Numbers

Am I the only one
Who looks at numbers and cries?

The number of children without parents
The number of people in poverty
The number of children starving
The number of babies murdered

Because I know that behind every number
Is a person
Made in God’s image

When I feel alone I am so thankful
He counts every hair
He counts every tear
And one day, he will wipe them all away.

Come, Lord Jesus!

I Choose Love

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Sharon, Aaron, and Joy Naik went to be with their Lord and Savior the evening of December 23. This free verse poem is written in their memory.

 

I want to be alone.
But I don’t want to be lonely.
Is there a way to make the pain go away without giving in?
The world of numbness is already overpopulated.
In the world of the hard,
We soft ones stand out as targets to be trampled.

We are soft but not weak.
They entice us when we hurt,
But they are envious in our joyous moments.
Today that joy is far away.
I must remember lest I crumble
That a life without pain is barely living,
This life lives in the shallows
It abandons the depths of joy, hope, and love.

If I did not feel this sorrow, it would be because I had not loved.
Would I trade it?
For one moment would I forsake the beauty of lives intertwined?
Would I give up laughter?

I would not.

Neither will I give up crying now.
The salt in my tears will escape and bring healing in time.

I choose love.

Advent: A Time of Expectant Waiting

Advent is a time of waiting. As an adult thinking of Christmas, it doesn’t feel like it’s that far away. I have seen it come and go each year, and I fully expect it to come shortly this year as well.

For a child, it may seem longer, but often the entire season of lights and songs and the knowledge that Christmas is coming is lovely enough. In the Chronicles of Narnia, we see the concept of a time of expectancy beautifully described. The snow starts melting and Spring finally arrives after years of only winter and never Christmas. This is a sign to the children that they will see Aslan soon.

When I think back to Jesus’ arrival in this world, I wonder how many people were in this frame of mind. How many knew that he would be there shortly?

As I wrote about in my last post, The World Jesus Enters, things looked a bit bleak. The people were expecting a savior, but I wonder how expectant many of them really were.

Years ago, I was a part of a Bible study and going through an incredibly difficult time in my life. The difficulty in my life in that period was so real that I do not even remember what book I was studying at the time, but I do remember the author mentioning that as a Christian waiting was to be with an expectant attitude.

As I sat in the Bible study and we discussed the author’s definition of hope, I remembered that the word for waiting in Spanish is “esperar” and it is the same word used for hope. I thought about the loveliness of a culture in which waiting was equivalent to hoping. At that time in my life, waiting and hoping were nowhere near the same thing. But, as I began thinking through the concept during my Bible study and afterwards, I realized that this is the Christian culture.

We can certainly wait or hope for the wrong things, and if we do we can be disappointed. But if we are living out the faith of the Bible, then we are supposed to be expectantly waiting for the right things—things we are promised in his word.

So, going back in time to the world Jesus entered, I wonder about the different people during that day. How expectant were they? We know Simeon was expecting him to come soon as it says in Luke 2:26 that, “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Perhaps Anna knew, too. But I must deduce from the way the Bible points to this special revelation, that most people probably did not know.

I imagine most people were going about their daily business in a broken world, some with hopeful expectancy of God fulfilling his promise of the coming Messiah, but many less expectant. Many, after centuries of waiting might have had only a smidgen of hope left. They may not have seen waiting as synonymous with hoping. While a part of them may have believed and trusted God was sending a savior, another part may have been a bit numb to the idea—a bit callous after long years of waiting.

The counting down of advent can be comforting to us, because it points to a certain day when we can celebrate reality. Each year it follows the pattern of the calendar with certainty.

From a human perspective, the first and second advent are not like this. From God’s perspective, these events happen with absolute certainty. But as we anticipate the second advent of Christ, we know that “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)

The celebration of advent is a comfort to us, a reminder of the period of waiting mankind experienced before Jesus’ first coming. It is a reminder that this period of dark waiting had a hopeful and celebratory end.

Now, we follow suit. As we experience this time each year, we remember that Christ came, and our hopes have been fulfilled. At the same time, we are also pointed forward to his second coming, because in some sense we are still waiting.

Some are not joyfully celebrating advent right now. Some may not be in a place of recognizing that we can wait expectantly, because it seems so dreary. Some may be in a dark pit like I was several years ago when the idea of tethering waiting and hoping together seemed odd.

I want to encourage you today, to rest in God’s word. As we await Christ’s second coming, we have more to look forward to than children awaiting Christmas day. We know that after the presents are opened and the lights are taken down and the feasts are digested that many people will enter post-Christmas blues as they see that what they have been anticipating is now over.

