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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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Be Curious

Be Curious

A woman holds a magnifying glass up to her eye.My daughter has the gift of intellectual curiosity. Remember those rapid-fire machine guns that always showed up in the old movies about gangsters? That’s how fast Katie can spit out questions that are too hard for her mother to answer. Because of her penchant for seeking answers to life’s many mysteries, she loves the saying about curiosity killing the cat but satisfaction bringing it back.

When it comes to curiosity, most of us would benefit from becoming a little more curious about our own emotional reactions. Take anger. What is really powering it? Frustration, fear, sadness, hurt? In her book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg points out that being angry often indicates that we have made a negative judgment about someone.

The stranger who cut me off in traffic: he’s a jerk. The surly clerk behind the counter: she should be fired. The teacher who gave my child a failing grade: he’s incompetent. On and on the judgments go, powering our anger despite the fact that there may be a thousand explanations for why people do what they do. Maybe the stranger who cut us off was heading to the hospital with chest pains. Perhaps the clerk was going through a divorce. Maybe the teacher who failed our child is simply telling the truth. The point is that we can never fathom another person’s heart.

Tverberg points out that Jesus warned his followers against calling anyone a fool because to do so was to render “the final verdict on the person. . . . A person who is ignorant can learn, but for a ‘fool’ there is no hope,” she says.1

I don’t think Jesus was telling us to throw out our brains when he told us not to judge. He wasn’t urging us to paper over sin or act as if nothing was wrong. But he was saying we are not equipped to judge another person’s heart. Only God knows people well enough to do that. To judge others is to be guilty of arrogance because it means usurping God’s power and authority.

The next time you discover you have rendered an angry judgment against someone, ask God’s forgiveness. If you’re angry at yourself, remember that God is the only wise judge, even of your own heart.

  1. Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 113–14.

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Embezzling From Your Own Life

a woman reclines on a couch surrounded by shopping bags

Who or what is stealing your peace? We know the usual suspects—the things that add worry, strife, and difficulty to our lives. But what if the robber-in-chief is an invisible culprit, operating behind the scenes to slowly but steadily drain peace from our lives without us noticing? What then?

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work on the Sabbath stresses the importance of attitude when it comes to celebrating Sabbath.

“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day,” he says, “must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”1

What a striking phrase—the one about embezzling from your own life. Heschel is saying that greed causes us to betray ourselves, to do something that’s both foolish and immoral, filching riches that are meant to characterize our lives. Riches like trusting that we belong to a Father who will provide. Riches like being at peace because God is in charge. Riches like enjoying life’s simple and most satisfying pleasures.

So often we don’t recognize greed for what it is. Because so many of us have bought into a lifestyle that requires amassing more and more wealth, we may mistake greed for industriousness or even prudence, little realizing how costly our greed has become.

Like a receding tide exposing what lies beneath the surface, the recent economic downturn has shown many of us how flimsy and fragile the things we depend on really are. If you suspect that greed has been embezzling your peace, tell God you want it to stop, and ask him for the grace to change.

  1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 13.

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Cool

a young hipster woman with cool sunglasses

I remember the day my daughter started unpacking the social dynamics of her middle-school class, listing who was in the cool group and who wasn’t. I found it interesting that most of the girls I liked best were in the latter category. Stick with them, I advised. Among them were girls who were funny, kind, fun, modest, intelligent, and sensitive. Girls who would make great friends, I thought.

Though I remember from my own middle-school days how appealing cool can be, I also remember the pressures on kids who did everything they could to be part of the “in” group, sometimes throwing their values—as well as their friends—under the bus if that’s what it took.

For many of us, the pressure to be cool still persists, though it’s not as obvious. Our kind of cool might require having the right kind of house or car. Or it might mean dressing in a particular way or having the right relationship or having children who excel at everything. It might even mean going to the right kind of church. Our need for cool stems from insecurity. Uncertain and uncomfortable about who we are, we define ourselves by what others think of us. But a lifetime of being cool won’t deliver what we want—the sense that at the core we are acceptable and lovable. That only comes as we sink our roots into God.

If the need to be cool still lingers in your life, be honest about it, asking the Lord to help you grow beyond it. Tell him you want the kind of security that comes from knowing how deeply he loves you. As you grow in that knowledge, let his Spirit release you from the constraints you have placed upon your life so you can become the wonderful, unique person God intended you to be.

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If I Were a Squirrel

blurred city street lights on a dark night

Squirrels are famously persistent, a trait that often gets them what they want but sometimes gets them killed. They get into trouble when they persist in a strategy that simply doesn’t work. Ever notice how many roadkill victims are squirrels? Perhaps that’s because they have only one strategy for what to do when they are trying to cross the road and encounter oncoming traffic—scurry back to the side of the road they started from.

We look at the squirrel and scoff, wondering why they don’t adopt a more flexible strategy for evading oncoming traffic. As human beings, we realize that we have the cognitive ability to change course as needed. But if this is so, why do we so often return to failed strategies for coping with stress, trying the same unsuccessful solutions over and over with little effect?

