The Glorious Muddle
glimpses of grace in the messiness of life
February 4, 2019
December 19, 2018
I’m sure you know the story. A young, poor couple, the girl pregnant yet a virgin, traveling on their way to register for a census. The days were completed. The time had come for the baby–announced by an angel and prophesied long before–to be born. They couldn’t find housing, so she gave birth in a smelly stable.
There was no room for them in the inn.
Last night, we received a letter that reminded me of this story. Of course, any news is pale in comparison to the miraculous birth 2,000 years ago, heralded by a sky full of angels singing probably the most beautiful music ever heard. But this news is still pretty astounding.
If you’ve read my blog over the years, you’ll remember that I’ve frequented posted about an inmate who I renamed Chester (for his privacy). As a young dumb kid, Chester stole $76 from a fast food restaurant. First strike. Later, he was caught with $20 worth of crack. Second strike. Meanwhile, in reaction to heinous crimes, California passed the Three Strikes, You’re Out! law. After that, Chester swiped $40 from an open cash register drawer. Third, and final, strike.
That did it. Chester was convicted and given a 50 years-to-life sentence.
He was never armed. His non-violent crimes totaled roughly $156. And he’s spent his entire adulthood–24 years so far–in prison.
His wife left him, refused to let him have a relationship with his baby daughter. While behind bars, Chester was raped. Several times the parole boards have deemed him worthy of being released, but each time, the governor in power vetoed it, often at the last minute.
Chester knows he did wrong and knows he needed to pay. He’s been a model prisoner, helped teach young people to turn from a life of crime. He came to faith in Jesus Christ while a lifer, and he’s helped other inmates find Christ and grow in their relationships with him.
Chester is not a statistic to me. My husband met him while doing ministry at San Quentin. Later, he introduced me to Chester and told him I was a writer. Chester asked me, begged me, to write his story. I told him I’m not famous, and I didn’t think it’d do any good, but promised to do what I could. In the process of writing a research paper on The Rhetoric of Three Strikes Reform in California, I stumbled across a group of law students at Stanford who were working for the release of lifers caught in the misinterpretation of the law’s original intent. They agreed to take on Chester’s case. I like to think I helped.
In March, Chester received news that he’d be paroled. Now his days are completed. Finally, he has a release date. Chester will be freed on New Year’s Eve! However, the news isn’t all wonderful. Not yet anyway.
There is no room for him at the Halfway House.
He just found out he’ll be released on December 31, 2018 to San Bernardino County, California–where he knows no one. He will be homeless. That is, unless a good-hearted person steps up.
As a former missionary, I know what it feels like to return “home” to a place that doesn’t feel like home. It’s overwhelming. I was only gone 10 years. Chester has been away for 24. I had friends and family and access to money. He has none of that. People met me at the airport. He will be dropped off by a bus, to an anonymous street. He’s been institutionalized, with no decisions to make for all these years. He needs help.
I realize it’s a terribly busy time of the year, but please, if you live in Southern California or if you have contacts there, please contact me with an idea, any idea, of a resource for Chester.
Chester is trusting in the God who does the impossible, the God who came to earth long ago, sent to “proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” He came as a baby, born in a humble stable. Because there was no room for them at the inn.
December 11, 2018
December is a month of waiting. If you’re young, you wait for Santa to come. If you’re a sun-seeker, you wait for the days to grow longer again. If you’re a Christ-follower, you wait for the coming (the advent) of the Christ child.
While you wait, you are anything but passive. You don’t sit, bored, drumming your fingers as the minute hand marches across your clock, willing the pages of your calendar to turn. You do something. Anything.
Children actively try to be good, to make the “nice” list and keep off the “naughty” one. They go out of their way to be helpful and resist the temptation to fight with their siblings. December is the best time to be a parent with little ones so eager to obey.
People who prefer sunny days (like me!) turn on lamps or light candles. You dream of vacations to exotic beaches, even if your transportation is only your mind. In December, the ever-present threat of winter storms hangs in the air. I know; we’ve just had a doozy. We waited, expectantly, for the first snowflake of the year. Now we wait, impatiently, for roads to be plowed, snow to melt, and power to be restored.
One of my favorite art terms is chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and dark. At no time in my life have I experienced that contrast more vividly than my first Christmas in Romania. The first one after the revolution. The first one in which Romanians could celebrate freely.
The world was dark in 1990. No lights on the streets. Very little light inside. Not much heat. No decorations. No gifts to buy or money to buy them with. It was nothing like any Christmas before in my life.
More than I ever expected, I loved living in Romania, but I also couldn’t wait for Christmas break. My team and I were to meet up with other American teams in Switzerland. We hoped to escape the hardships of life for a week, share the unbelievable things we’d witnessed, and be with friends who spoke our same language.
A blizzard fell on the city the day of our flight, grounding every plane. We waited—not hundreds of years as people did for Messiah, but two long days–in a cold, dark airport along with a mob of others desperate to leave.
