We enter into a world full of broken people and shattered storiesAm I my brother’s keeper? Who is my neighbor and who can I ignore? Can’t I just send the crowds away with their insatiable appetite and needs? Or ignore the foreigner on my doorstep who cries out for her daughter? Who can I, in my mental and physical fatigue, exclude so I don’t see? Where can I go to escape the cries of creation that fill my ears? In the highest heaven they ascend to God rending the creator’s heart And they echo from the walls of the endless abyss creating a hell of brokenness I don’t want to see, I don’t want to care, I want to block it out To plug my ears, cover my eyes, harden my heart and distract my mind To hear no evil, see no evil and to feel no compulsion to speak back to evil To wall my broken heart away behind immense walls of cold stone Some safe shelter where I can isolate myself from the needs of the world To buy in to the promise of despair, that in giving up hope I can save myself That the promises of the kingdom of God are not worth the birth pangs of creation And that by pulling away and shutting out the world that the pain may simply cease From a young child I was taught to hide the feelings, the emotions, the pain That to be a man was to be like some distant unloving picture of a god Who was unaffected and unattached to the world around him Whose heart did not break, but rather this deistic god was unmoved And to live a life in that stoic god’s image was not to feel, not to love For in feeling there was fault and in love there was weakness And to be weak was to fail and to fail was to be worthless It was a god that seemed to demand nothing and to give nothing But its sacrifice was the very marrow of life, it sucked dry the bones Exchanging the risk of love for the a hollow security of disconnection For in love there is joy and pain, in losing there is loss and gain And I could never exchange the fleshy heart in my breast for a stone one Yet, from a young child I was taught to hide the feelings, the emotions, the pain As a man I began to realize the pain and cries of a loving God Foolish enough to love the world, to cry for its hurts, to enter its rejection A God of crazy dreams of new creation that emerges out of the brokenness Where shattered shields and broken spears become the instruments of harvest time Where even in the midst of death, life can emerge from an unending well of love That the world in all its broken people and shattered stories can be taken in That it can be loved, not because it is loveable but because that is what the softhearted do And that perhaps, in a company of bumbling fools who dare to hope and dream Who put aside the false promise of despair and have the courage to love God’s beloved That perhaps in those moments where stones slowly removed change mountains We see the hope that the creation has long been waiting for The instruments of God’s work being those who can take up the sensitivity of a child To see the world as it is and to dare to believe that it can be better And that the discomfort I feel is not weakness, but the strength of a soft heart A heart not content to be locked behind walls of stone separate from the world But rather that sees the evil, hears the evil and dares to speak and name the evil And perhaps to do my small part in the struggle, for the dream of a better world A world of compassion and justice and joy and love, the world that could be To dream and speak that world into being one small act of love at a time A world where hearts of stone are replaced by soft fleshy hearts That dare to love, the courage to hope and the audacity to dream Of a time where tears are wiped away, where pains are healed And we can enter into a world of healed people and mended lives Neil White, 2014
This is the final reflection on this at this point in my journey.
7. The Place of Ritual and the Value of a Worshipping Community- I know that many people have had bad experiences in churches, synagogues and places of worship after a divorce, which is sad but a very real experience of many people-but not every place is like that. For myself, as a pastor I found myself in a new community, where I knew the pastor as one of my colleagues and I showed up with my kids each Sunday and as much as I could be I was anonymous. I did have a few people ask where their mother was in an inquiring and not an accusing way (to which I answered that she had chosen not to be there) and since I was still at the process of trying to save the marriage initially and later going through the divorce I didn’t want to close any doors, but I needed a place to just be. I knew that when I needed I could talk to the pastor as a friend and as a person who knew more of what was happening but mostly I just needed to be around the rituals and around a worshipping community. I needed someone else to sing when there were no songs coming out of my heavy heart. I needed something that was familiar and known in the midst of all the changes. I needed to be reminded that in the bigger picture that I mattered. I needed to hear about forgiveness, that I was valued, that I mattered. I needed to be in a place where I could begin my journey of healing.
