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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. Enter for a Chance to Win a Free Book!

Non-Anxious Presence

Gregory PeckRemember the actor Gregory Peck in the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird? As Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely convicted of rape, he is the epitome of cool. I don’t mean the kind of cool that comes from being the most popular person in town. In fact, he is vilified for representing a black man in his small Southern town. Atticus’s kind of cool comes from an inner stability that radiates outward, with the potential to transform the situation.

This kind of stability is what would-be pastors learn about in seminary—the ability to maintain a “non-anxious presence” in the midst of a conflict. I like that phrase because it highlights an ideal I’m still striving for. When my children are arguing, I’d like to help them calm down by maintaining my own sense of inner peace. When my mother has surgery, I’d like to be able to help her by staying calm myself. When I disagree with someone, I’d like to do so in a way that builds peace rather than destroys it.

To say that I want to learn how to maintain a non-anxious presence is simply another way of saying I want to be more like Christ. Think about all the times he radiated peace when others around him were falling apart. He told a group of mourners that the little girl who died was only asleep, and then he brought her back to life (see Mark 5:38-42). He quieted a storm at sea while his disciples were panicking (see Matthew 8:24-26). He reassured his disciples of his gift of peace shortly before his death (see John 14:27-30).

I wish I could tell you I have learned how to stay cool no matter what happens, but that would not be true. Yet if God is the one who comforts us in all our troubles, surely he can express that comfort through imperfect people like you and me.  More

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His Help Will Surely Come

A red life-preserver hanging on a white brick wallI once had the privilege of attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous with a family member who needed help. In that small circle of broken, honest people, I felt the tangible presence of God. These men and women had come to the end of themselves and the beginning of faith, so desperate for help that they were willing to admit the truth about themselves.

It struck me then that this was a model for my own life—to present myself to God as I truly am, broken and desperate for his grace. The truth is, no matter how much God heals and restores us, none of us can survive for even a moment without his help.

But it is easy to forget this, to fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge of our lives and we can handle our problems our way. So we build strategies, consciously or unconsciously, for handling life’s challenges in ways that depend more on us than they do on God. Perhaps the strategies work well enough on small problems, but what happens when we encounter something bigger—a real disaster or tragedy? What then? Do we try and try and try, beating our heads against a wall, or do we come to realize anew, to use the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, that our lives have “become unmanageable” and that only a “Power greater than ourselves” can help us?

If you are feeling powerless in the midst of life’s difficulties, don’t give in to discouragement. Your weakness, faced with honesty and hope, can be the very pathway God will use to display his strength. Wait for his help, which will surely come.  More

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Healing Presence

A sign for a hospital under a glowing streetlightI am afraid many of us have succumbed to what I call Christian phobias. We’ve developed unnatural fears about things that are meant to characterize the Christian life. I’m thinking of things like prayer, evangelism, and healing. Yes, we know prayer is important, but many of us are afraid of the empty space between God and us. Even if we manage to carve out the time to pray, how will we fill up that space? So we read books about prayer rather than actually spending time in prayer. And when it comes to sharing our faith, many of us run for the hills. We’re too afraid of offending someone. And then there’s the problem of healing, which we would much rather leave to the professionals.

Pastor Jim Cymbala speaks of the church as being a “Holy Ghost Hospital.” I like that metaphor because it reminds us that

As God’s people, we are to be a healing community, a place where sick people get well.

Larry Crabb, a Christian psychologist, poses an important question: “Could it be that training in counseling has become so necessary and valued because few Christians know what it means to release the energy of Christ from within them into the souls of others?” He goes on to ask, “If the battle is against soul disease, and if the real disease is disconnection caused by sin that leaves the person starving for life, isn’t it our calling to supply life to one another, at least a taste of it that drives us to run to the source?”1

I am not knocking professional therapists and psychiatrists. I have great respect for what they do, and some situations call for professional intervention. But we also, as Crabb says, “need folks who can talk to us wisely and sensitively and meaningfully about our deepest battles, our most painful memories, and our secret sins.” Let’s ask Christ to fill us with his energy so we can continue to touch others with his healing presence.  More

1. Larry Crabb, Connecting (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 175.

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In The Desert

A desert valley with wildflowers in the foregroundRemember when Adam and Eve got shoved out of the Garden of Eden after taking that fatal bite of fruit? In the Bible, the opposite of this garden paradise is the wilderness, the desert. A harsh place without the ability to sustain life, the desert is described in Deuteronomy 8:15 as a “great and terrifying wilderness.” It’s a waterless place filled with venomous snakes and scorpions. So it seems an odd spot for a loving God to send his people or to send his beloved Son, which he did prior to his public ministry.

