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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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Umpire

a referee in a striped shirt makes a call

If first words have anything to do with a child’s destiny, then my youngest daughter, Luci, is destined for a career in sports. Despite my eagerness to hear her baby lips finally form the word mama, what came out first was the word ball. To this day Luci is fascinated by balls. Footballs, basketballs, softballs, baseballs, volleyballs, soccer balls. If it bounces, she wants it.

The first year Luci played on her middle-school basketball team, I loved watching the players improve as the season progressed. Though most of the games were marked by good sportsmanship, there was an occasional lapse. During one of the games, a player on the opposing team couldn’t keep her hands off her opponents. I watched in consternation as she pushed, shoved, and elbowed my daughter at every opportunity. Surprisingly, the referees never called it. After the game, Luci’s coach promised to file a complaint against the referees who had worked the game. Because of their inaction, a game that should have been safe and fun was anything but.

Though I am not a dyed-in-the-wool sports fan, I know enough to realize that a good referee or umpire can help make or break a game. With that in mind, let’s consider the umpire that Paul chose to speak of in Colossians 3:15. Reminding the early Christians of the importance of maintaining unity, he said,

“Let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts.”

The word rule in this verse comes from the Greek word brabeuo, which refers not to the rule of a king but to the work an umpire does at a game. With that in mind, you could paraphrase the verse like this:

“Let the peace that comes from Christ act as an umpire in your hearts.”

In other words, let it make the call so that whenever you have a difference with another believer, Christ’s peace will have the last, definitive word. More

Circuit Breakers

a woman holds her head in pain

Several years ago, when I was having the attic remodeled into an office, the carpenter doing the work discovered two inscriptions. One was on the brick chimney that transects the space. The other was on two-by-fours that had been hidden behind a wall of bead board. While the second one was signed by the builder, both inscriptions indicated that construction on the house had begun in July 1925.

Old houses are famous for their charm, even though living in them is not always a charming experience. Sometimes simple activities remind you of just how old they are. Take ironing, for instance. Whenever I forget to turn off the TV or the ceiling fan when plugging in the iron in an upstairs bedroom, the circuit breaker trips, shutting off the power. Though I think of it as an inconvenient interruption, the circuit breakers are providing an invaluable service, preventing me from overloading the electrical system, risking fire or even electrocution.

Likewise, in our own lives, God has placed natural circuit breakers that can alert us to the fact that we are on overload. Say, for instance, you are trying to get ahead at work and putting in loads of overtime. Or say you can’t give no for an answer when anyone asks you to do something. Or say you are spending every minute ferrying your children to activities so they won’t miss out. Eventually, your body will attempt to get you to slow down. Natural circuit breakers come in many forms, including headaches, fatigue, irritability, illness, and weight gain.

When these things begin to manifest, resist the temptation to brush them off as inconvenient interruptions. Instead, take the time to examine your life prayerfully, asking God to show you if your priorities are his priorities. If you sense the need to make course corrections, don’t delay. Your peace depends on paying attention to the natural circuit breakers that operate in every human life. More

Don’t let evil get the best of you

a purple succulent is growing on a rock

“Luci is really strong!” My daughter’s karate instructor sounded surprised, perhaps because with her slight frame and sweet demeanor, Luci is nobody’s idea of a bruiser.

Once we were in the car, Luci turned to me and said, “Mom, Lisa thinks I’m strong. Do you think I am?”

“Yes, honey. Remember when we were playing around in the kitchen last night and I was trying to fake some karate moves and you broke my hold? I couldn’t believe how strong you were.” She laughed, joyous at learning this new fact about herself.

I think we can make the same mistake in reverse when it comes to the biggest disrupter of peace in the world—the power of evil. I don’t mean to imply that evil isn’t powerful, only that it is not as strong as we think it is. Paul told the Romans, who would soon suffer persecution, that they could not merely resist evil but overcome it. How? By doing good.

Miroslav Volf comments that

“to triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life.”1

In the world, we see this when one tribe or group of people commits an atrocity and the victims respond with retribution. The same cycle happens on an individual level, close to home. A husband lashes out, and his wife gives it back to him in spades. A child is disrespectful, and her mother goes on a rant about how vile and worthless her daughter is.

