Blue On Red: The Women of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

“Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” — Matthew 20:22 (KJV)

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We’re now four episodes into Hulu’s marvelous adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and the show is hitting me hard in ways both expected and surprising. For instance, I had no doubt that systematic, institutionally-endorsed rape would be disturbing on a whole host of levels, but I’m actually seeing the sinister aspects of Scrabble, macaroons, and Latin primers.

There is much to explore in this show, but one thing I’ve found particularly compelling is the interplay between two groups of “legitimate” women in Gilead’s hierarchy: the Wives and the Handmaids. The Wives are taking quite a bit of heat from viewers (and rightly so). One author calls them the true “gender traitors”; another says they are “cruelly complacent.” And it is impossible to deny either of those descriptions when several of the scenes involve Serena Joy clutching cruelly onto Offred’s wrists during “the ceremony.”

Breathe. Hold. Push.
But the scene that throws this relationship into sharpest relief happens in episode two, “Birth Day.” I’ll give you a brief run down. In one room of a palatial estate, the Wives sit around Naomi, the Wife of Ofwarren’s Commander. She is in labor, but hers is of the faux variety.

Dressed in an elegant white nightgown, she reclines against a nest of pristine pillows on ivory carpet, sunshine streaming through the windows. A harp plays soothing music in the background. The Wives, in their standard blue attire, encourage her through her false pains—the only experience of childbirth she can ever have since she is sterile—all the while drinking tea from prim china cups, feasting on nibbles, and quietly repeating the word “breathe.”

The rhythmic chanting is also going on upstairs, but the words “hold” and “exhale” are added to the mix. Here, the handmaid Ofwarren (A.K.A. Janine), assisted by several of the dismal brown Aunts and a passel of red-clad Handmaids, is doing the real teeth-gritting work of birth—complete with the screaming, panting, and valor it requires.

Offred, via voiceover, sums it up perfectly: “There’s a smell coming from that room, something primal. It’s the smell of dens, of inhabited caves. It’s the smell of the plaid blanket on the bed where the cat gave birth before she was spayed. It’s the smell of genesis.”

Despite the vast number of people in the room, we recognize the moment for what it is. And that makes it one of the most “normal” scenes in the show…until, well, things get very weird and very Gileadean again.

When the time comes to push, the Wife is brought in to experience the moment of birth. She sits behind Ofwarren in a birthing chair—an echo of the ceremony that made this baby possible in the first place—and mimes the moment until the child is born. There’s an instant of respectful silence until Aunt Lydia pronounces the baby to be a healthy girl.

All the women celebrate, and for a fleeting second, there’s harmony. Then the cord is cut and the girl is wrapped up in a clean blanket, but rather than be handed back to the woman who carried her and brought her into the world, she is given to Naomi who has settled into her “rightful place”—the bed Ofwarren previously occupied. As far as the Wives and Aunts are concerned, Naomi has always been there. The birth mother doesn’t exist.

As they coo and carry on over the little miracle, the Handmaids are left to look on from a distance and care for Ofwarren who sobs into her hands. In a moment of solidarity (that also bears a striking resemblance to another, less lovely group scene in the first episode), they wrap arms around the poor woman to comfort her.

It’s very easy to hate the Wives here. After all, they’ve done none of the sweating, bleeding, or suffering. They’ve sacrificed nothing for this moment—only swooped in to capture the prize that makes it all worth it. Yes, they are part of the evil system that made this all possible. Yes, they are cruel and capricious and oppressive. Yes, they are preying on those weaker than they. But—and hear me out here—they are victims too in a way. Like the Handmaids, they endure the ceremony designed by men. They live within the tight confines of the caste system. They feel fear, loss, and shame.

In the hierarchy, they have greater power. Yet when it comes to childbirth—the great pinnacle of achievement for women in this dictatorship—they are powerless. They can do nothing to make themselves (or their husbands) fertile. For that reason and others, theirs is a hollow existence, and all they can do is watch and yearn and covet. Say what you will, but that’s a lousy place to be.

What’s Yours Is Mine
Unlike the women of Gilead, I never needed to give birth. I likely never will. I am, however, a mother of two young boys my husband and I adopted from the foster care system. I didn’t go through the months of pain and suffering it took to bring them into being. The State gave them to me.

It must be acknowledged that my sons’ birth mother made poor choices. She didn’t see to their welfare and, at times, even put them in danger. Despite multiple opportunities to change, she did not. She has yet to do so. And yet…

Once the adoption was finalized, we applied for updated birth certificates, ones that show their new names. When they arrived, our lawyer advised me to check over everything and make sure all the spellings were correct and the dates accurate. That’s when I saw something that left me dumbfounded. In the section labeled “mother,” my name was written. My birthdate. My address at the time of the delivery. My state of birth.

