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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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Peace—One Domino at a Time

Peace—One Domino at a Time

A character made of boxes stands next to a row of upright dominos.

Stack a bunch of dominos close together and then flick the first in line, and the entire line will quickly collapse. That’s the image behind a political idea called the domino theory. Popularized in the latter half of the twentieth century, the theory is based on the idea that if one nation were to fall under the spell of Communism, surrounding nations were likely to topple and become Communist as well.

Though the theory has its critics, there is no doubt the principle can be applied to other areas of life. Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, invokes this idea in a positive way when he says,

“I believe that this is how God works in history. Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ set up just 12 dominos, mentored them, and led them in his way. He empowered them with the Holy Spirit and then sent them off to go and do likewise. Two thousand years later there are more than two billion followers of Christ in the world. That’s a lot of dominos!

As Christians, we are all dominos in the chain reaction set off by Jesus. The amazing thing about dominos falling is that the chain reaction always starts small—with just one seemingly insignificant domino.”1

Many of us have spent years reading about, praying about, and seeking to follow God as he leads us toward greater peace. As in all good things that come from God’s hand, the peace he gives is meant not to be hoarded but to be shared. Today let’s thank him for ways that he has worked in our lives and ask him to make us that first domino, willing and able to spread his peace to others. What will that mean? It might involve giving a gift to an organization like World Vision or praying for someone in turmoil or starting a ministry or loving your family in practical ways. It could mean a thousand different things, depending on how the God of peace is leading you. Ask him and you will find out.

  1. Richard Stearns, “Spiritual Dominos,” World Vision News, Winter 2011, 3.

Shocking Forgiveness

A pure white dove is about to land on a branch with rusty orange colored leaves.

It’s an early morning in October, and a mother is busy preparing for the day ahead—making breakfast and getting her children ready for school. As she kisses each child good-bye, she has no idea of the tragedy that looms. Later that day a man will break into her daughter’s school just after morning recess. This man will leave behind a suicide note explaining his anger at God at the death of his infant daughter, perhaps as a twisted explanation for the crimes he is about to commit.

Dismissing the boys, along with some others who are visiting the school, he orders the remaining children—ten girls between the ages of six and thirteen—to lie facedown on the floor of the schoolroom. Then he binds their ankles with wire and plastic ties. According to a surviving younger sister, the oldest girl asks the gunman to shoot her first, hoping he will spare the others. At 11:07 a.m. he begins shooting. When it is all over, Charles Carl Roberts IV has killed himself and five young girls.

Here’s how the deputy coroner of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, described the mayhem inside that school: “There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass. There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”

What would you or I do if we had been the mother of a child who had been murdered at the Old Order Amish West Nickel Mines School? I might have responded with bitterness or a desire for vengeance. But one mother shocked the world by joining others in her community in forgiving the murderer and extending grace to his family. To make it real, she attended his funeral and sent meals and flowers to his widow.

Where does a mother get the grace and courage to do something like that? At the foot of the cross of the extraordinary man who said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Take a Day Off!

A kid sits on a couch reading. The couch sits in the middle of a forest.

Imagine that you live in a country without any kind of labor laws. You and your family are dirt poor, forced to work for someone who doesn’t know the meaning of a day off. Day after weary day you perform heavy labor for long hours and little pay, with no hope of a better future. Then something extraordinary happens. A rich man comes along and takes pity on you. He tells you he has an incredibly fertile piece of property that he intends to give you, lifting you out of your poverty. As a landowner, you will be able, for the first time in your life, to hold your head high. You will be able to support yourself.

But then the man makes a curious request—a demand, really. He tells you that he doesn’t want you, your spouse, your children, your future employees, or even your animals to do a lick of work one day a week. What do you do? Having been treated as a slave for most of your life, do you still retain the mentality of a slave, convinced that if you take a day off you will not be able to pay the bills?

This, of course, was the challenge facing the Israelites when God led them out of Egypt and promised them a land of milk and honey. Would they emulate their Egyptian oppressors by making work their first priority, or would they trust the God who freed them to provide for their needs as they observed the Sabbath rest?

Even though we are no longer bound to keep the strict Sabbath rules outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures, we can benefit from observing a Sabbath rest, putting God first and trusting him to provide what we need. Why not celebrate your freedom and your dignity as a child of God by giving yourself a day of rest this week?

Brain Tilt

An image of a crow tilting its head to the side.

Anyone who has ever been misjudged—and who hasn’t?—will appreciate this instruction from the book of Leviticus: “Always judge people fairly” (Leviticus 19:15). Jewish tradition takes this ideal a step further by speaking of the obligation to “judge others favorably.” Perhaps it is no surprise that Jewish rabbis developed this teaching, given the long history of persecution and discrimination their people have suffered.

