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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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Thieves

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

The Good Thing About Conflict

The other day, my thin-as-a-rail daughter yelled in alarm, “Mom, I’m fat!” When I turned to look, I saw that she was standing in front of glass sliders, looking at her reflected image. I walked over and stood beside her. Sure enough, the glass compressed my image, making me appear a foot shorter and fifty pounds heavier. I stepped away in relief, feeling as though I had just looked at myself in a fun-house mirror.

Although most of us are familiar with how certain kinds of mirrors can create false images, I wonder how many of us are aware that the image we project to ourselves about ourselves can also be false. Sometimes, instead of creating negative images, our inner mirrors can create images that are all too flattering, hiding personality defects or weaknesses from the very person who most needs to see them.

Homer Simpson looks better in a funhouse mirror.

What do I mean by that? Before I had children, I thought I was a nicer, kinder, wiser, gentler person than I really am. It wasn’t hard to be nice when I wasn’t under the pressure of caring for little ones who often did not want to do what their mother thought they should. Plus there was the added pressure of protecting and providing for them. Being a mother has given me a more accurate picture of my spiritual maturity, or lack of it.

Ken Sande, the author of The Peacemaker, makes a similar point by saying that

“God may also use conflict to expose sinful attitudes and habits in your life. Conflict is especially effective in breaking down appearances and revealing stubborn pride, a bitter and unforgiving heart, or a critical tongue.”1

Though it’s not much fun to see ourselves, warts and all, it’s an essential part of following Christ. Why? Because he doesn’t just barge in and make us perfect once we belong to him. He requires our permission to continue to shape and mold us. If we want to be people whose lives reflect the beauty and peace of God, we have to be willing to reflect his character as well. More

  1. Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflicts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 37.

Dealing with Conflict

A drawing of a girl looking sorry.

How should we handle the conflicts that come our way? You’ve probably heard the business buzzword “best practices,” a phrase used to describe the best methods for accomplishing any given task. Are there best practices when it comes to dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arise in our lives?

Let me begin by describing a couple of worst practices. The first is to duck out and pretend there’s no problem. All of us have preferred escape routes: eating, shopping, engaging in social media, taking a walk. Some are helpful as cool-off strategies that can help us calm down and gain perspective. But as formulas for resolving conflicts, they fail miserably. In the end, escapism is all about me. It does nothing to solve the problem.

Another worst practice is blaming others, putting them on the defense for their faults and weaknesses. Afraid, angry, or frustrated, we lash out, escalating the conflict in the process. If we can’t bring ourselves to confront the person directly, we may displace the blame by kicking the cat (or the dog), yelling at the children, or even castigating ourselves, because somebody has got to take the blame. Like escapism, blame is also all about me.

The most effective strategy for bringing peace to a personal conflict is neither to escape nor to attack but to stand still in the midst of it and allow ourselves to feel the pain. The point is to feel not only our own pain but also the pain or perspective of the other person. This takes grit. But with practice and grace and prayer, we can begin to imagine what the other person might be thinking and feeling. We can also consider the effect our words and actions may have. We don’t have to conclude the other person is right and we are wrong, but we do have to be open to his or her perspective. This best-practice strategy puts the focus on us rather than on me.

If two people in a conflict can learn to do this for each other, it will be far easier to resolve the conflict. Even if you are the only one who is willing to face things in this way, you will find it can be a transformative process, allowing you to experience more of God’s peace. More

Peace Everywhere

A stained glass window image of two people embracing. I noticed him as I was waiting in the checkout line, trying to quell my impatience—the cashier on the right. At first glance, he seemed ordinary—a young man working behind the register at an electronics store. But then I saw his lips slide back, not in a smile but in a grimace. It happened again. And then another time. Realizing this was not some fit of pique but a glitch in physiology, I looked away. Then I sent up a quick prayer, asking God to bless him. When it was time for me to step up to the register, I saw something else. The man’s body was disproportionate. From the chest up he was of average size, but his legs looked like Humpty Dumpty’s. Whether he had lost weight through dieting, surgery, or illness, I wasn’t sure. I just kept praying, asking God to help and heal him. And then, purchase completed, I walked out of the store.