8. The Gift of Limitations-For years in my life I would always find a way to dig a little deeper, to draw on some reserve of physical, spiritual or emotional strength and continue to do whatever needed done. In my relationship with my ex, in my work or school, in my life failure was never an option. The time leading up to the divorce pushed me for the first time in my life beyond the breaking point, where I reached a point where my spiritual and emotional strength were exhausted and depression began to sap even my physical strength. At the time, nothing about this seemed like a gift but it forced me to begin to pay attention to my own body and mind for the first time. To accept that my energy had limitations, that I needed to take breaks and pay attention, that there were times that I would need to say no to a commitment because I simply was not in a state of mind to deal with things. I began to listen more closely, to recapture some of the parts of myself that had been lost in pushing so hard for so many years. I began to recommit to listening and paying attention which eventually turned into poetry and writing, and I made space to listen to stories, to read, to listen to music and to make time for myself and not feel guilty about it. In accepting my own limitations I was able to find strengths that I had long forgotten about.
9. Seeing Myself as Worthy of Being Loved Again-I never imagined how deeply the rejection I felt from my ex-wife would reach into my sense of self-worth, but it challenged the core of my identity. I had always been pretty confident, in at least decent physical shape, considered myself fairly attractive and charismatic, emotionally resilient, intelligent and I had done a lot of things in my life that I was pretty proud of. The things that happened in this time caused me to question all of this, through both words and actions everything that I was felt rejected. I felt ugly, emotionally flat, I questioned whether anyone would find me interesting, I wondered whether everything I had done in the past was merely me managing to get through rather than really achieving anything. I wondered what type of future I might have in relationships, I was also wondering what I would do as far as work. Everything seemed in a period of months to have gone away and I really began to wonder who I was. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, and it probably didn’t happen all at once, but slowly I began to see that I really was pleased with the way I had lived my life, that I genuinely was happy with who I was. That I was worthy of being loved again, that I was still creative and intelligent (and in fact the experiences had opened up new avenues of creativity) and that I was OK with who I was. Not that every moment and every day I remembered this, there were occasional dark times and still are every once in a while, but the emotional resilience did return and that I was able to see myself as worthy of being loved again.
10. The Process of Forgiveness and Reconciliation– Until you’ve really been hurt you don’t understand how difficult forgiveness and reconciliation really are. Even when you have made the choice to forgive there will be times where past actions are reenacted in your mind and you need to let go of them to move forward. It was a journey from the point where I had made the initial decision to forgive my ex (while we were still married) and work towards reconciliation and the possibility of a new beginning, to realizing that the reconciliation which occurred (which involved the divorce which I didn’t want) was much different than what I hoped for, to continually having to commit to trying not to allow things that happened in the past to determine the relationship going forward. It was a journey and not a one-time decision, and yet it was a journey that ultimately led me towards healing.
In the midst of the many challenges and lessons I have changed and grown. It took time and I have been able to walk with several others through their own journeys through broken relationships and divorces. It was not a skill I was seeking or an experience I wanted but you can learn to find the gift in even the most challenging of times.
This is my final installment on this for the time being. There are certainly more things I have learned but for now this is enough to say.
8. Familial Image of God, this comes more from the experience of being a father in general, rather than the father of my son in particular, but being a father made me realize the amount of personal investment I have in my own son—and that would not be something I would be able to walk away from, nor would my son be able to end his relationship to me as his father. Aren will always, no matter what he does throughout his life, have a place in my heart and nothing will change that. There is nothing he could do that would make me disown him. So long as I live I will not give up on him. I will always attempt to support him as best I can. On the other hand, he is his own person and I want him to grow up and continue to develop his own personality and identity. I want him to have the ability to follow his own dreams and make his own mistakes. I want him to have the freedom to fail, to stumble and to get back up and I think that is part of what the concept of grace is all about. Who he is as my son will never change, he will always be that, but who he is as a person I want him to determine on his own, and I will be his biggest cheerleader throughout that process but I will not force him to follow in my footsteps. The more I encounter God, the more I think there is something to this picture of God as a Father who is not uninvolved, but who is gracious. A God who wants us to find our own identity, but we also never lose our identity as children of God. I try to as best I can to be the type of father who models the way Martin Luther talks about God the Father who want us to come to him as loving children come to a loving father.
