hope after.

So I finalized a divorce last year.  It didn’t make the cover of any magazine and when the summary judgement arrived in the mail it was to no fanfare.  In fact, I thought I would have to make an appearance in court but the county I live in doesn’t require it if all the facts are agreed upon between plaintiff and defendant.  I couldn’t afford a lawyer so I did everything I could by myself which, by the way, is quite the learning curve.  I should at least be a paralegal by now.

It’s been almost a year and a half since she gave me the news.  In the beginning, my heart was ground zero.  I would gather myself at the barricades to watch from out-of-body the wrecked remains of what once was.  Daily and nightly I laid flowers at the feet of memories.  I tried to piece them together to form some of type of narrative that might preserve happily-ever-after or a temporary sanity but to no avail.  As hours turned to days which turned to weeks and months, it was time and not a story that assuaged my broken heart.

For me, the devastation of separation and divorce wasn’t in loss of property or even mutual relationships, although I mourn such things.  It wasn’t even in the cultural stigma associated with being a pastor on staff at a church and having a failed marriage, although I fully explored the contours of such stigma.  For me, the devastation of separation and divorce were incarnated in a funeral that couldn’t quite happen.  There was no one or nothing to say with definitive finality, “good-bye”.  Normalcy was like a teasing desert mirage and my thirst for catharsis, or at least answers, went unquenched.

A lot of blogs, books and people mean well.  They say marriage is hard and you have to work at it and by God it is and by God you do.

But divorce…

Was I the drunk driver or was I in oncoming traffic?  How did this mess occur…I’m trying to piece it together now but it’s fuzzy.  Was I the victim or the perpetrator or was I…both?  I’ve spent the last year and a half investigating myself, trying to separate fact from fiction.

Being left, separated from someone I’ve known for so long forced a despairing or rather, a flattening.  My ideas of God, commitment, happiness, community, eternity, objectivity were no longer safe.  In the subsequent months of separation I chose to pursue and know only that which I could touch, taste and feel.  Despite making choices that my religious traditions had taught against, I still prayed that grace would find me somewhere in the margins and the sleepless nights.

Time has mercifully passed and what I’ve emerged into these days is far less a forced optimism based on [fill-in-the-blank] circumstances or cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Rather and in contrast to optimism, I find myself in a decently sized hope.  A hope that my value as a person is so intrinsic, so expected by the universe that negotiating my worth doesn’t depend on a full social schedule or esteemed vocation.

There is hope after because I look up and Orion’s belt still hangs in the midnight sky.  There is hope after as I look around and name those encamped but imperfect guardian angels like Tracey, Rachel, Blake and Jonathan.  I look down and there is my adoring black lab, Lacey who looks back up after 7 long, crazy years…a sneaky gray creeping down both our beards now.

I recently heard someone say “write to let people know they’re not alone”, so here is to that glorious merit.  The answers to God, commitment, happiness, community, eternity, objectivity remain elusive but not impenetrable.  Such things reveal themselves in the consistent, undeserved graces of others and the long drives to nowhere.  You are not alone.  If you are on the precipice of divorce, in the midst of separation or just even haunted by some deep anxiety, you are not alone.

There are so many subsequent facets of the human condition that I have discovered via my own anxieties but are nowhere near new to life or those around and before me.  So here then I offer the words of Christian Wiman from ‘My Bright Abyss‘, musing his poetic theology from a cancer-stricken body to offer me solace and conclusion:

“What you must realize , what you must come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all.  The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all.  The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seems to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself out like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out.  Wisdom is accepting the truth of this.  Courage is persisting with life in spite of it.  And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.”

In this I remind myself once again, that there is hope before, hope during and hope after.

the waiting room.

The young man sits and waits, with anxious thoughts and sweaty palms.  He was here last week and the routine is the same.  Come in, sit down, grab a magazine and watch the faces of people coming and going.

Very few make eye contact.  Nobody really wants to be recognized.  Anonymity is a strange solace.  The illusion of control has been shattered and we have all surrendered to the mercy of complete strangers.

