A Lament in Haiku

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They will know us by
our love, he said. But we are
known by who we hate.

Go and do likewise,
he said. But we have gone and
done the opposite.

You are the light of
the world, he said. But we spread
darkness and judgment.

Love your neighbor, he
said, and your enemies too.
But we say, Not them!

And Jesus weeps for
what we have done and not done.
May his kingdom come.

Lord! Lord!

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–A reading of Matthew 7:21 and 25:44

Lord! Lord!
You didn’t mean the bread on my shelves, did you?
The food pantry does great work.

Lord! Lord!
You didn’t mean the water from my faucet, did you?
The wells in Africa serve hundreds.

Lord! Lord!
You didn’t mean my room, my bed, did you?
The Syrians believe different things.

Lord! Lord!
You didn’t mean my shirts, my jeans, did you?
The racks at Goodwill have all sizes.

Lord! Lord!
You didn’t mean placing my hands on fevered heads, did you?
The hospice workers and nurses are trained.

Lord! Lord!
You didn’t mean face-to-face with a criminal, did you?
The mailed Bibles will bring lasting change.

Lord! Lord!

New Mercies

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New mercies always seemed like supernatural,
hard-to-miss displays of souls coming out
of darkness and bodies coming into healing.
Look at that! How amazing!

But then I caught the brave dandelion heads
waiting for the noon winds to render them
stems to spread their life;

And a tiny sparrow pick a buried twig out
of overgrown grass to surround
her marbled eggs, beginning to crack.

And I filled my cupped hands with cold, clean
water, lifting them to my mouth to drink.

Look at that! How amazing!

Longing for the Good

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.
They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
—Revelation 21:3–4

This past weekend, my daughter and I went to my mom’s home to help her box up or clear out old things that had piled up over the years. At one point, we came across a collection of works my grandmother, Lou Sheffield (we called her “Little Granny”), painted or sketched during her lifetime (November, 1913–May 1993). Some were stored in a large black folder, others were framed and leaned against the back of the closet, and still others were buried in sketchbooks. Several still hung on the walls. Her specialty was watercolors, but I remembered in that moment that her in-home studio smelled of oils and her hands often carried the dust of pastels.

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Initially, as I looked through her work, I saw the transitory nature of life. Was all this creative beauty, this ability to transfer what is inside an imagination onto a canvas for nothing? Is it all ultimately without meaning—her life’s creative work destined to be thrown away or relegated to storage facilities over the next several decades and then never to be seen or known again?

And then almost immediately, a deep longing for heaven welled up within me. I don’t mean a faraway place in the sky where we sing and play harps. I mean the new heavens and the new earth we see in Revelation 21–22. I don’t know that there are words that describe the longing I felt and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt it before, but it’s a bit like the ache you have when you find something from your childhood that reminds you of a good that existed long ago.

The longing right then wasn’t necessarily to see Little Granny again, although that desire has almost overtaken me since I’ve been reflecting and writing about her. There is so much I could tell you about her that has been dormant in my memories for nearly two decades. (She once told my sister and me to pick up the middle of the floor—referring to the mess of toys we had made in our room. My sister and I looked at each other and then pinched the carpet between our fingers, literally picking up the middle of the floor. Then the three of us laughed so hard, tears streamed down our faces.)

The greater, deeper longing I felt standing in my childhood home surrounded by Little Granny’s paintings and sketches was to see her draw and paint again. To watch with wonder my mom’s mom put forth the beauty and the good God planted within her imagination, her heart, and her hands. And her hands will not be twisted and sore from arthritis, she will be able to breathe deeply without her lungs wanting to give out, and she will smile and laugh, tears of joy streaming down her face because of the good.

On Sunday night, in a private conversation, a wise man named Steven Garber said to me: “most of us live as if there are two chapters in the story: the fall and redemption. But there are four chapters: the creation, the fall, redemption, and consummation.” He went on to say that if we forget that God created the world good, we forget that all of creation was supposed to be a certain way and that way was fundamentally good and beautiful. And if we forget that there will be a day when heaven meets earth fully—in the new heavens and the new earth—and all things will be good again, everything we do and experience can begin to seem meaningless.

I have been living as if the story has only two chapters. But with four chapters, there is hope and life and good to come. And there, I will see Little Granny painting and sketching again.

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How All the Pieces Fit Together

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted
eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the
whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.
– Ecclesiastes 3:11

I can tend to get a little lost at the end of the calendar year. I forget the plot a bit. It happens every year and still every year it’s a surprise. I long for an extended break as mid-November approaches and look forward to time with my daughter. But midway through the break, I get restless and become paralyzed by the stretch of open hours. I wonder if what I’m doing for work and ministry matters. I think about relationships past and feel a combination of regret and nostalgia. I think about money and whether there will be enough. I wonder what my purpose is and whether I’m fulfilling it. I think about decisions I’ve made and whether they were right. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but I become a little unhinged.

And then I think about puzzles.