Most of the judgments we make against others happen in fairly mundane circumstances. Imagine, for instance, that you’re at a middle-school event and your son is talking to a friend. You’ve noticed that the friend’s shoelaces are untied, so you mention it, expecting the boy to bend down and tie them. But he just smiles and keeps on talking. Even though his mother is standing nearby, she says nothing. What’s wrong with her? you wonder. Doesn’t she care if he trips and falls?

If you had been a Jewish woman, steeped in that ethical tradition, you might have stopped yourself from making the negative judgment. Instead, you would have reminded yourself that this boy is a good kid from a good home. Though you can’t fathom why his mother doesn’t act as you would expect her to, you acknowledge that she may have a good reason for her silence.

Now consider the mother of the boy who won’t tie his shoes. Having heard the woman’s suggestion, she senses her son’s embarrassment. She knows he won’t bend down to tie his shoes because he can’t. Her son suffers from cerebral palsy, which makes tying his own shoes a challenging task to master. But his condition is so mild that most people don’t even realize he has a problem. Of course his mother cares whether he trips over his shoelaces, but she keeps quiet so as not to embarrass her son further.

Sound far-fetched? This is what happened to a friend of mine. How much more peaceful would our lives become if we could make a habit of tilting our brains in a positive direction, judging others favorably until there is definite evidence that we should not?

Breathing

A woman lifts her face and takes a deep breath.

As the holiday season gets underway, here’s a quick hack that will reduce your stress levels: commit to taking one or two brief breaks everyday in which you will focus only on your breath. You needn’t be a Buddhist to recognize that the right kind of breathing exercises can help you feel more peaceful. The reason for this calming effect is based on the way God designed our bodies.

Let me explain. Whenever you’re faced with an emergency, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Your muscles tense up, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure increases, and adrenaline begins coursing through your body. The body’s 911 system is preparing you for an explosive burst of energy to enable you to make a fight-or-flight response. Though the system is superbly adapted for dealing with immediate dangers, such as fending off a mugger or escaping from a house on fire, the sympathetic nervous system will wreak havoc on your body and your mind if it becomes chronically activated, which is exactly what happens when you’re under constant stress.

By contrast, the parasympathetic system lowers your heart rate, decreases your blood pressure, and enables you to rest. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic system, increasing your sense of calm.

Here’s how to do one breathing exercise. Begin by sitting up straight. Then exhale fully through your mouth. Breathe in deeply through your nose and into your abdomen, letting it fill with air. Hold your breath for two to five counts and then exhale slowly through your nose. Try doing this for five to ten minutes on a regular basis. To enrich the time, begin by imagining yourself in God’s presence, thanking him for how fearfully and wonderfully he has made you.

Yeah! Go, Grandpa!

An image of a grandfather holding hands with his granddaughter as they walk down the sidewalk.

Peter Secchia is a successful businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Italy. When he was sixty-seven, he and his three-year-old granddaughter, Thea, were walking down a Seattle street. As they headed toward a shop selling cinnamon buns, Thea was startled when a thirty-eight-year-old man tried to grab hold of her hand, identifying himself as a policeman and saying she had to come with him.

Secchia, a former Marine, wasted no time. He punched the man as hard as he could. Then he held him down between two parked cars until police arrived. Afterward a detective from the Seattle police force remarked,

“Anybody who’s read the [police] report is going, ‘Yeah! Go, grandpa!’ That’s the kind of grandpa I want my granddaughter to have.”1

Jim Cymbala tells a similar, though less dramatic, story. “Some years ago,” he says, “I was taking my granddaughter Susie on a walk when a couple of homeless men came walking toward us. Their scruffy appearance made her afraid. In her little mind, she thought she was about to be harmed. She was already holding my hand, but instantly I felt her push her body into mine as she grabbed onto my pant leg. ‘Papa!’ she whispered. Of course, I put my arm around her and said that everything was going to be all right. The men passed us on the sidewalk without incident.

“Inside, my heart was brimming. That instantaneous reflex of reaching out for my aid meant that she thought I could handle anything and everything.. . . She showed that she had a deep faith in me. I would come to her rescue. I would meet her urgent need. I would take care of her.”2

Jim Cymbala and Peter Secchia—two grandfathers whose love provides a glimpse of the Father’s love for us. Let’s make God glad by pressing into him whenever we feel anxious or afraid, trusting he will meet our urgent need.

  1. Kyla King, “Secchia Wallops Man Who Menaced Grandchild,” Grand Rapids Press, February 21, 2004.
  2. Jim Cymbala, Fresh Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 48.

Treasures Out of Darkness

An image of the sun shining through the tops of white-capped mushrooms on the forest floor.

The tears were welling in my eyes, my heart a mixture of wonder and sadness. Wonder that so many had gathered for my neighbor Dale’s funeral and sadness that he was gone, taken down by cancer. When my daughter asked about my tears, I had to explain that they weren’t coming from a heart completely filled with sorrow. The tears were also expressing a deep joy that came from watching people love each other and remind each other of the truth that Dale and everyone who belongs to Christ are destined to live forever.

