The Glorious Muddle
glimpses of grace in the messiness of life

March 2, 2018

Go Directly to Jail

These words appeared on a letter I just received in the mail. No, not the bit about not passing Go or collecting $200. The “Go Directly to Jail” part.

A jury that’s not so grand

You see, I’m part of the Grand Jury, and every month, I get a new summons. We meet one day a month for a year, locked in a room with 18 of us, a room so small everyone has to stand up to let one person squeeze by on their way to the bathroom. Next week, we’ll meet earlier than normal to inspect the jail, and not in our regular room in the courthouse. Hence, the wording on my letter that took me back to Monopoly games of my youth.

I can’t talk about the cases I hear or they might not let me go home once I go to jail next week. That is, unless I turn in this card …

But I can say that I’m not like most who try desperately to get out of their civic duty. Juries need people who try to follow Christ, the one who is Truth and who perfectly blended justice and mercy. I’ve been selected to three juries in the past; one of them actually resulted in a trial that lasted a week. It was fascinating, and I left with greater faith in how our judicial system actually works.

However, grand juries aren’t as interesting as trial cases. We only hear one side–the prosecution’s side. We don’t weigh in on guilt or innocence, just whether there’s enough evidence to go to trial. We vote on whether it’s a “true bill.”  We’ve listened to as many as 70 cases before in one sitting, some minor but some the stuff of nightmares. Those cases still haunt me.

A crime that’s not so bad

Each time I go, I witness another crime that goes unreported and unprosecuted. The crime of butchering the English language. Things like “the truck was stole” and “he had a broke arm” accost my grammarphobic ears.

I remember Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle who wanted to start a volunteer Apostrophe Posse to corral the offenders. We need Verb Vigilantes here.

Think I’m overreacting? Here’s a sample conversation from the first day I sat on the jury.

One of the jurors asked the officer why he searched a house.

“I had saw it was through,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It was through.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“I seen it.” His frustration starts to show.

“What did you see?”

“The contraband. It was through.”

“Do you mean it was finished?”

“No. The drugs was threw inside the house.”

True bill. I rest my case.

A transition that’s not so smooth

I go directly to jail on Monday. If I’m lucky enough to get released, on Monday evening, I will see another jail. This time, from the safety of a movie theater in a free country.

“Tortured for Christ” is the story of Richard Wurmbrand, tortured for 14 years in a Communist prison in Romania, because of his faith. He is one of my heroes. In the early 1990s, I saw people line up for blocks to meet him in the Christian bookstores he founded in Bucharest. I wish I’d jumped in line with them.

If this film comes to your local theater, please go to see it. I promise you’ll be inspired.

We received a free book (my third copy!) when we purchased tickets for the film. The copy to the left is an original edition.

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February 24, 2018

Good-Bye, Billy Graham

My home is sandwiched between Billy Graham’s homes. Today, I was present to witness the procession carrying his body from his adult home in Montreat to his childhood one in Charlotte, right past my small town. Right past people old and young, many too young to have known him in his vibrancy. Past people of all races who came to pay tribute to a life well-lived.

Along with hundreds who lined the route, I remembered my encounters with the humble man, pastor to presidents and the most famous preacher and evangelist of the 20th century. Billy Graham could frequently be seen on our television set when I was growing up. I’d flip through the small number of channels we had in those days, looking for something more interesting, and I’d skim by one of his crusades. It only took a few words of that commanding voice to hook me in to his simple message: Just as I am, I can come to Jesus. He never deviated from speaking about the gospel and the cross.

I heard him a few times in person. The first time was in 1972 in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. My church’s youth group rented a bus and drove down from Maryland for Explo ’72, a weeklong training culminating with him and his good friend, Bill Bright, speaking to the crowd of 80,000 young people. I remember there was a downpour, but when Dr. Graham stood up, the sun broke through. I thought it was the rapture.

You probably read a quote that went viral hours after Billy Graham’s death.

Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.

It perfectly sums up his life, and Billy Graham did say it, but he isn’t the original author. He reworded the opening lines of The Autobiography of Dwight L. Moody, the most prominent preacher and evangelist of the 19th century. I think Moody would’ve been honored.

Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody, of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone up higher, that is all; out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal—a body that death cannot touch; that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.

Today, I think of Bill Bright’s homegoing celebration among the staff of Cru at their summer training. I missed that; I was no longer on staff. But I watched it online, crying along with everyone present as they shared memories of another humble man of God, another man who kept his message focused on Jesus. Another good and faithful servant who received his “Well-done!”

