Tuesday, January 17, 2012

First Save

I wrote "First Save" in 2007, and did not publish it at first just in case there were privacy issues.  This far removed from the actual date, I am confident that the details are sufficiently ambiguous.  After several months of sidewalk counselling almost every Saturday, at last I was privileged to witness God saving the life of a tiny human being:

He was a big man, but not scary.  He wore a pink bag over his shoulder, obviously too small and not his style.  His face was friendly, and he seemed to really listen, even as he tied his shoes: first one with his foot up on the ladder, then the other.  For some reason he had stepped into them, smashing the heel down to make a slip on, but now he was going to wear them like real tennis shoes.  They were blue.  And every once in a while he would look up, and say something – his tone varying between defensive and desperately helpless. 

This strong black man was following a woman into an abortion clinic.  Actually he drove by, turned around, and ended up parking outside the screened-in parking lot, so that she walked about a block to get inside.  Between his Suburban and the door were a crowd of pro-life demonstrators with literature and earnest desire to help her and her baby.  Perhaps he wanted her to walk alone; maybe he was ashamed or maybe he hoped the pro-life voices would turn her back.  Or perhaps the day just went like that.  Maybe he was throwing his shoes on and reaching into the back seat for her pink bag and said he’d catch up. 

When she came by she said she wasn’t pregnant, that she was just looking for someone.  Her clothes matched the description of a woman planning on an abortion: in her twenties, loose gym pants and a sheepskin coat.  She paused for a moment to listen, and then hurried on in, still insisting she was looking for someone.  Once inside the parking lot, she even looked around first to keep up the charade.  And then she entered the facility, with people outside begging her all the way not to go in there where they kill babies. 

Then he followed.  “You can get her out of there.  Do you want to kill your baby?” the man was asked.  One of the protestors shared the story how many years ago he took his girlfriend to this very clinic, paid the money, and then she left him a month later, discovering after she was married and ready for kids that she was unable to ever have children.  He had been an accomplice.  The man listened, but gave the impression he didn’t have a choice.  So he didn’t want to hear anymore.  After much persuasion, one of the men managed to hand him a flyer with pro-life free clinics and resources described on it.  And he went in. 

The parking lot filled up – all except for the row of spaces facing the fence; after over thirty years of business, Planned Parenthood has only recently learned to keep the customers far away from the fence.  About twenty women went inside.  Another woman walked by, quiet and burdened, but telling us that she was going in for other gynecological care.  She took literature about life, and was walked to the parking lot by a pro-life man asking her to give her business to a place that didn’t kill babies.  She went in and hours later still hadn’t returned. 

And then the man came back.  He lit his cigarette and left the parking lot, back to talk to the pro-life people.  I want to say us.  I didn’t say anything to him, but how I prayed!  He said he’d tried to talk his girlfriend out of the abortion, and now she was screaming at him and crying.  Don’t give up, we told him.  Try again.  When he finished his cigarette, he went back in. 

The next time he came out, another forty-five minutes later or so, he had another cigarette and still carried the pink bag.  She was back in the exam room now, he told us.  He had been up for 36 hours trying to talk her out of it.  Her mom told her it was wrong, and he begged her not to do it.  He’d asked again, and she still wouldn’t change her mind.  “Bull-headed,” he said.  “They should make a law.”  It was his baby.  Didn’t he have any say in whether it lived or died?  He couldn’t drag her out of there.  Almost when he repeated that, he wanted someone else to, or someone outside to tell him he could do that.  But Planned Parenthood had threatened to have him arrested if he did such a thing.  So he was back, dealing with the stress through tobacco and venting, and casting a last line for help.  A couple women and a couple men on the pro-life side stood faithfully behind their boundary conversing with him, encouraging him not to give up, telling him they didn’t think the abortionist had arrived yet, that the girlfriend was only being prepped by staff.  I eyed the freedom with which he entered and exited the forbidden zone of the parking lot. 

Sadly, abortion is almost always a selfish act.  Too many women enter the clinic with hearts hardened against the fragile life God has set inside them.  Pictures of blood and accusations of murder do nothing.  Pleas to spare their babies are unheard.  So pro-life intercessors will attempt an appeal to the selfishness and self-preservation on which the women are acting.  They warn of complications, of extortion, of the risks of emotional and physical post-abortion effects.  And one of the scariest things they can tell women is the fact that the shock caused to a woman’s body by artificially terminating a pregnancy greatly increases the risk of breast cancer. 