It takes strength to refrain from responding to evil with evil, but even greater strength to respond to it by doing good. If we want to enjoy God’s peace, we need to consider how we respond to the sins of others. Today let’s determine that instead of granting evil a second victory, we will deal it a decisive defeat. More

 

  1. Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 9.

Standing Firm

A woman standing on a rock with her back to the water.

Imagine that you are sound asleep, when suddenly you’re woken by a large blast. You rush outside, thinking that a neighboring house has just exploded. But everyone insists that the noise came from inside your house. Rushing back in, you discover the source. A hole thirty-two inches wide and forty feet deep has just opened up in the floor. A little bigger, and your body might be lying mangled at the bottom of it, because the gaping hole happens to be located beneath your bed!

Sound unlikely? It happened to Innocenta Hernandez, who lives in a neighborhood just north of Guatemala City.1 Built on volcanic deposits, this area of the country is particularly prone to sinkholes. In 2010, a giant sinkhole swallowed a three-story building and a nearby home. The trouble with sinkholes, of course, is that although they often form gradually, they can open up suddenly, with disastrous results.

Listen to what God said more than 2,500 years ago to a man who was standing over a spiritual sinkhole, though he didn’t know it. The prophet Isaiah delivered this word to King Ahaz of Judah:

“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (7:9, NIV).

A few sentences earlier, Isaiah noted that “the hearts of the king and his people trembled with fear, like trees shaking in a storm” (7:2, NLT). But Isaiah went on to assure the king that he had nothing to fear from his enemies because God would soon act. Unfortunately, Ahaz spurned the message, allying himself not to God but to a foreign power, which eventually led to disastrous consequences for his people.

Like Ahaz, each of us will face challenges that seem too big to handle. Confronted by them, we may even begin to tremble like trees in a storm. When that happens, let’s move away from the sinkhole of fear and doubt and take our stand on firmer ground. More

 

  1. AFP, “Sinkhole Forms under Guatemalan Woman’s Bed,” Google News, July 19, 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hEAjEe8vStGMOiswAxDcxXi_d_DQ?docId=CNG.832a4bd5d343e4861527751b5e0d9c50.ad1.

Up Close

an image of three friends, arm in arm

People were packed tight, elbowing for a place on the truck headed to Port-au-Prince. Chickens and bags of produce were crammed in alongside the human cargo. Yet another hurricane had struck Haiti, and people were talking about the worst-hit area, a city called Gonaïves, where two thousand people had died.

“I’m from Gonaïves,” a young man spoke up.

All eyes turned quickly to him, taking in the ragged shirt, the hair embedded with straw. He spoke of broken bodies lying in the street and of the struggle to find food and water. There were people still stranded on rooftops, homes filled with nothing but mud.

“These clothes,” he said, “I’ve been wearing them since last Saturday” (eight days previous).

As he talked, a middle-aged man reached into a plastic bag and handed him a white polo shirt. Then someone else gave him a T-shirt. Then another person offered a pair of green shorts, and another gave a comb, and someone else handed him a bar of soap. Then a woman held out a crumpled ten-goud bill (about 25 cents) and started saying, “Just give what you can. Five goud, ten goud, fifty goud, anything you can give to help him out.” She soon had a fist full of bills to hand to the young man, who by then was crying.

Before he could find the words to respond, they told him not to worry. “You didn’t even ask for anything; we just want to give. We’re all Gonaïvians now.”

Everyone on that truck was poor. Kent Annan, author of Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle, observes, “Each person in the back of this truck must in some way battle, throw elbows, squeeze for what she or he needs. From a distance via the news, you wonder how anybody makes it. Up close you wonder too, but less so because you see the little things. You see the person beside you pass along ten gouds, a shirt, a bar of soap.”

The story makes me think of my own “up close” moments. What are the needs of the people around me? I want to notice them and give what I can. For it’s often in the up-close spaces where God can most reveal his love. More

 

  • All quotes adapted from Ken Annan, Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 174-5.