I think of the Sunday school class in Hollywood, California in the early 1950s. Participants included a dairy farmer from North Carolina named Billy Graham, a candy salesman from Oklahoma named Bill Bright, and many more who went on to influence their generation. You would expect the teacher to be someone of the caliber of D.L. Moody. Instead, these men (and women) who would soon start and lead world-changing movements were inspired by a school teacher, a single woman, whose name you may have never heard. Henrietta Mears.

God can use anyone. And he does.


February 7, 2018

What’s the big deal about Valentine’s Day?

You probably know that February 14 has something to do with a saint named Valentino. It’s not his birthday or the day he was sainted. February 14 is the anniversary of the day–about 1,750 years ago–that he was beheaded in Rome, martyred for his faith.

His life and death have nothing to do with romance or buying flowers and chocolates. His name doesn’t mean lover; it means brave, strong one.

Valentino’s legacy should be his courage to lay down his life and stand up for his beliefs.

So why do we give out valentines in his honor? Over the centuries, several unsubstantiated, and wildly different, storylines have circulated. One says that he signed a note to the jailer’s daughter, “Love, your Valentine.”  Hence, our tradition got started.

Just over half of all adult Americans will celebrate Valentine’s Day. They are projected to spend $19 billion, or $143 per consumer. The staggering amount of money and level of commercialism is sickening, but that’s not what’s on my mind.

I’m thinking about the nearly half of the population who will not celebrate. According to the latest census, 43% of Americans are single. Some of those unmarried people have someone special in their life who will buy them roses or chocolates. But many of them don’t.

What about them?

At the risk of being seen as a crusader against all invented holidays, I have to tell you a couple of things about me. First, I am always for the underdog, the misfit, the one left out. Second, when I got married in my forties, I vowed to never forget what it felt like to be single and excluded.

Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem to be as traumatic as Mother’s Day—the other target of my rants. On Mother’s Day, I see and hear and feel the deep pain of women who aren’t moms. What I observe on Valentine’s Day is more like irritation.

Maybe that’s because  the hurting ones haven’t found their voice.

I’ll never forget one Valentine’s Day overseas. My team, all married couples and me, had a planned social time, which just happened to fall on February 14. Each person took a turn sharing how they fell in love. It’s as if the people–my teammates and friends–who organized it didn’t consider my feelings at all. That stung.

To ward against loneliness which can easily spiral into depression, some singles band together and make their own Anti-Valentine’s Day fun. These parties can have a dark edge, with blacked-out hearts and wilted roses. But the idea of drawing toward others when you feel sad or alone is healthy.

Christ-followers should be the first to notice people hurting, and reach out to them. Churches are often so family-oriented that people alone can be overlooked. Invite single friends out for coffee or to your home for a meal, not out of pity, but to get to know them and include them.

If you are married to someone you love who’s good to you, count yourself fortunate. Love is a wonderful thing. You did nothing to deserve it. It’s a gift of God. His grace to you.

Most people didn’t choose to be single. There’s not something wrong with them that they’re being punished for. They may be grieving a death. Or they just experienced a break-up. Or, as in my case, they’re waiting for the right person, not willing to settle.

Let’s look out for them this Valentine’s Day.  Let’s be like the real Valentino this year.

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January 19, 2018

Brokenness is Meant to be Displayed

Two art techniques shed light on the spiritual principle of stepping out into the light–not hiding who we are or the fact that we’re broken. I blogged about  Kintsugi  before, and recently its similarities with another technique, Pentimento, caught my eye. Check out my article, published today.

When a friend struggles, it’s easy to respond with compassion. After all, life is tough. Nobody survives unscathed. Nobody is perfect.

So why do most of us try to cover up our flaws? You pretend you’re doing fine, and if that doesn’t work, you blame someone else.

What if, instead, you stop hiding your weaknesses and start embracing them? Your true self shows when you shed your safe disguise.

Two art processes cast some light on how to deal with imperfection.

The first is a 500-year-old ceramic arts technique from Japan, called “kintsugi.” You’ve probably admired it without knowing the name.

Kintsugi means golden rejoining. Shattered ceramic pieces are mended with a shiny resin. The potter smears gold or silver epoxy directly onto the cracks.

The wounds are not camouflaged. They are highlighted. The cracks become the focal point.

Originally, the broken pottery may have been quite ordinary. Something (or someone) else happened to it, smashing it.

The random lines of thick brilliant lacquer transform it. The once-shattered pot turns stunning. Beauty rises from the very place of injury.

When you are broken, God carefully glues the pieces back together, as a potter does. Isaiah writes, “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8).

