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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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Fantasies

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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Peace Through Our Tears

A heart pillow reads "You are not alone."

The year was 387. A small group of Africans were leaving Italy to return to their homeland. Among them were a mother and son. The two had developed a close bond over the years, the mother praying ceaselessly until her son’s conversion, which had occurred the previous year. Now they were staying in the seaport town of Ostia, awaiting transportation to their home in North Africa. One day as the two were conversing, the mother turned the conversation in a surprising direction.

“My son,” she confided, “I no longer find any personal pleasure in a longer life here. I really don’t know why I remain here. The great hope of my life has been fulfilled.” She went on to tell him that “God has more than answered my prayers since I now see that you have turned your back on worldly values and have dedicated yourself completely to him. So, what am I doing here?”1

Within five days, she developed a fever. A few days later, at the age of fifty-six, she was dead. Though the mother accepted her death peacefully, her son did not.

“A huge wave of sorrow washed over my heart, a rushing torrent that threatened to pour from me as tears. And yet my eyes were dry, held tight by the stern command of my will. The tension tore me apart. . . . Like a fool, I was upset because I was human and so affected by the death of a human being.”2

Gradually the son was able to express his sorrow, saying,

“Finally, alone with you, my God, I was able to weep, to weep about her and for her, to weep about myself and for myself. With relief I was able to let go the tears I had been holding back, letting them flow as fully as they wished, spreading them out as a soft pillow for my heart. My heart came to peace resting on those velvet tears, tears that were seen by you alone.”3

The story of Monica and her famous son Augustine is told in Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions. Through it we discover that even this great man had to learn that peace sometimes comes only through our tears.

  1. Augustine, Confessions, 9.10.26
  2. Ibid., 9.12.29
  3. Ibid., 9.12.33

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Each Grief Has Its Own Character

a classical painting on a person grieving and a friend sitting nearby playing music

Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his twenty-five-year-old son, Eric, in a mountain climbing accident in Austria. In the classic memoir Lament for a Son, he points out that part of the pain grief entails is the profound loneliness it produces.

“I have been daily grateful,” he says, “for the friend who remarked that grief isolates. He did not mean only that I, grieving, am isolated from you, happy. He meant also that shared grief isolates the sharers from each other. Though united in that we are grieving, we grieve differently. As each death has its own character, so too each grief over a death has its own character—its own inscape. The dynamics of each person’s sorrow must be allowed to work themselves out without judgment. . . .

“There’s something more: I must struggle so hard to regain life that I cannot reach out to you. Nor you to me. The one not grieving must touch us both.”1

I remember losing my sixteen-year-old sister many years ago. She died instantly in an automobile crash. I realize now that neither my parents nor my brothers were able to comfort me because they were crushed by the burden of their own grief. What helped me most were friends who came alongside, offering small gifts, invitations to go out, and ears to listen when I felt ready to speak.

If you have suffered a traumatic loss, whether a death, an illness, or the loss of your livelihood, be patient with those around you who are also grieving, realizing that their way of dealing with loss may be different from yours.

If you know someone who is suffering right now, ask God to show you how to be the “one not grieving” who is able to touch them in a way that brings his peace.

  1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 56, 26.

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Grieving

a girl is seated in a pink room, her forehead on her knees

Several years ago a friend I hadn’t seen for some time told me her mother had died. Wendy’s loss was made worse by the feeling that few people understood what she was going through. More than one insensitive friend seemed surprised that she was still grieving a few weeks after her mother’s death. Why the insensitivity?

I don’t think it was a matter of callousness. Wendy has good friends. But perhaps few of them had experienced the death of a loved one. They simply lacked the imagination to understand the depth of her loss.

Listen to how Leslie Allen, the author of A Liturgy of Grief, reflects on his own experience of losing his mother:

“Sixty years ago, after my mother died, I recall the drapes kept firmly closed at the front windows in the daytime, my older brothers wearing black armbands on their coats, and a black tie replacing my school tie for a long time. Now a funeral service may be reduced to an ostensibly more healthy form of a celebration of life. In general, church services can be uncomfortable and unsatisfying for the one who grieves, for these services may reflect an aversion to sorrow that takes no account of the somber realities of life.”1

Perhaps our cultural aversion to grief explains why funerals no longer have dirges—somber songs that give vent to our sorrow and mourning. In his book, a commentary on the book of Lamentations, Allen remarks that the dirge “gave permission for broken piece after broken piece to be picked up and wept over.”2 Perhaps it is time to bring back the dirge, to give ourselves permission to look at the broken pieces of what has happened, weeping over them as we pray and trust God for the peace we seek.

