Today in church, the pastor mentioned divorce.
As he did, I felt my shoulders tense, my stomach tighten.
I crossed my arms.
“About half of all Christians who marry today will get divorced,” the pastor said in his best preacher voice, exhorting the congregation to build their lives on the right foundation.
I tried not to glance at my girlfriend who sat next to me or at her mom seated in the same row. Both knew I wore the scarlet letter of divorce. Like them, I looked stoically ahead, as if the word “divorce” hadn’t unnerved me. But it had. I wondered what the pastor would say next. My palms were sweaty, my pulse quickened.
“Everywhere we look, the family unit is crumbling,” he said.
As a divorced person, I kept waiting for the pastor to say that divorce sometimes happens—a spouse leaves, a spouse is habitually unfaithful, a spouse is abusive or that sometimes two sinful people just flat out can’t make it work or lack the maturity to do so—but he didn’t. I kept waiting for him to talk about divorce as more than a statistic, more than something that puts our society in the toilet. But he didn’t.
I wasn’t looking for him to fix me. I wasn’t looking for him to act like the Bible didn’t say hard things about divorce, or that it’s not a problem today. I just wanted him to acknowledge my pain and the pain of others like me—flawed people who love Jesus and would’ve done anything to make their marriages work.
I can’t blame pastors or churches for not knowing how to deal with people like me. It was only a year and a half ago that my wife left, and until that happened, I wouldn’t have known what to say to someone who was a “divorced Christian.” In my ignorance and arrogance, I thought such a term was an oxymoron.
Being divorced and Christian is especially difficult for someone like me who, until recently, never felt at home in any church. What follows are brief reflections on my life, my faith and my relationship with the church following my divorce from my wife, whom I’ll call Sara. I hope that my story will give you insight into the mind of a Christian twentysomething coping with divorce and the heartache that ebbs and flows in the months and, oftentimes, years that follow.
I didn’t want to wake up, but my ceiling was shaking. It was my upstairs neighbor’s stereo. I threw off my covers and walked into the kitchen, squinting. As sun poured through the windows, I felt guilty.
It was Sunday.
I should’ve made it to the 11 a.m. service, I told myself.
But what good was church, anyway? I never really liked church. Too often, people smiled when they didn’t want to, gossiped under the guise of “prayer requests” and railed against immorality while practicing their own brand of it when no one was looking. I should know—in some ways, I was once one of them.
My church did much to contradict these negative stereotypes, but I still felt disconnected, especially when I started going to church alone. The people at my church only knew me as married. The same was true for those who attended a Bible study that my wife and I had joined only six months earlier. Now it was just me.
The leader of the Bible study was in his 70s. He invented the Pop-Tart—that tasty, sugar-glazed treat you put in the toaster. Now retired, he spent his time speaking, carving and shooting squirrels with a pellet gun.
Another member, in his 40s, held a Ph.D. from Boston College. An editor by trade, he had the sensibilities of a philosopher. There were two others in the group as well—an insurance agent and a social worker.
I was the only one in my 20s, which was sometimes difficult. I was from a different generation entirely—one familiar with MTV and video games, not Woodstock or World War II. I sometimes felt isolated and strange.
I stayed with this eclectic group, though it wasn’t easy, especially when someone would ask God to “bless” my ex-wife.
I thought, “No! Don’t bless her! Why are you saying that? How stupid can you be—do you have any idea what I’m going through?”
Back at church, I felt just as vulnerable and sometimes just as angry. I felt all eyes watching me—watching me slink into my seat 10 minutes late, watching me run out of church immediately after the closing prayer.
I was always terrified that someone might ask, “Where’s your wife?”
Church felt like high school all over again. I felt like a teenager being dropped off by my parents in front of school. The cool kids—the ones with their own cars—would watch as I climbed out of my father’s minivan. In their eyes, I was a loser, a failure. I felt the same way at church. Married people would watch me walk through the glass doors—shoulders slumped, sad, alone. I was a loser again. I was divorced.
The fact that I was now divorced became especially apparent at church, where everyone wore nametags.
