking for ways to glorify God but for ways to stay safe and avoid making mistakes. You want the security of knowing you are on the “right path” of following God’s perfect will for your life.

Here’s how Chan puts it:

“I think a lot of us need to forget about God’s will for my life. God cares more about our response to His Spirit’s leading today, in this moment, than about what we intend to do next year. In fact, the decisions we make next year will be profoundly affected by the degree to which we submit to the Spirit right now, in today’s decisions.”

Chan goes on to say, “It’s much less demanding to think about God’s will for your future than it is to ask Him what He wants you to do in the next ten minutes. It’s safer to commit to following Him someday instead of this day.”1

Of course, Chan is not counseling us to go our own way or to discard the notion that God has a plan for our lives. He’s just pointing out the obvious—that God doesn’t disclose all that much about the future. Even someone like Joseph, who had fabulous dreams about his future, had no idea how the details would unfold. He didn’t realize that he would be falsely accused, thrown into an Egyptian jail, and exiled from home and family, and that every twist and turn would lead to the fulfillment of God’s plan.

Peace comes not from being given a divine blueprint for our lives but from saying yes to God in this very moment.

  1. Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 120.

A Future and a Hope

Scrabble tiles spell out the word HOPE

The book When Moms Pray Together tells the story of a mother whose daughter suffered from bulimia. Thinking herself fat and ugly, Becky would binge and purge. She began cutting herself in high school, once so deeply that she had to be hospitalized. After months of intensive therapy, her emotional pain started to ease. Finally, after attending a retreat, she experienced the reality of God’s love for her. After that she was able to share her story publicly in the hope of keeping others from heading down the same dark path.

Here’s what her mother had to say about what it was like to deal with Becky’s struggles:

“Although I can rejoice now, I didn’t know how this story would turn out. . . . At times in my frustration and impatience with her slow progress, I tried to take charge of her spiritual life. It was then that Becky clearly told me that this was her spiritual life and that I couldn’t live it for her. . . .One of the verses that I clung to during this painful period was Jeremiah 29:11. . . . I clung to the words hope and future. And when fear and worry began to cloud my mind, I remembered what God had done for us in the past. . . . I took my focus off my circumstances and redirected it to Him who is my hope and future. Then I would pray the same verse for Becky, asking that she would believe that God had plans for her—good plans, not necessarily easy ones, but plans to give her a bright future and hope.”1

What fears do you have for your loved ones and your children? Ask God to redirect your eyes to him rather than to their circumstances. Remember what he has already done for you. Then pray with renewed hope and confidence that God will be at work, making his plans for them come true.

  1. Fern Nichols, When Moms Pray Together (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 40–41.

The Secret to Hearing God’s Voice

The image is of a sculpture of a girl who is holding a shell up to her ear, listening for the ocean.

A mathematician with too much time on his hands has figured out that there are more than 177,000 ways to knot a tie. I may have twisted myself into nearly as many tangles by trying to figure out how to listen for the voice of God in the midst of my daily life. The problem has always been how to separate the voice of God from all the other messages swimming around inside my head.

One of the good things about aging is that it becomes easier to relax into the questions. Perplexity turns into mystery and mystery turns into something you can live with and, at times, even embrace. You can do this because you have learned two amazing things. That God is completely good, entirely without shadows, and that he is your Father.  Because of this, you realize that he will never hide something from you that you really need to know. What good father would welcome a child into his family and then stop speaking to that child?

Plus you know the Scripture. You remember that Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) One of the best decisions I ever made was to read the Bible regularly—even when it put me to sleep or raised troubling questions or seemed impossible to comprehend.  The more I read it, the more frequently I heard God speaking through its pages. It’s as though he and I began to live in the same spiritual country, sharing a common history, a common language, a common geography.

So many times, God has drawn close through a story or passage from the Bible. Suddenly, something I have read many times takes on a new and startling meaning. Over and over, God surprises, encourages, guides, challenges, enlightens, and refreshes me with his Word.  He pours his life into me.

I have no idea what the precise mechanism for this is. How is it possible that such an ancient book, encrusted with the detritus of centuries, can become a bridge to God? The only thing that makes sense to me is that when you and I come into relationship with Jesus, God embeds himself in us. He makes our souls, broken and bruised as they are, his home.

One way of understanding the Holy Spirit is to think of him as God embedded within us. Of course that doesn’t mean that we are God or that he is confined to our small hearts, but only that he indwells us. As such, he can shape, guide, speak to us, and even “translate” Scripture for us. He is intimately involved in our lives. The more we open ourselves to him, the more freedom, joy, and life we will experience, even though we may need to pass through some pain in order to experience these.

Another good decision I made early on was to never read the Bible in isolation, as though it were just God and me reading it together. Instead, I always read it in community, surrounded by wise friends who could help me understand it and keep me from falling into error. I’m not talking about being part of a Bible study group, though that can be a wonderful experience. I’m talking about surrounding myself with books and study Bibles that have been written by biblical scholars who are not only competent in their fields of study but who love God and believe the Bible is his Word.

The image shows the cover of the NIV Faithlife Study BibleOver the years, I have learned that the secret to hearing God’s voice is not that complicated. No need to tie ourselves in knots about it. Instead, it’s rather obvious. God wants to speak to us and will speak to us because we are his children. One of the main ways—though not the only way—he speaks is through the Bible. If you want to hear God’s voice more clearly and more frequently, read the Bible regularly, surround yourself with “wise friends,” and expect God to speak to you because you are his beloved child.

Speaking of wise friends, you can find some in the new NIV Faithlife Study Bible, which is a feast for the mind and heart.

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.