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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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The Greatest Surprise

The Greatest Surprise

majestic purple night sky, with dawn just beginning

If someone were to ask me what the greatest surprise of my lifetime has thus far been, I would have to say that it was the shock (and that is not too strong a word) I felt when I encountered God’s love for the first time. I was in my twenties, recently graduated from college and struggling with any number of confusions. Into this mess, God made himself known in a way beyond my imagining or hope. Before that, I had thought of God—if I thought of him at all—as a distant figure. I wasn’t too sure he existed. If he did, I was pretty certain he would not want anything to do with me. That the opposite was true took me off balance and disarmed me. That he would reveal a deep tenderness toward me was even more shocking.

It is now Christmas Day, many years after that initial discovery.

We are familiar with the glitter of the season, but we often miss its glory. That God would decide on a solution to the sin problem that involved becoming one of us should continue to surprise and shock us. It should challenge the things we think we know about God, especially any designation of God as unloving, distant, or uncaring. And it should rattle our assumptions that we or anyone else is unlovable or beyond his help. To harbor such thoughts is to disregard the evidence. It is to be disloyal to the one who made us and disloyal to ourselves as people who are loved and cherished by the most important person in the universe.

This year, as you ponder the meaning of Christmas, ask God to help you penetrate the mystery of the Incarnation more deeply. Tell him you want to celebrate all he has done. Then ask him for the grace to be ready—for he is coming again!

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Christmas Eve Praise

a blue night sky with one bright star

What hymn has been performed by more than three hundred artists, including Enya, Boys II Men, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, Mahalia Jackson, and Mannheim Steamroller? I’ll give you a hint: the Bing Crosby single sold more than ten million copies. Another clue—the music was composed and sung on Christmas Eve nearly two centuries ago in a small town in Austria. And another—the lyrics were written by a priest who was the illegitimate son of a poor woman and a mercenary who had deserted both the army and his family. And one more—the melody was written by an obscure composer who studied music secretly because of his father’s opposition.

If you guessed the hymn “Silent Night,” you’re right.

The lyrics were penned by Joseph Mohr in 1816. Two years later, on Christmas Eve, he asked his friend, a teacher and church organist by the name of Franz Xaver Gruber, to set his poem to music. Gruber produced a melody and a guitar arrangement for the song, which the two men sang on that night in 1818, backed by a choir in front of the main altar at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. By the time the hymn became famous, the melody was variously attributed to Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. It wasn’t until 1994 that Gruber was authenticated as the composer.

Why not spend this Christmas Eve meditating on the lyrics of the most popular Christmas carol ever written?

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

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I Can’t Do This!

a man sits by a stream with his face in his hands

Author and pastor John Van Sloten remembers his response to the news that his infant son Edward had Down syndrome. Driving home from the hospital after visiting his wife, he could no longer keep it together.

“I couldn’t stop crying. . . . When I got home I ran down the hallway, fell face-first onto my bed, and screamed out to God, ‘I can’t do this . . . there is no way in the world I can handle this. . . . I cannot do it!’

‘You’re right. You can’t, John,’ was the response. ‘But I can.’”1

It wasn’t until three months later, during a weeklong trip to Rochester, New York, that Van Sloten began listening to what God was trying to tell him. During that trip he had three surprise encounters with young men diagnosed with Down syndrome, each of whom seemed to be a living contradiction of the fears he had for his young son.

“The night after arriving home, I sat down to journal about my amazing Rochester adventure. Then it hit me. That night, three months ago, while I was lying in bed running all those awful scenarios of how terrible being Edward’s dad was going to be, God already had the events I’d just experienced in mind. God knew. Right down to the last detail, each of my anxious imaginary scenes was recast, retold, and redeemed.”2

Not long afterward Van Sloten felt the call of God on his life and began the transition from land developer to church pastor. Years later he reflected on how God had transformed his worst day into his best.

“Many times over the course of my life,” he says, “I’ve experienced this retrospective recalibration of painful events. Time would bring a perspective that sometimes brought about a dramatic redemption of the situation. I wonder if, in the end, we will all experience one big retrospective moment before the very face of God.”

What is it you are having a hard time accepting right now? Ask God to help you listen to what he is saying. Trust him to “recalibrate” even your worst day—to recast, retell, and redeem it in a way that brings him glory.

  1. John Van Sloten, The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive, 2010), 40.
  2. Ibid., 45, 47–48

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Running on Empty

a person runs on a treadmill

What if you were tethered to a treadmill running at about four miles an hour? There is no off switch on this treadmill and nobody around to release you from the tether. Even if you were in great shape, you wouldn’t survive the experience. On and on you would run until your body finally gave way.

This is a picture of what life can ultimately feel like when you are constantly running after things the world thinks are valuable—money, power, sex, security, prestige. No matter how hard or how long you run, you will never be satisfied—the treadmill just keeps going. In the end, your wholehearted pursuit of such things will destroy rather than fulfill you.

