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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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Why We Should Be Optimists

Why We Should Be Optimists

An image of a person standing on a sandbar over a calm lake, with the colors of the sunset reflected in the water.

If you were going to climb Mount Everest, would you pick a guide who had already completed the climb or someone who had read a lot of books about it? If it were my life on the line, I’d go for the guy who had actually succeeded in making the climb. That’s why I place great stock in the words of the apostle Paul.  Why? Because by his own account he experienced imprisonment, whipping, beating, stoning, shipwreck, hunger, nakedness, and persecution in his commitment to live for Christ.

Despite these hardships and more to come, Paul’s writings are bursting with optimism about the future.

Despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

He proclaims that anyone who belongs to Christ can look forward not simply to winning a few battles but to experiencing “overwhelming victory.” The odds, as Paul sees it, are completely in his favor—and ours.

Note that Paul prefaces this promise with the phrase “despite all these things.” Just prior to the passage above, he speaks of the long list of troubles and calamities he faced. But Christ had already been so faithful to Paul in the midst of these challenges that he had no doubt about the future.

Why not join me today in taking Paul as your guide, memorizing this passage from the book of Romans? Hide it in your heart and let it strengthen you so that when calamity threatens, you will remember that nothing in heaven or on earth can ever separate you from God’s love.

How to Deal with Negative Thoughts

a woman sits, looking out a window, thinking

Ever try not thinking a particular thought? The harder you try, the likelier you are to think it. I appreciate the way one woman deals with her propensity to think in negative ways:

“My negative thoughts are like impatient toddlers jumping up and down and screaming, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ Jesus and I take the negative ‘toddler thoughts’ and send them to time-out so we can focus on the good thoughts. Sometimes they don’t obey. They get up out of the chair and once again scream for attention. Then Jesus and I take those thoughts back to the time-out chair, but this time we tie them up!” 1

Though no analogy is perfect (I am sure, for instance, that she isn’t advocating tying children to time-out chairs), we can extend the comparison in helpful ways. For instance, whenever our “toddler thoughts” scream for attention, we can simply distract them or redirect them, calling to mind specific instances of God’s faithfulness and his promises, and thanking him for gifts we have already received. Distraction works because if we fill our minds with positive thoughts, there is no room for negative ones.

Of course, I am not advocating that we ignore every negative thought. Sometimes we need to pay attention to them so we can solve problems. But most of us know the difference between problem solving and merely rehearsing doubts, complaints, and negativity, which only corrode our faith and rob us of the peace God promises.

  1. Linda Dillow, Calm My Anxious Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2007), 32–33.

The Anxiety Monster

A woman's fist is shown , heading towards the viewer

Have you ever watched a boxer dancing around the ring, throwing punches at no one in particular? He’s using a training technique called shadowboxing—sparring with an imaginary opponent. Now imagine that same boxer, but with a bizarre twist. While he’s in the ring alone, his head thrusts backward again and again, as though someone were punching him in the face. But there’s no one else around. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

As strange as that scenario seems, it’s an image of what can happen to us when we start sparring with imaginary ills. Our anxiety turns us into human punching bags, battered by thoughts not about what is, but about what might be. I might never get married. I might lose my job. My husband might leave me. My child might not graduate. My plane might crash. The economy might collapse. My mother might die. I might not have enough money to retire.

There are plenty of places in Scripture that tell us not to be anxious but to place our trust in God, who alone is our peace. One example is 1 Peter 5:7, which gives us a clear directive:

“Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”

The next time you feel anxiety rising inside you like mercury in a thermometer, let it be the signal that you need to spend some time with God. Have a conversation with him. Tell him you want to focus on him rather than on all the what-ifs that assail you. Begin by praising and thanking him. Then lift up the people and situations that are troubling you. As you pray, imagine that God is in the room, which, of course, he is. Rest in his presence. If you make a habit of spending time with God daily, you will find that your anxiety will gradually be displaced by God’s peace.