Just before the man reentered Planned Parenthood, a pro-life advocate handed him a brochure about the link between abortion and breast cancer, featuring a pink ribbon on the front.  “Fold it up and hide it, or they’ll take it from you at the door,” he was warned.  Stuffing it in his pocket, he disappeared.  “We’ll pray for you,” a mother of four called from outside the fence. 

Minutes later, after the crowd of staff and protestors alike had dwindled, the woman came over, and with the pro-lifer who had offered the final brochure, we claimed God’s sovereign provision for the little baby, begging that the man would be given the words to get his girlfriend safely out without inciting intervention by the staff.  “There is one light inside that clinic today,” she said.  Afterward we talked about theology and politics and the way abortion clinics function.  “You want to go to breakfast?”  A pro-life man offered to continue our debate on theology with a couple of his friends.  Torn and hesitant, I said quietly, “I want to stay until he comes out.” 

I don’t know.  I’d been praying for that man since he walked in early in the morning.    Though I hadn’t spoken, I felt connected.  He was my charge somehow, and I had considered even offering to pray with him, or sharing the gospel with him.  Maybe I failed by my silence.  But I still felt so strongly that I wanted him to come out, and I wanted to be there…  Even if he came out hours later the father of a murdered baby, it didn’t seem fair for us to abandon him.  I couldn’t stay that long, but I wanted to. 

“How long?  Fifteen minutes?” my friend asked.  I sort of shrugged and avoided answering.  We continued to talk of other things, and finally knew we had to go.  Breakfast at this late stage was out of the question.  We helped pack his many signs.  Everything was in his van except two ladders (used for talking and displaying signs above the tarps strung around the parking lot) when the man came out with his girlfriend, her head down so all I could see was her short brown hair streaked with bold strawberry blonde highlights.  I caught up with them – I don’t know why, hoping he’d volunteer information, forgetting that since I had never vocalized my concern he owed me no news. 

She raised her head, and meeting my eyes, we exchanged a smile.  I don’t even know her name, but I pray she was encouraged by that.  The remaining pro-life friends hurried to ask whether she changed her mind.  The man waved his hand protectively, as though asking us not to say anything.  It was him she trusted, he who had persuaded her to leave.  If we spoke we might undo her fragile resolve.  “Do you want some literature on where you can get free care, free baby clothes?”  Still the man didn’t answer.  Everyone but me watched him from the corner of the block, across the street from his SUV.  I couldn’t go forward, dreading to learn for certain that it was too late. 

So many mothers had gone into Planned Parenthood today; surely the odds were higher that at least one would change her mind.  God was sovereign.  This poor father had no other options but God’s help in changing his girlfriend’s heart.  Could God stay out of this?  Could God say no?  If the mother had been crying at one point over the decision, wasn’t she weak?  Couldn’t she have chosen to keep the baby? 

But this was a big, life-changing deal.  Keeping a baby is a commitment and a responsibility, an anchor to the relationship and many other things beside.  Walking out of the clinic, her face could have represented either choice – but for the smile.  So the report my friends brought back was that she had decided to go through with the pregnancy.  The man drove away with her in the passenger seat already reading, possibly reading again, the flyers of resources we’d given him hours before. 

We gathered to pray.  I smiled.  I marveled.  God had answered.  Only God could have effected it.  If we hadn’t waited, we wouldn’t have known.  The mother of four who had led us in prayer confessed to calling a friend to ask her to pray for the man’s attempt, too.  And God had heard our prayers. 

I left the clinic soon afterward, already hours later than I usually go on with my Saturday.  And as soon as I was alone, the tears came.  With all the deaths witnessed each weekend, it’s hard to be concerned and passionate about each of them.  So this is what it feels like.  This is how the faithful witnesses outside the fence do it week after week for years upon end.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes you cry with gratitude that God let you see Him intervene for a life.  And then you realize that all this investment only kept the baby alive; there’s still a lifetime of needs spiritual and physical that the parents and baby will experience.  You see that the harvest is great, but the laborers are few.  So you pray again… 

To God be all glory.

God's Department

I happen to think that a great many things are God’s department.  I believe that nothing happens without Him ordaining it.  This isn't to say that I don’t believe in personal responsibility, especially in obeying God.  It’s an interesting thing about obedience, though: you can’t obey an order that isn't given, even if you feel urgently like the Master needs to get you moving.  A servant is still (or busy at the last assigned tasks) until another order comes.  This shows trust that the Master can make better decisions than the servant regarding how he should be serving.  It is a submissive dependence on the Master.  The Bible talks again and again about waiting on God.  I believe it is essential to faith and humility. 

