What On Earth Do I Have to Be Thankful For?

Something for which we are very thankful!

Sometimes when one is in the middle of a marriage breakup it can be a bit difficult to find things to be thankful for. As dreams, plans and the future you’ve hoped for are disappearing, a common feeling is hopelessness.  Holidays, such as Thanksgiving often serve as reminders of better times and can amplify the feelings of desolation.

Now that I am looking at my divorce in the rear view mirror, I am reminded of the many people in my life who gave me hope in  hard times. I am truly thankful for the friends who held my hand and asked few questions. For those who would call me just to make sure I was OK and those who would “call me on” comments/self-talk that wasn’t healthy for me. For those close to me to whom I could freely express myself, even if that expression was a rant!  I am thankful for the people in church who did not exclude or judge me (sadly, there was also the other kind).  And most of all I am thankful for my family – close and extended – who continue to accept me for who I am, where I am, even when they didn’t always understand or agree with my decisions.

What are your experiences?  Who are you thankful for?  This is a good time of year to share some good news with our brothers and sisters who are suffering through relationship problems right now.

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The Withering Stare

"The LOOK!"

Someone once commented that the eye is a portal into the soul.  It has always made me wonder what is going on inside someone when their stare is pure, sharp daggers.  I also love the many terms for this phenomenon: the look, slow burn, dirty look, deadly gaze, glare, gloom, glower, grimace, knit brows, double whammy, pout, sulk… and my all-time favorite term for those of us who sometimes hang out in church circles: the evil eye!

A recently divorced friend shared with me that she still feels like she gets “the look” often from people in, of all places, her home church.

She said the withering glances, dirty looks and other non-verbal communication of disapproval began when it became public that her marriage was undergoing some difficulties. Now, a couple of years later, the highly obvious but non-verbal disapproval is still coming through. I would like to suggest that she smack those lookers upside the head with a Brennan Manning book or two!

What exactly is going on with this behavior.  Please help me understand?  Who are we to pass judgment. Who are we to consider someone in pain without offering a kind word, extending a hand of comfort or look for an opportunity to heal or comfort?

Folks, our churches are filled with sinners: namely us!  Our churches are filled with people who are wounded in one way or another: again, us.  Our churches are filled with imperfect people: still us. Wouldn’t it be nice if church was also filled with people who want to be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus!

Wouldn’t it be nice if those people were US?  We’re curious, what’s behind those stares.  Any ideas?


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Don’t Let the Barn Door Hit You

Is divorce the best route out of a bad situation or just a rough road on the way to nowhere?

Here’s a question for those of us who are part of church families.  What the H • E * Double Toothpicks is going on around the subject of divorce? Why is it that so many people we interview who are dealing with divorce or serious marital issues are feeling the church is no longer a safe place for them?
What’s your answer:  is it:  “Good! God must be convicting them, because we all know He hates divorce,” or “It’s no wonder with all the rush to judgment and lack of resources to deal with divorce,” or “Wow—never thought of it that way.
There must be some way we can let love win and God sort out the details!”

We’d love to hear your experience. We’re pretty convinced there are some churches out there doing more harm than good.  But even more important, we want to learn from the church families who have found a loving path, where even if the marriage can’t be restored, at least the church community will commit to restoring the person.

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Act Justly, Love Mercy
And Walk Humbly With Your God. (From Micah 6:8)

CoupleonBeach

Act justly!   Wow, justice is a mysterious and difficult concept. How often is justice harder to seek than it should be?  Is that why God has reserved justice as his own purview when He speaks of revenge in Romans 12:9: “Revenge is Mine!” How is justice linked to forgiveness? IS justice linked to forgiveness? And what about the “me” factor?  It’s pretty clear that when I see someone else wronged, by circumstance, society or an individual I should jump in to seek a just and fair solution. This can apply to feeding the hungry, clothing the poor or visiting the sick.

