Friday, February 28, 2020

Divorce, shame, and worship

"Have you thought about telling your own story through your writing?"

We were making small talk at a wedding reception. She was a dynamic, intelligent woman approaching 40. She had introduced me to her fiancee a few moments before, and she seemed incredibly poised. But there was an urgency to her question that I couldn't quite identify.

"What do you mean?"

"Specifically around your divorce." That hung in the air for a second between us, and she glanced around, then plowed ahead. "I went through a divorce a few years ago, and it was rough. I'm a Christian, so I went looking for Christian resources to help me through it. I couldn't find anything."

I smiled sadly. "No. I suppose not."

"I limped through it on my own. I quit going to church for a long time. Since then I've started going to church again, but it's tough. I don't talk very often about the fact that I've been divorced. And it seems like lots of people get shamed out of the church if their marriages fall apart. It's one thing to hit a rough patch in your marriage and get help. People rally around you. It's another thing if the marriage ends. That just feels like failure and shame."

Failure and shame. Just yesterday I had another conversation, this time with an independent, strong-willed man who matter-of-factly mentioned that he quit going to church for many years when he got divorced. Only after he had taken a few years off, eventually remarried, and reestablished his new blended family did he risk darkening the door of a church.

It's almost three years since my own divorce. I vividly remember what it felt like to attend a worship service during that terrible time. I was a complete stranger to the congregation up the road. I very intentionally slipped into the back row two minutes after the service started. I cringed if the pastor directed us to greet other worshippers. I left during the closing hymn. I knew I needed to be in a public worship service. I was in my Bible and in prayer daily. But the weight of the breakdown in my own life made attending worship incredibly difficult.

The hardest part for me was the internal struggle I carried everywhere I went. My wife and I had separated, and she had initiated divorce proceedings. I had reached out a few times to open channels of communication, but she made clear she was not open to conversation. I was keeping a distance in many relationships, trying hard not to put friends in the awkward position of choosing sides between us. De facto, that meant I lost a lot of friends. At the same time, I was grappling with all the questions about my own mistakes, sins I'd committed, choices I should have made differently. Most days it felt like carrying a ball of molten lead in my gut. I desperately needed to worship in a community, but I felt like my soul was completely raw. Any word, any touch, was almost too much.

Ending a marriage should not be easy. I'm not asking for sympathy. Over the years, however, I've seen far too many people cut off from attending a church when their marriage hits the rocks. And if the marriage ends, they often disappear forever.

In the midst of all that, I ended up moving a couple hours away to take a new job. By God's grace, I transplanted into a community that is deeply committed to digging deep into the Bible. Part of that commitment is a deep sense that biblically speaking, we are not allowed to shame others. I found openness and gentleness in this new church that touched my heart. People let me sit in the back corners until I was comfortable enough. Conversations felt like compassion rather than an interrogation. I was able to start healing. Over many months, I edged more and more into the light. I built friendships. Lo and behold, in some of those friendships, people shared with me about their own struggles, including (in some cases) difficult marriages ending in divorce. As I felt ready, they listened to my own story. Along that path, I never once felt shamed. Confronted, convicted, yes. But never shamed.

I fully realize what a treasure it is to find a church that doesn't shame people. It's not a perfect church, but that one commitment not to shame others makes all the difference for me and many others. Living in that environment over time brings healing. It brings hope that I can be known for who I really am. It brings hope I don't have to pretend to be more together, more healthy than I really am.

It feels like grace.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Rich reminders

Thursday evenings more often than not you'll find me hanging out at The Open Door Christian Church's young adult ministry. This is not because I think I fit in there; quite the opposite. It's because I believe that having a cross-generational conversation is important. I care about this amazing group of young adults and I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to invest in their lives in some way.

This week, though, I felt like I was the one who walked away benefiting from the conversation. (That actually happens most weeks, but that's usually the way of things, isn't it?) While I've occasionally functioned as a speaker for this group, lately they've been focusing on missions and I get to simply listen in and be part of the conversation. Thursday's presentation was led by a couple preparing to move overseas. Their presentation was a deep, deep reminder of the uniqueness, beauty, and importance of Christian theology.

They started out asking the question, "What is the gospel?" If you haven't pondered this simple question lately, I encourage you to take time to do so. Can you answer that question concisely, in thirty seconds or less, in a way that a non-Christian might understand?

Over the course of about an hour, this couple led us to reflect on the importance of the Trinity in answering that question. In the process they led us deep into history, discussing the Athanasian Creed and Nicholas of Myra (more recently of "Santa Claus" fame) confronting Arius who claimed that Jesus Christ was the first creation of God, not an eternal being.

I know some of you are starting to glaze over right about now, but this is important. It gets down to basic questions like:

  • Did God create us out of some need to be loved and worshiped?
  • Is "the gospel" primarily about us going to heaven when we die?
  • Are we designed simply to be good people so God will be pleased?
  • What do Muslims and Jews mean when they say God is One, and do Christians understand this oneness of God in the same way?
And lots of others. But the simple answer to all these bullet-pointed questions is "No." If, as Christianity teaches, God contains other-centered love within God's self––the Father loves the Son and vice versa, with the Spirit flowing between the two as the expression and articulation of that love––then from eternity God has been relationally complete. God creates not to somehow have someone to love or worship him. Rather, out of the fullness and overflowing abundance of that love between the members of the Trinity, God creates not to receive anything but in order to give life. 