So many people encourage Christians to see a good direction and go for it.  One that I encounter a lot is marriage.  People think that a servant of God, if he or she desires marriage and a family, should not be sitting around waiting for God to bring them a spouse.  These people may be right, but only if God has told the Christian to be doing something – directly or indirectly acquiring a spouse.  If He has not moved in that direction in their lives yet, then they are not going to be obeying God – or finding the spouse He desires them to be united with – if they make efforts on their own. 

Over the years waiting on God to direct me (and sometimes taking steps that He tells me to take – sometimes taking steps He doesn’t tell me to, and repenting), there have been several verses that have encouraged me to be patient, that God is in control and that His plan for marriages is good. 

Proverbs 19:14, "House and riches are the inheritance of fathers: and a prudent wife is from the LORD."

Proverbs 18:22, "Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD."

Matthew 19:4-6, "And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,  And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?  Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

Hebrews 13:4, "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge."

Ephesians 2:10, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

Psalms 37:3-5, "Trust in the LORD, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass."

It is popular among conservative Christians to assert that the headship of a man and the exclusion of women from authority over men applies to initiating romantic relationships.  This seems consistent with the patriarchal values taught in the Bible, though it is not specifically prescribed.  One verse that encourage me, as a woman, to let men take the lead, especially in this area, is Proverbs 30:18-19, "There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid."

For a while I was strongly influenced by movements which taught that guarding one’s emotional heart from attachment, interest, or affection should be a single woman’s main goal.  I no longer believe this.  There are verses that speak of guarding your heart (Proverbs 4:23), but I believe that those verses refer to temptation, not to caring for others.  We should all be careful that our loves are guided by the description in 1 Corinthians 13, that our love for one another is not selfish or lustful, but patient and kind and humble and selfless and hopeful.  Another verse I have been known to use to argue for “guarding my heart” is from Song of Solomon, the refrain, "I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake [my] love, till he please."  That is the KJV; in other versions it is translated in a way that sounds more like a warning against falling in love before it is time.  I am not convinced of that translation, or of its application. 

Generally, I am opposed to flirting.  If it is sexually enticing (and not between a husband and wife), I think that it is wrong.  Other reasons why I don’t like flirting are that it makes one the aggressive center of attention.  It is not modest for a woman to demand that a man pay attention to her silliness.  Finally, I think that flirting often replaces more direct forms of communication and commitment that are too much neglected – leading to misunderstanding and discord.  However, I don’t think it is always wrong.  I believe that if a woman is so scared to show her interest in a man whom she favors that she doesn’t respond to him when he teases or jokes or compliments or questions or even just sits down next to her, she is being dishonest, and setting herself up to be passed over.  A man may deem that she would reject him if he pursued her.  Women ought to affirm our brothers in Christ, whether we are going to marry them or not.  This deceptive reserve cheats them of this natural edification.  If a woman really loves a man, she will want what is best for him, even at the risk that she will grow fonder of him.  She should trust God to guide her heart and hopes.  This trust is, of course, not done apart from investing heavily in her relationship with God. 

Examples in the Bible are diverse: Eve was formed directly from Adam’s side while he slept.  Isaac received his wife because his father sent a faith-full servant to his relatives to find one, and she agreed.  Jacob fell in love with Rachel and acquired her sister also because of his deceptive brother-in-law.  Widow Ruth’s mother-in-law noted Boaz’s kindness, and his position to be the kinsman-redeemer for Ruth, and sent Ruth after Boaz in a very discreet yet appealing way.  Then Ruth had to sit and wait for the man to accomplish all the particulars.  David and Michal fell in love, but that didn’t turn out so well; she rescued David and lied for him and then her dad the king gave her to be someone else’s wife.  He also married Abigail after her first, wicked husband died.  And we know he married Bathsheba because the death penalty for his adultery with her was not enforced against them.  Not the recommended way of entering into marriage.  Esther became Ahasuerus’ wife because he made a decree to bring beautiful women into his harem.  God told Hosea to choose a wife of harlotry, thus his marriage to Gomer. 

Then we have Paul’s confusing instructions in 1 Corinthians 7.  And we can look at the love stories between YHWH and Israel, and between Jesus and the Church.  This last is no small thing and has encouraged me to wait well, and to take this time of deferred hope as a time to learn more about the Church that is awaiting her Bridegroom’s return from his Father’s house. 

