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.

A Way to Pray for the World

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Every news publication posts pictures daily that capture the horror (and beauty) of the human experience in this world. The temptation for me is to scroll through these pictures for information alone—to know what is happening in the world, to see it with my own eyes. But I’ve started to wonder what good it is to know these things. Is it so I can speak intelligently at dinner parties or with colleagues at work? So I can debate what governments should and shouldn’t be doing? So I can feel sadness or compassion or anger? So I will grow in fear about the evil and brokenness I see? Of course, some pictures move me to action—to protest, spend my money differently, donate to a particular organization that is doing good. There is only so much I can do, though, and I am inclined to withdraw instead and ignore the world.

Withdrawing from the world is not Jesus’ invitation to those who follow him. We are to engage the world, be light, offer hope, and pray—without ceasing, on all occasions, with all types of requests. What good is it to be inundated with pictures of the pain and horror in the world? To pray. To pray for the men and women and children who bear God’s image and who are loved deeply not only by God, but also by mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, siblings, husbands and wives, and friends.

We can pray without pictures. But with pictures, something changes. The Syrian refugees are not just a mass of people without names. In pictures, we see their faces and their eyes. Peace in the Middle East is not something that would be nice one day so we can stop hearing about it on the news. In pictures, we can see the urgency because of the faces terrorized by constant threat and the lack of stability and freedom. Black men killed by gunshots are not statistics. In pictures, we see they are bodies and souls made in God’s image, carefully crafted, formed for a purpose. The victims of natural disasters are not just numbers. In pictures, we can see their faces, their eyes, their hands, their feet. Our political candidates are not just platforms, ideas, and caricatures. They are people, made in God’s image, loved deeply. Concepts, numbers, and statistics are easy to ignore. Faces and eyes are not.

Here’s a way I’ve been praying for the world.

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Father in heaven, I hold every face and soul in this picture in the light of your love and grace and hope. I pray for the mother and son in the foreground. May they feel your presence and love today. Have mercy on them. I pray for all the families and souls that are not shown in this picture, but who are experiencing something similar. May your kingdom break through in the midst of such pain, displacement, and violence. Guide the hearts and minds of government leaders who are making decisions about the broken systems that stand behind what is happening in this picture. May your peace be known.

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Lord, it’s hard to know what to say. There is so much pain represented in this picture. I pray for Laquan McDonald’s family who are mourning the loss of their son, brother, cousin, nephew. Bring them your peace and comfort. Have mercy on them. I hold them in the light of your presence and love. I pray for Jason Van Dyke. Have mercy on him. Forgive him. In your grace, illuminate and heal whatever caused him to act the way he did. I pray for his family and all they are experiencing as a result of his actions. May your kingdom break through in the midst of the pain, the broken systems, the racism and hatred that is triggered or lies under the surface. Guide the hearts and minds of government and community leaders who are making decisions related to this incident and the systems that allow these shootings to keep happening. May your peace be known.

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(Clinton Photo; Trump Photo)

Father, I pray for this woman and this man, made in your very image, and so loved by you that you gave your one and only Son to give them eternal life. I hold them in the light of your presence and love. May you guide their thoughts and words. I pray for every political candidate in the upcoming 2016 elections. May your kingdom break through in the midst of the divisive, vitriolic atmosphere that characterizes politics in our country. Let me be an example of love and kindness so that all will know I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.

May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

A Thanksgiving Day Prayer

Father in heaven, thank you for your transforming presence in my life and in the world. Without you, I could never live in the ways you are calling me to live. My own instincts lead me to hold grudges, seek vengeance, complain, criticize, and yield to fear. My heart, left alone, wants to pick fights, build walls, and be right instead of loving. Help me, by your power and grace, to see my family, friends, community, and the world with your eyes and perspective. Give me the courage to love, build up, forgive, rejoice, pray, give thanks, and hold on to what is good.

May it be so.

A More Intentional Thanksgiving Table

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For years I’ve longed for a more intentional experience around the Thanksgiving table. Of course, catching up and telling stories can be meaningful and create long-lasting memories. But often, conversation devolves into politics, sports, and gossip about neighbors, co-workers, or other family members. We lose sight of why we’re gathered and who it is we’re thanking.  This year, I created (with some design help from my friend Jenna) a Thanksgiving table liturgy to help frame the table experience. The idea is that beautiful things can happen at the table when friends and family are gathered, but we often don’t know exactly how to turn our hearts to God or create a space that allows us to express our gratitude to Him and those gathered. The thing is, you don’t have to use the whole thing, you could just select the parts that you think will help those gathered with you–maybe just the discussion questions or the practice. Or maybe you are just looking for a Thanksgiving prayer. Anyway, to get the liturgy, just hit the link below, print out the document, and fold both pages in half.

May your Thanksgiving table be one at which holy and beautiful things happen, your friends and family leave feeling built up and encouraged, and our loving, gracious God is honored.

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Thanksgiving Table Liturgy

Come to Me

Come to Me

Come to me.
Here I am.
Here is my burdened heart.
Here are my weary hands.

I will give you rest.
Carry me.
Breathe my breath.
Relieve this weight.

Take my yoke upon you.
Attach me to you.
Make my steps your steps.

Learn from me.
Open my eyes.
Show me how.

I am gentle and humble in heart.
Soften my edges.
Break down these walls.
Loosen my grip.

You will find rest for your soul.
Ease the anxiety.
Banish my fear.
Cover these wounds.
Unleash your love.