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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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When the Light Goes On

When the Light Goes On

The sun beams in a bright blue sky, illuminating filmy clouds.

I love history. My favorite trips have been to places where there is a profound connection to ancient history, like Israel or Greece. Similarly, I love to read biographies of people like Teddy Roosevelt or Winston Churchill because of what their stories reveal about the past.

But don’t count on me when it comes to solving math problems. That’s just not my thing, which is why I can relate to Pastor Jim Cymbala’s self-described struggles.

“I took geometry,” he says, “during my sophomore year in high school, and for the life of me, no matter what that teacher said, I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t know an isosceles triangle from a bagel with cream cheese. None of it made sense. Then about two months into the semester, the teacher got sick and a new teacher replaced him. Under her tutelage, suddenly, the light went on for me. For the first time, I understood triangles, angles, and parabolas. (Well, maybe not the parabolas.) I had to give credit for my newfound understanding to the new teacher. It was the way she explained things that helped me understand geometry.”

Cymbala goes on to say we need the best possible Teacher when it comes to reading Scripture and applying it to our lives. This means that whatever our bent, whether we love reading this ancient book or not, we all need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who makes Scripture come to life so we can understand and apply it.

As Paul says, Scripture “corrects us when we are wrong,” which is another way of saying it brings us to a place where we can experience more of God’s peace (1 Timothy 3:16).

Future-Think

An image of a delicate hanging silver bell.

The next time you meet with an investment counselor, don’t be surprised if you are handed a photo of how you will look twenty or thirty years hence. In the category of “What will they think of next?” Hal Ersner-Hershfield and a team of researchers at Northwestern University conducted a study to see whether people would save more money if they could imagine how they would look in the future. They hypothesized that most of us don’t save enough for retirement because we don’t empathize strongly enough with our future selves. We know we are going to get old, but we can’t seem to make an emotional connection with our future selves.

To remedy that, they utilized off-the-shelf software aimed at video game developers and employed an age-progression algorithm to alter photos of people participating in the study. The result? According to the study, participants who came face-to-face with their future selves were willing to set aside more than twice as much money for retirement as those who only saw their current selves.1

Of course, Jesus was no stranger to the idea of investing in the future. At one point he even offered his listeners a fail-safe investment plan—one that is neither vulnerable to scamming nor subject to market turmoil. According to him, when we share our resources with the needy, we will have treasure in heaven—riches that can never be stolen or destroyed. Faith, not the latest software, is what will help us envision our future lives. As you ask God for greater faith, act on the faith you do have by giving generously to the poor.

  1. Benjamin Carlson, “Facing the Future,” The Daily, March 14, 2011.

My Number One Worry

An image on a mom on a beach, with mountains across the body of water, holding her young son.

If someone asked you to name your number one worry, what would you say? Like many parents, I would have to confess that my top worry and the target of many of my prayers is my children. I realize that my aspirations for them far outpace my ability to help them. There are some things a parent just can’t do, no matter how well-intentioned he may be.

A story in the Gospels is instructive, pointing out a way to deal with worry, whether it’s worry about our children or about others we care for. You probably remember the four men who lowered a paralyzed man into Jesus’ presence so the man could be healed. Fern Nichols, founder and president of Moms in Prayer International, points out that intercessors are a lot like those four men who were bold enough to climb onto another man’s roof, dig a hole through it, and then lower the paralyzed man into Christ’s presence:

“Many of our children are paralyzed by sin, and the weight of that reality is too much for a parent to bear by herself. We become weary when we don’t see any change, when we don’t spy even a glimpse of an answer to prayer. Imagine a mom pulling one corner of a mat, as she slowly drags her two-hundred-pound football player of a son to Jesus. But then another mom comes alongside and picks up a corner. The prayers of the second mom spark faith. Then another mom and another come alongside, each gathering up a corner. Hope returns, as she hears the believing prayers of the other moms.”

Fern knows just how effective a group of praying believers can be. We may not be able to save a single soul or perform a miracle in answer to our worries about loved ones. But we can do something vital, linking arms in prayer as we bring those we love into the presence of the only one capable of keeping them safe and giving them peace.

 

 

Need to Know?

An image of a stone statue of an angel, seen from the back.

I’ve never been a whiz at making small talk. Give me something meaty to talk about like the elusiveness of peace in the Middle East or the prospect of an economic turnaround in the next year, and I usually have something to say. My fallback for making small talk is to ask people obvious questions like, “How’s work been going?” That’s the question I recently pitched to an acquaintance, who stammered out the answer that she had just quit her job. Not wanting to probe, I said something stupid like, “Well, I’m sure something better will come along soon.” (Keep in mind that I made this remark despite knowing how high the unemployment rate in my state was.) My awkward comment was followed by an even more awkward silence.

A few days later I mentioned this woman’s situation to a mutual friend. The friend replied that she knew exactly what had happened . . . but she wasn’t at liberty to tell me. From the tone of her voice, I knew there were juicy details.