Finally, Swiss Air swooped down and offered us a chance to enter a new realm. We had no means to pay for this gift. We exchanged all we had to offer (our meager Tarom tickets) for the last four luxurious seats. They ushered us to a mysterious world so beautiful, we could never have imagined it.
When I stepped out of the airport, headed for our housing that night in Zurich, the subdued, tasteful white lights outlining trees and buildings blinded me. The chiaroscuro made me dizzy. I’d been living in darkness for months. I wanted light; I’d waited for light; but I wasn’t prepared for it.
Christ-followers wait by preparing their hearts and their minds in December, reflecting on what the great mystery of the incarnation means. What does it mean to you—personally–that the God of creation stooped to take on human flesh? What kind of love did it take for this God to willingly humble himself to become a baby, utterly dependent on those he formed from dust?
Immanuel. God with us. God who came to invite us to join his life.
He arrived in a world darkened by fear, poverty, political unrest, hopelessness. A world not unlike our own, today. His light shone in the darkness. As Hanukkah also celebrates, that light will never be extinguished. It continues to shine, against all odds, even when the oil should run out. His light shines today.
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
~ Isaiah 9:2
October 30, 2018
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, of The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, spoke words that pierced me. He said:
“I could only save some. The people in the back of the sanctuary, I could not save. I carry that regret with me and I will the rest of my life, that I could have done more, and that I was not able to do that. That’s my burden to carry.”
During an even darker time in the world’s history and in the history of the Jews, Oskar Schindler said similar words. “I could have done more. I could have saved one more.”
Their words made me think: What more could I have done? Maybe they pierce you, too. What more could you have done?
Back in 1790, George Washington wrote the following in a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
The children of Abraham, and every peace-loving person in America, should be able to safely take shelter under their own tree, in their own home or school or workplace. Certainly, they should be safe in their house of worship.
Many years ago, I learned a strategy for coping with anger. Before I say words that can never be unsaid, I need to take some time out, take a walk around the block or count to twenty, anything to give my emotions a chance to cool down.
Our nation needs to take a time out.
I will never write anything one way or the other that expresses my political opinions because I don’t want to add to the noise or alienate people who may see things differently. But I do read and I listen to others’ words.
Our country is like a tinderbox ready to explode. I have friends and family I dearly love who are polarized on both ends of the spectrum. Many of these friends spew their opinions in such hateful language that if I said I voted for the other side, they probably would no longer consider me their friend.
Some may read this and think they agree with me. “Yes, it’s all because of the Republicans.” Others will say, “So true; it’s the Democrats’ fault.” But if they think either of those things, they’re not hearing me. I will say it again. Both sides have contributed to the tinderbox.
As Americans, we need to take a walk around the block. We need to remember what we have in common, why we love our country, what we love about each other.
In the film Schindler’s List, Itzhak Stern quotes from the Talmud. “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
We can do more. We can save one life. We can stop the hatred.
October 24, 2018
In 1929, Albert Einstein was asked by a Saturday Evening Post interviewer if he trusted more in imagination or knowledge. Einstein said, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Children seem to be born with vivid imaginations and insatiable curiosity, but when they grow to adulthood, they often have to be reminded to “Use your imagination.” Why is that? Over time, we can let our imagination, a beautiful gift of creativity from our Creator-God, get squelched or die of atrophy.
Kris Kringle, in Miracle on 34th Street, asked the child, Susan, if she knew what imagination is. She said, “That’s when you see things that aren’t really there.”
“Well, not exactly. No, to me the imagination is a place all by itself. A very wonderful country. You’ve heard of the British Nation and the French Nation. Well, this is the Imagi Nation. Once you get there you can do almost anything you want.”
My parents encouraged and even celebrated my “over-active” imagination. We moved to the country where there were no girls to play with when I was four years old. No problem. I invented my own friends.
Debbie Whooby and Donna Hook were my constant companions. When we’d go for a ride in the car, my older brother had to scrunch against the door to make room for my two invisible friends. Debbie and Donna helped me make the transition to country life and kindergarten.
Now, as a so-called grown-up, I get to return to my childhood. I have the best job in the world! OK, I don’t get paid for my job–so it might be a stretch call it a “job”–but I do love what I do.
I have discovered how much I enjoy writing fiction. I have the power to create people and towns and whole worlds. A character may be tall with red hair and a contagious laugh one day, and then after I take out my giant eraser, I can turn her into a short brunette bookworm or a medium-height blonde political activist.
I get to create imaginary friends again!
My invisible characters write my stories. They visit me as I go about my day, looking over my shoulder and saying things like, “I would never say that.” They come to me in my sleep and keep me awake with all their racket. When I sit down to type, their stories unfold and take twists that I, as the Author, never saw coming.
I’m about to start the last novel in my young adult series of three, from a specific time and place in history–Romania in the 1980s. Historical fiction is a return to my roots.
My very first novel (finished at age 10), called Revolutionary Anne, was about a girl who lived in Phillie while her father served at Valley Forge. I wrote this masterpiece on the banks of the Choptank River across from my childhood home, the place where my mind was free to soar to any setting in any time period.
Imagination encircles the world. It enables you to do almost anything you want.