He brings healing at the exact spot where you were most deeply hurt.

But sometimes your wounds come from your own mistakes.

The second technique, featuring two-dimensional art, is called “pentimento” from the Italian root word for repentance. While its beginning is uncertain, Leonardo da Vinci practiced it in the late 1400s.

Like repentance, pentimento involves change, and even accentuates the change. It doesn’t pretend that the finished product always looked so finished.

In this process, artists alter the composition of a painting or sketch without erasing the earlier strokes. They gloss over it with a light coat of paint or charcoal, showcasing the correction.

The artists don’t pretend it came out perfectly the first time. They leave evidence that they messed up, for all to see.

When you are broken, God can make you whole again. When you make a mistake or choose to sin, he can draw a better course for you. If you’re headed down the wrong path, he can redirect you to a new one, filled with blessing.

It doesn’t make sense to hold back anything from God, offering him only certain parts of your life. Give him access to all of it, the good parts you’re proud of and the parts you wish you could do over.

He gently takes it all and weaves it together to make something you could never imagine. He creates something glorious out of your life.

Your scars, those same scars you probably want to hide, make you even more beautiful in his hands. Because Jesus gave up his body to be broken and scarred, yours can be made new.

He brings beauty from the ashes. But not your beauty; it’s God’s beauty. When you reflect the potter’s glory, people see his grace — in you.

And when others see the display of his glory in your life, it can inspire them to come to him. Your hurts are redeemed in the potter’s hand and their hurts can be healed.

So tell your story — the real story. Expose the cracked, broken parts. Turn your pain into healing for someone else. Let others see the places where you changed your course and tell them why.

Come out from the shadows into the light.


December 22, 2017

In Darkness and Silence, Hope

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

Advent is a time to wait. We wait, expectantly. We hope, even in the darkness. Especially in the darkness.

During the 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testaments, the people trusted despite the hopelessness of their suffering. They couldn’t see a way out, but God saw them. His gaze penetrated the murkiness. He provided the oil needed long ago to keep the Hanukkah candles burning, the light to dispel their gloom.

Anna and Simeon waited for years (Luke 2:25-38) before their faith was blessed with sight and they could feel the baby’s soft skin. Simeon and Anna believed with “assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). Others in ancient times anticipated the promised Messiah their whole lives but died before the fulfillment came.

Today, many wait in the dark.

The Christmas season accentuates loss. The loved one missing from the table. The wish still ungranted. Hope that continues to be deferred.

I’ve been silent lately, for many reasons. If I claimed it’s because all my time and energy went to finish out my first semester teaching, and then the day I recorded my final grades, Steve and I took off on a long-planned road trip, that would be true. But it’d only be a small part of it.

The real reason is that, since Thanksgiving, I’ve been sad. Another friend died, much too young, much too suddenly, leaving a heart-broken husband and children. Heaven becomes more real and desirable to me each year, populated with more dear friends that, someday, I’ll be reunited with.

But that’s the future. Hopefully, many years into the future. What is the hope for today? What will help those left behind?

My friend loved Jesus with all her heart. When the veil started to lift, and her focus grew sharper by the second until she could see that beloved face in full clarity, what did she see?

In winter, bulbs continue to grow, buried deep in the cold, dark ground. We can’t see what happens under the surface. It feels like death. And then, without warning, when the time is right, flowers burst forth, in brilliant color.

The Messiah came at a time like that. The incarnation began in the dark. In silence. The God of the Universe, who spoke the world into being, implanted his divine embryo in the womb of a teenage virgin, coming to live among us and show us his heart, the father’s heart.

He didn’t arrive as a ruler demanding obedience. He came gentle and humble, loving the lowest. Angels announced his birth–in an animal stable– to shepherds, those shunned by society. The child grew to give sight to the blind, forgiveness to sinners, and belonging to the marginalized.

The birth of the baby who came to lay down his life, in exchange for ours, gives meaning to my friend’s death. Because of him, she is now living, forever, in undiluted light.

If you struggle with loss and heartache this Christmas, no trite words can help. But the one born that silent night in Bethlehem can. He understands. He suffered, separated from his father, hated by those he came to love.

Look into his eyes. Trust his heart for you, even when you can’t see it. Reach out and touch his outstretched hands.

Come to him, not because you have to. Because you want to. Because that’s where life is found.

Corrie ten Boom, one of my heroes, wrote about her fear as a child riding trains through tunnels. When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.

Trust. Even in darkness. Even in silence. What do you see?

Silent night, Holy night.
Son of God, Love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.