There was a bulletin board with everyone’s nametag, including Sara’s. I never looked for it, but I knew it was there. It was like a nagging pain that never went away, a reminder that life would never be the same.
I never had the courage to remove her nametag—that seemed too painful—so I asked a friend to do it. One day, he told me that he had thrown it away.
Unfortunately, it didn’t produce the effect I thought it would. Her presence was still in that church, looming over the sanctuary, walking through the hallways, singing in the choir. She will always be in that church. But I knew the solution wasn’t to go somewhere else. She would just follow me.
After Sara left, I did a lot of thinking about church: its purpose, its role in our lives, its shortcomings. And my conclusion could be summarized in three words: Church of Losers. That’s where I want to go to church.
Why? Because I’m tired of everyone acting like they have it all together, tired of illusions that we have perfect lives, perfect families. I’m also tired of myself, tired of my reticence to open up and bare my soul, tired of avoiding people, tired of my unwillingness to get involved in the ministry of the church.
I’m tired of the notion that I’m screwed up … “But don’t worry, we have a support group for people like you!”
But, by its very name, the Church of Losers says: Come here if you’re a loser—we’re all losers!
Everyone at my church is a mess—I’m a mess—so why can’t we admit it? Why do we spend so much time trying to convince each other that we’re not?
Why do we ask our friends to throw away painful memories?
Instead, why don’t we say: “Here’s the nametag that my wife once wore—she doesn’t go here anymore because she filed for divorce and never wants to see me again. You probably don’t understand how hard it is for me to throw this away! Please pray for me. I feel like hell. I need Jesus so badly, but I have such a hard time finding Him. Will someone here be Jesus for me today?”
I enjoy visiting cemeteries. It’s a strange hobby, I realize. It’s not something I do often, but when I’m near one, I enjoy walking around, wondering what these people’s lives were like: Who did they love? Who loved them? Did they accomplish what they hoped to accomplish in life? What were their last thoughts before they died?
I especially enjoy visiting the oldest graves. Sometimes, I’ll crouch down and read the chipped engravings.
“What year was that? What was their name?” I carefully wipe away the dirt on the engraved lettering. I think about the day the person died, wonder what the relatives said, wonder what friends whispered in quiet moments, wonder who was never the same afterward.
And I always wonder if anyone ever visits these old places. Some of the graves memorialize people who died so long ago they’ve been completely forgotten by everyone. Even the people who loved them are now dead. No one visits; no one brings flowers or flags or remembers the important dates in these people’s lives. Generations later, it’s as if they had never lived.
While I used to fear what my life would be like if Sara died before me, my perspective has changed drastically since then. If Sara died today, would I even be invited to the funeral? Even if she died, would that be the official “end” to our relationship? Our relationship seems to go on and on, no matter what I do. Our souls seem forever entangled despite the months that pass, despite the changes in our lives.
She is still a part of me, and I am part of her.
A friend of mine who has been divorced told me, “I don’t think you ever really get over it.” And we wondered why that was, why the world reacts so differently when someone physically dies. When someone dies, friends and family bring casseroles; they travel from afar to attend funeral services. They send cards, notes of encouragement, make phone calls. They join you at you the cemetery and mourn. Their very presence brings healing.
So why is it when a marriage dies, people do nothing?
When my marriage died, I was left on a ledge with little to no support. Friends and family didn’t know what to say, so often they said nothing. No one visited; no one sent cards.
But when someone dies, there is comfort for those who feel the loss. There is a tangible, physical reminder of the loss. There is a body. There is a tombstone. There are ashes, rituals, prayers, community. It’s obvious that I will never get these things; it’s obvious I will never be given the same comfort that widows receive.
But what about community? What about the group of people who sat at my wedding—the people who agreed to support my marriage? Where are they now? I still see their faces, smiling and laughing. I see them with glasses of champagne. I see them handing me wrapped gifts—pots and pans, pillows, other things that are now shoved to the back of cupboards and closets. Things that I would gladly trade for a hug or a phone call. Today, these wedding guests are only a memory.