We who await the second coming of Christ are awaiting a celebration of perfection that will never be over. We are awaiting Christ making all things new. We are awaiting a time of no more sorrows or tears. We are awaiting the never-ending Christmas feast that will satisfy every longing of our hearts for eternity.

The World Jesus Enters

It’s that time of the year again—the time of the year when we turn our thoughts to the incarnation of Christ. As I returned from Thanksgiving celebrations, I found myself opening my Bible to Matthew 1 and soaking it in a bit. The setting of this chapter is right before the birth of Christ.

The chapter opens with a genealogy, which to many people might not be the most fascinating way to begin a chapter. But if you have done your Biblical homework, you probably understand the significance of this genealogy and why it would be both essential and exciting news.

The people of God had been waiting for a savior. It began in the garden directly after the fall, and then continued later as God made a promise to a man named Abraham, and then to Isaac, Jacob, and Judah. Prophecy tells us the Messiah will come from the line of David. So, if we begin reading this genealogy with the background story of the Old Testament, it can be exciting as we see the unfolding redemptive plan of God throughout the generations. We can wonder at the perfect spacing of 14 generations between Abraham and David, David and the Babylonian captivity, and then from that time to Christ.

But with Old Testament knowledge, we can look at this line of names and marvel in a different way. These names remind us of the kind of world the Messiah enters.
The people on this list were sinful men.

Abraham’s deceit had led his wife to be taken into another man’s house. His failure to trust God had led him to heed Sarah and take a concubine. His son Isaac followed his father’s deceitful example. His great-grandchildren sold their own brother into slavery. The first woman mentioned in this genealogy is Tamar, and we can remember the sketchy circumstances by which she ended up conceiving Perez and Zerah. The next woman mentioned is Rahab, whose occupation would raise eyebrows. The list continues, and we see the King after God’s own heart fell into adultery and murder. The wisest man fell into gross idolatry and things got worse from there as we continue through a line of kings who, despite warnings from the prophets, follow idols and lead their people into the Babylonian captivity.

And yet, we can look at this list through another lens. Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab and David all had faith in God.

This list of Jesus’ ancestors brings reality and hope together in the same way the incarnation of Christ does. This list shows us the sinful world Christ would enter. It reminds us that the greatest men of faith did not rest on their own merit but trusted in the future Messiah.

We see the imperfection of our world even as we pass from the genealogy into verse 19:

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Jesus would enter a world of shame and divorce. Although the angel came and prevented a divorce between Mary and Joseph, he still entered a world of shame and a world where divorces occur.

Do you ever struggle with the reality of your world? I know I do. This world is filled with pain. This world is filled with sin. Every day you face it in one way or another. An argument, unkind words, selfishness, pride, malice, envy, deceit, unfaithfulness, and the list grows from there.

What a depressing thought that is if we don’t follow this knowledge with the hope of the Messiah.

Joseph is in the middle of this kind of situation as he considers divorcing Mary.

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

Matthew 1:20

If the Bible had failed to show the reality of the world of Jesus’ ancestors, might this have been less amazing to us? If we somehow bought into a sanitized, watered-down version of the Bible, might we miss the truth and power of this message? It’s when Joseph’s hopes are crushed, his betrothed appears to be unfaithful, and he is contemplating divorce that the angel shows up and gives him hope—not just in his future marriage, but for all sinful men for all time!

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet;
‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.’

Matthew 1:22-23a

God with us.

The incarnation.

There are days when I struggle mightily to keep my head up in the world in which we live. The real world is often difficult. But it is precisely this broken and sinful world that Jesus entered. He entered it knowing just what it is like—the very worst of it. He entered because it is like this.

Some days I struggle to enter the hard places of life. I have seen God work and redeem on so many levels, but as we continue in this world, we will continue to see more until his second coming. On these days I am both convicted and comforted by Jesus who willingly entered this world.

I am beyond thankful for the God who despite everything we have done chose to be with us.

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In addition to blogging, Stefani Carmichael is an author, counselor, wife, mom, and houseparent to teenage girls. 

Enough

I won’t ever forget standing in the darkness of the catacombs in Kiev, Ukraine, my thin wax candle flickering. I felt something in my coat pocket. Looking down, a child of 3 or 4 stood with a jacket several sizes too big. I barely caught sight of the dirty face under the toboggan and am still uncertain whether the child was a boy or girl.