As the opposite of Eden, the desert is a harsh place where human beings are forced to face the effects of sin, which has withered and destroyed the peace of the whole world. It’s where Jesus battled Satan, conquering the temptations that plague us all. But the desert is also portrayed as a place of opportunity—a place to meet with God and learn to trust him as he cares for us in Earth’s most inhospitable place. In the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land and Jesus’ journey to his public ministry, Scripture portrays the desert as a bridge to something far better. Get through the desert with your faith intact, and you will know how great God is and how greatly he wants to bless and use you.

As human beings whose hearts are roiled with the strife that sin brings, we no longer live in Eden, where perfect peace reigns. Thrust into the wilderness, we are not abandoned there but led by the Spirit to learn the lessons that only the desert can teach us. Today, let us remember that Jesus has led the way both into and out of the wilderness, beckoning us to endure such times with faith, believing that as we do, he will help us grow in trust and fruitfulness.  More

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When Church is the Problem

Man holding a sign that says "No"Sometimes, sad to say, our lack of peace comes from going to church. For many of us, church is our most important source of community. It’s a place where our spiritual lives are invigorated and our relationships strengthened. Being part of a healthy church enables us to grow as Christians. But what if church is contributing to our lack of peace?

For plenty of people, it’s extremely difficult to utter a certain two-letter word, no, especially when someone at church asks for their help. So they say yes to every committee, every good cause, every Bible study, every opportunity to serve. While some have taken on the heart of Christ in their service, others have just plain worn themselves out. If you recognize yourself in the latter category, ask God to help you know when to say yes and when to say no. Put a little distance between the request and your answer, giving yourself time to take the matter to Christ, expecting him to guide you.

Church can also deplete our peace if the community of Christians we belong to is characterized by legalism. All variety of churches have been guilty of morphing the gospel into a religion that depends primarily on effort rather than grace. Of course, it takes effort to live as Christians, but if we find little joy and peace in doing so, it may be that we are living a distorted form of Christianity.

What’s the best way to deal with legalism in a church community? The place to begin is in your own heart. Recognize it as a serious distortion of the gospel, admitting to yourself and to God your continued desperate need for grace. Live that prayer daily, and you will find your faith becoming more passionate and your life becoming more peaceful.  More

(Image courtesy of pakorn at freedigitalphotos.net)

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Too Many Words

a colorful graphic of people with speech bubbles over their heads“Mom, no offense, but sometimes you talk too much.” Katie had asked a question, and I must have delivered an answer that seemed either boring or belabored. I made a mental note to try to get to the point more quickly the next time she asked me something.

A story is told about Benjamin Disraeli, the nineteenth-century British prime minister. A junior member of parliament once solicited his advice about whether he should speak up about a controversial issue.

“Do you have anything to say that has not already been said?” Disraeli asked him.

“No,” the man conceded. “I just want the people whom I represent and the members of Parliament to know that I participated in the debate.”

Disraeli answered, “It is better to remain silent and have people say, ‘I wonder what he’s thinking,’ than to speak up and have people say, ‘I wonder why he spoke.’”1

If each of us were to follow Disraeli’s advice, think of how much more peace there would be in the world. No more endless meetings in which people talk simply to hear the sound of their voices. No more nonstop media chatter. No more senseless blogs and tweets.

Have you ever wondered about the endless stream of opinion surveys that populate our world? Eager pollsters solicit our thoughts on issues ranging from the best brand of diapers to the secret of world peace. Then come the results: 51 percent say one thing, while 48 percent say the opposite and one percent respond in the “other” category. Why don’t the pollsters give you the option of saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “I’m not going to offer my opinion on foreign policy because I am not qualified to judge the issues at hand”?

Sometimes we talk too much and ponder too little, with the result that our world is full of clamor and stress. Let’s get comfortable with the phrase “I don’t know” and then start learning to practice the discipline that is called “keeping our peace.”  More

1. Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), 29.

(Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at freedigitalphotos.net)

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Treasures Out of Darkness

shiny gold coinsIf you know your biblical history, you will remember that Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and played a prophetic role from 742 to 686 BC. One of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah warned of the suffering that would ensue if God’s people failed to repent. But he also foretold a time when their suffering would end and they would enjoy the Lord’s blessings.

This passage from Isaiah pictures the Jewish people returning from exile, not as a raggedy band of beat-up captives, but as wealthy people escorted home on ships. I like to think that this is a picture of how God works through our own hard times. We don’t come through them defeated and dejected but with treasures in hand, because God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him (see Romans 8:28). And everything includes our suffering.

This principle also appears in Exodus, when the Israelites were set free after years of captivity. After the last of the plagues, the Egyptians couldn’t wait to get rid of their former slaves, loading them down with silver and gold. Instead of running away from Egypt like a dejected band of captives, God’s people left like a victorious army, plundering the people who had seemed so strong and who had afflicted them for four hundred years (see Exodus 12:31-36).