But what about those times when I feel that I am the recipient or even the victim of an unkind or harmful act? Do I forgive? Do I seek justice? Would justice in this case look very much like revenge? Or is there a path that leads to my own healing, leaving the perpetrator to deal with his or her own consequences?

Often a root cause of divorce can be a betrayal by one partner of the other.  The betrayal can take the form of a sexual dalliance, emotional abandonment, abuse or desertion.  Those things hurt, they cause real harm and they are certainly unjust.  So, really, how do we seek justice in circumstances like these?

We could, and often do, devote much time and energy trying to seek recourse or retribution for the injury. That’s the kind of behavior that can eat us alive, keep the pain at the surface and prolong any healing achieved via a true act of forgiveness.  But if justice is to be served, the score must be settled, right? The offending party held accountable. The wrong exposed to the light of day! Or is this approach just the runway to happiness? Maybe we need to simply give up on justice when it comes to our own cause?

Can we stuff our feelings? What if we ignore the injustice and move on. What if we shut out any thought, emotion, conversation or interaction that leads to a memory of the injustice done to us by this other person? That may sound good at first, but the reality is those memories and hurts remain if not processed and treated.  So this is not a route to healing we would suggest.  The short-term relief can lead to long-term dysfunction.  Wounds untreated fester.

There is a third option and it may offer the beginning of a way out. Finding an outlet for actively processing the hurts and wrongs that contribute to your desire for justice may offer the sought for peace and healing. A trusted friend, spiritual advisor or counselor who is willing to listen as you process what you’ve been through can offer just such relief. But it is very important to make sure this trusted person is a friend who is not a “fixer” but a good listener. Talk through the hurt, the pain, the humiliation or whatever other feelings you’ve experienced. Be honest about your emotions.  Be honest about what was done to you. And it can be very helpful to focus, in detail, on the aspects of your life that you are thankful for and if your life is better now, reflect on that. Do this as often as you need to.  (This will take a really good friend!).  What is likely to happen, each time you repeat your story of betrayal and feelings, a little healing will take place. Little by little you will take back control of how you see yourself, moving slowing from victim to victor.  Whether or not the offender gets “called out,” repents or apologizes becomes less and less important.  What is important is that you are now healing, admitting you were wronged and confident that you are now in a better position.  Who knows, someday, you might feel led to truly forgive.

You might notice we didn’t jump to forgiveness as the first step.  As we see it forgiveness is one of the Biblical directives most often bandied about as the be-all, end-all solution to any believer’s woes.  But true forgiveness is really about one of the toughest places to go.  It’s rarely a journey that can take place without a healthy dose of help from the Holy Spirit.

What are your justice stories?  How have you been wronged and how are you going about finding healing. We’d love to know.

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We All Fall Down

Sometimes one needs to stand on the edge to get the best views.

Sometimes I seriously question whether or not most churches, as institutions, actually believe what they preach: forgiveness, grace, God as redeemer, all have sinned and fallen short. You know, that sort of thing.   Very often they get the words literally correct on Sunday, but are their brains engaged and their hearts in line with the redemptive nature of the Cross?

Over the years I have had the privilege of serving with groups of church friends appointed to find new leaders to fill roles on the pastoral staff at all levels. These groups are usually known as “search committees.” Over the years I have also been not-so-privileged to live with the results of those searches. Not all candidates live up to their billing over time. This result caused me to give the issue a great deal of thought and prayer.  I have concluded that often the criteria applied in these searches might need some additional interpretation and serious adjustment.

There are widely held criteria for church leadership that are based on several passages from the Bible. You can view a summary of those qualifications here. (insert link) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elder_(Christianity)  Since this is a blog about divorce and the church, let me concentrate on the criteria of “husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2). In my experience this is usually interpreted to mean a man who has never been divorced. Other interpretations I’ve heard disqualify a man even if he was never divorced, but married a woman who was. The whole thing can get pretty legalistic and nit-picky.  A actually the whole thing can miss the point altogether.