Asking questions, I learned this child lived in the streets and was probably looking for food or something of value. A junior in high school at the time, I had relegated situations like this to Charles Dickens’ novels of long past.

In the United States, my family was not well off. At the time, I was living in a second-hand single wide trailer in Mississippi. Neighborhood families had often brought us their cast-off clothing, and to me this was just normal life. I had my first steak at age 18 when I visited my aunt, and she was appalled when I tried to slather ketchup on it because that is just what we did to make meat palatable.

But I had never faced starvation. I certainly knew that if you did not eat the food you had you would not get more, and I had forced down my share of canned vegetables to get better things. Leftovers were to be eaten until they were gone, and nothing was to be wasted.

But this small child had no one to provide meals. Scrounging on your own as a toddler? How could that be?

At that moment, my heart for orphans took root. Whether girl or boy, that face will forever be etched in my memory.

In college, I studied International Business and Economics. At the time I was learning the GDPs of countries worldwide I ended up in an expensive formal shop on the coast. I couldn’t help but notice that the dresses cost more than an average person made a year in many of these places.

When I think about things like this, it’s tempting for me to numb myself to it. It’s tempting to turn back to the world around me and deal with the things I can handle, knowing that I can’t fix this.

But I hope I never do.

Yes, it’s painful to look at the brokenness in this world head-on. This weekend, I feel assaulted by it. Reminded of the plight of orphans, the poverty in the world, the wars our veterans have fought, the incivility of politics, not to mention the hurts of those near me it can be tempting to harden yourself from it all.

But I refuse to do it.

I keep reading the messages online from various places that, “I am enough.” I look at all that I just mentioned, and I admit quite honestly, “I am not enough. I will never be enough.”

So, how do I keep standing, keep walking, keep eating, keep breathing each day? How do I keep going seeing the deep need of our world?

I take it all—all the pains near and far to the God who is enough. I don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. I don’t look away. I don’t pretend I can handle it. I look at it and I let it drive me to Him.

I cry on my bed and I intercede for the orphans, those treated unjustly, those who are persecuted, and the persecutors.

I put my trust in God, and believe he is at work.

I don’t always understand his timing. Why does he sometimes answer quickly, and at other times help seems so slow? His ways are beyond me, but he is at work.

I saw babies packed in cribs, but I have also seen some brought into a loving home.

I have seen girls left unattended in an orphanage, but I have also heard reports of 70 being adopted by their heavenly father.

Joseph never knew why he was hurt and abandoned by his family, enslaved, betrayed and imprisoned—until years later when he could say:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
Genesis 50:20

I am so thankful I am not in charge, and that I can confess my own inadequacy. It leaves me free to be used in the hands of my maker in the capacity he has for me. The burden of the world is not on my shoulders—in fact my own burden has been lifted by the one who can bear it all.

I can’t do everything, but I can do something. I can give, write, encourage, teach, love. Not everyone. Not as well as I would like to. But when the needs of the world and the people of my own home face me, I am so glad that I haven’t left them thinking I am the one who can satisfy all their needs. I can give a drink of water, but you will be thirsty again. Thankfully, I know where you can find the never-ending spring of life.

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In addition to blogging, Stefani Carmichael is an author, counselor, daughter, wife, mom, and houseparent to teenage girls.

Justice

Sitting in the middle of a congregation of Africans, Asians, and other Americans, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I could not help but think of how our worship of God in heaven would consist of every tribe worldwide. The pastor taught on the parable of the talents, a text I had taught to my own children so many times. I have always believed it important to be a good steward of my time, money, and talents.

But today, as the sermon ended we sang the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be” by Frances Havergal, I couldn’t help but notice that in addition to the usual verses, a verse had been added that began, “Take my intellect.” As I sang those words, tears streamed down my face.

I have never been one to be swayed by emotionalism and that is certainly not the case this morning. No one else had an emotional response to this sermon, but it convicted me. I may be giving in many ways, but this hymn reminded me of the way God had gifted me and how I should be using that gift.

I saw great things happen because of that trip. In less than a year through connections from that trip, he has provided money to help an amazing ministry to orphans, a grant to help build a new home to bring children out of extreme neglect and into a loving environment and partnered with an organization that will bring continued help to this ministry.

God is at work.

His work in me during that trip encouraged me to restart my blog and use everything I have at my disposal for his glory. God has gifted me with words and my job is to speak.

Returning home, desiring to share the great need of these orphans, I re-entered blogging in the middle of a Christian conversation on social justice. Who knew helping those in need and loving others was such an issue?