So all of Jesus' ministry and all of the New Testament makes sense, as we see in Jesus an other-centered love that overflows into the lives of those he healed, delivered, restored, and saved. What's more, we begin to understand our need in a deeper way: We are all broken and despairing to the extent that we are cut off from this kind of overflowing abundant love. To be "saved" means to be brought into right relationship with the God of superabundant love. We receive this love, are healed and restored by it, and begin (in imitation of God's character) live lives in which we pour God's overflowing love into a broken world. 

In short, Thursday night was a great reminder that something as basic as the Trinity matters. It's important for us to dive into it, to begin to understand God's love in a new and deeper way. If not, we risk falling prey to all the simplistic questions that drive people away from Christianity. 

Monday, February 17, 2020


February is more than half over.  It's been a busy month so far. The big event, of course, was my daughter Mathea's wedding out in Seattle. I had the privilege of traveling with my older daughter and her husband, and we kind of took over the Grand Hyatt in downtown Seattle. The wedding itself was at a tiny little venue (someone's backyard, really) about an hour north of the city. Lovely setting, and a very powerful, intimate gathering. We carpooled back to Seattle and the hotel and had another couple dozen close friends and family in the penthouse suite. All in all, though sometimes family gatherings can be a little tense, it was utterly beautiful and far better than I could have imagined. And Mathea and Matthew are now married in grand fashion. I am so very excited for them.

So the last couple weeks I've been trying to figure out life in Minnesota again. It's been a challenge to go from such a conversation-saturated four days around the wedding back to the quieter pace of Decision Hills. Work. Writing. Snow. Dog-sitting. You can feel the days turning toward spring, though we have a long way to go yet. It is still most definitely winter. One still needs lots of patience (or mindless television) for the long, dark evenings.

I'm nearly finished with the interior work on reissuing my Exodus book. Mathea and I are working on cover designs, and that's probably the biggest remaining task. Erica and Eric have been just amazing with the editing process. I suppose it should be the case that a second edition should present new challenges and that updating needs to be a current-state-of-the-heart kind of thing. But I hadn't expected that to be as much of a challenge as it turned out to be. Good, healthy, introspective; but challenging.

One of the very necessary parts of this life, I'm realizing, is intentional community. The week after the wedding, I felt like a razor's-edge addict going to AA meetings. Each day that following week I had some kind of community gathering, Life Group, staff meeting. Each of those gatherings was so very necessary to help me transition back to a more solitary life. We are made for community. It is no accident that the first comment God makes about humanity, even before sin breaks in, is that "it is not good for the man to be alone." (See Genesis 2:18.) I'm incredibly thankful for the friendships and communities here.

But right now I'm dog-sitting, and it's time for me and Kenai to go for a walk. That's all for his sake, you understand. ;)

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


One of the enduring joys of my life in the last decade is an ongoing conversation I've shared with my daughter Mathea. Years ago she came to the deep conclusion that Christianity is only true if it's absolutely relational. That might sound simple, but very often we treat Christianity as a religious system. I put in my repentance, and Jesus dispenses forgiveness. It's a transaction.

This kind of transactional religion drives people to ask questions like, "How much do I need to do to be saved? How much commitment is enough?" That's like a groom asking his bride at the altar, "What is the minimum I need to do for you to stay married to me?" If we put it in relational terms, suddenly it looks abundantly foolish. As it should.

Mathea is getting married this weekend. I'm very excited. And it seems timely that Scott Sauls should post this blog during a week when I'm reflecting with great joy about the relational nature of both love and faith.

Winter writing

I've been writing, though it doesn't feel like it.

More specifically, what I've been working on is editing the manuscript of a book I wrote a decade ago, and I'm planning to publish a second edition. The book takes the Exodus story and applies it to our lives, asking the question: What does it look like for God to set us free today?

The editing process can be grueling. Simply said, it's not my favorite part of writing. My older daughter and her husband have been incredible in this whole process. They've combed through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, asking all kinds of hard questions and suggesting needed changes. The final product has taken longer than I anticipated, but it's also far better. They confront simple things that need to change stylistically, like the fact that the original manuscript consistently had two spaces after each sentence. That convention has absolutely changed since I wrote the original manuscript. They also confront places where I've shied away from dealing with difficult questions in myself and others. Because of their kind, firm probing I have addressed some hard questions in the updated manuscript. So the topic of what it means for God to set us free is now much more current than I expected. It's always a challenge to write in the vulnerable present rather than the somewhat settled past.

We're coming into the final stages of the manuscript work. My younger daughter does an amazing job with graphic design, and she's working on a cover for this book just like she did for New Wineskins. Little by little, we are making progress toward publication. Originally my optimistic goal was mid-January; I'm guessing the book will actually come out sometime in February or early March.

In the meantime, there are other projects on the burners as well. Some of these are directly related to my work at The Open Door. Others arise out of my fascinations with theology and leadership and biblical truth but aren't directly work-related. Still others are just stories for fun, though I haven't been taking much time for those lately.

We held a fishing tournament here at Decision Hills last Saturday, hosted by some of our middle school boys. They did a great job. Spending many hours focused on the fish living below the ice, I realized that this winter feels a little like that to me. Life has slowed down as the temperatures drop. It's a necessary season of slow work, churning out new words and editing old ones. But my mental processes are frustratingly slow these winter days. Most of my energy is going to my day job, and that's a good thing. Writing fills in the gaps and provides a challenge for the long evenings when a lingering conversation or a game of Scrabble might be more fun.

It is a joy to see a project coming to completion. I'll keep posting here as this Exodus project moves toward publication. Meanwhile, it might be a good day to get out on my snowshoes and cut some brush for the deer to feed on.