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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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Taking Sides

Taking Sides

Rhinos facing in opposite directions.

When I was in graduate school, I joined a Christian community filled with people who were passionate about their faith. Though I learned a great deal, there were inevitable difficulties. One thing my experience of community life taught me was how fallible even the best-intentioned Christians can be.

I recall one of the leaders making the point that whenever there’s a disagreement, it’s important not to adopt another person’s offense. In other words, if Sarah and Lisa disagree on something and begin arguing, don’t line up behind Sarah and then feel stung by anything Lisa might say to Sarah. Let them have their disagreement, but don’t get sucked in. Sadly, that is exactly what happened to the community. Two of the leaders began to see things quite differently. Or perhaps their disagreements had been there all along and had finally bubbled to the surface. What had started out as a tug-of-war between two individuals quickly morphed into a great, long conga line of people pulling and tugging on the rope until there was so much disagreement that the community finally split apart. Ironically, one of the hallmarks of the community had been its commitment to work toward greater Christian unity.

This dynamic of divisiveness is not uncommon in churches, in the workplace, and with families and friends. Two people argue, and others are drawn into the conflict. A married couple divorces, and friends and family take sides. Siblings stop speaking to each other, and the family is torn.

Of course, there are times when we have to take sides—when something of crucial importance is at stake. But there are many other situations in which adding our two cents to an argument that is already underway will only make things worse.

Someone once said that even Jesus had one prayer that remained unanswered. It was his prayer for unity. Let’s do what we can to help that prayer be realized by refusing to spread the division that comes from getting sucked into someone else’s argument. More

The Good Thing About Conflict

The other day, my thin-as-a-rail daughter yelled in alarm, “Mom, I’m fat!” When I turned to look, I saw that she was standing in front of glass sliders, looking at her reflected image. I walked over and stood beside her. Sure enough, the glass compressed my image, making me appear a foot shorter and fifty pounds heavier. I stepped away in relief, feeling as though I had just looked at myself in a fun-house mirror.

Although most of us are familiar with how certain kinds of mirrors can create false images, I wonder how many of us are aware that the image we project to ourselves about ourselves can also be false. Sometimes, instead of creating negative images, our inner mirrors can create images that are all too flattering, hiding personality defects or weaknesses from the very person who most needs to see them.

Homer Simpson looks better in a funhouse mirror.

What do I mean by that? Before I had children, I thought I was a nicer, kinder, wiser, gentler person than I really am. It wasn’t hard to be nice when I wasn’t under the pressure of caring for little ones who often did not want to do what their mother thought they should. Plus there was the added pressure of protecting and providing for them. Being a mother has given me a more accurate picture of my spiritual maturity, or lack of it.

Ken Sande, the author of The Peacemaker, makes a similar point by saying that

“God may also use conflict to expose sinful attitudes and habits in your life. Conflict is especially effective in breaking down appearances and revealing stubborn pride, a bitter and unforgiving heart, or a critical tongue.”1

Though it’s not much fun to see ourselves, warts and all, it’s an essential part of following Christ. Why? Because he doesn’t just barge in and make us perfect once we belong to him. He requires our permission to continue to shape and mold us. If we want to be people whose lives reflect the beauty and peace of God, we have to be willing to reflect his character as well. More

  1. Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflicts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 37.

Dealing with Conflict

A drawing of a girl looking sorry.

How should we handle the conflicts that come our way? You’ve probably heard the business buzzword “best practices,” a phrase used to describe the best methods for accomplishing any given task. Are there best practices when it comes to dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arise in our lives?

Let me begin by describing a couple of worst practices. The first is to duck out and pretend there’s no problem. All of us have preferred escape routes: eating, shopping, engaging in social media, taking a walk. Some are helpful as cool-off strategies that can help us calm down and gain perspective. But as formulas for resolving conflicts, they fail miserably. In the end, escapism is all about me. It does nothing to solve the problem.

Another worst practice is blaming others, putting them on the defense for their faults and weaknesses. Afraid, angry, or frustrated, we lash out, escalating the conflict in the process. If we can’t bring ourselves to confront the person directly, we may displace the blame by kicking the cat (or the dog), yelling at the children, or even castigating ourselves, because somebody has got to take the blame. Like escapism, blame is also all about me.

The most effective strategy for bringing peace to a personal conflict is neither to escape nor to attack but to stand still in the midst of it and allow ourselves to feel the pain. The point is to feel not only our own pain but also the pain or perspective of the other person. This takes grit. But with practice and grace and prayer, we can begin to imagine what the other person might be thinking and feeling. We can also consider the effect our words and actions may have. We don’t have to conclude the other person is right and we are wrong, but we do have to be open to his or her perspective. This best-practice strategy puts the focus on us rather than on me.