I am not going to define social justice and argue for or against it. I see that those concerned with this term are looking at how it has been used historically and ways they may fear that movements around the term are headed. Some people are wrestling with the idea of a social gospel that is replacing the gospel.

Let me be as clear as possible: I am 100 percent pro-gospel. I am also 100 percent pro-loving others.

If we ever hope for real justice in society it will come through the gospel. We are all sinners, in need of a savior, Jesus Christ. Without his atonement, none of us could ever hope to stand before a Holy God.

I hope that none of us who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ will get lost in arguments that would detract us from following Christ in obedience. My concern is that those who are against the term social justice would leave Christians confused, and perhaps lead some to be less concerned about loving our neighbors as we ought.

If we look at Acts chapter six, we see that the widows in the church were not receiving the food they should be receiving. Men were chosen to serve these women, so that other men could remain focused on teaching the Word of God. From the very beginning of the church, we see that there was a focus on both physical and spiritual needs. The elders focused on the teaching of the word, while the deacons focused on acts of service.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it-not forgetting what they have heard but doing it-they will be blessed in what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:22-27

While the gospel does show that what we do will never earn our salvation, we see in this passage in James and in countless other places in scripture that obedience to the word is of utmost importance, and obedience to the word means loving God and others, since that is the summary of the law that Jesus gives. In this passage, it shows that love ought to include caring for the orphans and widows—those who were vulnerable in society. We see countless places in the Bible where we learn that our God cares about those who are vulnerable (Psalm 68:5, 82:3, 146:9, Exodus 22:2, Isaiah 58:7) In addition to the orphan and widow, these and other passages also include foreigners and the poor. As Christians, we are certainly called to look at the distress of others and act accordingly in love.

Jesus himself repeatedly showed his concern with the whole individual. His miracles included providing food on multiple occasions, healing from a fever, lepers, the paralyzed, the blind, deaf, and mute, the demon-possessed and the dead. Jesus cared about others physical needs, as well as their spiritual needs. He preached the sermon on the mount, but he also fed the 5000. In fact, in the sermon on the mount, he warns against practicing righteousness for others to see, and the example he uses is about giving to the needy. He instructs to do it privately rather than publicly, but he certainly does not say it does not matter.

In fact, in the well-known passage on suffering in Romans 8, we learn that God is using everything to conform us to the image of Christ. If his goal is to sanctify us, shouldn’t we like Jesus be concerned with the physical and spiritual well-being of those around us as Christ was?

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25-37

Obviously, we know we cannot love perfectly like this parable describes. This is why we need the gospel. This man could not be justified by loving God and his neighbor perfectly. None of us can be. And yet, while we cannot be saved by our good works because we all fall short, God has not saved us for us to continue living sinful lives. Our hearts are to be transformed by the gospel so that more and more, this is the way we live.

We have all failed at God’s justice. We all have failed in our task of loving God and others. We all need Christ’s perfect atonement. We all need him to stand in our place, so we can stand at all. And once he has rescued us, we should all cherish his justice so that we increasingly love others as Jesus did.

So my plea to my brothers and sisters in Christ is, please don’t pass others by out of confusion. Please don’t use arguments as an excuse. Our world is full of both physical and spiritual needs. Jesus ministered to both, and Christians are to minister to both as well.

Today’s Prayer

Father,

I am so thankful that you reign over the heavens and the earth. That you are in control of all situations, great and small. You are holy and perfect in every way. The perfection of your reign will come in culmination, even as now the battle is being waged. One day, you will be proclaimed throughout the earth as the king you are, even as the angels in heaven already proclaim your majesty.

Meet the needs of your children today. Give us the strength to sustain us both physically and spiritually. Give us encouragement to accomplish your will. Give us the ability to love you and each other.

I confess that we as your people fail at loving you and others the way that we should. Our love falls short each day. We often live with walls of division rather than the unity of Christ. Help us to love as Jesus did. Help us to love the prostitutes and tax collectors and even Pharisees. As Jesus rescued Paul, the self-proclaimed chief of sinners, the Pharisee of Pharisee, help us to love all forms of sinners even as you have loved us.

Make us merciful. Remind us of the mercies you show us every day and help us not to hold grudges against anyone. When someone treats us as an enemy, remind us of how Jesus prayed for those who put you on the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Protect us from temptation and deliver us from its clutches.

Your kingdom will prevail!
Your power will overcome!
Your glory will be displayed!

In Jesus’ Name,
Amen.