If this is so, why do we keep pursuing what will not satisfy? One reason is that we get a temporary sense of well-being. With enough money in the bank, we feel secure. With children in the best schools, we feel confident they will succeed. With each new purchase, we get a little hit of pleasure. There’s a lot of positive reinforcement. But the system only works if we keep on keeping on, finding something else to feed our pleasure machine. The problem comes, of course, when the system is disrupted and the machine breaks down. We lose a job, our investments sour, a child strays, we become ill. When some or all of the things we counted on to make our life feel meaningful, safe, and pleasurable are taken from us, what then?

Such disruptions can be incredibly painful and frightening. They may throw us into a season of tremendous anxiety. We may for a time feel exhausted, empty, and lost. But what if they are, in the end, a godsend, an opportunity to get free from the tether, to stop living on a treadmill and begin living a life of greater peace and freedom?

If you find that you are spending time on that treadmill, ask God to free you so you can pursue the peace that comes from having his goals and desires at the center of your heart.

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Ultimate Investments

an image of the ruins of a stone house in a valley

I live in an older home in an older neighborhood. Friends sometimes comment on how much character my house has with its crown moldings, arched doorways, and built-in bookshelves. But as anyone who has ever owned an older home knows, character does not come cheaply. There is always something to fix, patch, improve. No matter how much effort and money I put into it, I know my house will eventually crumble into nothing. That’s the truth about most things. They will not last.

But some things will.

Our souls will. But that’s not all. The work we do for Christ and in Christ—that will last too.

As N. T. Wright puts it, when it comes to building for God’s Kingdom,

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. . . . You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.

“Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.”1

So today let us remember that because of what Christ has done in our lives, we are called, as Paul tells the Romans, to live a life of goodness and peace and joy, seeking first the Kingdom of God.

1. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008), 208.

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How To Remember

The word remember is engraved in stone

In the movie Gigi, Honoré Lachaille, played by Maurice Chevalier, and Madame Alvarez, played by Hermione Gingold, sing a song commemorating a romantic night spent together many years before. While he recalls an evening that was lit by a “dazzling April moon,” she declares that it was June and there was no moon. He mentions Friday, but she is certain they were together on a Monday. He envisions her in gold, but she swears she was dressed entirely in blue. Their contradictory memories swing back and forth throughout the song, which is capped by the refrain: “Ah, yes, I remember it well.”

The gentle humor of the lyrics points out something we all know—that people can remember the same event in very different ways.

The same is true when it comes to our ability to remember how God has acted, both in Scripture and in our own lives. Take the Israelites. After fleeing from Egypt, they could have built a society that mimicked Egypt’s cruelty toward the weak and defenseless. That’s often how things go when subjected peoples find freedom. The underdogs become the oppressors. Instead, the Israelites enshrined humane principles in their law regarding the treatment of slaves coupled with the obligation to welcome foreigners, laws far in advance of their contemporaries. They did this because their overarching memories pertained not to the evil they suffered but to the good they experienced from God’s delivering hand.

We, too, have been delivered by a loving and redeeming God. Basing our lives on this memory will free us from the danger of becoming more like the people who have hurt us rather than the God who has saved us. It will also free us from the memory of our own sins and failures as we choose to remember above everything the mercy and love that God has shown us.

 

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Seeing the Glass as Half-full

an image of a glass with water pouring in and splashing

Study after study shows that optimists are both happier and healthier than pessimists. Optimists experience less stress and don’t give up as easily as pessimists. They even tend to live longer. Unfortunately, I’m a pessimist. The online quiz I took proves it. So what should I do? Conclude that I was born a pessimist and will remain a pessimist? No, that’s way too pessimistic!

According to Martin Seligman, a clinical psychologist who has spent more than thirty years studying this topic, pessimists are capable of adopting a more optimistic approach to life. One way to do that is to change the way you explain your successes and failures. Typically, optimists are good at maximizing their successes and minimizing their failures. Say, for instance, someone compliments you for your cooking. You could explain the compliment to yourself positively by thinking, I have turned out to be a pretty good cook! Or you could brush it off by thinking, I guess I got lucky with that recipe. The first explanatory style takes credit for a job well done, while the second views the success as an isolated incident, not likely to repeat itself.

As Christians, we sometimes hesitate to take credit for our success because we don’t want to become proud. But what if taking credit where credit is due helps us to better reflect the joy we have in Christ, who, after all, has given us every reason to be optimistic?

What about our failures? We have to be honest about them as well, but failure doesn’t have to be something we get stuck in. Instead it can become a teacher, leading us toward greater insight. I remember traveling by myself for several days in Europe after a business trip. Whenever I got lost, instead of getting upset as I was accustomed to do when traveling on more familiar territory in the United States, I simply told myself, I don’t have to hurry. Anyway, I’m learning my way around. That little coping mechanism added peace to my adventure, keeping me from feeling frustrated and alone.

