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

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Virtuous Woman

In the time I spent indoctrinated by teachings in the Churches of God, there were plenty of articles and sermons on virtuous biblical women.  The oft quoted Proverbs 31 wife was a thing to be reached, an achievement that was bound to garner you a godly husband (works). In contrast, the atmosphere was of women today having become rebellious, rejecting their God given purpose and divine role. Feminism was called a clever ploy by Satan to attack the family, which was always followed by a stern “tsk-tsk” that it was working. Women had been fooled, much as Eve had in the Garden of Eden. “Feminism” was the lie of carefree lifestyles, having no responsibility to the children, home or husband. It was a license for a woman to be selfish, and without the constraints of male leadership, she was wont to do so (as a child in need of discipline).
They willfully ignore the fact that feminism was born out of a world where women were legally abused and considered chattel. Equality was actually about equality, not misandry. In the Churches of God, it was an evil satanic desire to believe in that. As was continually stressed, this displeased God.

Many a sermon told us how women were more easily deceived than men, like our example Eve. It was Eve who was deceived after all, not Adam. This idea was used as proof of the weak and gullible nature of women. God had intentionally equipped us poorly for managing our lives, and we needed to achieve that Proverbs 31 attitude of submission to our husbands, who would take care of us instead.  The elusively meek, quiet, submissive, ever gentle, always happy, never arguing woman who appreciated that her husband was “over” her.

At the last Feast of Tabernacles I attended, there was a Bible study that first Friday night. The topic was family. That seems harmless and lovely, doesn’t it?
I sat there, listening to the gentle introduction about love, unity and all that warm fuzzy stuff. I felt so wistful for what I had always longed for, and could never seem to have. A sole parent, I left my marriage when my child was a toddler to escape abuse. Though I had no choice under the circumstances, it has been a regret of mine that my child had to miss out. I was nostalgic for something I had never known, the sacred beauty found in that commitment of marriage. In that room full of people, I felt alone and deprived.
That would have been enough right there, but this was just the easy introduction to let down my defenses for the real message.

The sermon moved on to juxtaposing the beauty and perfection of “the good old days” of godly families (back during things like slavery, and open woman abuse), to the debauchery and destruction that is today’s family. The minister spoke of “worldly” families, and how the women’s movement altered the fabric of society, simply because we decided we weren’t satisfied to stay at home (being weak, selfish and child-like). He condemned children raised by their mothers alone, as statistical nightmares of drug addiction, alcoholism and criminal endeavors. Additionally, they were often victims to high rates of self-harm, suicide, and homelessness. Having tied this in with feminism, he had effectively blamed women for destroying their own children.

As I sat in that darkened conference room, I held my breath. I was sobbing on the inside, my ability to hide it precarious. The detail he went into about these horrors was more than my heart could stand. Tears silently rolled down my face, and in shame I tried to feign anything other than wiping away tears. I lowered my head, and hid my face behind my hair. I felt so degraded and worthless in that moment, as every single fear a mother could have became sermon fodder.
...I had cursed my child in raising them alone.

The heaviness in my heart grew great so that I could not speak. I had failed God in such a spectacular way; ruining not only my life, but my innocent child’s. God disapproved of the less than virtuous woman I was. That feeling of God’s rejection was agonizing.

I glanced over at my friend sitting next to me and she too had been hiding her tears. She uttered "I feel so bad, I wish I could have done better with my son."

Worst of all, I was feeling very far from God. I was too ashamed to approach Him in prayer (a stumbling block). This has been an ongoing difficulty with me even after having left that system. Too ashamed to approach God, I feel anger, confusion, and eventually a return to His arms of Grace.

Can they ever know the damage that they do when their sermons are about failure of the self, and not victory in Jesus?

The great thing is that I now know, in the very core of my being, that He can handle my issues. He is bigger than all of them - my life, my weakness, and my lack. God is the one who is faithful, and it is because of this that I remain under His grace. Not my faithfulness, but His! Just like I wouldn't let my child go, He does not let His children go.
I see now that a marriage filled with love and grace is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to us. The beauty of two genuine hearts choosing to love each other with all their human foibles is a greater love, not one based on assimilation and conformity to a set of rules and laws. We cannot truly love if we are living in a false pretense of legalistic performance. We love because He first loved us, and we were sinners!

In the riches of the New Covenant, I have also come to understand just how much more wonderful God thinks of women, regardless of the role they espouse.
Upon the resurrection of Jesus, it was not one but two women (witnesses!) that Jesus chose to appear to first. It was a woman who was given the honor of washing the feet of God prior to His giving life for His beloved children, and a woman that Jesus publicly defended when she had been dragged into His presence, accused of adultery. He spoke to a woman at the well, and not just any woman, but a Samaritan woman! Greatest of all (even though Mary was taboo to speak about) God entered the world through the womb of a woman. Without a woman, we would not have a Savior.
Other important events took place throughout the Bible, such as Rahab the Harlot and Esther the Queen. Clear messages to us on the true value of a woman! It is not in her ability to suitably submit to her husband, or keep her children in line through Sabbath services, or wear the perfect length of hair or dress or skirt. It is not in what she does, but who she is – God’s redeemed daughter.

Can you see the healing that comes when the message is about victory in Jesus, and not failure of the self?

God loves you, women in the Churches of God. Are you weary of conforming to the Churches of God standard of “most approved women”? Never doing quite enough, never deferring well enough, and never appreciating the “man God sent to lead you”. Remember dear woman, that there is only one mediator between us and God, and that is Jesus Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in the Lord. Take comfort that God, who knows the very hairs on your head, also knows the very personality He endowed you with. Let the love of the Holy Spirit lead you in everything. When we let the Holy Spirit lead us through His love, we are exactly what He intends us to be - women! Strong, resilient, faithful, loyal, kind, caring, loving, and the expression of the fruits of the Spirit. We are no longer failures, but victors in Jesus Christ! Let no one deceive you regarding God’s gifts to you (Acts 2:17). You have a mind and heart of great strength, able to contribute your God given intelligence and compassion in ways that should not be silent. Let’s rejoice in the freedom that God has given.

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