And so I am relegated to the old parts of cemeteries—the parts no one remembers, the parts no one cares about. The parts no one visits, the parts no one acknowledges.
Perhaps I might feel more peace—more finality—if there was a gravestone marking the death of my relationship with Sara. But all there is to mark the end of our marriage are sad memories. There is nothing tangible, nothing that I can kneel by and mourn over.
What if I created a gravestone? What if I really did it? What would it say?
Maybe this: “Here, in this place, we put to rest our pain, our sadness, our happiness, our love; we mark it as dead. Here in this place, we kneel and cry. Here we have a monument to our relationship. And that is all that we have.”
So here we are. Most of you—perhaps all of you—have never been divorced. Some of you don’t have any close friends or family members who have been divorced. If you’re in either of these categories, consider yourself blessed.
You’ve read about my story and experiences, and you want to know what to do. While the biggest things seem simple and obvious—treat people with love, respect and understanding—they might not be as easy as they seem.
In addition to the simple rule of love, the following are practical things to remember as a church leader:
1. Be vulnerable: Emphasize that all of us—including you—are damaged goods. We all fall seriously short. Being a Jesus follower means being honest about our shortcomings and our need for grace. Here’s an example: During a particularly difficult time, I was encouraged by the vulnerability of a pastor friend who said, “You feel like you suck? You do. We all do. I really suck. I wish I could say that I haven’t struggled with some of the same things you’re describing, but I have. But guess what? God’s not done with me, and He’s not done with you either.”
2. Get them out of the house: After my divorce, I needed people around me, people to love me and treat me like family. Don’t assume that the recently divorced person has a network of friends and family rallying around them. Pursue them. Take them to dinner. Invite them to sporting events. Do things with them that get them out of the house. It was important for me to feel normal again, and thanks to the love and initiative of several friends, I eventually did.
3. Don’t try to fix the situation, just be available: Presence is a powerful thing—much more powerful than a quick fix or trite axioms. Allow the divorced person plenty of room to be angry, ask questions and doubt God. Often, your continued presence in someone’s life will speak louder than any pep talk or five-point sermon. And your presence will not only give the divorced person the courage to open up and share, but it will give you the right to provide counsel.
4. Don’t assume that the answer is a “divorce recovery workshop”: There is power in community, especially with people who have walked the same road. However, don’t assume that a “divorce program”—however well-intentioned or beneficial—is the answer for everyone. Some people, including me, feel marginalized by these communities. We sense an unintentional attitude that says, “The messed-up people in the church are in these recovery groups, and the really healthy people aren’t.” Even for those who find solace in divorce groups, don’t forget that the work of the church isn’t done. The divorced person still needs to be embraced by the larger church community.
5. When you preach, remember those who are hurting: I once heard it said that the pastor who preaches to the hurting will never want for a congregation. Remember that divorce is not just a series of cold statistics but a life-changing event that has affected almost everyone in your congregation, either directly or indirectly. For most, the wounds of divorce take many years to heal, and your sensitivity to this in your preaching will be appreciated by those who know a broken marriage firsthand.
A Surprise Ending
I wish I could end this discussion on a more positive note, but I’m not sure I can because graveyards—whether they are physical graveyards or emotional graveyards—are places where things end—dead places. However, graveyards were never the end for Jesus.
One day, Jesus cried after learning that a friend had died. Filled with emotion, Jesus walked to the graveyard and, standing in front of the tomb, said, “Come out,” and the dead man came out. And the greatest graveyard miracle of all happened three days after officials proclaimed Jesus dead, when His followers found His tomb empty. They soon learned that Jesus had begun His new life—His eternal life.
As sad as graveyards seem, sometimes they’re not the end; sometimes they’re the beginning of something.
So as I bury my marriage, what will Jesus do? Can something be reborn in this dead place? To be honest, I am so cynical and sad that I wonder if such a miracle is possible. What will come out of my personal graveyard?
Hopefully something that looks less like me and more like Jesus.
Hopefully something that resembles a miracle.
Cameron Conant is the author of With or Without You (Relevant). He was married four years.