In January 2013, I tried a case in federal court in San Diego. It was the first case I’d ever tried in which I was the lead lawyer, which meant not only increased pressure, but also the ability to present the case in the way I thought was best. So, when I stood to give my opening statement, I began by showing the jury this giant puzzle piece:

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After all, the jury has a tough job—even though events take place in chronological order, not every witness was there for every event, and yet each witness generally only testifies once.  As a result, the jury hears the story in pieces—part of the story from one witness, another part from another witness, and so on. No witness can share every aspect of the story from beginning to end. In this way, the story told at a trial is very unlike the stories told in books or movies. Telling a story through trial testimony is more like putting together a puzzle. The case I was trying was no exception—the evidence would be presented in pieces, out of order, and sometimes without any context. Also, there was no picture on a box sitting nearby so they knew what the final picture looked like. Not until the very end would they know the whole story and how all the pieces fit together.

Life is this way—the evidence is presented in pieces, out of order, and sometimes without any context. And there is no box anywhere that shows the final picture. The lack of routine and structure around the end of the year makes me lose sight of the fact that all the pieces will eventually come together into something beautiful and stunning and that every piece had a purpose in the bigger story.

One of the most meaningful gifts I received this year for Christmas was from my niece Lucy. It was this puzzle, which I put it together today:

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Without even knowing it, Lucy reminded me what all the pieces point to—love and the crucified and resurrected Christ (I’m not as convinced about the pets)—and that eventually they will all fit together.

In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being

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Jesus Christ—
our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace;
the One through whom and for whom all things were made; and
the One in whom we live and move and have our being—
became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

And nothing—neither death nor life, angels nor demons, the present nor the future, not any powers, height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—can separate us from the love of our God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Does the God You Follow Look Suspiciously Like Santa?

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Have you ever thought about all the images of God you carry around in your head and heart without even realizing it? From time to time, I reflect on whether any false or lesser images of God have crept into my psyche. During one of these reflections a while back, I discovered that my image of God looked more like Santa Claus than I would have believed. It seems ridiculous, I know, but let me show you what I mean.

Santa relates to the children of the world based upon their behavior—whether I’m good or bad determines his view of me. If I’m good, I’m placed on the “nice list” and I get good things. If I’m bad, I’m placed on the “naughty list” and I get a lump of coal as a sign of my depravity. And, by the way, the standards about who makes the nice list and who makes the naughty list are not public so none of us even know how to qualify. It’s all pretty arbitrary. We don’t know for sure until we open our eyes on Christmas morning and see what he brought. So, if you’ve done some bad things here and there (and I’ll just speak for myself, when I say I have), you’re on pins and needles for the whole month of December. Plus, Santa only comes around once a year. He’s not involved in the day-to-day matters of life. He’s more absent than present. When you send him a letter, he doesn’t write back and you’re never sure whether he gets your mail. Finally, Santa has no power other than to fly with reindeer, mobilize magical elves to make toys, and squeeze his body into chimneys. This is all sweet, but once you’re about 15, or if your life isn’t picture-perfect, it seems a bit irrelevant. His power doesn’t heal sickness and he doesn’t provide long-term hope.

This analysis led me to ask myself these questions: Are you unsure where you stand with God? Are you hoping that at the end of the day, your good outweighs the bad? Do you find yourself “good binging” to make up for the bad you’ve done hoping to even out the scales? Do you pray not knowing whether anyone actually receives your pleas or is interested enough to listen? Is God more absent than present? Do you believe God is unable to empower you and supply you the courage, wisdom, and grace you need to live a full life?

If my answer to any of these questions is yes, then I have replaced the actual living God with someone who looks a lot like Santa. And God is not at all like Santa. With God, in Christ, I know exactly where I stand—blameless, saved, secure. I have no work to do; no good-binging is required to restore me to His good graces. God receives every prayer, whether I utter it or not. He knows the deepest parts of my heart. God is actually within me—more present to me than any other person or thing in all of creation. And nothing can separate me from His love.

What false or lesser images of God do you carry around with you without even realizing it?

Just Wondering: Some Questions for My Christian Brothers and Sisters

I’m having such a hard time these days with social media and the news. Hatred, anger, and fear underlie almost every post and report. I have been especially surprised by the reactions and comments of Christians.

I haven’t been a follower of Jesus for that long—just since 2008—and I admit I follow him quite imperfectly. So perhaps I’ve missed something. But to my understanding it is love by which he said his followers would be known. (Jn 13:35) He didn’t say go out and be right. He said go out and be love. And he didn’t just say to band together and love each other. He said to love our enemies, to bless them, do good to them, and pray for them. (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27–28) He said to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Mk 12:31) He said to welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner. (Mt 25:34–40) And he said “do not judge others.” (Mt 7:1)

These days, it seems that what we Christians are looking to do is correct behavior instead of love. Before we love you, we want to know whether you are a practicing Muslim or if you are just a Muslim by culture and in name. We want to know whether you are practicing homosexuality or if you’re just attracted to someone of the same sex. We want to know what crime you committed and whether you’ve actually repented. We want to know whether you’re addicted to alcohol or drugs before we buy you a meal. We would rather talk with you about your behavior than lavish you with love. We would rather pass judgment than extend mercy.

I guess I’m just wondering why we do this. What are we afraid of—that Christians will get a bad name? That we will be known as lovers of Muslims, homosexuals, criminals, or addicts? I thought that’s what we were supposed to be known for. No? Or are we worried that being right on certain issues is the thing that ultimately saves us? I thought we were saved by our faith and trust in Jesus. No? And, by the way, why are we afraid anyway? I thought we believed that Jesus has overcome the world and that our hope is in him, not our country, political leaders, or the Second Amendment. No?

Just wondering.