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.


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