All evidence of their biological mother is gone.

Her name and information is buried in court records and electronic details, but as far as this piece of legally binding paperwork is concerned, she’s a ghost.

At each stage of the adoption process, I never lost sight of her. I always reminded myself that my good days—ones where the legal system did its job and brought the kids one step closer to being ours forever—were likely her worst.

I didn’t “steal” her children as Naomi and the Wives did, but some tiny part of me understands their joy. I have children to love and care for, to raise and celebrate. Their base hits in little league are mine. Their science fair wins and good report cards. I’m the one they run to now saying “Mama!” with their little arms outstretched. And while I relish every moment of it, a piece of me knows it came with a price.

So no, I can’t fully hate the Wives though they are petty, heartless creatures. In some ways, I even pity them. Their children and mine became ours as a result of a broken world, one filled with hate, heartache, and sin. But thankfully, a better day is coming—not in the form of a bloody coup, but in the One, the pioneer of our salvation who drank the cup of suffering and died to bring many adopted sons and daughters to glory.

 

 

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Small Change, Big Difference

I was honored to share the story of Liberty Baptist Church, a small congregation in Fulton, Kentucky, in the June 2014 issue of In Touch magazine. This amazing group of generous people gave enough money to send ten Messengers in Ticuna (a language spoken only by people groups in the Amazon) into the mission field. And their gift has yielded tremendous results in the lives of people they may never meet this side of heaven.

Remember, if you want, you can subscribe to In Touch magazine for free. You can also read our articles online, and if you do, please leave us comments there. We love hearing readers’ thoughts on each and every article we post!

 

 

 

Kermit Gosnell and the Greatness of Grace

It seems like the news has been a veritable cornucopia of awful lately. Everything from the IRS targeting certain groups claiming tax exempt status and spying on reporters to the whomperjawed situation surrounding Benghazi leave me wondering if a move to Bora Bora wouldn’t be advisable. Add the Jodi Arias and Kermit Gosnell trials, and I’m left wondering why God has any patience with us at all.

But it’s the Gosnell verdict—and the reaction to it—that most piques my interest. I am glad he is being brought to justice for his crimes and that another pro-life legal precedent has been added to the books. However, I can’t help but feel that Christians, by and large, missed an opportunity to witness to the world when his guilty verdict was announced.

Image from huffingtonpost.com

I don’t read the comments and discussion threads that follow articles because they’re usually a cesspool of hatred and vitriol. (And yes, the purple prose is merited. Go read a few threads sometime. You’ll see. It makes me lose faith in humanity.)

While I wish I could say believers fare better in this department, when it comes to hot button issues like this, we’re just as bad as non-Christians.

The comments ranged from those who were glad justice had been done to folks who were more than a little happy to “gouge out the other eye” themselves. Comments like, “There’s a special place in hell for this dog of a devil. I hope they vote to send him there soon” and “I hope they snip his spinal cord with scissors” just left me shaking my head.

I’m glad that abortion is being addressed in a new light and that this trial (and the awful details that were revealed during it) made many women considering abortion change their minds. I’m glad a man like Kermit Gosnell is no longer practicing “medicine,” if that term can be applied at all. But the thought that has stuck with me, that has resonated longer than my disgust is this—God’s grace will always be greater than sin. It is great enough to cover this man who has done things most of us find unspeakably horrifying, and if Mr. Gosnell truly accepts Christ as his Savior today, tomorrow, or the day of his death, I will see him in heaven along with my family and friends. He, like the vineyard laborer hired in the eleventh hour, can expect the same rewards I do because God’s grace is His to do with as He sees fit.

The thought humbles me, but apparently, some folks don’t agree. Over dinner a week or so ago, I discussed this revelation with a friend, and she recoiled from me like Kuato had grown out of my abdomen.

“I don’t agree with that at all,” she told me. “I can’t imagine that THAT man can go to heaven the same way I can…especially after all he’s done.”

The debate went back and forth and finally ended with, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point.” And her refusal, I think, stems from two sources. The first is that she believes, like many people, in hierarchically arranged sins. Some, like little white lies or envy, are minor infractions. After all, don’t we all commit them? So that makes them hardly worth confessing in prayer. Yet the whammer sins—murder, adultery, theft, and the like—are somehow beyond the pale. What we forget oftentimes is that sin is sin is sin.

