Sunday’s message at North Hills Church in Orange County (our new lovely church) was inspiring. As Pentecost Sunday, Brenton’s message was very relevant. (I’m looking forward to Hebrews again next week). Anyways, he shared that two of his close friends are ending their marriage. They think. At this moment they just feel their marriage dying an agonizing death and are asking a lot of questions. He wondered aloud at the power and meaning of Pentecost for the Christian faith today – within a broken created world grappling with real issues like these.
It struck a chord – I’ve been through similar conversations four times in the last months with close friends standing on the precipice of divorce – two couples separated recently. I’m not going to use their names, and I’d never betray the confidences or honest messages. My heart aches for them and I think this issue is worth talking about. Shrouded in a silent fog they struggle to navigate expectations of those around them and learn to breathe again. The Christian marriage dying is embarrassing – I mean, faith inoculates you for divorce, right? A three-fold strand and all that? And some loud Christians consider it the irreversible sin. I guess this is why most divorcees click ‘close tab’ – happily marrieds rant easily about choices, keeping families together, the destruction of society, and post-modernism. But I’m not talking about abstract concepts, I’m talking about people I love and respect. This year I’ve received agonizing emails like “T – kill me now. I can’t believe I’m here”. And my return emails are my feeble tries; “Can’t kill you, I’m a Pacifist. But can you let me know where you are so I can help?”
The reality is, Christian divorce happens. I saw facebook pictures today of a Christian singer kissing his third wife holding white flowers by a white cake – still in church ministry. I guess that shocked me somewhat. I’m from the Amy-Grant-did-what-wow-how-scandalous era, but things have changed. One positive is more realistic expectations as people see differences between the skill of singing and the skill of negotiating relationships while on the road touring. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in integrity, covenant, and holiness. I don’t want to undervalue these things. I want to uphold them in a world gone crazily awry. I don’t know this singer’s personal story – what I’m saying is that the public no longer boycott music products from divorced singers, judging by the stream of congratulations I just read. So I wonder, is divorce now considered a life stage? Something you grow through to find ‘the One’?
I’ve noticed my friends’ desperation to end the pain they find inside their marriage, an insidious creeping destruction within. They’ve considered every possible response from me before calling. In each conversation the person articulated that they feel their only answer is to start again, and hope the demon they are fighting doesn’t return, that it is within the fabric of the relationship itself. Sometimes, they feel the evil is inside of them, but none of them blame their partner entirely. They argue that it is not naïve unconsidered selfishness. There is nothing that could help except a concrete reassurance of radical change. They cannot deal again and again with the same issues (for some cases, decades). Their armour is pierced, and leaving is the only survival mechanism they feel they have left. They flail around trying to end continuing assaults upon their self-worth and dignity – to find their humanity. I would fix it if I could. I would take the blue pill on their behalf. But I can’t, so I pray, listen, and wait for God’s redeeming life to emerge.
I can’t help ask how the church can be present in this time. We have to accept we have been terrible at preparing married people for real life scenarios. I wonder if married couples actually bear mutual responsibility to those who are still single to talk about the restraints of marriage. To actually hang out with them instead of forming cliques of doubles (there I said it). To articulate a lived experience once the wedding photos are a little too old to reshare on facebook. Maybe we need marriage magazines that show the beautiful, crazy mess of what marriage really is. That outline that each conversation with your partner is either a brick in a wall of separation between you, or a decision to take another brick down from that very wall. That in some seasons, you’d rather put another brick up, because it somehow makes us feel better, in the same way thumping your little brother helps a bit, somehow.
But, when people are in a state of clutching for exits from a brick prison they’ve constructed, the loudest voice in our generation becomes The Psychologist. Psychology sets our agenda of relational how-tos, articulating battle lines through boundary-setting. Psychologists hold the broken pieces of our childhood dreams. I’d like magazines to tell us that the attributes that make a great date are important for a date. But they are not all that useful in marriage. Beyond the exposure to music you’d never heard of (Vex Red or Tower of Power anyone?) there is the beautiful unglamorous territory of the ‘new normal’. And the ‘new normal’ of marriage is sorting through endless piles of ‘to do’ trying to get to the ‘I want to do’, and ‘I want to be’. And sometimes your partner is the one sitting on top of the paper pile, and they look like the enemy. Sometimes, they are the enemy. People are broken. They are marred by sin. This is no Ken doll who happily speaks the words Barbie wants to hear – Thank goodness.
There has to be better way of showing the beauty of living within the restraints of covenant. Look, I don’t have the answers to a perfect marriage. I don’t even think perfection is the right aim for marriage, six years in – I think it is actually a quest to remain human with all that entails, and refuse a robotic existence of slavery to the institutional materialism of Western society. One day I’ll share how Tim and I ended up in the Sheer-Riches reality. It’s a heap of fun and in no way what I’d advocate people look for. Which is exactly the point. If you’re single and looking, you’re looking for something never before lived. You’re in a never before seen movie in which you are the leading character. Other marriages are often useless in navigating the amazing, beautiful, painful reality of your own life. BUT if you make it through the dating maze and choose to marry a human being, one thing is certain – there will be moments where you can’t breathe because your spouse has figured out how you tick and has spoken your worst fears into existence. Even worse, they may become your worst fears. Things sometimes break beyond repair. Sometimes even while we hold onto faith. But we can’t make beyond repair the ‘new new normal’. It’s an exception to the rule, and there is a way to turn the conversations around. There is hope, and there is redemption.
Most people don’t want to say such things for fear of being their own lives being jinxed. Well, whatever. This is the power of Pentecost. For me, marriage has been learning I can still breathe once my worst fears have been spoken out loud. It’s a place of realizing that living within restraints provided by the ‘other’ is the only possible way to live fully alive. It’s about realising that with every decision I make, I also restrain another – it’s dealing with the guilt of bringing a man to the other side of the world for me to read endless books and put off the nappy season and newborn cries that he would so love to hear right now. It’s about acknowledging his sacrifice, and that he thinks my PhD degree is absolutely, completely worth it, even when I don’t. It’s about finding healing in community. Whether it be the hands of a doctor or the comforting words of a best friend, healing rarely occurs without others. We are created for it. Community is made up of many people who sit face to face and wrestle through their issues with one another. I feel we have to let go of some of the cliches, and live the real moment in front of us.
Rather than seeking the performed realities of a perfect, primped 1950s marriage, I’d like people to know that the quest is to be alive. To be real. And if you’re facing a broken marriage, my prayers are with you. I can recommend the words of the great researcher and desperately terrible husband, Solomon. Here are some of his lingeringly real thoughts (after a string of failed hopes):
Ecclesiastes 9: 4-6 “Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”