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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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What's Important

What’s Important

A roast chicken. Image courtesy of apolonia of freedigitalphotos.netRemember the story of Martha and Mary? Jesus had brought a boatload of disciples to their home in Bethany, and Martha was irritated because her sister wasn’t helping with all the work involved in entertaining guests. But when she tried to get Jesus to take her side, he surprised her by saying, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

If I had been Martha, living in that day and age, I might have been tempted to conclude that Jesus was like most men, clueless about how much work it took to feed and provide for guests. But that interpretation doesn’t really wash, because Jesus was no hidebound first-century male. So what else might be at work in the story?

Here’s how Augustine interpreted it, imagining what he would have said to Martha if given the chance. “But you, Martha, if I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarrelling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?

“No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.”1 More

(Image courtesy of apolonia of freedigitalphotos.net).

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1 Quoted in the July 29, 2011, readings, taken from The Liturgy of the Hours, 4 vols (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1974), divineoffice.org.

Worrying Out Loud

A little girl looking worriedJen burst into the room, tears streaming down her face. “I can’t stand my life!” she exclaimed.

Wondering whether her daughter was suffering from hormone overload or something worse, her mother asked what on earth was wrong.

“You!” the daughter shot back.

Probing further, it became clear to my friend that her teenage daughter was in a state of high anxiety. Pouring out her fears, this young girl told her mother that she was worried about school, anxious about a grandparent in failing health, concerned about the family business, wondering whether there would be enough money for college and whether the economy might collapse. She just couldn’t handle it anymore.

“But, honey,” my friend said, “you don’t have to handle it. Don’t worry about Grandpa. Your dad and I are taking care of him. And our business is doing well. I promise there will be enough money for college. The economy isn’t great, but it’s getting better. What made you so upset about all these things?”

“You!” came the emphatic reply, once again. “You’re always complaining about the business, about Grandpa’s health, and about how terrible the economy is!”

My friend was stunned. She hadn’t realized that her words of complaint and concern had been driving a stake of anxiety into her daughter’s sensitive heart, causing her to worry about issues that no thirteen-year-old should have to deal with.

When it comes to complaints, none of us have a clean slate. But perhaps we can take this story to heart, realizing the power that words have to erode the peace of those we love. Today, let’s ask the Lord to place a guard on our lips, so that whatever comes out of them builds up rather than tears down.  More

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When You Feel Inadequate

A woman looking upward to a lightI’ve been writing books for many years. Despite what you might think, it doesn’t get any easier as time goes on. What hampers me most is my lack of faith. Face-to-face with a blank computer screen, I have a mini crisis of faith each morning, certain that I haven’t got a thing to say that’s worth reading. I’ll send e-mails, make phone calls, walk the dog, pay bills, eat a banana—anything as long as I don’t have to start writing. Finally, when I can’t dodge it anymore, I’ll open up the latest file, see where I left off, and ask God to help me. After a while, the writing usually begins to flow.

For most of us, life is full of such miniature faith crises. We doubt we can do what God has called us to do—to show patience to our children, understanding to our husbands, skill in our work, wisdom in times of trouble. And we’re right. We don’t have enough of what we need. So we stall and make excuses and try to dodge our responsibility, which only increases our anxiety.

To be human is to be inadequate. It is to be limited. It is to be weak in many respects. When we look at our deficiencies, there’s ample cause for concern. But instead of training our eyes on our weakness, we need to train our eyes on God’s strength and on his promises to love and provide. So today, as always, we come before his throne, asking him to fill our emptiness with his fullness and to trade our weakness for his power. Today we take a small step of faith so God can give us his strength.  More

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Don’t Shrink Back

A woman flexing her arm musclesSometimes I feel like the incredible shrinking woman. Some big, hairy problem comes stomping onto the scene, and I feel too tiny to stand up to it. Instead of holding my ground, confident that God is with me and will never abandon me, I start looking for the exits. But often there are none. And I, little person that I am, have to stay in place and learn how to trust God in the midst of my difficulties.

When it comes to facing up to trouble, many of us are experienced escape artists. But when escape is not an option, we may be tempted to try other strategies, taking refuge in things that promise to soothe or counter our pain. Here are a few of my own favorite strategies: eating, buying, blaming, complaining. Funny that none of these ever bring me real peace. Sure, brownies are soothing, but they don’t stop me from worrying. Buying things works for a little while, until the novelty of the latest purchase wears off. And blaming and complaining just spread the misery.

So what does help? Here are a few simple things from my list: (1) having a regular prayer time; (2) talking things over with friends and asking for prayer; (3) interceding for others, which takes my mind off myself; (4) using the wisdom God gives to deal with the problem at hand; (5) time, since some problems can only be dealt with by outlasting them; (6) doing everything with as much faith as I can muster.

Even if you have only a little faith, decide to put it to work. To grow strong, faith needs exercise, much like a muscle that grows larger when it’s challenged. The next time a big, hairy problem comes stomping onto the scene, resist the temptation to run. Instead, face it with the faith you have, asking God to reveal his power through you.  More

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Fighting for Peace

A word graphic of "Fighting for Peace"In October 1941, in the midst of World War II, Winston Churchill famously advised students in Harrow, England: “Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”1

The previous year, in June 1940, Churchill had rallied his people in a radio broadcast: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Then he added a postscript, heard only by the aide to whom he whispered it: “And we shall fight with the butt end of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.”

Fortunately for England and the world, the great tide of evil was pushed back, the Germans were defeated, and peace was restored. Had Churchill and others not stood in the breach and refused to give up despite the odds, much of the world would have fallen to Nazi domination.

