The divorced pastor

I’m a pastor, and I’m divorced.

As I’ve learned in the last year of separation and finally divorce, there are a lot of pastors who know what this feels like or are struggling to avoid joining the ranks of the divorced clergy. What there is not as much of is open talk about it. No one likes to talk about their marriage and family falling apart. Pastors, I’ve been learning, have to deal not only with the shame and pain that are common to everyone in such situations, but also a special kind of fear — fear that they will lose their vocation, fear that they will be seen as frauds, fear that they will lose the ability to preach or teach without being accused of hypocrisy. And so there is silence.

I’ve not learned all there is to learn about these things, and I’m not anywhere near perfect, but I wanted to share some of my perspective on this and perhaps a few words for my brothers and sisters in the clergy who have walked or are walking this road.

First, I want to say that I believe that God’s intention for marriage is that it last until death. In other words, I don’t think God intends us to divorce or desires that we divorce. This is the point of those words in Genesis 2 that are part of most Christian wedding services: the two become one flesh. But Genesis 3 happened and happens. We are fallen, sinful, and damaged creatures. When we get married, we do not plan on divorcing. God does wish for marriages to end in divorce. But we hurt and betray each other. Marriages fail, bonds break, and people divorce. We separate what God has brought together. Sometimes for the safety and health of one or both of the people in the marriage, divorce is necessary, but it is never a cause for celebration. It is a failure.

With that in mind, here are a few words for my brothers and sisters.

Jesus still loves you. I find as a pastor that I am no less prone to bad thinking than others. I fall easily into thinking that Jesus only loves me when I am living up to the right standard and carrying out my vocation with excellence. I confuse praise from people with the approval of God. And so, in the midst of a public and personal failure, it is easy to feel like we are beyond the pale. Jesus Christ came for the sick not the healthy. He loves you even when it your feel like you’ve betrayed him and failed. He loves you especially at those times.

It is okay to struggle to hold on. You made a vow to remain married until parted by death. You did not know when you made that vow what it would require. None of us do. It is okay that you want to hang on and hope for a way forward. You may have people around you encouraging you give up and get out. It is okay to look for those who help you and challenge you to hope and struggle for reconciliation.

It is sometimes necessary to let go. There may come a moment when you have to come face-to-face with a hard truth. Your marriage has failed beyond repair. It is dead. Legal fiction makes it appear to still live, the same way machines can keep a dead body alive in a hospital. The only thing keeping it breathing is the plug that no one has the courage to pull. Yes, with God all things are possible, but sometimes resurrection only comes after death. We want to hold on so hard to hope — and fear so much what will happen if we let go — that we become trapped in a never-ending limbo or deepening cycle of destruction. Unless a thing dies, new life cannot come. Grieve it. Mourn it. Let go what you cannot save.

Fear is normal. Divorce shatters us. It breaks apart our families. It makes us question our own judgment and choices. It strips away a central part of our very identity. It exposes our flaws and sins. And if we are clergy, it raises the possibility that we might lose our calling. When the pain and dysfunction and sin that has remained hidden in our family and in ourselves becomes known by others, there is always the chance someone will look at us and decide we do not meet the standards for pastoral ministry. The prospect that might end up with no spouse, no family, no calling, no job, and no place to live scares us. What you are feeling is normal.

You need someone to talk to. Find a therapist. Go. Keep going.

You need God. Spend time in prayer, with Scripture, and alone with God. There may be some yelling involved. There will be some crying. You’ll have to confess some things. You will discover how much you are willing to trust God’s promises.

This should change you. If you repair your marriage, it will be because you both have changed. If you divorce, you will be different. In either case, don’t go through this without learning and growing. God can use all things to bring about good. The good for you may be discovering some hard truths about yourself and growing from that knowledge.

There is grace even here. The most curious thing about my last year has been the number of people who have shared with me their stories of divorce. These are people who never would have talked to me about this topic before I was one going through this. I won’t lie. Those moments do not help much in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and your heart feels like it has fed through a trash compactor. But God is with you, working to bring healing and life out of our sin and death. Be open and on the watch for signs of God’s grace.

I don’t pretend this is everything there is to say about divorce. I have much more to learn, and I pray God will give me the time I need to learn it all. But I hope some of these words are helpful to some. We have become travelling companions on a road none of us originally intended to walk. Perhaps we can help each along the way.

A sermon on divorce – Mark 10:2-16

This is the text of a sermon I preached for my seminary Introduction to Preaching class this fall. It is meant to reflect David Buttrick’s Moves and Structures approach to preaching. There are some things I like about Buttrick’s approach, but there are also some things that I struggle with when trying to use it.

The text is Mark 10:2-16

The preacher stands at the front of the church and holds aloft two golden bands. There in front of him, the couple stands. Young. Smiling. Hand in hand with hearts in their throats and tears of joy glistening in their eyes.

O Lord, the pastor says, bless the giving of these rings that they who wear them may live in your peace and continue in your favor all the days of their life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The rings they exchange are perfect circles, indicating an eternal and never-ending promise. They shimmer with precious beauty in the lights of the church. And when the best man hands them to the pastor, they are hard and cold, awaiting the warmth of flesh. Although we do not often pause to reflect on the hardness of the rings and the coldness of the bare metal, this day we are invited to do so because of this simple truth, brothers and sisters: Our hearts are hard. Our hearts are cold as a stone hidden in the dark of the earth. Our hearts drift like lonely asteroids through the black silent void. Continue reading “A sermon on divorce – Mark 10:2-16”

Mods and progs … help me understand

I live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. Soon, I will live in a country where that is the case. As a pastor, the question for me is not what is legal by civil code, but what is righteous in the eyes of God. And so, I have been a part of my denomination’s conversations, debates, prayers, and wrestling with these questions.