  1. Leslie C. Allen, A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 5.
  2. Ibid.

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One and Done

a runner is taking off from the blocks

Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest man. In 2008 he broke the world record for the one hundred meter run three months before the Beijing Olympics. Since then he’s dominated every competition. But that didn’t prevent the six-foot-five Jamaican from being disqualified at the 2011 world track and field championships held in Daegu, South Korea. Crouching at the line for the one hundred meter final, Bolt jumped the blocks early, which disqualified him from the race.

Fellow runners were stunned. Bolt was the latest to fall victim to a new rule referred to as “one and done.” One false start, and the favored athlete was erased from the competition. The rule was adopted to accommodate television broadcast schedules and fans who disliked waiting through countless false starts for races to begin. Prior to that, each runner had been allowed a second chance.

Fortunately for us, God doesn’t have a “one and done” rule. If he did, who on the planet would be left to run the race spoken of in Hebrews:

“Since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (12:1).

The truth is, God is even more familiar with our failings than we are.

And still he loves us.

That’s the miracle, the good news that’s worth celebrating every single day of our lives. If you’ve fallen prey to the lie that God couldn’t possibly forgive you for what you’ve done or how many times you’ve done it, decide today to reject it. Don’t dignify it by giving it a hearing in your heart. Instead, find a way to show God you are sincerely sorry. Commit to making amends. But rest in this truth and let it shape the race ahead: as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed your sins from you.

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Peace in the Darkness

a person with hands raised appears over the sheet music for "Jesus Loves Me"

In addition to working with orphans, Katherine Welch has an international ministry to victims of human trafficking. Her work takes her into parts of the world that most of us can’t imagine. It’s in the midst of the darkness that she struggles to find God’s peace. Listen to her reflections on a recent trip.

“I know what I’m gonna face when I do certain things and go certain places, and it is always uncomfortable. I’ve learned to recognize the lies and understand the darkness that I feel, but that doesn’t mean I have any magic words to make it go away. It takes training to endure and press on and in and go ahead.

“Sometimes it is discouragement and I question my being there. I often suffer from sleeplessness and sometimes I get uncharacteristically anxious about a lot of different things not even related to the work at hand. I just press into the Father, as hard as I can; and understand that these thoughts are unbidden, these anxieties are not truth, these feelings are false. I plead for and receive peace, joy, and strength.”1

Katherine’s ministry takes her onto the front lines of the battle with evil. The enemy would like nothing better than to drive her out or neutralize her by planting seeds of anxiety and doubt. But Katherine has learned to endure, to plead for and receive the peace and perspective she needs.

Her experience reminds me a little of those commercials in which the effectiveness of a particular laundry detergent is proven by its ability to clean the worst kinds of stains. Viewers are treated to a before and after view, noting how the dirtiest clothes come out spotless after being washed. Likewise, Katherine’s experience tells us that God’s peace works no matter where we are or what we are confronting. God can transform a heart that is anxious and doubtful into one that is full of joy and strength.

As you press into the Father today, take a few moments to pray for Katherine, asking God to keep her in his peace. Pray, too, for the countless women and children she is serving throughout the world, asking God to free them from slavery and bring them into relationship with himself. More

1. Katherine Welch, “The Work of the Week,” A Just Walk (Run, Hike, Etc . . .) (blog), August 19, 2011, accessed August 30, 2011, http://justawalk.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/the-work-of-the-week/.

Take Care of Yourself

a woman asleep in a field of flowering chamomile What sinister condition can be responsible for the following disorders: high blood pressure, irritability, confusion, headache, memory lapse, fatigue, weight gain, aching muscles, hallucinations, depression, and death? If you guessed sleep deprivation, you would be right. Sleep is a need as basic as food and water. Getting by on less and less is a recipe for sickness, stress, and unhappiness. Why, then, do so few of us put a high enough priority on getting the sleep we need?