Thieves

close-up of a squirrel in a tree

I’m not much of a gardener, but I do have a few tomato plants in the backyard. Trouble is, my luscious tomatoes have been disappearing at an alarming rate. I finally realized who the culprit was when, one day, the thief stepped brazenly into our yard. I watched as he reached out a greedy hand, grabbed a single, ripe tomato and then turned quickly to make an escape. Yelling at him to “drop that right now!” made no difference whatsoever. He simply scampered up the nearest tree with his treasure intact. If he could have managed it, I’m sure he would have turned around, stuck out his tongue, given me the raspberries, and then chortled out a victory cry.

Searching for a solution online, I found that this kind of thievery is common among the mischievous creatures we call squirrels. The problem was what to do about it. Here’s what one fed-up gardener had to say: “I’ve tried the water bowl, cayenne pepper on the ground, garlic and pepper sprayed on tomatoes, CDs tied to supports, and even hot sauce injected into tomatoes. They really enjoyed the injected ones, thought it was salsa.”1

Those thieving squirrels remind me of how easy it is to lose many of the other things we value—things like peace, which can be snatched from us in an instant. Perhaps it’s time we took a stand against the most common culprits, especially those we can do something about. Here’s my list:

  • Filling my schedule too full
  • Buying too much stuff (lots of stuff takes lots of time to care for it)
  • Not exercising
  • Not praying
  • Listening to the lies of the enemy

The last, of course, is the most insidious. Satan has a gift for telling plausible lies, which will fill you with doubt and anxiety if you listen to them. Though you can’t stop him from lying, you have the power to reduce his audience by one. Whatever you do today, refuse to give in to his deceptions. Listen instead to the voice of the Lord who loves you. More

  1. whizzer75, August 10, 2006 (8:34 p.m.), comment on aldaric, “Squirrels eat tomato’s? [sic],” posted on “Tomato Pests and Diseases,” iVillage Garden Web, accessed August 16, 2011, http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/load/tompests/msg0819534428839.html.

Thank You!

A humpback whale breaches out of the water.

Michael Fishbach loves photographing whales. So it seems fitting that he spent Valentine’s Day with family and friends whale watching in the beautiful Sea of Cortez. The adventure began when he spotted what appeared to be a dead humpback whale floating in the water. Coming in for a closer look, he realized it was entangled in a nylon gill net. Suddenly the whale exhaled, loud and clear, through its blowhole. Deciding to investigate, Michael jumped into the water.

“As I swam alongside the animal,” he said, “our eyes met. There were no words we could share, but I wanted to let the whale know that we were there to help. . . . The sight of this large and beautiful creature trapped and so close to death was almost overwhelming,” he said.

Though it was dangerous to be close to a young whale in distress, Michael and two friends spent the next hour cutting away at the net with a small knife, hoping to free the animal before it drowned.

Finally, with one last slash of the knife, the whale slipped free, and everyone in the boat cheered. Then, for a full hour, the whale provided them with a nonstop display of joy. Michael watched in awe, counting at least forty breaches as well as several tail lobs, tail slaps, and pectoral fin slaps.

The whole experience was captured on video. As the whale performs her incredible display, a young girl can be heard saying,

“I know what she is doing. She is showing us that she is free.”

To that a woman replies, “I think she is showing us a thank you dance.”

Whether the whale was saying thank you or simply celebrating being alive, God’s promise of peace is meant for all of creation. I have often wondered whether we underrate the feelings and intelligence of other animals. Perhaps doing so makes it easier to disregard their sufferings. But God has given us the incredible privilege of being stewards of his creation. Let’s fulfill that role reverently and with wisdom. As we do, we can be confident that God’s peace will spread throughout the world he has made. More

  • All quotes are from Laura Hibbard, “Humpbacked Whale Puts on a Show for the Men Who Saved Her,” Huffington Post, July 13, 2011, accessed August 17, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/14/humpback-whale-video_n_898859.html

Little Judgments

A woman's face appears amidst clouds.

I was delighted to note that there were a couple of open parking spots in the small lot behind the medical building. Swinging the steering wheel to position the car for the closest spot, I realized the space was partially blocked. A heavyset woman was standing by the adjacent van with the driver’s door wide open. She didn’t look like she was going anywhere soon, so I put the car into reverse, thinking to myself how thoughtless some people can be, just standing there taking up space when other people are trying to park.

