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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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Feeling Edgy?

Feeling Edgy?

An image of tulips with the words I am thankful for today

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to distract a toddler by handing him a toy in exchange for the dog bone he just picked up? Distraction is a time-honored parenting technique—one that works so well we really ought to try it on ourselves, especially when we start becoming frustrated and irritable.

Say, for instance, that you are feeling energetic enough to tackle your monthly bill-paying responsibilities. (That would be me a while back.) But before you begin, you remember the TV is on the blink. You fiddle with it for five minutes, concluding that you need to call your service provider. You hold the phone for five more minutes until a lovely, lilting voice comes on the line with the promise of help.

Over the next forty-five minutes, you do everything she tells you to, answering questions, pushing buttons, checking connections, and observing blinking lights on modems while she tries to find a fix from eight thousand miles away. Then you’re put on hold. You glance at your watch to discover that fifteen more minutes have elapsed. Then the woman comes on the line again, telling you she may need to schedule a technician. She asks if it would be okay if she sent you a new receiver. You say yes, and it takes a mere ten minutes to arrange. By now you know that with everything else you still have to do, there is no way you are going to get those bills paid tonight.

Normally I find situations like this frustrating. But that night I was able to distract myself by asking the woman where she was located. Her answer: the Philippines. I expressed concern about recent flooding there. She told me it was still raining hard and a few of her coworkers hadn’t been able to get to work. Then it occurred to me that I am fortunate to have a phone, a TV, and a dry roof over my head. When we finally hung up, I felt at peace, though the bills hadn’t been paid and the TV hadn’t been fixed.

We all face unexpected problems that eat away at our precious time and energy. If we want to remain peaceful at such times, we can do so by distracting ourselves with gratitude. Positive distractions can prevent negative thoughts from growing and festering. Feeling edgy? Go ahead, distract yourself!

Stop Worrying About God’s Will

A girl sits on a barrier in the middle of a pathway, swinging her feet

“Stop asking God to show you his will for your life.”

That’s Francis Chan’s unorthodox challenge to earnest Christians seeking to know God’s plan. As Chan points out, all that seeking, praying, talking, and fretting about God’s will may be signs that you are not looking for ways to glorify God but for ways to stay safe and avoid making mistakes. You want the security of knowing you are on the “right path” of following God’s perfect will for your life.

Here’s how Chan puts it:

“I think a lot of us need to forget about God’s will for my life. God cares more about our response to His Spirit’s leading today, in this moment, than about what we intend to do next year. In fact, the decisions we make next year will be profoundly affected by the degree to which we submit to the Spirit right now, in today’s decisions.”

Chan goes on to say, “It’s much less demanding to think about God’s will for your future than it is to ask Him what He wants you to do in the next ten minutes. It’s safer to commit to following Him someday instead of this day.”1

Of course, Chan is not counseling us to go our own way or to discard the notion that God has a plan for our lives. He’s just pointing out the obvious—that God doesn’t disclose all that much about the future. Even someone like Joseph, who had fabulous dreams about his future, had no idea how the details would unfold. He didn’t realize that he would be falsely accused, thrown into an Egyptian jail, and exiled from home and family, and that every twist and turn would lead to the fulfillment of God’s plan.

Peace comes not from being given a divine blueprint for our lives but from saying yes to God in this very moment.

  1. Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 120.

A Future and a Hope

Scrabble tiles spell out the word HOPE

The book When Moms Pray Together tells the story of a mother whose daughter suffered from bulimia. Thinking herself fat and ugly, Becky would binge and purge. She began cutting herself in high school, once so deeply that she had to be hospitalized. After months of intensive therapy, her emotional pain started to ease. Finally, after attending a retreat, she experienced the reality of God’s love for her. After that she was able to share her story publicly in the hope of keeping others from heading down the same dark path.