God offers us the opportunity to see others—to recognize their pain, their happiness, their need. But so often I am preoccupied by my own concerns, wondering, for instance, how long I will have to wait in line and whether I will have time for one more errand. Consequently I miss the opportunity God gives to share his peace with others.

We need to remember that we are created in the image of the God whom Isaiah called Sar Shalom, or “Prince of Peace” (9:6). We have the extraordinary privilege of being his ambassadors in the world, reflecting his character to those we meet through kind words, listening ears, and continual prayer.

Join me today in asking God to open your heart to the opportunities he brings. Pray for the grace to take your eyes off yourself so your eyes can be on others. And remember that God is searching the whole earth for a person like you whose heart is fully committed to him. That’s the person he will strengthen and bless. More

God Is Not A Shouter

An image of people rushing. God Is Not A Shouter

We live in a house with four floors of living and office space. Though running up and down stairs is great for the body, sometimes the body just doesn’t want to be bothered with them. So instead we shout up the stairs: “Time for homework.” “Mom, I’m leaving.” “Dinner is ready.” “Can I take the dog for a walk?” You get the idea. Without an intercom, my children and I sometimes resort to hollering at each other in order to communicate.

But God rarely hollers. Take prayer. When is the last time God shouted at you to sit down and pray right now—or else?

Even though prayer is essential to living a vital Christian faith, it may also be the first thing to slip from your schedule. Everything else seems more urgent. The children are late for school. Your spouse is sick. The toilet overflowed again. Your boss wants that report right now. And it’s only eight o’clock in the morning. In the midst of a hectic life, how can you drop everything and pray? One thing you can do is learn how to pray continually, as Paul advised, saying,

Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

Even if you don’t have time to sit down and pray for a half hour each morning, you can pray on the go: “Lord, please heal my husband.” “Let me be your servant today.” “Give me wisdom for handling that report.” “Thank you for blue skies and a family that loves me.” Simple prayers can help orient you to the Father who loves you rather than to your troubles. Once the clamor finally subsides, consider what you can do to streamline your life so you can find time to read God’s Word and listen for his voice. More

 

Repairing the World

An image of the world half submerged in water. Repairing the World.

We know that Jesus was a Jew, but how often do we reflect on the fact that our own faith springs from Jewish roots? Even a little familiarity with Judaism can yield rich insights. Take the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, a rabbinic concept that has been around since at least the second century. It can be translated “repairing the world.” But how does one go about repairing the world?

The Jewish people speak of being called “to perfect the world under God’s sovereignty.” Looking at their contributions to history, you would have to admit they have gone some way toward doing that. Many of the big ideas on which our own culture is founded are Jewish ideas—the sanctity of human life, absolute morality, the equality of all persons before the law, and many more.

“We were the people,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “who were born in slavery to teach the world the meaning of freedom. We were the people who suffered homelessness to teach humanity the importance of every people having a home. We were the people who were the quintessential strangers to teach humanity that ‘Thou shall not oppress the stranger’ (Exodus 23:9). We were the people who walked through the valley of the shadow of death to teach humanity the sanctity of life. We were the people who were always small but yet survived to teach the world a people does not survive by might nor by strength but by My spirit, says G-d (Zechariah 4:6).”*

In terms of the Jewish duty to “repair the world,” Sacks goes on to say that in our relativistic age, we must “teach people once again to hear the objective ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Thou shalt not.’”* And we must, he says, also teach them that shalom is found in God himself, the mighty one who is able to turn an enemy into a friend.

As Christians, we, too, are called to be repairers of the world, believing that our efforts will not be in vain but will come to fruition when Christ comes again. More

* Jonathan Sacks, “Tikkun Olam: Orthodoxy’s Responsibility to Perfect G-d’s World” (address to the Orthodox Union West Coast Convention, December 1997).