I have a friend who frequently nods off during social events. She isn’t bored and doesn’t suffer from narcolepsy. It’s just that she has a habit of packing too many good things into her life. I’m guessing many of us are like that. We cram our schedules to the max.

On average our brains constitute 3 percent of body weight and consume about 25 percent of body energy. Just as we wouldn’t expect cell phones or laptops to work without charging their batteries, we shouldn’t expect our brains to continue to work without the chance to recharge.

The good news is that unless you suffer from a sleep disorder, it may be fairly easy to solve the sleep problem. Try these simple tips to get your sleep:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Exercise, but do it in the morning or afternoon.
  • Avoid watching television or using a computer thirty minutes before bedtime.
  • Take a closer look at your daily schedule. Can anything be eliminated to afford more time for sleep?
  • Drink a glass of warm milk or chamomile tea.
  • Take a relaxing bath before bedtime.

Consider moving sleep up on your priority list. If you continue to neglect this basic need, you can’t expect God to make up the difference by zapping you with peace. More

The Need to Be Loved

a white dog peers intently at the viewer

One reason dogs make such great pets is that they have a no-holds-barred approach to love. Whenever I come home, my dog, Kallie, greets me as though I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to her. A more grateful, adoring dog you will not meet. She follows me around the house and insists on sleeping under my bed at night, just to be close to me. If dogs were capable of sinning, I’m sure their most common failing, more common even than shredding slippers or chasing cats, would be the sin of idol worship.

Of course, dogs don’t worship people because we’re so wonderful but because we have purposely bred traits of affection and loyalty into them. While that kind of relationship works well between dogs and humans, it’s a little over the top in our relationships with people. And most of us don’t expect or want that.

But some of us fall into the trap of craving the kind of universal love and acceptance that only exists between a boy and his dog. We can’t stand the thought that someone might not like us, so we do everything in our power to be accepted, wearing masks and telling half-truths when whole truths are required. Not wanting to rock the boat, we do our best to avoid conflict. But such behaviors don’t guarantee smooth sailing. Motivated by fear and not love, they lack the creative energy that is needed for finding real solutions to real problems.

Jesus was never one to smooth things over. Read the Gospels carefully and you will find the one we call the Prince of Peace more often disturbed the peace, speaking the truth when truth was called for. He did this because he had not come to bring a superficial brand of peace; he came to bring true shalom. As people who belong to him, we are called to have integrity, to do what is right regardless of what others may think. We need to aim at real peace, not the counterfeit kind that keeps us from experiencing all that God has for us. More

 

If It Doesn’t Work, Stop It!

a yellow butterfly approaches some flowers

Imagine that you have made it your goal to get butterflies to fly in formation. How beautiful it would be if they could fly together like a flock of birds. You begin modestly, attempting to get one butterfly to fly in a straight line. Enticing it with nectar seems to work, so you try it with a few more butterflies. You pick the most successful of these and attempt to get them to fly in a straight line together. But as soon as you release your star pupils, everything devolves into chaos, with butterflies flying in every direction. Still, you’re not willing to give up because you can envision how great it would be if they could only learn what you’re trying to teach them. Every day you perform the same trials with the same frustrating results. After a while, you find yourself disliking the creatures you once cherished because these pesky insects won’t do what you want them to no matter how hard you try.

The point of this far-fetched example is that our efforts to control circumstances and people are often as misguided as the scenario I’ve outlined. We want children to behave perfectly, employees to perform flawlessly, and circumstances to unfold as we think they should. But our oversized efforts at control produce the same frustrating results. Perhaps it’s time to realize that if something is not working, it may be time to stop doing it.

According to Edwin Friedman, who is associated with family systems therapy, the most effective leaders focus on managing themselves in the group rather than focusing on how to manage the group itself. Such leaders strengthen the organization by staying connected to others without allowing themselves to be sucked into the anxious, emotional processes that often swirl around them. By doing this, they are able to lead from the inside rather than by trying to coerce others from the outside.

If you feel chronically frustrated at home or at work, ask yourself whether you may be trying to exert a level of control that is unhealthy and unwise. If the answer is maybe or yes, try redirecting your energy, asking God to show you how to manage yourself in the midst of challenging people. More