Here’s what her mother had to say about what it was like to deal with Becky’s struggles:

“Although I can rejoice now, I didn’t know how this story would turn out. . . . At times in my frustration and impatience with her slow progress, I tried to take charge of her spiritual life. It was then that Becky clearly told me that this was her spiritual life and that I couldn’t live it for her. . . .One of the verses that I clung to during this painful period was Jeremiah 29:11. . . . I clung to the words hope and future. And when fear and worry began to cloud my mind, I remembered what God had done for us in the past. . . . I took my focus off my circumstances and redirected it to Him who is my hope and future. Then I would pray the same verse for Becky, asking that she would believe that God had plans for her—good plans, not necessarily easy ones, but plans to give her a bright future and hope.”1

What fears do you have for your loved ones and your children? Ask God to redirect your eyes to him rather than to their circumstances. Remember what he has already done for you. Then pray with renewed hope and confidence that God will be at work, making his plans for them come true.

  1. Fern Nichols, When Moms Pray Together (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 40–41.

The Secret to Hearing God’s Voice

The image is of a sculpture of a girl who is holding a shell up to her ear, listening for the ocean.

A mathematician with too much time on his hands has figured out that there are more than 177,000 ways to knot a tie. I may have twisted myself into nearly as many tangles by trying to figure out how to listen for the voice of God in the midst of my daily life. The problem has always been how to separate the voice of God from all the other messages swimming around inside my head.

One of the good things about aging is that it becomes easier to relax into the questions. Perplexity turns into mystery and mystery turns into something you can live with and, at times, even embrace. You can do this because you have learned two amazing things. That God is completely good, entirely without shadows, and that he is your Father.  Because of this, you realize that he will never hide something from you that you really need to know. What good father would welcome a child into his family and then stop speaking to that child?

Plus you know the Scripture. You remember that Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) One of the best decisions I ever made was to read the Bible regularly—even when it put me to sleep or raised troubling questions or seemed impossible to comprehend.  The more I read it, the more frequently I heard God speaking through its pages. It’s as though he and I began to live in the same spiritual country, sharing a common history, a common language, a common geography.

So many times, God has drawn close through a story or passage from the Bible. Suddenly, something I have read many times takes on a new and startling meaning. Over and over, God surprises, encourages, guides, challenges, enlightens, and refreshes me with his Word.  He pours his life into me.

I have no idea what the precise mechanism for this is. How is it possible that such an ancient book, encrusted with the detritus of centuries, can become a bridge to God? The only thing that makes sense to me is that when you and I come into relationship with Jesus, God embeds himself in us. He makes our souls, broken and bruised as they are, his home.

One way of understanding the Holy Spirit is to think of him as God embedded within us. Of course that doesn’t mean that we are God or that he is confined to our small hearts, but only that he indwells us. As such, he can shape, guide, speak to us, and even “translate” Scripture for us. He is intimately involved in our lives. The more we open ourselves to him, the more freedom, joy, and life we will experience, even though we may need to pass through some pain in order to experience these.

Another good decision I made early on was to never read the Bible in isolation, as though it were just God and me reading it together. Instead, I always read it in community, surrounded by wise friends who could help me understand it and keep me from falling into error. I’m not talking about being part of a Bible study group, though that can be a wonderful experience. I’m talking about surrounding myself with books and study Bibles that have been written by biblical scholars who are not only competent in their fields of study but who love God and believe the Bible is his Word.

The image shows the cover of the NIV Faithlife Study BibleOver the years, I have learned that the secret to hearing God’s voice is not that complicated. No need to tie ourselves in knots about it. Instead, it’s rather obvious. God wants to speak to us and will speak to us because we are his children. One of the main ways—though not the only way—he speaks is through the Bible. If you want to hear God’s voice more clearly and more frequently, read the Bible regularly, surround yourself with “wise friends,” and expect God to speak to you because you are his beloved child.

Speaking of wise friends, you can find some in the new NIV Faithlife Study Bible, which is a feast for the mind and heart.

Forgiving Those Closest To You

hands from two different people clasp a yellow flower together

Isn’t it interesting how those we love the most have the power to hurt us the most? For those of us with children, we may find they know exactly how to push our buttons. That was the case for Marcy, a mother whose adopted son had hurt her deeply by his defiant, disrespectful behavior. One day, after he had thrown yet another tantrum, Marcy asked God to help her let go of the unforgiveness she felt.

She began reading Paul’s letter to a slave owner by the name of Philemon. Paul was begging Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave named Onesimus, who had stolen from his master. While he was with Paul, Onesimus had become a believer.