Remember those old cartoons depicting a devil squatting on one shoulder while an angel is sitting on the other? For a split second the little devil on my shoulder whispered in my ear: “If you knew more about what was going on, I’m sure you could pray for her better.” But then the angel on my other shoulder replied, “Oh, sure. That’s the only reason you want all the gory details, so you can pray better! Now I’ve heard everything.”

Fortunately my “skeptical angel” prevailed and I kept quiet, resisting the temptation to probe. I already knew everything I needed to know in order to pray for the woman who had left or lost her job. I could leave the gory details where they belonged, between her and the Lord.

Sometimes peace comes from knowing less than you would like to. Knowing less about office politics can help you stay focused on your job. Knowing less about the failings of others can keep you from judging them. Listening to gossip may offer its share of momentary pleasures, but it will not bring you peace, nor will it help you become a peacemaker.

 

Your Weakness is God’s Opportunity

An image of a tree growing and thriving in a broken glass bubble.

Have you ever wondered about the Bible’s reliability? How true are the stories it tells? One thing that makes the Bible so believable is the way it portrays its major characters. Very rarely do you run across anyone in the pages of Scripture who has it all together. Sarah was consumed with jealousy, Rachel and Leah couldn’t get along, Miriam chafed under Moses’ leadership, Abraham lied because he was afraid, David committed adultery and then murder, and Solomon had an insatiable appetite for women. If the Bible were a puff piece, its characters would be far more heroic. Instead, it displays their weaknesses honestly, revealing the kind of raw material God had to work with.

And work with it he did. As Rick Warren points out,

“The great missionary Hudson Taylor said, ‘All God’s giants were weak people.’ Moses’ weakness was his temper. It caused him to murder an Egyptian, strike the rock he was supposed to speak to, and break the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Yet God transformed Moses into ‘the humblest man on earth.’

“Gideon’s weakness was low self-esteem and deep insecurities, but God transformed him into a ‘mighty man of valor.’ Abraham’s weakness was fear. Not once, but twice, he claimed his wife was his sister to protect himself. But God transformed Abraham into ‘the father of those who have faith.’ Impulsive, weak-willed Peter became ‘a rock,’ the adulterer David became ‘a man after my own heart,’ and John, one of the arrogant ‘Sons of Thunder,’ became the ‘Apostle of Love.’”1

What about you? What are your greatest weaknesses? Ask God for the grace to face them honestly. But don’t let them weigh you down. No amount of weakness can keep you from becoming the person God wants you to be if you will keep following him, trusting him to transform you as you do.

  1. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 275–76.

 

God Will Never Fail or Forget You

An image of two sets of footprints in the sand at the beach.

My daughter had just returned from school. After a few minutes, I heard her voice calling plaintively up the stairs: “Where’s the dog? I looked everywhere, but I can’t find Kallie. She’s not in the house.”

My first thought was that I had forgotten to let the dog in from the backyard. How long had she been out there, suffering in the cold? I really couldn’t remember. But now our beloved dog had gone missing, and I was to blame!

I raced out to the backyard. Just as I feared, there was no sign of Kallie. No Kallie in the front yard, either, and no Kallie racing happily toward me as I desperately shouted her name. I ran back inside and grabbed my coat, intending to drive around the neighborhood, shouting her name. I didn’t care what the neighbors thought. I knew the girls would never forgive me if anything happened to their dog. “Please, God, help me get Kallie back,” I prayed.

Wait a minute, I thought. Shouldn’t I look for tracks in the snow to tell me which way she had headed when she exited the backyard? I looked on either side of the car and up and down the driveway but found nothing, not a single paw print. That was strange. If Kallie wasn’t in the backyard and if she hadn’t been through the front yard, where was she? Then it hit me! She was exactly where I had left her after making a quick trip to the bank.

In the car!

While I had been desperately calling her name, scanning the driveway for paw prints, Kallie had been staring out at me from the backseat of the car, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about.

Ah, forgetfulness. It should be my middle name. And speaking of forgetfulness, how much more peaceful would our lives be if we could remember that no matter where we are or what we are going through, God will never forget us?

Developing a Sensitive Tongue

An image of a pug with its tongue sticking out, and a butterfly perched on its tongue.

A few years ago, a serial arsonist was on the loose in a neighborhood near my house. His specialty was setting fire to garages in the middle of the night. One evening the flames in an attached garage quickly spread to the house where several people were sleeping inside. Fortunately no one was injured. This troubled man terrorized the neighborhood for several months before he was finally caught and charged with as many as ten fires. At one point, investigators even brought in an accelerant-sniffing dog to help with the case.

When it comes to accelerants, the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about the common ones: acetone, kerosene, gasoline, lacquer, or lacquer thinner. Instead, it talks about an item that is small but ubiquitous. Every household has at least one and sometimes several. Though it may seem innocent enough, this accelerant can do tremendous damage when activated. What am I talking about?

The human tongue, of course.

Listen to how the book of James characterizes it: “The tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire” (3:5). One ill-considered word can quickly shatter the peace. The Bible compares the tongue to a sharp razor, and it uses adjectives like “twisted,” “lying,” “gossiping,” and “deceitful” to describe it. The tongue is such an expert deceiver that it can even fool the person who wields it. It’s so easy to rationalize our words, creating a thousand reasons to justify our unkindness. Like the serial arsonist, some of us are guilty of causing great harm because of our habit of letting our tongues control us.

