Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Hardness of Our Hearts

Alone. I felt totally alone. 

Sure, technically there was a baby in the room with me. But, contrary to what the fairy tales say, a baby doesn't always fill a raw, gaping hole in your heart. 

The first few weeks of motherhood are rough for many women, and I was no exception - nursing problems, healing stitches and broken sleep. Going from a bustling office to a silent house was the hardest part for me. I felt so isolated. Sure, I didn't really expect my co-workers to check in on me. But what about my brethren? Where were all the women who ooh-ed and ahh-ed with me over tiny pairs of shoes at my baby shower? Who rejoiced that another child would soon be added congregation?

Over time, I realized I was suffering from post-partum depression. My hormones gradually stabilized, and after three months, I finally was able to discuss my feelings with one woman at church without crying.

"I'm so glad to hear that!" she said. "I could tell something was wrong with you."

Her response was unsettling. She knew something was wrong with me and said nothing? For weeks? Unfortunately, she was not the only one. I had the same conversation with about a dozen other women over the next few Sabbaths.

Across town, a Protestant friend of mine was heartbroken when her baby was born with a chromosomal disorder. Her Bible study partners guessed something was wrong when newborn pictures didn't appear on Facebook. They arrived at the hospital within hours to lift her up in prayer and to take some pictures for the baby book. Mom was too shell-shocked to think long-term, but they were not going to let these fleeting newborn moments slip away forever.

The contrast baffled me. Why did these "false Christians" spring into action to support their sister when my brethren in the "true church" ignored a problem they admittedly saw for weeks on end? 

To be fair, there were a handful of women who tried to support me, and I will always be grateful for their efforts. Still, most conversations focused on whether I had tried this or that herb for my milk supply problems. Or, if I couldn't breastfeed, where I might find fresh goat's milk for my baby. Even those kinder hearts who reached out couldn't look beyond determining the "right" thing to do and address the bigger problem - that their sister in Christ was hurting. 

Sisters, I sincerely hope your experiences in the Churches of God have been different from mine. I hope you worship with warm, vibrant women who rejoice with you in good times and who lift you up when you are suffering. If you do, you are blessed, and I am happy for you. But, if you do, I suspect your experience in the splintered, scattered COGs is the exception, not the rule. In contrast, if you feel alone and wonder why, please keep reading.

Few in the COGs claim that Christians are saved by their works. Instead, we mix the New Covenant with bits and pieces of the Sinai Covenant, claiming we can't qualify for the free gift of eternal life if we do not observe certain pre-requisite Hebrew practices. The bad news, ladies, is that if we are either doing or not doing something to maintain our salvation, then our salvation is still dependent upon our works.  And our salvation is not linked to works, according to passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:27-30. (A note to all of you who are now waving Romans 3:31 at me - please step back and consider the context. Paul just said we are justified apart from law, and Chapter 4 goes on to discuss Abraham's justification through faith. This post is not meant to be an exegesis of this single verse. Suffice it to say that, logically, verse 31 cannot explicitly contradict the verses that come directly before and after it).

Even if the belief in "pre-requisites" wasn't clearly outlined in COG literature (don't worry, it is!), the works-based focus of our church culture reveals what's in our hearts. Let's consider some of the issues we have allowed to damage relationships and, in some cases, divide churches. White flour vs. wheat flour. Honey vs. sugar. Epidural vs. natural birth (let's not even mention c-sections!). No makeup vs. eyeshadow. Formula vs. breastfeeding. The correct form of church government. Kosher marshmallows. Head coverings during prayer. Yoga. Restaurants on the Sabbath. Need I continue? Please explain to me again how I was not trying to establish my own righteousness?

If we really, truly believe that our physical works have no bearing on our salvation, then why have we been hurting one another and splintering our churches over them for decades?

Hold on just a minute, you say. James taught that works were important. You're right, James discusses works - as fruit of our saving faith, not as a pre-requisite. I'd love to discuss that connection in another post. For now, let's take a look at the works James addresses. Being quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Controlling the tongue. Caring for widows and orphans. Not showing favoritism. Loving your neighbor as yourself. Clothing the naked. Feeding the hungry. Being a peacemaker. Praying for your brethren instead of criticizing them. Where are the the Sabbath, Holy Days and food laws? I'm sure they're in there somewhere. Maybe in James 6?

God intended the Sinai Covenant for a specific purpose, nation, geographical location and time period. Trying to intuit how to follow portions of it outside those parameters results in disagreement and division - the fruit that we see in the COGs today. Furthermore, it seems that the unnecessary focus on physical observances takes our focus off the one thing our Savior clearly instructed us to do: love one another.

But wait! Doesn't I John 5:3 say we have to keep the 10 Commandments? By now, you're probably not surprised to hear I believe that the 10 Commandments were the cornerstone of the Sinai Covenant (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13 and 9:9,11,15), which Paul tells us to reject (Galatians 4:21-31). So what is John talking about? Look back just a few verses to I John 4:21 and you will find your answer: love your brother. If you want more context, start in verse 7. Even the book of James, which works-focused COG ministers tout, supports this conclusion. Or go to the source - John 13:34, where Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another as He loved us. The COGs characterize this view as hollow and simplistic. I ask you, which is harder - to stay out of restaurants for 24 consecutive hours or to show others the same kind of love as the One who died for them?

Notice the contrast in Mark 3:1-6, when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. Verse 5 reveals that Jesus was grieved by the hardness of the Pharisees' hearts. They didn't rejoice that a handicapped man was healed. They were angry that He had broken the rules and plotted to destroy Him. Are we much different today? I know I wasn't.

Trying to obey the law didn't change the Israelites' hearts, and it won't change ours, either. The difference is that Israel was commanded to do so and we are not. Our sincere, but misguided, focus on physical works has hardened our hearts. It has created a bumper crop of Marthas, busily working within earshot of our Teacher but tuning out His words.

Sisters, please know I am not throwing stones here. I didn't choose the name Martha because it's so trendy. If I lived in Bethany the day that Jesus stopped in, I would have been in the one in the kitchen, complaining bitterly that my sister wasn't helping me chop dates. It is only through the grace of God that I can see how a lifetime of focusing on the law and my works was hardening my heart. 

I was born a Martha, raised to be a Martha and lived in a sea of Marthas. I will probably always be a Martha at heart, at least until He changes it. But now I am earnestly seeking the better part. And He promises great things to those who seek Him (Matthew 7:7-11). Please join me. You won't regret it.  

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11

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