Let me give you an example. Say you work with someone who annoys you. Despite your prayers for patience and for her to change, her annoying habits persist. So you redouble your prayers. While prayer is always a great strategy, you may need to add something to it—like taking action. It might, for example, be advisable to speak kindly but directly with your coworker about whatever is causing the difficulty. You might say something like this:

“When you interrupt me, it makes me feel as though what I have to say is unimportant.”

The conversation may be uncomfortable, but it’s likely to yield better results than a strategy that encourages passivity and ends in pique.

Prayer is always good. But prayer that is never accompanied by action may simply be a passive and ineffective way of dealing with problems that are stealing your peace. Ask God today for wisdom in changing your strategies for dealing with stress.

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Sleepless Anxiety

An illustration of a girl on a bed, imagining sheep jumping over a fence

My daughter had a habit of falling out of bed when she was a toddler. Fortunately she slept in a bed that was fairly low to the ground, and when she fell, it was onto soft carpet. Still, no sense taking a fall in the middle of the night if you don’t have to. The problem was solved when I found a railing that fit snugly under the mattress, keeping her sound asleep and safely in bed until her “holy rolling” days were over.

Though I’m not sure why, I am also more prone to rolling off the edge at night—not onto the floor, but into thoughts full of doubt and anxiety. Somehow darkness magnifies the troublesome issues that crop up in the daytime. If you’re like me, you may find yourself trying to solve your most nettlesome problems in the middle of the night. I can assure you it’s a strategy that rarely works.

So how can you counter this problem? One thing you can do is simply to remind yourself that night is always a terrible time to solve anything. To reinforce the thought, try conjuring an image of a hamster running endlessly on a wheel. Then promise yourself you’ll deal with the issue that’s bothering you, but not until morning. Write it down if you have to. After that, roll over and go back to sleep.

If sleep still eludes you, try doing what Paul urged the Philippians to do—pray about everything, and thank God for all he has done. Don’t pray anxiously and endlessly; pray simply and with as much faith as you can muster. Then thank God for all that is good in your life, making sure your prayer of thanksgiving is at least as long as your prayer of petition. After you’ve done that, imagine the Father standing at the edge of your bed, placing a guardrail of peace around it to keep you safe.

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Morning and Evening

A woman sits on her bed with her Bible open on her lap, and a pink highlighter.

Maybe it was the title of the blog that fascinated me. What woman wouldn’t want to sneak a look at a blog entitled “The Art of Manliness”? In a recent post, Brett and Kate McKay talk about the importance of morning and evening routines for building a successful life. Citing examples from the lives of men like Theodore Roosevelt, William Blake, and John Quincy Adams, they offer models of how men can lead lives of greater significance by paying attention to their daily routines.

“Imagine,” they say, “a string with a series of beads on it. The beads represent your goals, relationships, and priorities. Tip the string this way or that way, and the beads easily slide off and onto the floor. But tie a knot on each end of the string, and the beads stay put. Those knots are your morning and evening routines. They keep the priorities of your life from falling apart and thus help you progress and become a better man.”1

I agree with their philosophy, and I would contend that their advice applies to women as well. I can’t tell you how many times my well-intentioned plans for the day have fallen short, leaving me with a sense of frustration and guilt. At times the shortfall can be attributed to a poor start or a late finish. What do I mean by a poor start? For me it means that I am consuming too much media in the morning—watching or reading the news. Doing so gobbles up my time for prayer and Scripture reading. Late finishes can be blamed on a similar culprit—too much media, either movies, books, or news.

What are your time wasters?

How might your life look if you could carve out sensible, disciplined goals for your morning and evening routines?

If you and I were to put first things first in our routines, we could experience more of the peace that comes from a job well done or a life well lived. Join me this week in thinking about the goals you have for your life and how you might achieve them. Do so prayerfully, asking God to help you shape your day by paying more attention to how you begin and end it.

  1. Brett McKay and Kate McKay, “Bookend Your Day: The Power of Morning and Evening Routines,” The Art of Manliness (blog), September 5, 2011, accessed September 6, 2011, http://artofmanliness.com/2011/09/05/bookend-your-day-the-power-of-morning-and-evening-routines/.

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Have Some Fun!

a group of people swimming in a lake in the evening

“Adults never have any fun,” proclaimed my oldest daughter with the 100 percent certainty common to teenagers. This time I had to admit she was right, at least when it came to my life. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d really had fun. Was it on my trip to the grocery store or when I was paying bills or taking the dog to the vet or hurrying to meet a writing deadline or rushing to pick up a child from karate class or cooking dinner or meeting with teachers at my children’s schools or shopping for back-to-school clothes or arranging for home care for my elderly mother? Like yours, my days are packed, but not usually with things I love to do. As I reflected on my daughter’s remark, I started wondering if I would even recognize fun if it landed on my doorstep. Had I completely forgotten how to play? I hoped not.