Peace comes, at least in part, from learning how to control the incendiary power of the tongue. Today, take a step in that direction by reviewing the conversations you’ve had over the past week. Did your words promote healing and peace or strife and difficulty? If you discover traces of gossip, rage, slander, deceit, or unkindness, go to the person or the people who heard them and apologize. Then ask God to help you develop greater sensitivity to how your words affect others.

 

 

Why Can’t People Fly?

Ani mage of a person trying to balance on the railing of a fence, in the mountains.

Mom, why can’t people fly?” my daughter asked me one day.

Never one to shy away from attempting to answer the unanswerable, I ventured a guess, pointing out that God had already granted human beings incredible powers. Flying, I explained, would give us an enormous, unfair advantage. It wouldn’t be fair, for instance, if hunters were able to pull alongside a flock of ducks and then pick them off one by one. And who would want to live in a world where burglars or Peeping Toms could fly, to say nothing of kids intent on toilet papering your house? The truth is, we have enough trouble managing the powers we do have.

Take the power of our tongues. Scripture tells us that our words have incredible power. It goes so far as to say that the power of life and death is in our tongues. We can use them to bless or to curse, to encourage or to demoralize. Who hasn’t regretted spitting out angry words that are impossible to retract? How can we bring our tongues under greater control so they will add to the peace of our world rather than detract from it?

The key to controlling our mouths, of course, lies in the way we control our minds. Remember how Paul advised the believers in Rome, saying, “Letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace” (Romans 8:6)? Paul is saying that controlling our minds is not primarily a matter of willpower but of Spirit power. Today, as you seek to control the power of your tongue, ask God to inhabit your thought life through the transformative power of his Spirit.

 

Let’s Stop Pretending

Two white theatre masks are laying in a field of red flowers.

Recently the power went out at our house. It seemed that a squirrel had suffered an unfortunate collision with a transformer, leaving a swath of the city without power. Fortunately our emergency generator kicked in and we feasted on light and power while our neighbors’ houses were shrouded in darkness. Then my cell phone rang. It was a friend who lives a few blocks away.

“Do you have any power?” she asked.

“Yes, the generator is on,” I said. Since it was dinnertime, I asked if she would like to come over.

“No, thanks. I think I’ll just stay home and make a salad. I really don’t want to go out because I worked at home all day and haven’t put on any makeup.”

Now, I respect the need for makeup as much as the next woman. When my children ask me why I bother wearing it, I tell them it’s because I don’t like scaring people. But, seriously, wouldn’t it be great to venture out into the world without the need for pretense? I like what Brennan Manning has to say about the fact that none of us need to pretend when we come into the presence of the Lord.

“Whatever our failings may be,” he says, “we need not lower our eyes in the presence of Jesus. . . . Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. As we glance up, we are astonished to find the eyes of Jesus open with wonder, deep with understanding, and gentle with compassion.”1

Let’s stop thinking we can’t come into God’s presence because we aren’t spiritual enough or good enough or holy enough or passionate enough. Instead, let’s trust him, believing that he welcomes us—the wobbly and the weak-kneed—receiving us with compassion and understanding.

1. Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat Up, and Burnt Out (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), 28.

Heal Me!

An image of paper prayers shoved in the cracks of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

As the result of a diving accident, Joni Eareckson Tada was paralyzed at the age of seventeen. Shortly after that, a friend sat by her bed and read the passage about the man Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda.

“It was the part about being an invalid for thirty-eight years that got me,” Joni remembers. “Please Lord, I can’t live without use of my hands or legs for three days, let alone thirty years. I’m not like that man by the pool at Bethesda. Be compassionate to me, like you were to him. Heal me!”

But Joni’s prayer for a miracle seemed to go unanswered. Thirty years later as she rounded a corner while touring Jerusalem with her husband, Ken, she came face-to-face with the ruins of that pool. Looking at her husband, the tears welling up, she said, “Jesus didn’t pass me by. He didn’t overlook me. He answered my prayer: He said, ‘No.’”

And then came the astonishing confession.

“And I’m glad,” she said. “A ‘no’ answer has purged sin from my life, strengthened my commitment to him, forced me to depend on grace, bound me with other believers, produced discernment, fostered sensitivity, disciplined my mind, taught me to spend my time wisely, stretched my hope, made me know Christ better, helped me long for truth, led me to repentance of sin, goaded me to give thanks in times of sorrow, increased my faith, and strengthened my character. Being in this wheelchair has meant knowing him better, feeling his strength every day.”

“Are you ok?” her husband asked.

“Yes,” she sniffed and laughed. “I can’t believe that I’m crying and laughing at the same time. There are more important things in life than walking.”1

Thank you, Joni, not only for telling us what peace is, but also for showing us what it looks like. Let’s take heart from the example of this remarkable woman, so that whether the answer is yes or no, we can experience the deep peace that comes from knowing God is faithful.

 

  1. Joni Eareckson Tada, “Please Heal Me!” in Stories of Comfort for a Healthy Soul, compiled by Christine M. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 38–40.