My point is that there are a multitude of very different stories, wound about with love and sacrifice betwixt sin and sorrow.  Fathers act, men act, women act, mothers-in-law act.  The moral of the story is to desire good things, wait on God to direct you, and walk confidently by faith.

Romans 14:23, "...for whatsoever is not of faith is sin."

To God be all glory.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Submission, Stillness, and Sacrifice

Once upon a time, right before I started this blog, I was noticing a lack of male leadership in my church.  Women who notice such things are usually pro-patriarchy; we’re complementarians, ok with pastors being only men and husbands being the head of the households (even of the wives!).  Those kinds of people are supposed to believe in submission, in not taking over authority not given to them; some of them don’t even believe in speaking during Church meetings.  So I talked to God about the situation, and asked Him, if I’m not allowed to teach men or take charge myself to get this right – and I’m not – then how shall I fix it?  Because God is not a crying female, He doesn’t entirely mind His children asking if they may be part of fixing problems.  Because He is a good authority, He assigned me the job of fixing myself and my own role in the problem.  What He said was to study biblical womanhood, and to study it together with other women, so that when we behave as we ought, our husbands and brothers and pastors and deacons and teachers and friends can be encouraged (by abiding need and by affirmation) to take up the leadership God has delegated to them. 

This episode of my life is significant for a lot of reasons. 

First, God spoke to me, clearly and directly answering a question I had been asking Him in prayer.  His speaking was inaudible, but it was not circumstantial.  I heard in my head clear sentences about what I was supposed to do and why. 

Circumstances worked out to where the way I was to study with other women was made clear.  That very week before the sermon, an announcement was made that there would be a women’s ministry meeting, and anyone wanting to get involved should stay for the meeting. 

I had become convinced that God had gifted me with teaching and I wasn’t using that spiritual gift.  At the meeting this possibility was specifically mentioned, and I volunteered to teach, subject and format already in mind (we spent 11 weeks on Titus 2:3-5 and Proverbs 31:10-31). 

Fourth, I learned a lot about godly womanhood and about studying the Bible with a community of women and about faith.  One lesson that stands out right now is related to God’s answer about how to get men to lead.  When we came to studying the Titus 2 characteristic of “discretion,” what we came around to was that a godly woman is a woman of influence.  She’s willing to do things behind the scenes, to not say or do overt things that could lead to conflict or disrespect or usurping a man’s role.  Instead she’s the good cousin to manipulative: she’s discreet.  The word carries with it also a sense of wisdom, of thoughtful intentionality, and of self control for the sake of others’ interests. 

Finally, when our group of women finished studying Titus 2 and Proverbs 31, we moved into studying spiritual gifts – a breakthrough study for me and my beliefs about the Holy Spirit’s significant role in the Church and how the way we “do” church generally stifles that work. 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about these two subjects: about authority and submission, as a woman and in the Church.  I value authority, but I am not sure I go out of my way to build it up over me.  I want to receive a good ruler (father, pastor, husband) as a gift out of the thin blue sky, but maybe I ought to be more pro-actively submissive.  This seems like a paradox.  And maybe to experience more of God’s grace in my life, I need to seek out stillness and rest from trying to do everything on my own initiative.  Maybe I need to trust.  Maybe I need to be willing to be hurt. 

Love is a common thread between spiritual gifts, biblical womanhood, and leadership.  A lot of people these days say to get out of a relationship that causes you too much pain.  Don’t love someone unless you can get something out of it.  Keep your heart safe.  Take things slowly and cautiously so that you can try not to get hurt.  Don’t get used.  Thank God He didn’t treat us that way when He sent His Son.  Tremble at the example given: deny yourself; take up your cross; lose your life for His sake.  Love suffers long and is kind.  Paul was ready to be spent for the congregations he loved – even though the more he gave, the less they responded with love (2 Corinthians 12:15). 

Christian love is not prudent, is not safe, is not painless.  Submission is radical trust that God will be glorified even when the authorities we’re following make bad decisions.  Giving should be without expecting any repayment and without fear for what we will eat, drink, or wear tomorrow.  When we are weak, we can boast about it because it magnifies God’s strength.  Thanks should be unexpected when we serve.  Instead of pursuing justice to the bitter end, we should allow ourselves to be wronged by our brothers.  The needs, sorrows, and joys of others belong to us. 

To God be all glory.