If two people in a conflict can learn to do this for each other, it will be far easier to resolve the conflict. Even if you are the only one who is willing to face things in this way, you will find it can be a transformative process, allowing you to experience more of God’s peace. More

Peace Everywhere

A stained glass window image of two people embracing. I noticed him as I was waiting in the checkout line, trying to quell my impatience—the cashier on the right. At first glance, he seemed ordinary—a young man working behind the register at an electronics store. But then I saw his lips slide back, not in a smile but in a grimace. It happened again. And then another time. Realizing this was not some fit of pique but a glitch in physiology, I looked away. Then I sent up a quick prayer, asking God to bless him. When it was time for me to step up to the register, I saw something else. The man’s body was disproportionate. From the chest up he was of average size, but his legs looked like Humpty Dumpty’s. Whether he had lost weight through dieting, surgery, or illness, I wasn’t sure. I just kept praying, asking God to help and heal him. And then, purchase completed, I walked out of the store.

God offers us the opportunity to see others—to recognize their pain, their happiness, their need. But so often I am preoccupied by my own concerns, wondering, for instance, how long I will have to wait in line and whether I will have time for one more errand. Consequently I miss the opportunity God gives to share his peace with others.

We need to remember that we are created in the image of the God whom Isaiah called Sar Shalom, or “Prince of Peace” (9:6). We have the extraordinary privilege of being his ambassadors in the world, reflecting his character to those we meet through kind words, listening ears, and continual prayer.

Join me today in asking God to open your heart to the opportunities he brings. Pray for the grace to take your eyes off yourself so your eyes can be on others. And remember that God is searching the whole earth for a person like you whose heart is fully committed to him. That’s the person he will strengthen and bless. More

God Is Not A Shouter

An image of people rushing. God Is Not A Shouter

We live in a house with four floors of living and office space. Though running up and down stairs is great for the body, sometimes the body just doesn’t want to be bothered with them. So instead we shout up the stairs: “Time for homework.” “Mom, I’m leaving.” “Dinner is ready.” “Can I take the dog for a walk?” You get the idea. Without an intercom, my children and I sometimes resort to hollering at each other in order to communicate.

But God rarely hollers. Take prayer. When is the last time God shouted at you to sit down and pray right now—or else?

Even though prayer is essential to living a vital Christian faith, it may also be the first thing to slip from your schedule. Everything else seems more urgent. The children are late for school. Your spouse is sick. The toilet overflowed again. Your boss wants that report right now. And it’s only eight o’clock in the morning. In the midst of a hectic life, how can you drop everything and pray? One thing you can do is learn how to pray continually, as Paul advised, saying,

Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

Even if you don’t have time to sit down and pray for a half hour each morning, you can pray on the go: “Lord, please heal my husband.” “Let me be your servant today.” “Give me wisdom for handling that report.” “Thank you for blue skies and a family that loves me.” Simple prayers can help orient you to the Father who loves you rather than to your troubles. Once the clamor finally subsides, consider what you can do to streamline your life so you can find time to read God’s Word and listen for his voice. More

 

Repairing the World

An image of the world half submerged in water. Repairing the World.

We know that Jesus was a Jew, but how often do we reflect on the fact that our own faith springs from Jewish roots? Even a little familiarity with Judaism can yield rich insights. Take the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, a rabbinic concept that has been around since at least the second century. It can be translated “repairing the world.” But how does one go about repairing the world?

The Jewish people speak of being called “to perfect the world under God’s sovereignty.” Looking at their contributions to history, you would have to admit they have gone some way toward doing that. Many of the big ideas on which our own culture is founded are Jewish ideas—the sanctity of human life, absolute morality, the equality of all persons before the law, and many more.

“We were the people,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “who were born in slavery to teach the world the meaning of freedom. We were the people who suffered homelessness to teach humanity the importance of every people having a home. We were the people who were the quintessential strangers to teach humanity that ‘Thou shall not oppress the stranger’ (Exodus 23:9). We were the people who walked through the valley of the shadow of death to teach humanity the sanctity of life. We were the people who were always small but yet survived to teach the world a people does not survive by might nor by strength but by My spirit, says G-d (Zechariah 4:6).”*

In terms of the Jewish duty to “repair the world,” Sacks goes on to say that in our relativistic age, we must “teach people once again to hear the objective ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Thou shalt not.’”* And we must, he says, also teach them that shalom is found in God himself, the mighty one who is able to turn an enemy into a friend.

As Christians, we, too, are called to be repairers of the world, believing that our efforts will not be in vain but will come to fruition when Christ comes again. More

* Jonathan Sacks, “Tikkun Olam: Orthodoxy’s Responsibility to Perfect G-d’s World” (address to the Orthodox Union West Coast Convention, December 1997).

Tasting the Peace God Promises

An image of two doves and a heart.My children and I recently attended a church in which a photo of a lion and a lamb sitting peacefully together was projected onto a large screen at the front. Of course, the image had been Photoshopped, because no self-respecting lamb would be crazy enough to cozy up to a lion. But this image, which on the face of things seems absurd, captures one of God’s greatest promises, when he will, he says, create peace between natural enemies, between those who eat and those who get eaten, between the haves and have-nots of this world.

As I looked at the image, I thought about my children, who had recently been fighting. What would life be like if they were always at peace? And what about their schools? What if there were no distinction between the “cool” kids and everybody else? Or what about their city? What if the folks from the “good” neighborhoods started partying with the folks from the “bad” neighborhoods? What if we all became friends? What would life feel like then?