After parking the car in another spot, I walked into the building to pick up my daughter from her appointment and then came back out to the lot. The woman was still standing by her car. Before we left, I glanced in her direction again. Something didn’t look right. When I asked if she needed help, I realized she was close to tears. She had been trying—God knows how long—to climb into her van, but her right hip was full of bursitis and she couldn’t lift her leg high enough to get her bulky frame into the driver’s seat.

She had been too embarrassed to ask for help even though she was distressed and in a lot of pain. How, she wondered, was she ever going to get into her car and get home? Then she mentioned that she had just seen her doctor, whose office was in the medical building I had just left. With her permission, I alerted his nurses and they came out to help.

I felt sorry for her, aware of how distressing her situation must be. But I was glad that I had been able to render a small service. Afterward, I reflected on how quickly I had concluded that the woman was rude when she had actually been afraid and in pain. What if I had just driven off with my original judgment intact?

My experience that day made me wonder how often I make snap judgments that bear no resemblance to reality. Such judgments prevent us from noticing the troubles of others. They can create a cloud of negativity rather than an environment where peace can flourish. More

The Devil, You Say!

Lightning in a dark, stormy sky.

A few years ago I was in the midst of negotiating a deal for a client regarding a children’s book she wanted to write. We made the deal, and she began writing. Once the contract was signed, the publisher began looking for an illustrator. The trouble was, the illustrator they picked would have ruined the project, at least in our judgment. His drawings were dark and depressing, not the thing for communicating God’s love to children. But the publisher wasn’t willing to budge. I won’t bore you with the details of how we resolved the issue, but I will tell you the way to a solution was long and difficult and at one point, things got a bit acrimonious.

As the process unfolded, I noticed a lot of distrust seeping into the relationships of those involved. It happened so regularly and with such force that I began to wonder if something more was afoot. Sensing that this particular book had the potential to transform the lives of countless children, I began to wonder whether Satan might be trying to derail it.

I shared my suspicions with the people I was working with, and we began to pray that God would protect the discussions that were going on in order to resolve the issue. Eventually another artist was assigned to the project, and the publication moved forward. There were more disruptions along the way. But when the book finally came out, it was an instant bestseller, adopted by churches across the country and around the world, making its way into the hearts of children and the parents who read it to them.

Though I don’t believe demons are squatting behind every bush, I do think they are more active than some of us might imagine, intent on subverting God’s work in the world. Let’s not be naive to their influence. Instead, let us seek God for his wisdom, power, and discernment to do the things he’s asked us to do. More

Taking Sides

Rhinos facing in opposite directions.

When I was in graduate school, I joined a Christian community filled with people who were passionate about their faith. Though I learned a great deal, there were inevitable difficulties. One thing my experience of community life taught me was how fallible even the best-intentioned Christians can be.

I recall one of the leaders making the point that whenever there’s a disagreement, it’s important not to adopt another person’s offense. In other words, if Sarah and Lisa disagree on something and begin arguing, don’t line up behind Sarah and then feel stung by anything Lisa might say to Sarah. Let them have their disagreement, but don’t get sucked in. Sadly, that is exactly what happened to the community. Two of the leaders began to see things quite differently. Or perhaps their disagreements had been there all along and had finally bubbled to the surface. What had started out as a tug-of-war between two individuals quickly morphed into a great, long conga line of people pulling and tugging on the rope until there was so much disagreement that the community finally split apart. Ironically, one of the hallmarks of the community had been its commitment to work toward greater Christian unity.

This dynamic of divisiveness is not uncommon in churches, in the workplace, and with families and friends. Two people argue, and others are drawn into the conflict. A married couple divorces, and friends and family take sides. Siblings stop speaking to each other, and the family is torn.

Of course, there are times when we have to take sides—when something of crucial importance is at stake. But there are many other situations in which adding our two cents to an argument that is already underway will only make things worse.

Someone once said that even Jesus had one prayer that remained unanswered. It was his prayer for unity. Let’s do what we can to help that prayer be realized by refusing to spread the division that comes from getting sucked into someone else’s argument. More

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