Words Paul spoke to Philemon jumped out at her: “If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. . . . I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!”

Marcy felt as though Jesus was using the lips of Paul to speak directly to her. With tears running down her cheeks, she forgave her son on the spot, deciding that forgiveness would characterize her dealings with him from now on. Each time he offended, she would forgive again, silently praying, Jesus, I charge it to you. Because she was able to forgive her son, he didn’t suffer from her judgments anymore. Eventually he gave his life to Christ.1

If you have been hurt by your children or someone close to you, take a moment now to take your disappointment to God, asking him for the grace to forgive. Then ask for the strength to keep on forgiving.

Lord I forgive ______________________. Help me to keep forgiving, trusting the results to you.

1. Quin Sherrer, A Mother’s Guide to Praying for Your Children (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2011), 109.

The Peace of Knowing Who You Are

sunlight beams through a window of a church at the Vatican

Who are you, really? Wife? Son? Mother? Grandfather? Student? Housewife? Doctor? Lawyer?

Without realizing it, many of us define ourselves solely in terms of external influences. If we have struggled with chronic illness, we may think of ourselves as sickly. If we have enjoyed great success, we may think of ourselves as winners. If we have failed, we may think of ourselves as losers. If we have suffered abuse at the hands of others, we may think of ourselves as victims.

Often we slip into these and other roles without really being aware of them. But by defining ourselves merely in relation to other human beings, we have adopted stories that may contradict the one story that should define us. That is the gospel story—the one that tells us we are sinners loved by God and saved by grace for a gracious purposeto become his sons and daughters. That is our true identity. If there is one adjective that describes who we are in Christ it would be “Beloved.”

I like the way Miroslav Volf puts it:

By opening ourselves to God’s love through faith, our bodies and souls become sanctified spaces, God’s “temples,” as the apostle Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 6:19). The flame of God’s presence, which gives us new identity, then burns in us inextinguishably . . . at times a temple in ruins, but sacred space nonetheless. Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer.1

As you go about your day-to-day routine, try visualizing the truth of who you are—a temple. A temple in ruins, perhaps, but still a place where God is pleased to dwell.

 

Rough Edges

a woman with curly hair smiles

All of us have rough edges, places in our lives that need smoothing out. Let me offer a superficial example. Most women I know have little difficulty finding something negative to say about their hair. I have more excuse than most because I have what some people kindly call naturally curly hair. If left to go its own way, particularly in high humidity, my kind of hair is capable of inflicting psychic damage on small children. I know this because I once unwisely opened the door to neighborhood children who, seeing my untended hair, promptly exclaimed, “Wow, it’s the Bride of Frankenstein!”

Last week I tried an expensive shampoo, touted to calm frizzy hair. What I didn’t know was that instead of smoothing out my hair, it acted as a volumizer. Imagine someone seriously overweight donning a fat suit, and you will get an idea of how this product affected my hair. It brought back the earlier conviction that my curly-haired parents should never have been permitted to marry. Allowing two such people to mate, I am convinced, constitutes a form of child abuse.

Over the years I’ve found that using a flatiron helps the most. Sometimes I have trouble getting all the kinks out in back, so I simply do a few quick swipes on the surface and let it go at that. The problem with such a strategy is that the kinks beneath the surface insist on asserting themselves, exposing the pretense that I have soft, manageable hair.

What’s the point of my bad hair complaints? Simply that each of us has our own set of rough edges to work out. True, we can make some surface changes. But these don’t really deal with underlying character flaws that keep asserting themselves despite our most determined efforts to hide them. Willpower by itself cannot contend with problems like low self-esteem, a quick temper, stinginess, stubbornness, laziness, judgmentalism, and negativity. The only power strong enough to straighten out any twisted elements in our lives comes from God. Today let’s ditch strategies that depend only on us, so we can follow God’s strategies for growing in his peace and grace.