My revelation, after serving with these carefully appointed men (the “man” thing is a subject for another post) who have met the Biblical standards as to wives, family, drinking, child raising, memory verses and other criteria is that an exalted level of Holiness just may not be the end-all qualification that prepares a person for Christian service.

I remember one Elders meeting where I advanced my new theory and criteria for selecting senior leaders of the church. Here’s what I proposed:

Should I ever be in charge of a search again, I am going to insist that our candidate have at least one face-plant failure in their background. I mean the kind of moral fall that is usually hush-hushed in church circles.

And I would want to see that person, recover through the Grace of God — and grace offered by those around him or her.

Imagine a person who has failed (imagine ourselves perhaps) and imagine that they have fully restored their lives through the help of faith, friends and family. Plus they have been redeemed by Christ’s work on the cross.

Can you see how that individual might be so much better prepared to relate to and help those of us in the church body?

Imagine the humility with which they would approach those they serve.  Picture the empathy they would have for the troubled among them, not to mention the practicality of their own life lessons.

Isn’t that the sort of person who can humbly guide those of us who are struggling and seeking a better relationship with those around us and stronger reliance on the teaching of Christ?

After I advanced my theory, it took awhile for the slack jaws of my fellow Elders to return to a pained semblance of normal. I can’t say I received an overwhelming endorsement for my views. Even the divorced Elder (who tried to keep that part of his life out of view) pretty much turned a deaf ear. I wasn’t surprised by the response from my leadership pals, but in the three plus years since that I have had to think about the issue, my theory makes more sense to me now than ever.

Yes, we need to hold our spiritual leaders to a high standard of behavior and character. But doesn’t the overwhelming story of Jesus in the New Testament point to His great sacrifice to redeem the fallen, not to promote the religious? We need more leaders who have experienced first hand the redemption and restoration from their bad acts. We need people who are willing to see the realities of life and lead us all to better places because they have walked the walk.

Who better is there to give counsel to someone going through divorce, than someone who has been there and recovered?

I’d love to have you think about this idea and perhaps even share your thoughts by commenting below. Don’t be bashful. I’m not used to getting a lot of accolades for this line of thinking. But, if we don’t question our faith (and especially our faith practices) we really don’t have faith. We have belief, which is the opposite of faith.

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” ― Anne Lamott

 

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Are We Called To “Condemn” or “Love” Our Neighbors?

Some prefer to love their neighbors at a suitable distance.

This missive will be a bit of a rant (about love).

As we try to stick with the topics of divorce and the church on the New Lepers blog, feel free to use that paradigm as your filter as you take in this post. I hope you will find some application for dealing with divorce as we look at how we treat each other in the church family during difficult circumstances, as well as how some traditional church rhetoric and positioning can be hurtful to many of the people we are called to love.

I recently received a request from a dear friend and asking me to sign a document called the Manhattan Declaration. The Manhattan Declaration is a public proclamation, seemingly politically motivated, rehashing some strongly held conservative religious views.

Whether or not one subscribes to these particular religious views in whole or in part, what I found worrisome is that often, the nature of the “official Christian” discourse with the rest of the world tends to be condemning. In spite of the truth that Jesus came to teach us about being loving.

Why are we being told it’s ok to approach our neighbors with a thrust finger to the chest while spelling out in detail the error of their ways? The church world calls this “speaking the Truth In love.” Frankly, I call it out of character with Jesus, and usually quite damaging.

It can take years of conversation, personal interaction, service and proximity to build the kind of mutually caring relationship that allows one to speak into the life of another. Always it’s more effective if our forays into the touchy territory of another person’s behavior are invited. Hard truths are just that: hard. They are especially hard to hear from people we don’t know well, or whom we suspect don’t really know us or love us.

I believe that public speech and approaches like the Manhattan Declaration must be largely politically motivated. Like the Pharisees before them, many of our modern church leaders wish they could legislate the morality of others. (We know how well that worked in Old Testament times!) The overly “religious” approach usually proves to be counterproductive, hiding from people the most important message of the Gospels: that God really does love THEM as He loves us all, irrespective of our circumstance.