 

 

Spread the Peace!

the image shows in older woman's hands tying a string around a young person's wrist

Hailing from a town called Freedom, Pennsylvania, it’s perhaps no coincidence that Linda Banks is concerned about a lack of freedom elsewhere in the world. On a visit to Pune, India, where her daughter and son-in-law are serving as missionaries, she met sixteen young girls who had been rescued from local brothels. As a result of her encounter with the Home of Hope, where the girls are living, Linda began praying and educating herself about human trafficking, asking God what she could do to help. The answer came in the form of an organization she founded, called the Praying Aunties Network.

The idea behind Praying Aunties is to connect one “auntie” with one girl. The auntie receives updates on the girl in order to know how to pray for her. She also meets monthly with other praying aunties in her area.

Linda’s group of sixteen women prays for the sixteen girls and the staff members of the Home of Hope in Pune. Because of the problems associated with prostitution, it is not uncommon for rescued girls to return to their former lives. But this has not been the case in Pune, where all sixteen girls have accepted Christ and none have returned to their old way of life.

If you are serious about becoming a person at peace, remember that God gives peace for a purpose. It’s tempting to think that one person can’t make much difference in a world that is filled with conflict. But Linda Banks and her praying friends have already made a world of difference to the young women they’re praying for.

Why not ask God today whether you should join Linda’s network (connecting with them on Facebook is a great way to start) or another similar organization, making an impact one life at a time? Don’t let the sun go down on this day without sincerely asking God to show you how you can spread his peace in the world around you.

Chasing Feathers

a single white feather

Author Lois Tverberg recounts an entertaining story of an inveterate gossip who had decided to mend his ways. Regretting the damage he’d done, the man approached the village rabbi, asking what he should do to make things right.

As the story goes, the rabbi simply told him to go home and fetch a pillow. When the man returned, the rabbi commanded him to slit the pillow open and then scatter its feathers to the wind.

As the feathers blew every which way, over housetops and through fields, the rabbi turned to the man and said, “Now, go gather all the feathers again and put them back in the pillow.”

“But that’s impossible,” the man objected.

“In the same way,” the rabbi said, “it’s impossible to repair all the damage that your words have done.”1

The problem with words is that they tumble out of our mouths so effortlessly, often before we’ve had a chance to consider them. But reckless words can wreck the peace, spreading like a contagion from person to person. If you have been guilty of passing on a juicy bit of gossip, don’t despair. There is still time to change. True, you can’t pick up all the “feathers” you’ve already scattered, but you can keep the rest of them right where they belong—inside the pillow.

Today, ask God to change your heart so you are no longer eager to listen to or spread gossip. Then show your resolve by saying something positive about people you’ve criticized in the past. Then ask God to keep your lips pure in the future by helping you cultivate the habit of thinking before you speak.

Father, forgive me for passing on gossip or speaking in ways that hurt the reputations of others. Give me the wisdom to know when to speak and when to keep quiet.

  1. Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 97.

God’s Peace—One Drop at a Time

The image shows several drops of water falling onto the same spot.

Akiva was an illiterate second-century shepherd. Though he hadn’t sprouted from a long line of Jewish scholars, he became one of the most famous rabbis in history. According to a rabbinic tale, this is how his story began:

“He was forty years old and had not yet learned a thing. Once, he stood at the mouth of a well and asked, ‘Who hollowed this stone?’ He was told, ‘Is it not the water which constantly falls on it day after day?’”1

Akiva realized that if water could carve away stone, then the Scripture could carve a way into his heart, transforming him from an ignorant man into a sage.

Many centuries later, another rabbi pointed out that the stone could only have been hollowed out by water falling drop by drop. Had the water poured out all at once in a torrent, it would have run quickly over the rock, leaving no trace behind.2

The metaphor of water and rock is a good one for us to apply to our own journey toward peace. Biblical peace, as we have established, is far more than simply a feeling of calm or a cessation of conflict. Shalom involves those things and more, including healing, wholeness, well-being, completeness, soundness, safety, success, perfection, and good relationships between people and nations. Peace in our world is a goal we lean toward, like plants toward sunshine. As we steep ourselves in Scripture and yield ourselves to God, we experience shalom in ever-deepening measures.

Try opening the Bible today and imagining yourself as that rock. Ask God to pour out his life-giving water as you read his words and apply them to your life.

  1. The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan 6:2, quoted in Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), 1.
  2. This analogy was made in the nineteenth century by Rabbi Israel Salanter, as pointed out in Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, 1.

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