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.

Homecoming

About a month ago the principal announced the homecoming maids on the loudspeaker as I sat listening. I smiled as I heard one of my girl’s names announced as senior maid, and I did not even have time to be surprised before the second was announced. Two senior maids living in my house! I knew a busy month lay ahead.

That night I gathered them together to begin the planning, knowing how little time we had to find dresses, cars and signs for the parade, hair stylists, and makeup artists. It’s been a month of dress shopping and appointment making.

It has certainly been busy, but it’s a joyful busyness. The physical reality of all these preparations points me to the preparations God is currently working in us.

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Revelation 21:2

These girls are not yet brides, but their preparations for homecoming remind me of the preparations of a bride for her wedding day.

The exciting thing is, we the church, are currently in this process. We are in the busy stage of preparation as the bride of Christ.

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deed of the saints.” Revelation 19:7-8

What a beautiful gown we are privileged to wear—the righteous deeds of the saints.

This month in addition to Homecoming, I have been busy. We have had college visits for seniors, cross country meets, choir performances, and an all-day Harvest Festival among other things. It could be tempting to get bogged down and stressed and lose the joy of the beautifully busy phase of life I am in.

The same is true as God molds and shapes us into his holy bride. This is the time of life we are in! We are in the preparation phase. Growing in holiness isn’t always easy, pleasant, or stress-free—but what a purpose it serves. God is making us righteous. One day we, his bride, will be clothed in a perfectly white gown and he will see us as beautiful.

As people test your patience, as you face life’s difficulties don’t forget that these are the things that God uses to help prepare you. Praise the Lord this day will come!
And as he prepares you, he is also preparing our new home. Our school’s homecoming festivities will end the night of the game, but the joys we will experience will only begin at our heavenly homecoming.

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:3

We will be experiencing a homecoming unlike anything we can imagine!

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Colossians 3:20

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4

All our time in this earth, we have been longing for our true home. At our homecoming, we will finally be prepared to enter it. All the times we have felt adrift, as if we did not quite fit will come to an end. All the times we grieved over things that we knew were not as they should be will be over. We will finally be sanctified and fit for a place of perfection.

Little Black Lies

I am not sure when the lie creeped inside my mind. I had committed my life to mothering by choice. I have been a home school, public school and private school mom. I was a mommy-blogger for years. I have a full-time job parenting children that are not my own. I did this not begrudgingly, but intentionally because I saw the need and I had a passion for parenting.

Then one day, subtly, the serpent hissed in my ear, “No one hears a word you say.” That day I began seeing myself as the teacher on Charlie Brown. Constantly talking, and never anyone hearing the message I am trying to communicate. Telling children things that I believe will bless their lives and realizing they did not get the message. “Waah, waah, waah…”

Of course, this was a partial truth. Children (and adults for that matter) don’t always listen well. The more people you try to communicate with, the easier it is to see the times that the message didn’t penetrate than the times it hit the mark. You begin feeling like a broken record that needs to be thrown in the garbage.

For me, that’s how it started, but it didn’t stop there. More subtle messages slid into my mind over time. “You were Valedictorian. You were President of multiple organizations. You received countless scholarships and studied abroad. What have you done with all that? What are you now?”

The serpent worked his deception subtly and gradually I began to lose passion, confidence, and direction in my mission. Gradually I began to wonder if someone would hear me if I had done another job. I began to wonder if I had completely missed my calling.

“Yes,” I thought, “Parenting must be a task for special people who know how to communicate so that their children always listen.”

Did I just type that?????

I did, because as ludicrous as it sounds I realize that this is close to the discouraging message I had been telling myself. I had forgotten all human nature and convinced myself I was ineffective.

And it didn’t end there… I think somewhere inside of me I slid back into the mentality that if you do something well you get recognition. Nowadays, people even get recognition when they don’t do things well. But, all my life before becoming a wife and mom, I had become accustomed to recognition.

As a young mom and wife, not receiving recognition did not bother me. I saw it as a sanctifying process in which God was humbling me and helping me to do the right things for the right reasons. But after over a decade, I confess, I started wondering….

“Maybe I’m just rotten at this parenting thing?”

Ten years in and I’ve read all the books and clocked in blood and sweat and tears. I’ve woken up in the middle of the nights, set an alarm for 4 a.m., cooked breakfasts, helped with homework, encouraged, prayed, cried, and begged. I’ve potty-trained. I’ve cleaned vomit out of car seats from three different children (I think that deserves some sort of medal). I’ve held hands through surgeries and broken arms.

But no… there are still no medals, plaques, awards, etc.

Maybe you are all more realistic moms than I am. Maybe you have never struggled with this. But just in case you ever have, let me tell you:

Just because there are no awards for parenting does not mean that your job is not important or significant.

Just because it seems like no one hears you doesn’t mean that the messages you deliver to your children each day aren’t incredibly important.