Power Struggles and Other Stressors

a mother and daughter face each other in conversation

I remember having a power struggle with one of my children that centered on whether or not she was going to make her bed. I won’t go into the details, but I assure you it wasn’t pretty. I can’t remember whether I won. The only thing I remember is how awful I felt afterward. I didn’t want to give in because I thought more than a neat bedroom was at stake. It seemed to me that if my daughter failed to obey me in this one instance, she would find it easy to do so in others. While that may have been true, I think I could have used other techniques that would have done less damage to our relationship and that wouldn’t have ended in the dreaded power struggle.

It takes wisdom to know where to invest our emotional resources. My guess is that most of us err on the wrong side of the equation, becoming emotional about things we should either ignore or learn to handle more calmly.

Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology, reminds us of the physiological toll that chronic stress takes, promising that “if you experience every day as an emergency, you will pay the price.”

Sapolsky goes on to explain,

“If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never store any surplus energy. You will fatigue more rapidly, and your risk of developing a form of diabetes will even increase. The consequences of chronically activating your cardiovascular system are similarly damaging: if your blood pressure rises to 180/100 every time you see the mess in your teenager’s bedroom, you could be heading for a cardiovascular disaster. . . . If you are constantly under stress, a variety of reproductive disorders may ensue. In females, menstrual cycles can become irregular or cease entirely.”1

Body and soul, mind and emotions—we are complex interweavings, fearfully and wonderfully made but sometimes all-too-easily damaged. Today, let us ask God for wisdom in preserving the health he has given us.

  1. Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 13.

Custody of the Eyes–and Ears

a little girl has her hands over her eyes

A friend of mine was assailed by sexual temptation whenever he walked across the University of Michigan Diag, a large open space in the center of campus. Why? Because in warm weather, hoards of scantily clad female students would pass through on their way to class. His solution? He simply took off his glasses, which transformed his Diag experience into a complete blur. Though he didn’t know it, he was practicing what classic spiritual writers have called “custody of the eyes.”

This discipline of monitoring what we allow ourselves to focus on can be useful for dealing with a variety of situations—at the beach, for instance, or when reading or watching television or movies. Though it may sound quaint in our sex-saturated society, it’s a discipline based on the practical recognition that visual cues can introduce powerful temptations. The same is true of listening to gossip or to certain kinds of music. Instead of maintaining complete openness to every kind of stimuli, we guard ourselves against whatever might negatively impact our spiritual health.

That means we also need to guard against extreme violence or obscene materialism. The former can lead to heightened anxiety or tolerance of violence, while the latter can lead to a lust for more. That’s why I refuse to watch horror movies and why I canceled my subscription to “Architectural Digest.” The triggers may be different for you than they are for me, but the point is we need to identify them and limit our exposure. Contrary to what we might think, visual and auditory stimuli are not necessarily neutral. They can shape our thoughts and actions in surprisingly powerful ways.

Our Daily Bread?

many loaves of dough ready to be baked

My friend Christine was surprised by her daughter’s tears.

“Emma, what’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to go to college,” she sobbed.

“But, honey, your grades are great. What are you worried about?”

“You and Dad say college is getting so expensive and the economy is terrible,” Emma said. “I’m afraid there won’t be enough money.”

It took time, but Christine was able to address her daughter’s fears, assuring her that they had been saving for her education and that there would likely be financial aid as well.

This incident reminds me of something in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus urges his disciples to ask for many lofty things. He begins by teaching them to address God as their Father in heaven and urges them to make his name holy, or hallowed. He teaches them to pray for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done. Then, in the middle of the prayer, he veers in a far more practical direction, teaching them to pray for daily bread. By using the term bread, he is referring to food in general.

New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey points out the uncertainty about the translation “daily” because it is based on the Greek word epiousios, a word that appears nowhere else in recorded Greek writings. Basing his interpretation on a very early translation of Scripture, he makes a persuasive case that this phrase is best translated not as “Give us this day our daily bread” but as “Give us today the bread that does not run out.” While the first form of prayer asks for enough for today, the second asks God to relieve us of the ongoing anxiety that we will not have what we need. Yes, we may get bread today, but what about tomorrow and the day after that?

The next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer, remember that you are asking your heavenly Father to deliver you from the fear of not having what you need. By alleviating that fear, God helps us enjoy a sense of peace and well- being, not only about today, but also about tomorrow and the day after that.