The Glorious Muddle
glimpses of grace in the messiness of life

March 27, 2019

Lent and Listening

Our Lenten rose which bloomed the first day of Lent this year

As I forego sweets for 46 days and add another reading to my morning devotional time, sometimes I wonder why I do this every year. Most Christ-followers don’t observe Lent at all; the majority of those who do attend Catholic or liturgical churches. Why is that?

It’s so much easier to do something than to do without, to give gifts than to give up something. And so, most of us don’t.

Lent can become little more than a do-over for failed New Year’s Resolutions. On January first, you may resolve to stop eating desserts, and by February, you leave that by the wayside. Then Lent rolls around. You have another chance to fast from dessert (swimsuit season is coming up), or wine, or if you’re really strong, social media.

But why? Why do this at all? The roughly 40 days of fasting isn’t meant to imitate Christ during the weeks leading up to the cross, but rather to acknowledge two events in the Bible. The first is the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness; the second is the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the desert.

During his last six weeks in a human body, Jesus didn’t stop eating or drinking wine or socializing with friends. Mere hours before he was arrested, he had a big feast with his best friends. Of course, that came after he humbled himself to serve them, one last time, by washing their dusty, smelly feet.

Jesus didn’t live differently at the end. He always served. His whole life was one of giving up. Jesus gave up face-to-face time with his Abba. Everything he did fit into his ultimate mission. He lived to die. To die for us.

To sacrifice sweets feels so trite and insignificant when I think of what he sacrificed for me.

Maybe the point of Lent isn’t to claim that my small doing without helps me identify with his massive giving up. Perhaps the point is more what I put in place of the thing I’m doing without.

I can replace it with listening to him. With reflecting on the cross and what it means to me personally.

It takes time to listen. It’s easy to read the Word and then go about your day, but sometimes you just need to stop and mull it over a while. The same with prayer. My prayers are so often one-sided, with me doing all the talking, not giving him to chance to speak to my heart.

In order to listen well, you need silence. You must be still first to know that he is God (Psalm 46:10).

You need to obey what you hear. When I lived overseas, I went to a conference once with leaders (mostly men) from nearly every country in both Eastern and Western Europe. An American read a verse aloud about listening, a.k.a “hearing” to most of us Americans.

I commented that the word “listen” has a deeper meaning in Romanian. Listen goes hand in hand with “obey.” You don’t just hear; you listen and obey what you’re told. One after another, the national leaders in that room agreed that listen meant the same thing in their languages.

Somehow we’ve lost that. The closest we come to that meaning is when a mother says, “If you don’t listen to me, you’re going to be in big trouble, Buster.” She doesn’t mean hear. Buster may have heard her tell him to clean up his room five times. She means obey.

Maybe Lent is about slowing down, taking time out to reflect, and listening. And then when you hear, you obey what he asks you to do.

I’ll bet it will be something more significant than giving up chocolate.

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February 4, 2019

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December 19, 2018

No Room … at the Halfway House

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 $116. And he’s spent his entire adulthood–29 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 29. 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.


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December 11, 2018

Into a Dark World, Light

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

I Could Have Done More

I’m sorry but I do not know who to give credit for this beautiful photo.

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.