If you tend toward pessimism as I do, try a little experiment. Spend the next week trying to maximize your successes and minimize your failures. See if it produces a little more happiness in your life.

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Calming Your Inner Bully

a man is yelling and pointing his finger at the viewer

Rare is the school without an anti-bullying campaign. We know how easy it is for children at the receiving end of such behaviors to be devastated by them. The same is true for adults. Interacting on a regular basis with people who belittle and malign us is hazardous to our emotional health. Who wants to be around someone who communicates their contempt, with or without words, indicating that they think us boring, bossy, stupid, flaky, weak, inconsiderate, ugly, insensitive, worthless, or a failure?

But what if the bully is you?

I’m not implying that you bully other people. But, truth be known, some of us have a habit of bullying ourselves. Here are a few examples of things we might say to ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying to anyone else:

What an idiot!
Why can’t I do anything right?
God hates me.
I’m worthless.
Nobody likes me.
I look awful.
God won’t forgive me.

Researchers estimate that we have, on average, seventy thousand thoughts in the course of a single day. It’s inevitable that some of them will be negative. But when our negative thoughts greatly outweigh our positive thoughts, we have a problem. Many of these thoughts come to mind unbidden, operating just below the surface of consciousness. Writing them down can help us become more aware of them, forcing them out into the open so we can challenge their accuracy. Once we become aware of these internal dialogues, we can replace them with milder, neutral, or even positive statements that affirm the truth of who we are and what God thinks of us.

Why not spend some time paying attention to your thoughts today? Try writing down the negative ones, and then take each one to God in prayer.

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Traveling Mercies

the sun shines behind a mountain peak

I look up to the mountains—does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth! . . . The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever.
Psalm 121:1-2, 6-8

Psalm 121 is known as a psalm of ascent, one of a group of psalms prayed by Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship at three annual feasts. The psalmist looks to the mountains, perhaps wondering if thieves and robbers lurk there. Or perhaps he is thinking of the mountains around Jerusalem, longing to worship God in the Temple.

Each verse repeats a theme as if to underline or italicize it, highlighting the truth it affirms. And what is this truth? That on every journey—even on the journey of life—God is our protector.

Last night I was discussing the psalm with friends. Someone asked why the psalmist said that neither the sun nor the moon would hurt you. The phrase sounded strange. One person suggested that the psalmist might be referring to the sun and moon gods of the surrounding peoples. Another remarked on how difficult it is to live in a desert climate, where sunstroke is always a danger. Still another mentioned the link between the words lunacy and moon, wondering if the pilgrims who prayed the psalms would have linked the moon to mental instability. We concluded that in this case the sun and moon must signify anything that might terrify or threaten you by day or by night. Our discussion wrapped up when one friend attempted a modern paraphrase of verse 6, quipping:

The Dow Jones Industrial will not strike you by day,
nor the Hang Seng Index by night.

With that we parted. And when it was time to sleep, I did just that.

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Spiritually Ambidextrous

a person stands in front of a waterfall with arms outstretched, there is a double rainbow in the mist

What do Roberto Alomar, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, and Eddie Murray all have in common? If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, you may know that each was a talented switch-hitter, able to slug a baseball either right-handed or left-handed, depending on which would prove most advantageous against a particular pitcher. While many switch-hitters have to train themselves to use their nondominant hand, some have an inborn talent for it. These players are, of course, ambidextrous.

In his book A Grace Revealed, Jerry Sittser mentions a desert father by the name of Abba Theodore, who used the word ambidextrous to apply to believers who had learned to take both prosperity and adversity in stride. Given the choice, I’m pretty sure I would always choose prosperity over hardship.

As Sittser puts it, prosperity “makes God seem good, the world seem right, and faith seem natural, as natural as writing with the dominant hand. Obviously,” he says, “adversity does the opposite, making life hard for us. Temptation overruns us, doubt plagues us, routine bores us.”1

Even if we could chart a course toward perpetual prosperity, it is doubtful such a course would produce the peace we long for. Why? Because prosperity has its pitfalls. It can make us fat and dull, turning us into people of mediocre faith.

To the early Christians, Abba Theodore offered this wise counsel:

“We shall then be ambidextrous, when neither abundance nor want affects us, and when the former does not entice us to the luxury of a dangerous carelessness, while the latter does not draw us to despair, and complaining; but when, giving thanks to God in either case alike, we gain one and the same advantage out of good and bad fortune.”2

In the end, becoming spiritually ambidextrous is primarily an exercise in trust. We trust not in our circumstances but in the goodness of a God who loves us even more than we love ourselves.

  1. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Revealed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).
  1. Ibid.

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