I have gay friends, family and coworkers. I am commanded to love them, not condemn them. Civil marriage is not the issue. God’s love for the individual is the issue.

I have friends and family who have had to make the tough decision about abortion. Some said “yes.” Some said “no.” Do I love one and hate the other? I can’t do that, and I really don’t hear God asking me to do that. What I hear is that I need to be committed to loving, serving and protecting those whom God places in my path.

It is clear to me that Jesus gave me two choices. I am instructed to love people. I am forbidden to judge people. In between those two instructions, it seems I’m stuck in a complicated world where people are messy and mess up. People are born with defects, physical and/or mental. People are born with attractions to the same gender. People can have really crappy dispositions. Sometimes people get into tight spots of their own doing or of circumstances thrust upon them. In those situations they are forced to make very hard decisions. Some of those decisions may go contrary to what’s best for them or what’s taught in the Bible. However, nothing changes for me (or you). We are still commanded to love them. We are still forbidden to judge them.

I do believe if our religious leaders focused more on connecting people with God’s love and less on political efforts to legislate morality, we would all have a better environment in which to encourage better productive choices and facilitate quicker recovery from the face-plant failures that come into everyone’s life.

In this blog, we encourage the “love not condemn” paradigm first and foremost when dealing with divorce in the church— before, during and after!

 PS: Do you detect any irony in the naming of the Manhattan Declaration and the famous Manhattan Project that brought us atomic weaponry?

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Is Divorce Contagious?

In the Bible, Lepers are thought to be highly contagious. People go to great lengths to avoid contact. Rules were written on top of rules in order to keep the Leper at bay. Even the Lepers themselves were required to shout “unclean” when they came near the normal population. This image struck me powerfully when, as a new member of a church community I became aware of how awkward it could be inside a congregtion for couples dealing with marital difficulty.

I began to see a connection. It seemed that many people reacted as if divorce is somehow contagious. That would place the people in the midst of the struggle in the same place as Lepers. I pictured thoughts like “Perhaps if I get too close to them, the crap in my own marriage may be exposed”  or “If Mary can break free of John, maybe my spouse will get the idea she can set me adrift

While this “contagious” idea made great sense to me, I denied that divorce could be in anyway really be contagious. Recently I changed my mind. A close pastor friend, with decades more experience than me, blew my assumptions out of the water. Her take on the situation was “heck yah!, divorce can be very contagious!” she challenged. “Picture this: a woman in an abusive relationship notices one or more of her peers successfully breaking the cycle of oppression through a divorce. Isn’t it likely the abused woman will check out the divorce option for herself?” she questioned. “Sometimes Bible interpretation on submission, reinforced by misguided teaching, can help make church a safe haven for an abuser and a very un-safe place for those being abused. If this pattern is broken, even through something as painful for the church to accept as divorce, then the ‘bug’ may in fact be planted.”

I didn’t want to believe her right away, but her logic was impeccable, and of course, all I had to do was look more closely at the experiences of those around me for corroboration.

Now I’m left thinking that divorce can be somewhat contagious. But I’m still very convinced we do no good treating our friends having marriage difficulties as Lepers*.

What so you think?

* Long ago medical science concluded leprosy is not a highly contagious disease.

 

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Divorce: The Pain Remains

The view from a healing place.

No matter the circumstances, the justification or lack thereof, divorce is not for a moment, but for a lifetime.  When dealing with friends and loved ones who have been through the traumatic experience of a divorce, it’s important to remember that no matter how far along the healing has come, somewhere deep inside a vestige of the pain always remains. I was reminded of this when a dear friend was asked if she had seen the engagement announcement in the local paper of her former husband and ‘the other woman.’  While her response was graceful, the look of pain on her face was palpable.  She has shown great healing and peace recently, but this reminder of loss, disappointment, betrayal or whatever you want to call it, came spurting to the surface.  My takeaway is to remember to tread gently.  The pain remains.  It’s a reminder that divorce, even in the most justifiable circumstances, leaves deep scars.  Best we not pick at them.

