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Blog / Surprising Stories of People Rescued and Changed: An Interview with Jim Cymbala and Ann Spangler

Surprising Stories of People Rescued and Changed: An Interview with Jim Cymbala and Ann Spangler

Jim CymbalaWhat do a Wall Street broker, a party girl, a student, a homeless man, an addict, a teenage mom, and a drug enforcer have in common? All were in despair spiraling out of control until something unexpected happened to change their lives forever.

Bible Gateway interviewed Jim Cymbala (@jimcymbala) and Ann Spangler (@annspangler) about their book, The Rescue: Seven People, Seven Amazing Stories (Zondervan, 2018).

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Ann Spangler

How did you end up working together on this project?

Jim Cymbala: Ann has been a dear friend for many years, going back to when she was my editor at Zondervan for my first book, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, and then later serving as my literary agent. She also helped my wife, Carol, write He’s Been Faithful, the book that tells the story of her life and ministry. Because Ann has a great ability to express the emotional dynamic of a story and to convey the spiritual dynamics as well, I wanted her to help write it.

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Ann Spangler: I have a very deep regard for Pastor Cymbala and The Brooklyn Tabernacle, a church I’ve visited many times. I know that God shows up there, and I’ve talked to many people over the years whose stories have moved me and strengthened my faith. So it was a real privilege to work on a book with someone who’s had such a big influence on me.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire Celebrates One Million Copies Sold]

How did you narrow down the stories for the book? How did you know the people whose stories were included?

Jim Cymbala: Over the years, both in the church and as I’ve traveled, I’ve heard many amazing stories and testimonies of how Christ is at work in people’s lives. These always strengthen my faith. I wanted to do a book that would highlight testimonies so that we could all be strengthened. I began as I always do by praying, asking God to show us which stories out of many we should include. It seemed important to choose a variety so that people could read about individuals from various backgrounds, lifestyles, and journeys, making it easier for them to identify with someone in the book. Also, telling stories about all kinds of people showcases Christ’s love for all of us. Most of the people whose stories are included were at one time or other connected to The Brooklyn Tabernacle. The exception was Robin, who I met at an outside event and invited to speak at our church after hearing her story.

Ann Spangler: By the time I came on board, The Brooklyn Tabernacle had already produced an amazing DVD showcasing the stories of four of the seven people’s whose stories are told in the book. I made several trips to Brooklyn to interview these four people in order to tell their stories in more detail and also to interview others whose stories might be right for the book. The only person I wasn’t able to meet with face to face was Robin, since she lives in Israel and we couldn’t get our schedules to match up when she traveled to the US.

Pastor Cymbala, which one of the seven individual’s stories has ministered to you the most? Could you expound on the ways God has used someone’s story to encourage you?

Jim Cymbala: When I recorded the audio version of the book, I began to get emotional because I sensed the deep pain each person experienced. A couple of times I had to ask the engineer to stop recording so I could get myself together again. Toni’s story especially hit me because of everything she went through. But all of the stories are still very alive to me. Two things stand out. First, Jesus specializes in impossible situations. He’s the only one who can provide solutions to the unsolvable problems many people face. These stories have built my faith because they remind me how powerful God is.

Second, these stories underline to me the importance of trying to see people the way God sees them, to understand what they’re going through and who they are. I don’t want to preach to a faceless crowd. I want to be sensitive to how God wants to work in the lives of individuals. So I always pray: “God, please give me something that will help people right where they are.” I don’t want to expound on Philippians, for example, if God has something else he wants to say.

The takeaway from each story was not the importance of being rescued from one’s circumstances but the importance of recognizing one’s need to be delivered from themselves and from their sins; to cry out in faith to a God most of them didn’t know. It’s this aspect of the teaching and the receiving of the gospel that seems largely missing in our culture: the idea of coming to the end of one’s self. Do you agree with this? Why do you think this is the case? What kinds of things can be done to turn it around so that we hear more rescue stories like these?

Jim Cymbala: It’s important that the church doesn’t spend its time focusing on self-improvement programs or encouraging people to make endless promises about how they’ll change or preaching legalistic messages that only spread self-condemnation. The gospel isn’t about behavior modification. It’s about a complete transformation. So we need to preach the gospel. That means all of us need to be willing to share our faith with the people God puts into our lives.

There’s always a mystery about why some people respond and others don’t. Some cities welcomed Paul and established thriving churches. Others threw him into prison. Why are some people’s hearts hard and some people’s hearts open to the message? That’s a mystery. Our part is to keep planting seeds, trusting that God will water them and that some will grow. What we can do to see more people come to Christ is to pray that God will help us see people through his eyes. If we see them as he sees them, we’ll want to share the gospel, and we’ll see many more transformations.

Ann, how has co-authoring this book affected your own relationship with God?

Ann Spangler: Every time I went to Brooklyn to interview people, I felt more in awe of God. I realized even more than in the past that God deeply loves every person on the planet. I also realized that beneath the circumstances that try to define who we are—rich or poor, emotionally happy or deeply wounded, healthy or mired in some kind of addiction—we’re not that different. We’re all broken people in need of Christ’s saving power.

I remember interviewing a man who’d shot his own brother. Though his story didn’t make it into the book, it was clear that God had transformed him. We ended our time together with a great big hug. But after I heard his story, I confess I took a little more care as I walked from my hotel to the church, realizing that the streets are full of people who still need to be rescued.