The funny thing about our hearts is that they are capable of holding more than one emotion at a time, even when those emotions are polar opposites. The darkness is like that, too, often yielding treasures that will produce more light. As Jerry Sittser observed when he faced the terrible grief of losing three of the people he loved most, darkness invaded his soul. “But then again, so did light,” he says. Both contributed to his transformation.

He goes on:

“In other words, though I experienced death, I also experienced life in ways that I never thought possible before—not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within that pain the grace to survive and eventually grow. I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

The key for Jerry—and for all of us—is not whether there will be times of darkness but how we will respond to the darkness when it comes. As he says, “We do not always have the freedom to choose the roles we must play in life, but we can choose how we are going to play the roles we have been given.”1

1. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 36-37.

 

 

God Sees You

An image of an extreme closeup of a very large leaf.

What is so remarkable about seeing someone sitting under a tree? When I was in Nazareth a few years ago, I saw a fig tree that made a story from John’s Gospel come to life. When Jesus is gathering disciples, he is brought to Nathanael by Philip:

As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.” “How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.” John 1:47-48

The tree I saw in Nazareth was covered with enormous leaves attached to branches that extended low to the ground. To snatch a few moments of peace and quiet, all you had to do was sit quietly beneath the tree. Even people passing within inches of the tree would not know you were there. That’s what Nathanael must have been doing.

Notice that Jesus saw Nathanael sitting beneath the tree, but he also saw further than that—into the secret places of his heart, pronouncing him an honest man. Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus reminds me of a story in the Hebrew Scriptures in which a homeless woman encounters God and names him “the God who sees me.” It’s a wonderful story of how the Lord cared for Hagar and her child in the midst of a brutal wilderness. To find out more about this story, take a look at Genesis 16 and Genesis 21:8-21.

Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael assures us that nothing is hidden from the Lord’s penetrating gaze. Not our struggles or our joys, not our fears or our dreams. He knows us as no one else does. Take time today to worship Christ and decide, as Nathanael did, to follow where he leads.

The Only Way Into the Light

A person reaches their hands towards the rising sun.

Jerry Sittser tells of an experience shortly after he lost his wife, his mother, and his four-year-old daughter in a tragic accident. As he stood in the funeral home looking at three open coffins, he felt himself slipping into dread and oblivion even as people tried to comfort him.

Days later, he says,

“I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified by that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun.”

Though Jerry found the dream unsettling, his sister later pointed out that

“the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”1

That was a turning point—the moment Jerry realized he could not run from his sorrow; he had to face the darkness of his grief. Three years later he wrote a book that has become a classic on the topic: A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss.

As I write this, it is early November. The days grow shorter. The light wanes. Try as I might, I cannot run back to summer, reliving its warmth. The only way forward is to head into deepest winter. In a month, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will reach the winter solstice, the point in the year with the least amount of daylight. Each day after that will bring more light until we are once again basking, enjoying the brightness.

As in Jerry’s dream, as with the rhythm of the year, sometimes the only way into the light we long for is straight through the darkness. We go there, not alone, but in the keeping of the God the psalmist acclaims:

“To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you” (Psalm 139:12).

  1. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 33.

Spin

Asn image of a person spinning a light above their head, creating a cirle of light and shooting sparks.

You may think that “spin” is something that was invented by modern media. But a closer look reveals that the practice dates back to the Garden of Eden. God said to Adam in Genesis 2, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (verses 16-17). But by Genesis 3, the message had already become distorted. Here’s what the serpent said to Eve: “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (verse 1). See how it works? Satan takes a bit of the truth, adds a falsehood to it, and then produces a plausible lie that will insinuate itself into your heart as a question, causing you to distrust God.

Here’s how spin might work on you today. God says he has forgiven you because you belong to Christ. But you know you are far from perfect. You told a lie, you yelled at your children, you gossiped. Even worse, you’ve done these things repeatedly. Instead of repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness, you listen to the voice that tells you sin is despicable. True enough—sin is despicable. But then the voice takes it a step further, implying that you are despicable and that God can’t possibly forgive you. Listening to Satan’s spin on your sins will separate you from God’s mercy.

Or how about this? God says he hears your prayers and will help you. He tells you he will bring good out of even the worst circumstances because he loves you and you love him. Yet your husband lost his job last year and can’t find another or your child is ill and not getting any better. After a while, you stop listening to God’s promises and start tuning in to the voice that says, “God doesn’t care. Give it up. You’re on your own.” Listening to this voice rather than to the voice of the Spirit will spin you into a spiritual depression that separates you from God’s love and peace.

The way to resist the spin Satan wants to put on your life is to lean into the promises God has made—promises to give you a future full of hope. Ask God today to help you listen to the message of his truth so you can faithfully cling to his promises.