9. Dealing with the dark side of reality. I have been accused of being the eternal optimist, that even in the darkest experiences of life (which I have had my share of) I still seek for the gift in the suffering, the lesson in the pain and I know this does not come immediately, yet my son wrestles with the self destructive and environmentally destructive nature of humanity with a very different lens. One of the most profound conversations I have had with my sons a couple times over the last year is , “With all the evil that people do, what right do we have to exist?” No otherworldly vision of Christianity has an answer to this, yet the faith of the early Christians was very worldly, and they took very serious the reality that God indeed loved the world, and in strong contrast to many modern Christian belief systems the entire purpose of life was not to escape the world (actually that was the worldview of one of the early Christian heresies called Gnosticism) but rather that as followers of Christ (or more generally God) they were caught up in the dream of God for the renewal and reconciliation of the world. Both the Jewish people and early Christians had the audacious view that they were a part of God’s plan for the renewal of creation, this is the reason Paul can write in Romans that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” The dark side of reality is present, real and painful and yet part of the Christian hope is that it is not the final answer and in hope we yearn (and work) for something better.
10. The reality that even when we are unable to receive love, love is still given. I think most parents have times throughout their childrens’ lives where they have trouble connecting, where the advice, care, support and love are not able to be accepted because the children themselves are in a process of growing up and becoming their own selves. My son in his own way is navigating the early teenage years where his journey is different than mine was, and yet there is definitely a change. He no longer needs or honestly wants the same level of attention, he is becoming more self sufficient and I am proud of him for that. Are there times I grieve the type of relationship we had earlier, yes, but I try to let him know that he is loved and valued but there are times where he doesn’t seem to want to hear this anymore. I think many of us go through this in our relationship with others and with God as well. I think many, and I certainly did, go through a phase where we have to figure out who we are as individuals, and individuals trying to negotiate different and new relationships and sometimes (at least for a time) the old relationships get put to the side and the ones that are valued are come back to. I also have had several points in my own journey with God where I have had to argue something through, I’ve gone through several difficult things in my life that I had to make sense of, and part of making sense of that was arguing with God about it for me. In those times when I may have been arguing with God and may not have always wanted to hear what God had to say, when I may have wanted to push God away I found God waiting patiently through the process.
Jeremiah 4: 1-4
If you return, O Israel, says the LORD,
if you return to me,
if you remove your abominations from my presence,
and do not waver,
2 and if you swear, “As the LORD lives!”
in truth, in justice, and in uprightness,
then nations shall be blessed by him,
and by him they shall boast.
3 For thus says the LORD to the people of Judah
and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
Break up your fallow ground,
and do not sow among thorns.
4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD,
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
and burn with no one to quench it,
because of the evil of your doings.
One of the gifts of having been through a divorce that I did not want or seek, that I did everything in my power to prevent is being able to resonate with the emotions of the God portrayed in Jeremiah. A God who is wrestling with a feeling of absolute betrayal, and yet still has deep feelings for the beloved one. The desire is there to start again, to do everything within their power to rebuild the relationship. Everything, that is, except force the other party to remain within the relationship with them. Yet if the relationship is to be reconciled it requires faithfulness and it requires the ending of the affairs that created the separation in the first place.
I am writing this during the season of lent (often there is a significant lag between when I write something and when I publish it as is here apparent), preparing for Holy week, and one of the traditional services for Good Friday includes a long series of solemn reproaches that I think capture some of the emotion of this part of Jeremiah:
O my people, O my church, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me.
I led you out of slavery into freedom,
And delivered you through the waters of rebirth,
But you have prepared a cross for your Savior….
O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?
I struck down your enemies, but you struck my head with a reed;
I gave you peace, but you draw the sword in my name,
And you have prepared a cross for your Savior
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leaders Edition, 639ff)
Even against the wisdom of Torah (the law) God still yearns for the relationship with his covenant people, and if it can be resumed it will have to be in a new type of relationship. God is not like King Ahasuerus in Esther who is bound by royal decrees and laws, no God is more like Joseph in Matthew’s gospel, portraying a different kind of righteousness. A legalistic understanding of righteousness or a punitive understanding would say here is the rule, the law that was broken and here is the punishment that this infraction dictates. Every action has a consequence, every offence has a punishment and reconciliation rests in the hands of the one who offended. But I use the example of Joseph, because he was a righteous man as Matthew tells the story, but rather than look for justice when he learns of Mary’s pregnancy he looks for mercy. In Jeremiah and in the New Testament we find a God for whom relationships are more important than rules, who desires and works for the return of the departed even while they are still turned away. Who desires nothing more than to resume the relationship as it was meant to be.
Perhaps God is naïve in the nature of relationships among humans, perhaps God is an idealistic fool—or perhaps God loves and that love is greater than the wound that the brokenness has caused.