Image from kseamericanlitblog.wordpress.com

Dante wrote entire books detailing a very elaborate system involving the levels of the inferno, purgatory, and paradise, but none of it is biblical. Truth is, there is no sliding scale, no ranking system, no way for us to justify our judgment of one another. We want to believe that if we only commit minor ones, we’re good on our own and don’t need grace, but that’s not true. James 2:8-10 tells us, “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” Yeah, one sin is just as great as another. And all of them separate us from the Lord.

But that’s where grace comes in.

For those who accept Christ as Savior, there is no reason to worry about the law. Yes, we should always strive to do those things that are pleasing to God and avoid those things He hates. But the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross wiped the record books clean and made it possible for us to be truly free and enjoy a relationship with the only One who is worthy of praise. We had nothing to do with it.

The second reason she couldn’t understand the idea of grace applying to Gosnell is the allure of work-based salvation. She said more than once, “I’m a good person. He is not a good person.” She listed all the right things she had done as well as all the wrong ones she had avoided. In her mind, her faith was more valuable because of what she did (or didn’t) do when the truth is the only reason we have value is because of who Christ is and what He has done. None of us is innocent. None of us can hurl stones at a fellow sinner because, if we’re willing to look closely enough, we’ll see that we’ve done something just as awful as far as God’s law is concerned (John 8:1-11). That’s why we should fall down on our faces before Him and thank Him for the grace and mercy He’s shown us rather than point fingers at one another. He gives us hope and purpose in a world that can offer us neither, and that’s what we should be shouting about.

Image from dailybibleplan.com

Before we parted ways, my friend told me that I was foolish for thinking that a man like Gosnell would ever be saved. He was a murder. He was evil. He had done unspeakable things, and God wouldn’t dare use such a wretched human being to do His work here on earth.

But all I could think about was the apostle Paul—a man who, when he was named Saul, was a persecutor without equal. He went after Christians, be they men, women, or children, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He sanctioned (and perhaps even participated in) Stephen’s stoning. But God saw fit to smack him down on the road to Damascus and change him forever (Acts 9:1-31). And what did He use Paul to do? To preach to the Gentiles, to plant churches in cities across Europe and the Middle East, and to write over half of the books in the New Testament.

God took a murderer of Christians and turned him into one of the most powerful and persuasive warriors of the faith. Millions upon millions have come to salvation because of Paul’s writings, and we continue to study and learn from them today. If God can change the world to such a degree with one man, who are we to say he can’t do it again with one who is just as feared, just as reviled, and just as lost in his own incorrect beliefs? That’s the story we should be telling on those message boards. That’s what people need to know about.

I’d be interested on hearing your thoughts on this topic. Do you agree with my friend or me….or have another opinion entirely? Please share your questions and ideas in the comments section below. I always look forward to discussions!

Roads Go Ever On And On

In Isaiah 55:8, God reminds us, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” and He’s proven that to me time and time again. Back in 2004, when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I had no idea what kind of transformational process the Lord was going to begin in me. Having this thorn in the flesh brought me back to reality and compelled me to destroy the foundations of the empire I’d planned.

In 2007, I took a job teaching English at a Christian school, and while there, I started to get comfortable in my “Christian skin” as it were and began digging more deeply into what it means to be a born-again believer.

Fast forward to 2013. Today, I work for one of the most beloved and recognized pastors in the world, Dr. Charles Stanley—first as a copy/content editor and now as a member of the In Touch magazine staff. For many years, I dreamed of being a writer, and that’s exactly what I am today. Every day, I am privileged to work alongside some of the most amazing, godly people I’ve ever known. We perform many functions–everything from buffing a floor to editing a broadcast. But we share one goal, getting the good news of the gospel to as many people as possible through radio, television, web, and print.

Yes, a woman who, nine years ago, was a nominal Christian at best is now a part of an international ministry.

It should have been impossible, but God brought it to pass. Why? Because He enjoys drawing a perfectly straight line with a crooked instrument like me. I could never have guessed I would be as close to God as I am today or that He would allow me to use my talents in such a way. But that’s what He tells us to expect in His Word: For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). Every day, when I sit down to work, I marvel at what He’s done in my life. I did nothing to earn this favor, and I am not worthy of it. I can never be.

But He doesn’t stop there. Sometimes, God blesses me beyond measure and teaches me more about His excellent greatness.

Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” I know the truth of that statement better than most. God has used many people to influence my Christian walk, and He’s now using me to grow up others in the faith. A few weeks ago, I got this letter from a reader. (If you click on the image, it should give you a larger version to read.)

letterfromreader

I’ve checked into this, and this person exists. He is indeed in prison for a host of crimes I don’t care to detail here. I can’t imagine what life must be like for him or what led him to such a desperate place. But God knew. The same heavenly Father who pulled me away from the trappings of the world did the same for him. God found him in one of the lowest, darkest, loneliest moments of his life and spoke to him through a 48-page, digest-sized magazine.

