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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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How to be Whole

How to be Whole

A man viewing a serene lake and mountain sceneIs wholeness just a buzzword, something to describe a therapeutic goal or a proclivity toward health, as in Whole Foods Market or whole-body workouts? Or is there more to it than that? Remember that the Hebrew word shalom, often translated “peace” in English translations of the Bible, can also be translated as “wholeness.” But what does it mean to be whole?

Perhaps we could get an idea of what wholeness means by looking at the polar opposite. Let’s go back to the story of the man whose mind and soul were so devastated that he was living in the hills and among the tombs along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a constant danger to himself. Here’s how Mark’s Gospel describes the scene. Jesus has just arrived with his disciples. Intent on delivering the man, he commands the demon to identify itself, and he gets this reply: “Legion, because there are many of us inside this man” (5:9). A multitude of demons infesting the man, each vying for space inside him, fragmenting his soul and shattering his mind.

To be whole is to be the opposite of this ruined man. It is to be complete, unbroken, sound in body, soul, and spirit. It is to be as God intended you to be before sin came and wrecked everything—including you.

We know that Christ restored this man to his right mind. If he was able to do that for such an extreme case, why do we doubt he can help us? Scripture tells us the peace of Christ rules in our hearts when the word of Christ richly dwells within us (see Colossians 3:16, niv). The word richly implies fullness, abundance. If Jesus is not richly dwelling within us, something else will be—conflict, worry, strife, bitterness, anxiety, greed, guilt, envy, anger, lust. A thousand things can fill us, crowding out the life of God and creating divisions within our souls. No heart is perfectly unbroken in this broken world. But we can be confident that the heart set on Christ, committed to living by his Word, is being restored to his likeness and kept in his peace.  More

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Peace With the Question Marks

Yellow traffic signs with a ? on themFascinated by the most minute details of Scripture, Jewish sages have paid special attention to the very first word of the Bible, beresheet, which means “in the beginning.” Drilling down on the first letter of this word, bet b, they pointed out that this is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Why, the sages wondered, did the Bible begin with the second letter of the alphabet, rather than the first?

In her book Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg provides their fascinating answer: “To show that the Scriptures do not answer every question, and not all knowledge is accessible to man, but some is reserved for God himself.”1

Even for those of us who believe in Christ, life is full of question marks. Why did my child get ill? Why did my marriage fail? Why did my job evaporate? What is going to happen to me? How will I get through this? What if I don’t? Countless questions surround us, as they do every person. At times, God provides answers. But there are many times he does not. What do we do then? Do we become frustrated, angry, fearful? Or do we decide to keep trusting him in the middle of all the question marks?

I think the Jewish sages were onto something. God both reveals and conceals. Some things he simply keeps to himself. And that is all right because he is God. He knows what we need to know and what we don’t.

What are the question marks in your life right now? Take a few moments to lift them up to God, trusting that he knows the answers, though you may not. Tell him you are confident that he is big enough and good enough and wise enough to deal with each one in a way that displays his faithfulness and care. Then leave the questions right where they belong—in his capable hands. More

1Genesis Rabbah 1:10, quoted in Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 156.

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GRACE + GRACE + TRUTH = GOD’S LOVE

Sunset over the mountains through evergreen treesWe know the Bible is God’s Word. All of it—even the messy, gory, challenging parts of the Old Testament that we find hard to decipher. But as important as Scripture is, God wanted to communicate himself even more clearly, so in an ultimate act of grace, he sent his Son.

John’s Gospel describes this momentous gift by saying, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, niv). It’s interesting that John describes Jesus as the Word and also as the one who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. All aspects of Jesus—what he said, the miracles he performed, the way he lived and died—are a message from God, a revelation of his character. John goes on to say, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17, niv).

Mart De Haan, of RBC Ministries, points out that most of us have either a grace default or a truth default. Those oriented toward grace, for instance, are always willing to give the benefit of the doubt. They will do almost anything to smooth things over, even if that means disregarding the truth at times.

On the other hand, those who are oriented toward truth can sometimes be harsh and insensitive. But Jesus was perfectly balanced, oriented toward both grace and truth. De Haan goes on to remind us that just as adding two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen yields water, the life of Jesus would seem to indicate that two parts grace plus one part truth yields the love of God. That is the divine equation that should characterize our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.1

Let’s ask God to help us remember this formula as we encounter people who disagree with our most cherished beliefs. Let’s also remember this formula for God’s love when it comes to relating to those closest to us.  More

(1) Based on an unpublished sermon by Mart De Haan (Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference, Muskegon, MI, July 17, 2011).