If you asked me to define what marriage is, I would go to Genesis 2. I’ve always found this foundation solid. Yes, the Old Testament has many examples of marriage other than the monogamous union of a man and a woman, but I find Jesus’ quotation of the Genesis formula a good basis for concluding that God’s blessing falls upon lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

When questions about other forms of relationship and marriage arise, my reference is back to the first question: What is marriage? Well, the Bible and tradition tell me it is this. If something does not fit that description it might be similar to marriage or like marriage, but it is not marriage.

This is why when people in my denomination suggest we change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, I start asking about polygamy. I don’t do it to engage in a slippery-slope argument. I do it because in discounting what Jesus says and the words of Genesis, you take out the entire basis I have for answering the question: What is marriage? There is no longer any definition to distinguish between marriage and other social arrangements. So, I raise questions about polygamy because I can’t see how to declare it invalid in a theological world in which Genesis and Jesus do not settle the question.

I am in the position that if I accept your argument about same-sex marriage, then I don’t see any way for me to argue biblically against polygamy. Indeed, once you knock out Genesis 2 and Jesus, there is a lot of evidence in support of polygamy. Obviously, people who advocate for same-sex marriage do not have such problems, although I’ve struggled to get them to articulate their theological (as opposed to American Constitutional) reasons for distinguishing the two.

So, I end with a request to my colleagues who advocate for same-sex marriage not as a civil right but as an arrangement blessed by God. What is your definition of marriage? How do you ground it in the Bible? How does it allow you to distinguish between forms of relationship that God blesses and those that God does not?

Lectionary blog: 1 John 3:16-24

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18, NIV)

There are passages of Scripture that I read, and they leave me completely unable to understand Christians who never lift a finger in service to their brothers and sisters. People tell me that they love Jesus, but they never do anything for the good of others. I can’t find any place in the Bible that reflects that kind of passivity.

We have probably all heard those sermons where the preacher has talked to us about the meaning of love. We know the various Greek words. We can call to mind various metaphors and word images that festoon the pulpit talk that we preachers use when trying to get a point across.

Here, in the lectionary this week, we get it straight and simple.

Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love” for Christians? Jesus Christ died for you. Go and do the same for others. That is love.

Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love”? Let me show you the cross. That is love. It is self-surrendering action.

It is more than most of us can hear or bear, so the the epistle writer gives us an easier problem. You are not ready to die for your brother or sister? Okay. Put your money where your mouth is. You say you love your neighbor. Show me the money.

If love is laying down our life for another, then how can we possibly say we have love — that we even know what love is — when we have the means to help a brother or sister in need and close up our heart against our fellow Christian?

The point here cuts right to our hearts if we have any ability at self-examination, but it also points to something of crucial importance about Christianity.

Our faith is not about merely believing the right things. It is about action. We cannot claim to love Jesus and sit on our hands. It simply is not possible.

Jesus said he was giving us a new commandment: Love each other. Let all of us who call him Lord strive to obey and pray for faith to do so.

Show me, don’t beat me

In the preface to his first series of sermons, John Wesley entreated readers who thought he was in the wrong how they could most effectively persuade him of the truth.

Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and get more and more out of the way.

Wesley’s words here may have been better than his practice. I’m sure many of his debating partners found him not terribly open to persuasion on most points. But that acknowledged, I admire the spirit of this passage. It would be wonderful if we could adopt such an attitude in the midst of our disagreements.

And having written that, I feel compelled to point out that Wesley, who wrote the above, was also an absolute stickler on discipline in his societies. He would warn a wayward member and weather their backsliding for a time, but if they would not amend their ways, they were out. So, clearly, there is a distinction in his thinking between discussing points of faith and enforcing church discipline. In the United Methodist Church, we would probably do well to follow that example as well.

Nouwen on incarnation

Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature of love and humanity in his wonderful little book Adam, which is about the man he cared for at L’Arche.

Adam’s humanity was not diminished by his disabilities. Adam’s humanity was a full humanity, in which the fullness of love became visible for me, and for others who grew to know him. Yes, I began to love Adam with a love that transcended most of the feelings, emotions, and passions that I had associated with love among people. Adam couldn’t say, “I love you,” he couldn’t embrace spontaneously or express gratitude in words. Still I dare to say we loved each other with a love that was as enfleshed as any love, and was at the same time truly spiritual. We were friends, brothers, bonded in our hearts. …

This experience cannot be understood by logical explanation, but rather in and through the spiritual bonding of two very different people who discovered each other as completely equal in the heart of God. From my heart I could offer him some care that he really needed, and from his heart he blessed me with a pure and lasting gift of himself.

Every time I read Nouwen carefully, I am reminded of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

Like Nouwen, I am prone to think of humanity in terms of intellect and feeling. Our humanity, my gut tells me, is based somehow in the more evolved parts of our cerebral cortex. But such ideas suffer from the great fault of making the hallmark of humanity the things that I most value about myself.

Isn’t this a form of spiritual pride?

Adam with all his profound disabilities was fully human. For all the wonderful things I can do with my brain and my brain can do for me, he may be closer to God than I am.

The biggest difference between Adam and me is that Adam wore his disabilities on the outside where everyone could see them. Some of mine are obvious right away, but most of my more pronounced disabilities take time to discover. I am more skilled at hiding and denying my brokenness than Adam was.

When a friend came to visit Nouwen at L’Arche one day, he asked why the great writer and teacher was wasting his time by caring for Adam. Nouwen noted that his friend could not see Adam as the incarnated face of God. He could only see the disabilities, not the man.

For Nouwen, Adam was a teacher.

And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.