What suffering are you enduring right now? Ask God to bring you out with treasures of wisdom and faith, so that like the Israelites, you can attest to his faithful love.  More

(Image courtesy of novitas at freeimages.com)

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Confronting Evil

SHadow of a person reaching towards heavenPeace doesn’t come from pretending there’s no such thing as evil. Even though it can never destroy the soul of someone who belongs to God, evil can do plenty of damage in this world. Have you ever been somewhere and sensed the presence of evil? Charles Stanley tells of traveling with a group from his church to do mission work in Haiti. While there, he had an experience that frightened him.

He and others were watching a man perform a dance. “As he danced and whirled his machete in our direction,” Stanley says, “I suddenly felt a horrible presence of evil all around us. Momentarily, I was filled with fear for my physical safety and the safety of the people with me. My immediate response to this fear was anger, and out of that anger I began to pray and intercede for our safety.

“This fear,” he explains, “was rooted in the spirit realm. It was a fear I’ve come to recognize as a fear that any Christian should feel in the face of pure evil. Why do I say it is a good thing to feel fear of evil? Because that fear can and should drive you to pray, to trust God to deliver you from the power of evil, and to get as far away from evil as possible.”1

Both fear and anger can be helpful emotions, especially if they motivate us to work against and pray against evil. At times, fear is like the gauge on a thermostat, registering the spiritual temperature around us.  More

1. Charles Stanley, Finding Peace: God’s Promise of a Life Free from Regret, Anxiety, and Fear (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 193–94.

(Image courtesy of CathyK at freeimages.com)

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Crazy Love?

Crazy Love“That’s insane!”

That thought has repeatedly run through my mind as certain social barriers are collapsing in our nation. Though individual freedom has always been a foundational value of our society, freedom un-tethered from responsibility seems to be the new norm.

In fact we are undergoing a period of rapid un-tethering. We are un-tethering ourselves from history, proclaiming certain kinds of behaviors good that have for thousands of years been considered immoral or maladaptive. We are un-tethering ourselves from biology, locating our identity entirely in our minds without reference to our bodies. It doesn’t matter whether my body appears to be male or female. Thanks to medical technology and psychological trends I can become whatever sex I want to be.

Where will all this un-tethering lead? One likely result is that our sense of community will continue to unravel. It will be harder to create healthy families, churches, and work environments. People will hide what they think out of fear of being labeled and rejected. Civil discourse will continue to decline and healthy community will be become rare. But without healthy communities, human beings cannot flourish.

In the midst of rapid cultural decline, which many are hailing as cultural advance, how should Christians respond?

The first temptation is to condemn those who disagree with us. The second is to go into hiding, hoping that things will blow over if we just keep our heads down and stay quiet. The third is to circle the wagons and try to isolate ourselves from the increasing toxicity of our culture.

But what if there’s a better way–a way to engage the culture lovingly without suppressing or disguising our beliefs? To do so, we have to remember the second great commandment, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Disagreements never give us the right to treat others in unloving ways.

We also have to realize that love and agreement are not the same thing. People who are psychologically healthy should be able to disagree without rejecting each other. Even if we are labeled and belittled by those who dislike us, we should not retaliate in kind.

If I am right and our world is getting crazier by the minute, we need to remember that the early church thrived in the Roman Empire in the midst a culture that was far crazier than ours. Though the gospel has important cultural implications, our primary call is to evangelize people not cultures. The culture will change to the extent that more and more people embrace the gospel and live in its power.

The only way to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in this crazy world, is to ask God to give us the faith and the courage to continually display his crazy love no matter how hard it might become in the months and years ahead.

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2 Simple Ways to Stop Worrying

2 waysMost of us realize that worry can be hard to get rid of. How often have you heard the advice to “stop worrying?” If it were that easy to simply stop, most of us would instantly comply.

Sometimes people advise us to pray instead of worry, as though prayer is an automatic antidote. But I am living proof that prayers can simply be worries in disguise.

Corrie ten Boom was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. If anyone had a right to worry, she did. But here’s her take on worry: “Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength—carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”

Worry is simply a maladaptive planning tool. It’s also a distorted use of our imagination. Instead of equipping us to face the future, it drains us of the strength we need to deal with the present.

But how can we stop?

Here are 2 practical suggestions that have helped me.

1.  Distract Yourself

Parents know that unhappy toddlers can often be calmed with simple distractions—an interesting toy, an invitation to look at the puppy dog that’s walking by. Try distracting yourself from your worries by thanking God for specific ways in which he’s blessed you. Decide that you will begin and end each day and each time of prayer by thanking God for at least three good things. Doing so will redirect your focus on God and help you to remember how faithful he’s been in the past.

2.  Never Worry Alone

John Ortberg points out that one of the most powerful ways to stop worrying is to disclose our worries to a friend. “The simple act of reassurance from another human being,” he says, can be “a tool of the Spirit to cast out fear.”

Everyone worries. But worry doesn’t need to consume us. I’ve shared a couple of simple strategies that help me to stop worrying. But I know there are many others.

Let me know if you’ve found other practical strategies that have decreased the power of worry in your own life. I’d love to share these with readers.

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