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Faced with Divorce, I Just Don’t Know the Right Words

Comfort comes in many forms. Some as simple as a kind word spoken in an awkward moment.

A few weeks ago I attended a memorial service for my first Father in Law. He was a man of great influence over many, having raised a family of ten children plus a nephew. I observed how awkward it seemed for some people to approach the family.

It reminded me of times when I had lost a loved one or someone in my family faced a life-threatening illness. I would hear about people who wanted to reach out to me, but were afraid they didn’t know “the right thing to say.” Here’s an empowering revelation: there is no “right thing to say.” There are no magic words, profound insights or proven platitudes (including Scripture) that will make the pain or fear go away.

This is especially true in situations of divorce or family difficulty. Emotions and thoughts bounce off the walls. Confusion reigns. Intense feelings amplify everything. The best approach is to simply show up. Say things like “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” “l have no idea what to say or do, but darn it, I’ll walk with you through this time!” We are not called to provide marriage advice, extensive Bible readings or share similar pain and suffering from our own background. We simply need to meet our friends and loved ones right where they are — in the middle of their pain.

Is there a risk of doing something that will make things worse? Yes! Doing or saying nothing is the real risky behavior. The big risk is that if you stay away, your absence will speak much louder than any words you choose — “right” or “wrong.” Your absence can be interpreted as rejection, judgment or lack of caring. Those who have experienced a loss, whether through death, divorce or something else, are keenly sensitive to feelings of abandonment.

Those of us who profess that we love and trust God to do the heavy lifting in our lives and the lives of others, need to practice what we preach by resisting the temptation to preach! The message of God’s love can come through loud and clear in a hug, a kind word, a supportive note. Your empathy for another’s pain is not an endorsement. It is simply a living-in-the-flesh demonstration of God’s never ending love, not matter where we are in life. Allow your friend in pain to lead the discussion. When they want to talk, when they want to hear your story, when they want to go deeper, they will let you know.

Do not be afraid to love. As long as you don’t say something cruel or judgmental, your words will be fine. And if you do say something that you worry was not appropriate – check-in with your friend and apologize. They will appreciate your care.

Just remember that the simple act of a phone call, a visit or bringing brownies, flowers or a nice bottle of wine also demonstrates your care.

 

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It’s not about YOU! Really!

Like buildings, sometimes relationships fall apart. Sometimes from neglect. Sometimes from the forces of nature. Sometime from a combination of both.

Mary springs the news, “I think Phil and I are getting a divorce.” When you hear something like that where does your mind go? Is it to Phil and Mary, or is it to any number of thoughts that are all about you (or in this case me)?  Here’s a peek into my thought life: “Oh no, there go the Friday night Pinochle games!” “Crap, I have no idea what to say to her!” “What Bible verse can I use to get her to change her mind?” This is only the beginning. As time goes on, don’t be surprised if you get further caught up in the “me” trap. “If I keep hanging around Mary, will I be seen as supporting divorce? If I reach out to Phil to comfort him, will I be seen as disloyal?” “Will the church think I’m soft on divorce if I keep these two as friends?” “Will my marriage be at risk if my spouse sees how easy it is to get a divorce?”

These lines of thinking are only natural, and in many cases fueled by our need for emotional self-preservation. But natural or not, this kind of thinking can lead us down a path we do not want to follow. If we want to remain effective friends to our brothers and sisters going through tough times, we need to remember that their marriage challenges or their divorce is not about us. Sure it impacts us – we can feel a significant loss, pain or fear – but ultimately, the two people experiencing the relationship trouble are the ones in need of support.

Also, remember the family members who have been  drawn into the crisis. Can you offer help by coming along side the children? Can you be the voice of calm and reason with extended family, church community or friends?

Let’s keep the focus on their pain. Not ours. Let’s minister to their confusion. Let’s be the hands and feel delivering not only good news, but real help and assurance.

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