In the summer I was seven, my mother sent me down the street to our neighbor’s house to deliver a message. I stood on their concrete stoop with my bare feet and cut-offs, ringing the doorbell repeatedly with second-grade impatience - but no one was answering. I bounced on one leg, bounced on the other, swung my sun-brown arms back and forth and was ready to leave when I heard a rustle in the bushes right next to the porch. I was always on the lookout for animals that might need rescuing in those days, so I snuck down there quiet and lifted the edge of the laurel bush to see if it was a bird thrashing about or maybe a bunny or a stray kitten. But I was disappointed, for nothing warm and fuzzy lay under the bush, just a toad staring at me with its unblinking eyes bulging rhythmically with the sack at its throat. I started to drop the branch back down and leave when something strange caught my eye. I stared at it, puzzled. The front of the toad was normal looking with its lumpy amphibian head and bowed front legs with their tiny hands, but the back of it was misshapen and dark. I crept closer. Slowly the dark unfolded and I could see that the shape at the back was not a toad at all, but a snake, its unhinged jaws encircling the belly of the toad - whom it was swallowing alive. I screamed and jumped back, but not before the blank, still look on the toad’s face as it succumbed to the hunger of the snake was written on my memory.
A different kind of snake found its way into our house recently. I suppose we’d been taunting it for awhile: setting new boundaries, raising expectations, refusing to react to threats. We’d been praying more fervently, diligently speaking Truth, letting faith beat its wings - so maybe I should have known. But I didn't. I was looking the other way when old wickedness slithered in and hissed his terrible promises.
When the first of the furor was over and things had settled down into quiet again, I happened to see my face in the mirror: it was blank, still – and there in the back was something dark and misshapen with its jaws unhinged.
The snake, the fox, addiction, cancer, adultery, despair - whatever we call the demons that prowl in our lives - are always at the ready to haunt us, make us believe they can swallow us whole. In this world you will have trouble, Jesus told us.
The next morning, with the tightness of the snake's jaws still firm against my belly, I crawled out of bed, gathered my Bible and prayer book and curled up on the couch as usual. I turned to Colossians 3, the chapter I have been meditating on for the last few weeks and began to read the familiar words: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…” (v. 15)
“And let the peace of Christ rule…”
So much easier to read, to write, than to live. Keeping peace in a home with chronic sin or pain or disease or disappointment is a discipline – and one I am a novice in. I think of peace as a clutch of daffodills on a wooden table, the hush of fog over a new day, the familiar comfort of a husband's skin. But there is a peace that moves deeper - below, above and in the circumstance. It rises out of our broken hearts and kisses the tears from our faces. It brings its tenderness to every wound and its strength to every crisis. That morning a door opened for me, a burst of light illuminating the many years of slow, foundational work the Lord has been accomplishing. God alone knows the secrets of yielding to peace, of nurturing and protecting it, of fighting for it and denying the snake his victory, but He reveals His secrets to children like me and you, who are heavy-laden, fearful and cast down. “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble," says Jesus, "but take heart (courage); I have overcome the world.”
The seven year old girl who first met the hungry snake under a neighbor's laurel hedge is long gone, but when I looked in the mirror after the Lord met me that morning the hovering darkness and the fear of being devoured had disappeared too. I stared at my tired face, touched the lines that four decades have left me, then tentatively, I bounced on one leg, then the other, let my arms swing just a little and stepped out into peace.
Over the next few days I’d like to humbly share some of what the Lord has been showing us: the ways in which a family, a person, can hold on to peace even when circumstances are shifting, when chaos and disruption conscript our days, when everything we do fails and we are left holding disappointment. It's nothing new and improved, it's the same things that God has been whispering to His children for generations, but I hope our stories and our struggles will help shine a light on that old path for someone else.
I'll begin tomorrow with part one: Which Ruler Will You Choose?