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Healthy in Body and Soul

A woman lifting a 20-pound weightMy dog is the calmest creature I know. But sometimes even she can get a little squirrelly. The other day I took her with me to explore a local art fair. Normally Kallie loves to be in the middle of a crowd. But as we were walking along, she suddenly made a beeline for the opposite side of the street, dragging me behind her. Her body spoke the language of fear—back hunched, head down, and tail pinned tightly between her legs.

Wondering what had frightened her, I looked around, expecting to see a hulking dog, barely concealing its rage through bared teeth. But there was nothing—only a pleasant crowd milling about. And then I spotted it: a metal grate surrounding a tree in the sidewalk. To test my theory, I started walking toward it. Sure enough, as soon as we got near, Kallie started pulling with all her might in the opposite direction.

When I described this phenomenon to my brother, the family dog whisperer, I wondered aloud if perhaps she had developed this neurosis after catching her foot in a grate, though I couldn’t remember her ever having done so. “Well, maybe,” he said. “But you have to understand that if a dog like Kallie isn’t exercised regularly, she’s going to start developing some problem behaviors. You need to make sure she stays in good shape. That will head off a lot of trouble.”

His advice made sense because I realize how much regular habits of exercise can help me to head off a lot of my own problem behaviors—things like crankiness, complaining, and depression. Being a couch potato makes it easy for me both to gain weight and to lose perspective. In our search for more of God’s peace, let’s not overspiritualize everything, ignoring obvious ways in which we can grow stronger and become less stressed. More

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Breathe

A woman breathing fresh airOver the years I’ve learned a couple of simple tricks to reduce my stress level. One of these is to practice deep-breathing techniques. You needn’t be a Buddhist to recognize that the right kind of breathing exercises can help you feel more peaceful. The reason for this calming effect is based on the way God designed our bodies.

Let me explain. Whenever you’re faced with an emergency, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Your muscles tense up, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure increases, and adrenaline begins coursing through your body. The body’s 911 system is preparing you for an explosive burst of energy to enable you to make a fight-or-flight response. Though the system is superbly adapted for dealing with immediate dangers, such as fending off a mugger or escaping from a house on fire, the sympathetic nervous system will wreak havoc on your body and your mind if it becomes chronically activated, which is exactly what happens when you’re under constant stress.

By contrast, the parasympathetic system lowers your heart rate, decreases your blood pressure, and enables you to rest. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic system, increasing your sense of calm.

Here’s how to do one breathing exercise. Begin by sitting up straight. Then exhale fully through your mouth. Breathe in deeply through your nose and into your abdomen, letting it fill with air. Hold your breath for two to five counts and then exhale slowly through your nose. Try doing this for five to ten minutes on a regular basis. To enrich the time, begin by imagining yourself in God’s presence, thanking him for how fearfully and wonderfully he has made you.  More

(Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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Hey Everybody, Let’s Take a Stand Against Animal Cruelty!

a white lambI come from a dog-loving, cat-loving, snake-loving, monkey-loving, fish-loving, lizard-loving, turtle-loving, bird-loving family. At one time or another during my childhood, we had at least one such pet in our home.

Whenever we felt the need for a new one, my siblings and I had only to finda way of luring my mother into a pet store and then showing her the latest fascinating animal. Once she even let us have a South American tortoise that dined on bananas.

I’ve since come to regret keeping some of those animals in captivity. But my experience with so many different animals convinces me of at least one thing: most animals have more feelings and intelligence than we think. Why do we miss this? I fear that for some among us, it’s because admitting their capabilities would make it harder to exploit them.

But God calls us to be stewards of his creation. We are to take care of, not take advantage of, the creatures he has made. I’m not arguing that we should all become vegetarians, but I am saying that we have to treat other creatures with respect, sparing them unnecessary suffering whenever possible.

I love the story about Francis of Assisi and his encounter with a ravenous wolf that had been terrorizing a city in Italy. According to the story, Francis ordered the wolf to stop eating people and promised that, in return, the people of the town would feed him. According to the legend, the wolf complied, as did the people of the city, and there was never another incident. Sound preposterous? What if God had enabled Francis to perform such a miracle in order to offer us a glimpse of his original intention for how human beings should interact with other animals?

After all, Isaiah prophesied that wolves, lambs, lions, and venomous snakes would one day live together peaceably, without harm. As stewards of creation, let’s ask God to show us how to take proper responsibility for the beautiful world he has made.