Closer to home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I live, I’m involved in evangelism efforts through my church that have had me praying with homeless people and many who are mired in poverty. When you meet people face to face and hold their hands to pray, your categories tend to fall apart. You can’t judge groups of people just because they’re different than you. God softens your eyes so you can see them as he does and you can understand they have the same needs and desires you do. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is or whether they’re behaving the way you think they should. Because God loves them, you do too. I think that’s one takeaway from the book that we all can benefit from.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Wicked Women of the Bible: An Interview with Ann Spangler]

Is this book written for followers of Jesus or non-followers?

Jim Cymbala: It’s written for both.

So many believers are losing heart. I’ve been astonished to meet pastors who don’t think God can change people. Many Christians have children or spouses or other family members and friends that seem too far gone to respond to God. But that’s simply not true as the stories in this book show. I hope The Rescue will increase people’s faith so they won’t give up on loved ones but will continue to pray for them. As believers we need to understand that the gospel still has power.

I also wrote the book for those who don’t know Jesus or who’ve fallen away from him. I think it’s the best book I’ve written for unbelievers. Remember how Jesus expelled many demons from the man we know of as the Gaderenes? After he was restored to his right mind, he wanted to jump in the boat and follow Jesus. But Jesus told him he should stay behind and tell others what God had done for him. I hope many people will read these stories, open their hearts to Christ, and then tell others how they’re being transformed.

The book seems to take pains to avoid mentioning The Brooklyn Tabernacle. Was that deliberate?

Jim Cymbala: In an era in which many churches are branding themselves to call attention to how big or how special they are, I wanted the focus to be off the church and onto God, where it belongs. He’s the one who transforms people and he’s the one who deserves the glory. Plus, not everyone in the book is in our church. Toni started in our church but her story continued in another church. Lawrence came to Christ in an alleyway, not a church. Robin lives abroad. It’s not about the church, it’s about Jesus transforming people.

Pastor Cymbala, what advice would you give a young pastor that you wish you had been told when you began to pastor?

Jim Cymbala: There are a hundred things I’d like to say, so it’s hard to pick just one. Perhaps I could say two things.

First, focus on doing what the early church did. Look at the Gospels and at Acts. The first Christians simply preached the gospel and God added to their numbers. Think about how God has used Billy Graham. His message was so simple. He just kept preaching the gospel and people all over the world came to know Jesus.

Second, spend time with God every day. He will shape you. God made you unique, so don’t follow formulas. Do what he’s calling you to do in the way he’s calling you to do it. Nobody in church history stood out because they were following a formula. Stay close to the Lord and let him lead you.

What are your hopes for this book as it reaches the marketplace?

Jim Cymbala: I hope that people will read it and open their hearts to God to experience the same forgiveness the people whose stories are told did. I hope they will spend eternity in heaven with Christ.

For those who are already Christians, I hope their faith will grow stronger—that they’ll believe that Christ really can change people. I hope they won’t stop praying for those who need Jesus and that they’ll one day write to me or to the church to tell us how Christ has transformed yet another life.

Ann Spangler: I hope The Rescue will give people a glimpse of what God is capable of, so that when they face a time of darkness or a season of struggle in their own lives, they’ll not give up but will cry out to God, confident that he hears them and loves them. I hope these stories will encourage them so that no matter how long it may take to receive an answer, they’ll continue to believe and to pray.

What is your favorite Bible passage and why?

Jim Cymbala: Hebrews 4:16 in the NIV translation says, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” I love this passage for the hope it gives us no matter our dilemma. It reveals the heart of God toward us and his invitation and encouragement to draw near in prayer to receive what we need—his promised mercy and grace.

Ann Spangler: Two passages that are thematically related stand out to me. “…with God all things are possible” Matthew 19:26 (NIV) and “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” Romans 8:28 (NIV). These two promises bring so much hope, buoying us up through many storms.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Jim Cymbala: I love how easy it is to use Bible Gateway. It’s great for writing or sermon preparation because you can easily access a huge variety of Bible translations as well as study materials. I understand it even provides online seminary level courses.

Ann Spangler: Bible Gateway is the first place I go to whenever I’m looking for a particular passage. I use it all the time in prayer, when I write, and for speaking engagements. It’s very helpful and useful for studying and praying with Scripture. I’m also happy that it includes The Names of God Bible, for which I served as general editor. It’s fascinating to search and see where the original Hebrew names show up in the text; names of God like Yahweh, Adonay, El Shadday, and many others.

The Rescue is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Jim Cymbala has been the pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle for more than 25 years. He is the bestselling author of such titles as Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire; Fresh Faith; Fresh Power; Life-Changing Prayer Study Guide with DVD; and Strong through the Storm. He lives in New York City with his wife, Carol Cymbala, who directs the Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.

Bio: Ann Spangler is an award-winning writer and the author of many bestselling books, including Praying the Names of God, Praying the Names of Jesus, and The One Year Devotions for Women. She’s also coauthor of Women of the Bible and Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, and the general editor of the Names of God Bible. Ann’s fascination with and love of Scripture have resulted in books that have opened the Bible to a wide range of readers. She and her two daughters live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Filed under Books, Discipleship, Evangelism, Interviews