I often wonder about the journey that magazine took. I know how it was made of course, but when it was printed, how many hands at In Touch Ministries did it go through? How many people carried it with them or passed it on to some else before it finally found its way under that mattress? Did any of them know who it was meant for or what a difference it would make? There’s no way of knowing. One thing I do know, however, is that no one could orchestrate such an intricate journey except the Master.

That magazine lay in the cell where he would be placed, hidden where only he would find it, and opened precisely to the page he needed to read—a page I had written. (The article is here if you’d like to take a gander at it yourself.) The precision of it all is simply astonishing. There’s just no other word for it. It still boggles my mind when I try to think it through.

I’m willing to bet this man and I have little in common, but that didn’t matter to God. He made me walk through the darkest valley of my life to begin my own process of sanctification. Years later, He placed me in a position where my testimony could be shared with millions of people and helped me to write an article about physical illness. And He used those words to touch the heart of a man and pull him out of an entirely different sort of darkness. According to the legal system, he was beyond help. But he wasn’t beyond God. The Lord met him where he was and spoke to him through an article written by a woman frightfully far from perfect and still searching for answers herself.

The word “humbled” doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel every time I read this letter. It proves to me that God doesn’t make mistakes. I may feel like a cracked and crooked thing, but in His hand, I am a precise tool that helps to repair or shape another person. There is no telling how many people this man will impact where he’s been placed. His walk with God is just beginning, and that is a wonderful place to be. And I can’t wait to hear every page of his story when we meet in heaven.

Never doubt that the things you do and say make a difference or that God isn’t using you to impact someone else’s life. He loves surprising and delighting His children after all.

I’d love to hear your stories. Has God used someone to impact your life or directed you to bless another? Please tell me all about it in the comments section below!

At The Cross

This is the feature article for the April issue of In Touch Magazine. Five or six of us worked together to tell the stories of the people who were present at the crucifixion and why their being there is important to understand. I was asked to write the portions detailing the meaning behind Mary, the mother of Christ, and John, the beloved disciple. If you enjoy this article and would like to begin receiving In Touch Magazine for free each month, all you need to do is visit our subscription page and give us your name and address. You’ll begin receiving the magazine the next calendar month!

The art was created by Jeff Gregory, one of my amazing co-workers, and his blog on WordPress is well worth a look.

You have to imagine the first two pages in a horizontal spread with Mary and John on the left and Christ on the right. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to get them side by side without losing so much size they were impossible to see and enjoy.

“It Is Well To Be Bound…”

I came to salvation by one of the most wonky, serpentine, and circuitous paths known to man. Like millions of kids, I went to Vacation Bible School each summer, and when I was seven or eight, I felt led to go forward and give my life to Jesus Christ. I remember speaking to a preacher in a blue three-piece suit with a head of perfectly styled hair (courtesy of Vitalis and a generous measure of black dye) and the whitest set of chompers I’d ever seen. I remember him talking me through the Romans Road, praying with me, and asking me, “Doesn’t it feel good to know you’re saved?” Naturally, I nodded enthusiastically because it felt great. Awesome, in fact.

And then nothing else was done. No one really followed up with me and took it upon him or herself to disciple me. (Yes, I know that’s a noun, but I’m making it a verb for the purpose of this post.) Everyone made the assumption that because I went to church and “looked the part,” I understood exactly what things like salvation and eternal security meant. As a result, I grew up as a sort of “half-baked Christian.” I looked right and smelled right sitting on the shelf, but if someone had pressed me, I would have collapsed just like the meringue I was. In fact, that’s exactly what I did when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and I had a true crisis. Thank goodness I did. That was what laid me low and compelled me to seek His face.

I often wonder how much farther along I would be in my Christian walk if I had been properly taught and guided by a spiritual mentor, if someone had stepped in the gap for me. There’s nothing to be gained in lamenting the fact I didn’t, but I sometimes have question mark moments in my faith where I repeatedly ram my head against something like Mario.

I hear people talk about spiritual matters, saying things like, “God told me that…” or “I just felt the Spirit leading me to…” and I start to have small panic attacks, wondering, “I’ve been a Christian for decades. Why is that I’m not hearing or perceiving these things? Is there something wrong with my faith?” And, of course, there’s the thought, “Am I really saved?”