Oddly, peace is something you can’t have without a willingness to fight for it. That’s true whether we are fighting through obstacles that keep us from experiencing God’s peace, or whether we are defending the rights of others. Trying to maintain the peace by avoiding conflict at all costs will only erode it. We need to value peace enough to be willing to defend it when necessary. How do we do that? One important way is by heeding the words of the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8, niv).   More

1 Winston Churchill, (speech, given at Harrow School, Harrow, England, October 29, 1941), quoted in Churchill by Himself (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 23.

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Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

A man walking in a dark tunnel with a light at the endLast summer I felt like a magnet for trouble. A series of problems with a vacation property I own were conspiring to turn one family’s stay into “the worst family vacation ever.” As a part-time landlady, I enjoy creating memorable vacation experiences for people. This just wasn’t the kind of memorable I had envisioned. I cringed at the thought that the story of their week at my place might enter their family lore as the worst vacation ever. To ease the sting, at the end of their stay I gave them a check for half the rent, thereby turning the most profitable week of summer into a sizable loss for me. Ouch!

Then a problem cropped up with one of my children, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Then my elderly mother started having difficulties. Then something happened with my other daughter. On and on it went—a great, rolling tumbleweed of trouble heading my way.

One thing about nonstop trouble is that it can help you put life’s difficulties into proper perspective. Yes, I felt bad that my renters thought they were renting a three-bedroom condo when it was only a two-bedroom condo, and that a previous renter had walked off with the pots and pans, and that the maids forgot to leave the sheets, and that the toilets backed up, and that the plumber was expensive, and that I had to make two sixty-mile round-trips to the property, and that I didn’t get any writing done that week. But at least the sun was shining the whole week and the pool worked and the beach was lovely and nobody died. After a while, you learn how to find a little brightness in the cloudiest of skies.

What troubles are you facing right now? Ask God to help you see at least a little bit of light in the midst of them—not the kind that emanates from an oncoming train, but the kind that comes from perceiving the daylight on the other side of the tunnel.  More

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What Do You Believe?

A white-throated sparrow perched on a branchJoan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles her grief in the year following the unexpected death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. Perhaps the bleakest moment in that chronicle is when she quotes her late husband, stating with hopeless finality that “no eye is on the sparrow.”

Though she probably didn’t intend it as an insult, the words jumped off the page at me like a slap. It was such a blatant contradiction of everything I believe to be true. Later, it occurred to me that Didion’s statement sums up our own struggle as people of faith. When life is bleak beyond imagining, what do we really believe? What do we think is going on? Either God’s eye is on the sparrow or it is not. Either God really has counted every hair on every head or he has not. Either Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about when he spoke of God as a loving and forgiving Father or he did not. It’s as simple and as hard as that.

When life is going well, it’s easy to assert the truths of the gospel. But when we are overtaken by crushing sorrows or mounting difficulties, what do our hearts tell us then?

Most of us can remember times when God came through for us in the midst of great difficulty. Let’s not forget the evidence of his faithfulness when new challenges arise, giving in to fear rather than drawing on faith to sustain us. Let’s let times of suffering strengthen us rather than weaken us, trusting that God knows how to get us through. More

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You Need A Spiritual Strategy for the Storms in Your Life

Menacing storm cloudsWe know the havoc hurricanes can wreak on human life and property. But what about the damage to sea life? Though countless fish may perish in any given storm, some have an uncanny ability to survive. Researchers in Florida have followed the progress of tagged sharks that swam into deeper water just prior to the onslaught of a hurricane. How the sharks knew what was coming is uncertain, but scientists believe they may have sensed changes in barometric pressure, which in turn affects hydrostatic pressure. Some sixth sense enabled them to swim to open waters to avoid the worst of the storm.

This strategy of moving into the deep when storms approach suggests a spiritual strategy for our own lives. We need to deepen our lives with God when we face challenges of various kinds.

Longfellow once famously wrote that “into each life some rain must fall.” But anyone who has lived for more than a few years will recognize this as a terrific understatement. For many of us, the storms that come, whether emotional or physical, will be prolonged and difficult, testing the limits of our strength. At such times, it makes sense to flee to safety, to the deeper waters of Scripture, prayer, obedience, and fellowship with other believers.

Seasoned fishermen have repeatedly noted that some fish seem to feed more aggressively just before a storm, as though they sense that food will soon become scarce. If we live our lives in preparation, feeding on God’s Word and living in alignment with it, God will enable us to survive whatever storms may threaten our peace.  More

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Two-Way Promises

A country road in autumnA wonderful future awaits those who love peace. (Psalm 37:37)

Though most of us think of God’s promises in positive terms, as we should, Scripture is full of promises that sound frighteningly negative. These reverse promises serve as warnings for those who show little regard for God and his ways.

The first promise for today, from Psalms, is one you can build on. It’s like bedrock for those who belong to Christ and pursue his ways. But what if you are doing just that and feeling anything but peaceful? Notice that Psalm 37 promises a wonderful future but not necessarily a wonderful present. Every life holds challenges and sorrows that must be endured with faith and trust. At such times we can cling to this promise from Romans: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (8:28). We will all know times of peace and times of difficulty because we are not yet inhabiting the future God has promised.

But for the wicked, Isaiah proclaims, there will be no true peace. How could there be, since peace comes from knowing God and from trusting him enough to obey him? A life in perpetual rebellion is a life in perpetual turbulence. Though things may look peaceful on the outside for a time, on the inside things tend to fall apart because there is no central core to hold us together.

The peace we long for depends not only on God’s promise but on our obedience. Step by step, as we place our trust in Christ, doing what we know he wants us to do, we can be confident that we are moving closer to the wonderful future God has promised for all those who love peace. More

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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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