Lord, creation itself has been subjected to sin’s destructive power. Help us as your redeemed people to care for nature as stewards that you have appointed. Awaken our understanding and our consciences that we may care for the earth in a way that reflects your glory.

If you agree that we need to take better care of the animals God has created, please join me in reading and signing the Every Living Things statement at http://www.everylivingthing.com/sign-the-statement/.

 

Bible Stories for Grownups

The Jesus Storybook BibleA few years ago, something amazing happened. A Bible storybook aimed at young children became an instant bestseller among pastors. Before even one child had a chance to read it, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan began extolling its virtues. Not only did he recommend the book to young children and their parents, but he urged ministry leaders, seminarians, and even theologians to purchase copies.

Why? Because its author, Sally Lloyd Jones, had managed to get something of vital importance right. She helped readers of The Jesus Storybook Bible* catch sight of Jesus in all the Scriptures.

I love Sally’s take on the Bible, not least because she realizes that Bible stories are not primarily moral lessons. When we reduce them to lessons, Sally says, “we make it all about us. But the Bible isn’t mainly about us, and what we’re supposed to be doing—it’s about God, and what he has done.”

“When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery,” she says (See 2 Questions to ask — that might keep a whole lot of us from walking away from God & church). I want to add a hearty Amen to what Sally says. After writing about the Bible for more than twenty years, I love its stories best. The ancient stories have gripped my heart and changed my mind, helping me to experience God more deeply while coming to terms with some of my own struggles as a person of faith.

“A traditional Jewish saying highlights the connection between God and storytelling by saying, ‘God created human beings because He loves stories.’ Perhaps the opposite could also be said.God created stories because He loves human beings.’ (See Why you need the best kind of story).

Maybe it’s time we grownups took Jesus’ advice to heart – you know, the bit about becoming like little children so that we can enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18: 3). Let’s take time to read and ponder the ancient stories once again, asking God to bring them alive in us. For these are the stories of God’s people, which means they are our stories too.

*Disclosure: I served as the literary agent for this book.

Senseless

A big dark universe full of starsOne of the most painful memories from my pre-Christian days is the hollowed-out feeling that came from believing life had no meaning. Without meaning, nothing matters—not beauty nor bravery nor joy; not suffering nor sadness nor love. There is nothing to strive for, plan for, hope for. To live in a world without meaning is to live as a lonely atom in a vast universe of nothingness.

But that picture of the universe changed the moment I began to suspect the old story I had learned as a child—the one about God making the world and then sending his Son to save it—might actually be true. It was shocking, the idea that God felt impelled by love to come to earth and die for my sins. That he subverted death by his powerful sacrifice. Suddenly I had a big story to believe in, one that gave meaning to my life.

Sometimes we lose our peace because we lose our place in the big story God is writing. Perhaps we once saw ourselves right in the center of it, knowing he loved us, believing he had called us to serve him. But then disasters unfolded. Disappointments happened. Suffering ensued. What then?

Miroslav Volf points out that inner healing is advanced “by integrating remembered wrongdoing into our life-story. . . . We integrate events into our life-story by giving them positive meaning within that story.”(1) So the person who has been abused may discover insights that will later assuage the suffering of others. Or the abandoned spouse may find strength in his or her relationship with God that they hadn’t thought possible. Finding meaning in what we have suffered is not something that can be engineered or controlled. Rather it is something that God can do in us and for us as we wait for his healing grace.  More

(1) Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 76.

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Power

The sun setting behind an electrical towerThough I know very little about how electricity works, I know the power we use in our homes and workplaces has to be transformed before we can access it. Energy that travels over long distances, for instance, can only be transmitted if it is transformed into high voltage. If the voltage is too low, it will never reach us. To bring the power to us, step-up transformers are used to convert the energy. But delivering that high-voltage energy to our homes is only the first step. Once it arrives, it can’t simply be blasted into our houses. Step-down transformers are employed in order to decrease the voltage so the energy can be used safely.

It’s important to note that though transformers deliver the power, they don’t create it. They simply convert energy so it can be safely and profitably used. When it comes to spiritual power, I like to think that we are all called to become transformers, conveying God’s power to those around us. On our own, we have no power to bring peace to this world. But God, who is the Source of all power, can work through us, using us as conduits to convey his peace, grace, and healing power to those around us.

Ask God today to help you to open up to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Tell him you want to receive all the power he offers, not just so you can be transformed but so you can be a person he uses to transform the lives of others. Without God’s power, there will be no peace. With it, nothing is impossible for those who love him.  More 

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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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