I decided to break out of my routine and do something a little out of the ordinary. Unsure of what to do, I began by making a list of things I had done in the past that were genuinely fun:

  • crabbing
  • shelling
  • snorkeling
  • waterskiing
  • surf fishing
  • swimming in Lake Michigan
  • attending a baseball game
  • playing laser tag
  • shooting pool with friends
  • drift fishing
  • kayaking

Noticing that the most frequent theme threading its way through my fun list was water, I decided to rent a stand-up paddleboard and try my luck on Lake Michigan. Last weekend my children and I shared the board with hilarious results.

Why not consider adding a little fun to your own life? If you can’t remember how to play, try making a list of the most memorable fun you’ve had. Let it spark ideas for the present. Remember, one aspect of shalom is well-being. Perhaps a little burst of play is all that’s needed to put your world back into balance.

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Whirled Peas

an image of a Russian nesting doll

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “Visualize Whirled Peas”? I admit I got a chuckle out of it the first time I saw it. It’s such a refreshing alternative to slogans like “Embrace Peace,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Peace and Love,” or even “Girly Girls for Peace.” I’m tired of brightly colored bumper stickers and cheerful slogans implying that our search for peace is easier than it is. Such slogans seem rooted in the belief that peace is primarily a matter of willpower, something we can achieve if we all get together and try a little harder. While I’m all for togetherness and trying hard, I don’t think these can ultimately produce the peace we long for.

Here’s why: Peace is something only God can give. Here’s how Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, puts it:

“There will never be peace in the world until there is peace in nations. There will never be peace in nations until there is peace in communities. There will never be peace in communities until there is peace in families. There will never be peace in families until there is peace in individuals. And there will never be peace in individuals until we invite the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts.”1

If you want to visualize world peace, imagine yourself holding one of those Russian nesting dolls, only yours is shaped like a globe with progressively smaller globes inside. Start opening the globes. When it’s time to pull out the last and smallest one, you will find the hidden heart of peace. It’s not a globe but a small figurine that looks a lot like you—a person in whom Christ’s Spirit lives. He is the one we call the Lord and giver of peace.

  1. Rick Warren, “A Time for Reconciliation,” session 3 of The Purpose of Christmas: A Three-Session, Video-Based Study for Groups and Families (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), DVD.

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Blame

an image of clouds trying to hide the sun

Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism in 1950, at a time when little was known about this neurological disorder. Remarkably, she became a renowned animal scientist, an author, and a professor at Colorado State University. In a particularly poignant scene from the HBO film that was made about her life, the doctor who diagnosed her condition callously explained to her mother that autism was caused by a mother’s coldness to her child.

At around the same time, another nonscientific theory was circulating in psychiatric literature about the cause of schizophrenia. This theory was so popular that someone invented a fancy adjective to identify the supposed culprit. Schizophrenia, it was asserted, was caused by “schizophrenogenic” mothers. Of course, later research debunked the notion that anyone—including mothers—had the power to cause schizophrenia in their offspring. Instead, it was linked to a neurochemical problem.

Because we mothers are good at blaming ourselves for everything under the sun, I hardly think we need the assistance of the medical community to make us feel guiltier than we already do. Of course, mothers aren’t the only ones who heap blame on themselves. As Erma Bombeck once famously quipped, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” It’s also the thing that keeps on stealing—our peace.

So how can we get free of the guilt?

Studies have shown that those who have a strong internal sense of control—people who think their actions cause much of what happens around them—have far greater stress responses in the midst of uncontrollable events than those who do not. So if you are a person who feels in charge of your life, you are at risk for greater stress because you will have a tendency to take responsibility for things outside your control.

Let’s stop accepting blame for things we haven’t a hope of controlling. While we’re at it, let’s stop kidding ourselves that we are in charge of the universe. Instead, let’s remember who is, calling on his name and trusting in his care.

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Peace Takes Time

A beautiful silver pocket watch.

Last weekend I purchased a new watch. I’d done my homework, trolling the Internet in search of the best price. Then I decided to check out Macy’s to see if they had it in stock. They did! Better yet, they could size the watchband on the spot so I could wear it instantly. I decided to pay a few more dollars rather than ordering it online and waiting for it to arrive. Like most people, I enjoy getting what I want when I want it.

The other night I was talking to one of my daughters about a behavior issue.

“Why don’t you ever apologize when you’re wrong?” I asked her.

“But I do,” she countered.

“Yes, you say you’re sorry, but your tone of voice makes it clear you don’t mean it.”

“That’s because you always make me apologize right away. I might be sorrier if I had a little more time to calm down and think about things.”

Her observation made perfect sense. Now she has a little more space before she is expected to take responsibility for what she’s said or done.

It strikes me that my hurry for her to make peace (with her sister, in this case) was misguided. Like anything good in life, peace takes time. But most of us want it right here, right now. And no wonder. It doesn’t feel good to lack peace. Being without it when we think we need it most can tempt us toward hopelessness, making us doubt we will ever experience the peace God promises. But our journey toward peace will deepen as we make God the goal of our lives, living for him, trusting him, seeking to please him. If we do that, we will one day turn around, surprised to find his peace has been worked into our hearts, even though we don’t know how.

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