And what about me? What about my own internal divisions? What would it be like to always be at peace with myself? No self-doubt, no recrimination, no regret, no saying one thing and doing another. My life would be peaceful because it would always align with God’s ways.

For that matter, what would the whole world be like if it were perfectly at peace? God has promised to create a world we can barely imagine, a new heaven and a new earth. But imagine it we should. And long for it and pray for it as well. While we are doing that, let us continue to find joy in the peace that is already ours by virtue of what Christ has done for us. More

Financial Peace

A woman appears fractured and fearful.

Every time the Dow Jones Industrial Average falls off a cliff, investors panic, wondering where to take refuge in uncertain times. (When are they ever certain?) The last time, I remember sending up a prayer, asking the Lord to watch over my savings. No doubt millions of similar prayers ascended to his throne along with mine.

But having survived the worst of that downturn, I feel a bit calmer, determined not to head over the cliff along with all the other lemmings. Looking back at the last panic, it’s clear that all my sleepless nights and anxious days failed to produce even one positive idea or outcome. None of it made my life any better. In fact, it made it much worse. It was only God in his good timing who made things better, helping me to get through.

With the economy feeling uncertain again, I may have a chance for a do-over. How will I respond this time? News analysts say that people are still shell shocked by the last recession, making them more likely to panic and sell everything. But what if you experienced God caring for you and your family despite your losses? Wouldn’t that make you even more likely to trust him this time around?

It’s fine to pray that God will preserve our savings. But while we do that, let’s also pray that, no matter what happens, we will remember this truth: God alone is our rock and our salvation. He is our fortress where we will not be shaken. Whether you’re facing a financial panic or another kind of personal crisis in your life, remember this, and you will not be disappointed. More

Peace Needs a Strong Foundation

A hiker stands on a firm foundation, a mountain.

For peace to flourish, evil must be resisted. But how you resist can make all the difference. Take the temperance movement. Thankfully, not everyone adopted crusader Carrie Nation’s rambunctious methodology. Many others chose peaceful ways to advance the fight against drunkenness and its attendant evils.

Concerned about the women and children who were impoverished by their husbands’ drinking habits, one person chose a more thoughtful approach. Many saloons promoted free lunches for their patrons, counting on the fact that the cost of the food would be more than offset by the resulting alcohol sales. But what they didn’t count on was a woman by the name of Amanda Way, an abolitionist and reformer who hailed from Kansas. Amanda had the temerity to organize poor families, making sure they showed up at the saloon at lunchtime. Taking their seats at the bar, they would eat up all the food.

Face-to-face with a group of hungry women and children, the saloon keepers could no longer ignore the way they were affecting their neighborhoods. Nor could the men who spent their paychecks at the bar enjoy themselves with impunity. Now they at least had to wonder whether they might encounter their own wives and children in the next lunch crew.4

Real peace is built on foundations of justice, and justice can be a costly struggle. As Christians, we are called to pursue it, not to shrink back or ignore the wrongs we see. We can’t fight all the world’s wrongs, of course, but we can do something. Securing the peace by establishing and maintaining justice takes thoughtfulness, persistence, wisdom, courage, generosity, and prayer. If we’re serious about peace, we need to open our hearts to God, asking him what he wants us to do to uphold justice. More

  1. Amanda Way’s story is told in Catherine Whitmire, Practicing Peace (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 212–13.

Temperance

In honor of the blog post on Temperance, the image is of a burger with at least 18 layers of meat, bread, cheese, toppings, sauce.If chastity is out of fashion, so is its cousin, temperance. If you’re like me, the word temperance conjures visions of the temperance movement in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Though the movement was well intentioned, who can forget hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation, who was repeatedly arrested and fined for her habit of marching into saloons and smashing them up? The resourceful Carrie financed her activities by giving lectures to the public at which she sold souvenir hatchets for twenty-five cents apiece. Believing she was on a holy crusade, she described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.”1

Of course, not everyone appreciated her nonstop barking, as evidenced by the popular barroom slogan: “All Nations Welcome but Carrie.”

Doesn’t sound very peaceful, does it? Of course, that’s not what I mean by temperance. Like chastity, temperance is often mistakenly linked with prudishness and narrow-mindedness. But in reality, temperance is a mark of strength. While chastity involves the ability to control one’s sexual appetite, temperance involves the ability to control one’s appetite for food and drink. Just as lust is the opposite of chastity, gluttony and drunkenness are the opposites of temperance. Who but a strong person is able to control his or her appetite?

Recently I had dinner with family friends. One of the children ordered a meal large enough to feed four big-time wrestlers for four days straight (slight exaggeration). These supersized portions have become the norm at restaurants across the country. What are we to do? Stop going out to eat? Go on yet another diet? Have weight-loss surgery? One thing we can do is to ask God to help us grow in the old-fashioned virtue of temperance, which will produce in us not only greater health but more peace, because we will no longer be slaves to our appetites. More

  1. Keven McQueen, “Carrie Nation: Militant Prohibitionist” in Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics (Kuttawa, KY: McClanahan Publishing House, 2001).