I know you know this. Even in my darkest days, I knew this, too. But just because I know something in my head, doesn’t mean lies can’t creep into my heart and sap the passion and joy of my parenting.

Today, if you are a fellow mom, I want to tell you the words you probably won’t hear very often:

Thank you.

Thank you for all the times you woke up in the middle of the night and continued to get up at the crack of dawn.

Thank you for all the meals prepared—no matter if they were Pinterest worthy or from a box.

Thank you for drying your children’s tears, for listening to them, for cleaning up after them, and for teaching them to clean up after themselves.

Thank you for encouraging them when they are down, and for disciplining them when they need it.

Thank you for helping them with Math and Spelling words.

Thank you for celebrating their birthdays.

Your character is shown when you do the hard things, and nobody notices. Your children may not thank you for everything you do for them now, but they will be blessed by your love their whole lives. Even if they drift from the path you thought would be best for them. Even if they don’t hear everything you say. They heard some things.

All these tiny moments, words, tasks combine to share the most important message you can send to anyone with your life:

“I love you.”

They may miss some notes along the way. They might not appreciate the intricacies of the arrangement. They will miss some parts. But you are privileged to share the most important message with them in a way no one else can.

The Church in the Storm

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This has been quite a year for the church in the United States. Yesterday, Beth Moore posted “A Letter to My Brothers,” and Twitter exploded with responses. Before that, the church rocked in the waves of the MLK50 Conference and sexual scandals among church leaders. Yes, a storm is certainly stirring in the church.

I have been incredibly heartbroken over the exposure of much sin this year.  I have looked at the headlines and felt the heavy weight of pain damaging specific congregations, individual members, and large groups of people. Sin is a terrible thing. It is the source of suffering and alienation on a scale that often feels insurmountable.

In the book of Revelation, the churches were called one after another to repentance. They were warned of what would happen if they did not repent, and encouraged by what would happen if they did. The messenger to the church in Ephesus writes:

“But this I have against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen: repent, and do the works you did at first.”

(Revelation 2:4)

How we all can learn from this warning. Who is our first love? Is it Christ? Are we as his bride focused on him? If so, will we not love the rest of the body of Christ—all of it?

If we remember from where we have come will we not recognize that we have all come from the same place, no matter what our race or sex? We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

If we remember our first love—his love for us at the Cross where he pursued sinners at the cost of his own life—how can we continue to live in pride and hypocrisy of any kind?

This year has been painful, but it has also been hopeful because when our masks are pulled off and we are exposed as the sinners that we are, we cannot continue to pretend any longer that it’s not about Christ. The church has no beauty apart from him. We have nothing to boast about except for him.

If we abandon our first love, what do we have left?

Fortunately the letter to the Ephesians does not end with the call to repentance, and we need not stop there either. While some may choose to ignore the calls to repent, many have answered. Men like Thabiti Anyabwile who wrote “An Apology to Beth Moore and My Sisters.

In the wake of scandals and pain, we have the same gospel hope that we have had since the coming of Christ. In all these years, much has changed, but little has changed. We are sinful. We need a savior.

We can choose to take the path of the Pharisee. We can pretend like we are righteous among all the religious language and knowledge. But let’s remember the promise to the unrepentant in Ephesus:

“I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

(Revelation 2:5)

This echoes the words of John the Baptist:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

(Matthew 3:2)

Shortly after in Matthew 3: 8-10 he addresses the Pharisees specifically:

“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

But to all who choose to humble themselves and cling to Christ as their first love, remember the response to those who would repent in Ephesus:

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches, To the one who conquers I will grant to eat the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

(Revelation 2:7)

God doesn’t allow our sin to be exposed to harm us. He reveals it to us in his love to drive us to the cross. At the cross we can receive his forgiveness, and then we can also extend it to those bearing the shame of their sin in the surrounding church and world.

In the midst of all the finger-pointing, let’s remember how Jesus responded to such a scandal in his day.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them,’Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”

(John 8:3-11)

Brothers and sisters alike, in the midst of the widespread exposure of sin, let’s not forget our own. Let’s be gracious and quick to forgive. Let’s search our own hearts in humility and take what lingers there to the cross.

Please brothers and sisters, let’s unite to be the bride that he intends us to be. Where we fail, let’s strengthen and encourage one another in love.

There is only one who can calm the storm. When our eyes are on him, we can walk on the water. The storms cannot destroy the house that is built on the rock.

 

*For clarity’s sake I want to make sure no one walks away with the impression that forgiveness means enabling abuse in any way. This paper gives an excellent explanation of this topic: http://www.academia.edu/37779192/Justice_The_Foundation_for_a_Christian_approach_to_Abuse_ETS_2018_

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In addition to blogging at Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind, Stefani Carmichael is an author, counselor, daughter, wife, mom, and houseparent to teenage girls.