2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[a] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:2-12 (NRSV)
I have been married for 27 years. A lot of people gasp when I say that because I don’t look like I’m old enough to be married for that long (okay…I think I look old enough but everyone else says I don’t because they don’t know what I looked like ten years ago or how I have resting bitch face that makes me look every minute of my 51 years when I’m not smiling or talking.) Anyway…I have been married for a really long time. Long enough that I have been married longer than I was single before I was married…by several years now. I got married about two months before my 24th birthday, and I thought I was so mature and adult and ready to be married. I realized a few months ago that my oldest daughter will turn 24 in January, and were she to choose my exact same path she would be getting married this November. My stomach turns when I think of that, and suddenly I am not so sure that I was very adult or ready for marriage at the time I got married, but I suppose that the proof is in the pudding. We’ve been married a long time and so…it works for me!
Being married a long time makes me think about marriage a little differently than other people do. Lots of people have been married unsuccessfully. They have had to divorce. They know what’s it like to dream of forever and then have to let go of those dreams, have to let go of the person they thought they would spend the rest of their life loving. I can’t imagine what that feels like. I can’t imagine the sense of loss, the sense of failure, of being ripped off, of losing the dream. I can’t imagine how unfair it must seem. I only know that I have never, in all 27 years of marriage, had to put up with some of the crap my friends and colleagues have had to endure prior to their divorces.
I have never had my dreams or my goals demeaned by the person I love the most. I have never had my body judged, or my sexual attractiveness rejected by the person I vowed to spend my life with. I have never experienced what it is like to have my closest friend reject me, or how it feels to be lied to and cheated on. I have no clue what this is like.
I guess I have to say that I got the winning lottery ticket when it comes to marriage.
We were married for about 8 years when I revealed to my husband that God was calling me into ordained ministry. Many people, at that moment, are rejected by their spouse. Lots of people hear the words “I didn’t sign up for that!” when they reveal their call. Instead, my husband turned to me with a huge smile on his face and asked “Are you going to be a youth minister or the regular kind?” He was visibly excited about the idea and filled with joy. He and I had already taught a senior high Sunday School class together and had gotten deeply involved in our student’s lives. We had spent a great deal of time at church and away from church with these kids, and my husband seemed to love every single minute. He was as committed as I was to the Church, and so my declaration of “call” was received with great joy. It’s still the same way now.
My husband willingly committed his saving and his retirement to my seminary education, and when I revealed that God wanted me to spend more years in graduate school so that I could become a licensed counselor and have a ministry in the mental health field, my husband rejoiced that he would never have to move to Ajo, Arizona (**1) and he subsequently forked over another $30,000 to my graduate education, bringing our grand total to $80,000 spent to make me ridiculously over-educated and bi-vocational.
I’m telling you all this to demonstrate the extreme levels of commitment that marriage can demand. Only my husband can tell you what the payoff has been for his devotion and willingness to put his money on the line to answer God’s call to me…although I’d like to think that he realizes what a critical part he played in God’s will for us as a couple, and how we are blessed because he chose to obey God without question or hesitation. Not that spending eight (8!!!) years in graduate school wasn’t a sacrifice on my part, but really, what complaints could I possibly have? Seminary is harder than you can possibly imagine and possibly the most difficult graduate education available (see the story below **2) but honestly, following God’s call was a joy for me. I got all the benefit, and my husband got the bills.
Why am I telling you this?
Because the lectionary Gospel reading for this week is one of those passages that make me cringe. Why is God so hard on people who need to divorce?
There are a lot of things I could cite to explain this passage: the way that women were treated in Israeli society at that time in history; the way that divorced women often ended up working as prostitutes because they had no other way to earn their living (the alternative was to be destitute and on the street); the way that women lived in fear that they would displease their husband and be dismissed (and divorced) for the smallest infraction. There are tons of cultural and historical reasons why Jesus would have reinforced the prohibition against divorce when asked about it by the Pharisees.
But my guess is that God doesn’t favor divorce because God never divorces us. No matter how difficult we get, no matter how sinful, or unfaithful, or mean, cruel, and unloving we become, God never divorces us.
If you ask someone whose marriage ended in divorce, they will tell you how painful it is, how incredibly agonizing it is to lose the dream of forever that they had built with their partner. They had dreamed a dream of the future together, and they had fallen in love with each other and with their dream. Later on they fell out of love with each other, but in losing each other they lost their future. They lost the dream—and losing that dream is more painful than you can understand until you’ve lost a dream of your own. For a couple that divorces, the future they had crafted together goes black. It dies, and in the midst of the pain of their divorce they have to craft a new future for themselves; one that features them alone, facing each difficulty without a partner to soften the blow and help them carry the load. Sometimes I think they mourn the death of that dream more than they mourn losing their partner, because by the time they decide for divorce they usually don’t want to live with their partner anymore…but they can’t imagine life without a future and the vision of their shared future is no longer valid.
I think that divorce distresses God, not because it’s some sort of sin, but because it makes it hard for us to believe in a love that lasts forever, the kind of love that God has for us. It makes it hard for us to believe in a love that continues despite all difficulties and trials, that stands the test of time and actually endures for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death do you part. This is a very solemn vow, one that sends shivers up my spine when I speak it while officiating at a wedding because it is so very holy to me.