I think the difficulty arises because of a human desire for spectacle. I sometimes wish I had a salvation experience that was more, I don’t know, instantaneous. Part of me longs for a moment of which I can say, “THAT was when it happened. I was never the same afterwards.” The people to whom Jesus witnessed were much the same; they were looking for huge, showy events to convince them of His deity, but that’s not how God works. He speaks in a “still, small voice” instead, one that takes a discerning ear to hear (1 Kings 19:12). That’s why Jesus chastises them concerning His capacity to heal. Frustrated, He states, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe” (John 4:48). However, despite their error, the sick child they wanted Him to heal began to recuperate the moment Jesus said the word. It all took place well out of sight of the masses.

My doubts, though small, are the gaps the devil tries to put his bony fingers in so he can pry me open and strip me away from God. (I’ve come to realize that the fact that he’s trying so hard is evidence that I’m saved and sanctified. After all, why would he mess with someone who already belongs to him?) And there were times in the past when I fell for his lies and stepped away from God, perhaps because I was ashamed. Of course, I was always saved, and I could never lose my salvation. But I didn’t understand that until much, much later. It’s so simple that it’s terribly easy to over-interpret it as we search for what we interpret as “divine.” The apostle Paul plainly states the truth in Romans 10:9-10:

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

I read a passage from Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman a few days ago that truly spoke to my heart on this issue. In it, he discusses Psalm 118:27, “The LORD is God, and He has given us light; bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” The imagery is of the Old Testament and references the atoning sacrifices the Jewish people were required to perform; however, there is application for the Christian. Why? This passage speaks of the coming of Christ–the Sacrifice for all. We must always remember who He is, what He did, and what that action truly means. Cowman writes:

“Is not this altar inviting thee? Shall we not ask to be bound to it, that we may never be able to start back from our attitude of consecration? There are times with life is full or roseate light, and we choose the cross; at other times, when the sky is grey, we shrink from it. It is well to be bound. Wilt Thou bind us, most blessed Spirit, and enamor us with the cross, and let us never leave it? Bind us with the scarlet cord of redemption, and the golden cord of love, and the silver cord of Advent-hope, so we’ll not go back from it or wish for another lot than to be the humble partners of our Lord in His pain and sorrow!”

Sometimes, when I’ve slipped up or I start comparing myself to other Christians and judging myself by human standards, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking I’ve never truly been granted salvation. I know that it is utterly and completely incorrect, but in my weaker moments, it’s easy to think this way.

Oswald Chambers writes in his masterwork, My Utmost for His Highest, “Many of us have a mental picture of what a Christian should be, and looking at this image in other Christians’ lives becomes a hindrance to our focusing on God. [We tell ourselves] ‘This is not salvation— it is not simple enough.’ He says, in effect, ‘Look to Me and you are saved,’ not ‘You will be saved someday.’ We will find what we are looking for if we will concentrate on Him. We get distracted from God and irritable with Him while He continues to say to us, ‘Look to Me, and be saved…'”  

My focus has too often been on the wrong people and things rather than the cross. That’s why I decided to make a little visual reminder for myself I’m calling my Binding Cord.  It is merely symbolic and has no “magical” powers. However, when I look at it, I am reminded of Mr. Cowman’s assertion that I am bound to the cross. I am staked there by Christ Himself, and there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can pull me away. I stand on the promise of Jesus, the one recorded in John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (emphasis mine).

The first three passes of fifteen…

I’m not crafty by any stretch of the imagination, so I went the simple “friendship bracelet” route. I made just short of a billion of these in middle school, and the process came back fairly quickly. Using a pillow (covered in a jaunty IKEA pillowcase) and a few pieces of thread, I started knotting my bracelet together.

Notice the red thread…

I didn’t always keep the two strings I wasn’t looping taut enough, and as a result, the red started to bleed through and show between the knots. At first, it enraged me because I wanted this bracelet to be perfect, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was symbolically fitting. After all, the blood of Christ washed away all my sins—past, present, and future. There is no part of my life or self that it has not fully permeated. It is the reason I can know His love (gold) and have hope (silver). The scarlet thread symbolizes what truly liberates me; it is the “tie that binds” eternally.

It’s not perfect, but then again, neither am I.

The end result was a little less polished than I wanted, and I’m sure I’ll try to make another one before long. However, it’s serving its purpose for me.

If you’re struggling the same way I did, I’d love to speak with you and help you come to a better understanding of salvation. You can contact me at emeraldelf (at) gmail (dot) com. Also, if you would like one of these bracelets as a reminder for yourself, I’d be happy to make it and mail it to you free of charge. Please contact me via email or in the comments section below if you’re interested.

Soli Deo Gloria!