I know what it’s like to live into this vow, what it is like to have a spouse that lives into this vow, and it is the most grounding thing I know. I wake up every morning in the glow of my husband’s love, even if that glow is expressed with squinty eyes, morning breath, and his customary morning grunts that I’m supposed to be able to interpret. (He’s not incredibly talkative when he first wakes up.) I go sleep in the glow of that love every night, as we settle into another night of reading until we fall asleep and occasionally sharing passages of our books with one another as we toot out what’s left of dinner’s gas. We have endured all sorts of things together: moving to Arizona (we didn’t have family here), career changes for both of us, graduate school for both of us, raising two girls, dealing with a drug addicted child, dealing with a severely ill child, losing both of his parents, my brother’s mental illness, and my parent’s advancing age and physical decline. I don’t know that I could have done it without him, and I don’t think he would have wanted to face all that we’ve faced without me there at his side. The best part of all of it is having someone that knows me better than anyone else in the world…and knowing that person loves me despite all my crap, all my failures, and all my obnoxious weirdness. He does get to celebrate the good parts with me as well. He even encouraged me to set aside a day to write so that I could share this blog with you…mostly because he knew that God and several of my friends were encouraging me to write more. I really do have the best man in the world. Sorry about that…I snapped him up as soon as I found him because he was (and still is) so very amazing.
Perhaps that’s why God votes so much for marriage to last. I got lots of unconditional love and acceptance from my parents, but I literally am a part of them. I came out of my mother’s body and am formed from their DNA…I couldn’t be more like them if I tried. On the other hand, my husband CHOOSE me, just like I choose him. My parents didn’t get a choice…they got pregnant, and there I was! My husband fell in love with me as I am: incredibly flawed, crazy, difficult me. And he has stayed with me for more than 27 years, dealing with my particular ways of being, both good and bad, that entire time. If anything gives testimony to the unconditional love of God, to the grace and forgiveness that God has for us…it’s successful marriage. Unlike the experience we have with our children, there is no DNA, no Oxytocin, no genetic material to make us love our partner. Staying in love is a choice, remaining in the marriage when you’re sick and tired of all the crap is a choice, forgiving is a choice, choosing to do the things that make your partner happy is a choice, honoring their contribution to the marriage is a choice, valuing what they bring to the table is a choice…all these things and many more that contribute to the joy of marriage are choices.
God knows this, and it’s important for us to remember that God chooses US—and there is no DNA, no genetic material, no 9 months of gestation, no Oxytocin to encourage this choice…God chooses us simply and only because God chooses US. It’s that simple. God chooses us because God loves us and isn’t interested in not loving us, ever, no matter what we do. So maybe this passage about divorce is about God wanting us to find out what it is like to choose love…not to have love choose us, but to choose love and choose to stay in love…so that we can understand just how serious and committed God is to us.
It’s kind of hard to believe in love that will choose you and keep choosing you if you’ve never had anyone who made that choice and just kept making it over and over again. Marriage turns out to be one of those amazing ways that life imitates God so that we can understand who God is and how much God loves us.
If you have been through the pain of divorce and my words are making you ache, remember that God loves you more than you can ever imagine or understand. I pray that one day you find someone who will make that love as real as possible for you so you can find out just how beloved you are and come to believe that nothing you can ever do will change that truth.
If you are already married to the love of your life, do everything you can to be the unconditional love and grace of God to that person so that they can know just how incredibly precious they are, and so that you can know it in return.
May God bless the union of each and every person who commits to loving for better and for worse until death do you part. This is your solemn vow, and it is truly holy. Amen.
**1 The United Methodist Church practices something called “itinerancy”, a practice that means that ministers are moved from church to church at the will and request of our Bishop. This practice means that any given appointment to a church is only guaranteed for a single year, and that every April and May we wait for a call from the Bishop that asks us to pack up and move to a new town and a new church. Only the Elders of the UMC are required to be itinerant, because only the Elders are charged with the administration and leadership of the church. Deacons in the UMC have specialized ministries (like the one I have in mental health counseling) and we are not required to be itinerant. On the other hand, we are not guaranteed an appointment to a church (like Elders) and therefore we are not guaranteed to have a paying job each and every year. Deacons find our own employment and are subject to layoffs and reduction-in-force issues just like everyone else who has a job in the secular world. It’s a trade-off, but it allows United Methodist ministers to respond to the unique call of God and to enter into whatever ministry God calls them to do, no matter where God calls them to be. It allows the UMC to be flexible and responsive to the needs of God’s children everywhere, at all times.
**2 I was a computer programmer for eleven years before I answered my call into ministry. My last year as a programmer was spent as a contractor for Compuware, a large consulting firm that bought out the tiny, locally owned consulting firm I was working for in 1996. I remember meeting with my new manager for the first time; he was taking the team of consultants that were placed at “Large Credit Card Firm That I Refuse to Advertise” out to lunch. I had just started seminary and had realized just how heavy the workload would be; I was really concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up. During our lunch, I informed my manager that I had just started graduate school and was going to want a reduced workweek during weeks that I had papers due or midterm/final exams—perhaps only 30 hours. My manager laughed and said “Oh for God’s sake, graduate school isn’t that hard! Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. Now…if you want hard, try seminary. THAT’S HARD. My brother went to seminary and my God, the amount of work that he had was ridiculous. I have never seen anyone work that hard. Trust me, you’re not going to have any problem in graduate school.” Then my new manager asked me what I was studying. I told him that I was going to seminary. He laughed and said “Very funny. Seriously, what are you studying?” I told him that I was going to Claremont School of Theology to get a Master’s in Divinity so that I could become a Methodist minister. He immediately looked at my team lead with a very stern look on his face and said “She needs to only work 30 hours in any week that she has a paper or a test. Immediately! Do you understand?” Honestly, I had to work hard not to burst out laughing. I appreciated his help, but he looked like I told him I was studying to cure cancer.