Last week was hard.  The counselor probed into some sensitive areas.  It didn’t feel fair to experience such forced vulnerability.  Exposure of the soul always led to this same choice.  Tense muscles, clenched fists, gritted teeth, anger or the pain of honesty.

More than pride is at stake.  Marriages are on the line.  Some are in this waiting room because they put themselves in it.  Others are in this waiting room because they love that person who did.  For all, the question remains, “Why do I have to be here?”

The young man dreads the waiting room.  Just once, he would like to leave this place without crying.  For once he would like to avoid some painful memory or relive a poor choice.  Why do all his choices have to be held under a microscope? Haven’t we all made mistakes?

He looks over to the person sitting in the chair next to his and remembers why he’s here.

His tears will never match the number of hers.  His pain will always pale in comparison.  Self-inflicted wounds have a tinge of justice…a quasi-karma is attached.  Her wounds are just unfair.

How many times and in how many ways can an apology take shape?  The balm of confession is most effective in solidarity.  You just keep doing and saying what it takes until peace breaks through.  The broken ways are made whole again through time and trust.

The waiting room.  They’ve both been here before.

His name is called and he looks up.  Standing there is a very masculine man with a voice like thunder.  He just asks one question, “Are you ready?”  A deep breath is drawn in like a diver before piercing cold water.  It’s into the office and away from the crowd.  No more anonymity.

It’s time.  The young man says, “Yes, I’m ready” and steps into his office one more time…

the space between love and obedience.

September 12, 1922.  The day wedding vows were rewritten.

Over time, even something as traditional as the marriage covenant has to evolve.  The section on matrimony in The Book of Common Prayer from 1662 has the classic line ” to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part…”  This book has been just about as influential on the English language as the King James Bible or the works of Shakespeare.  It has also influenced generations of newlyweds.

However, on Sept. 12, 1922 the Episcopal church voted to remove the words “to obey” from the marriage vows.  Why did they do that?  Most likely to align with a more modern view of women’s roles in the family and society at large.  Perhaps even with the hope of establishing more egalitarian principles between a husband and wife.

Regardless of the Episcopal motivation, this divorce of love and obedience in the marriage covenant does have some legitimate implications.  My point here isn’t to argue whether the word “obey” should or shouldn’t be included.  Instead, my point is to imagine if we were to truly dichotomize love and obedience.

What would we have?  Obedience without love is but religion and love without obedience are but empty words and promises.  If I confess to love someone then I am binding myself to them and therefore obeying a moral and ethical obligation to them.  The fact is that love and obedience cannot be separated.

Love for God, however, isn’t the rote memorization and strict adherence to a static list of commandments.  Love for God is dynamic, breathing and perhaps even dangerous.  Just like renewing marriage vows, we should continuously say “How can I love, honor and obey my Father?”  I have the suspicion that if you were to ask the Lord how you can obey, He would answer in a clear voice.

On the one hand there is space between love and obedience.  It’s a false space we create to hide in and hope that our religiosity will keep us comfortable.

On the other hand, there isn’t space between love and obedience.  Kind of like the space that’s eliminated when we covenant with someone in marriage.  There is no more ‘private’ when two become one.  In the context of marriage vows, maybe obedience was never about the submission of one gender to the other but more so about simply offering ourselves to the other.

My hope in believing all this is both simple yet audacious.  It’s to fearlessly obey the Father because He fearlessly loves me.  My hope is that our obedience both begins with and is perfected by His love.  My hope is to diminish the space between love and obedience, until the two are synonymous.

One thing hasn’t changed.  The wedding vows in the Book of Common Prayer still say “…till death us do part.”

Now to obey the one who’s defeated death itself…that’s something else entirely.

if i’ve ever known mercy.

I had gone four months without a paycheck and my pride was no longer calling the shots. I was in a position where I couldn’t blame the economy, the president or fate. In the words of Led Zeppelin, it was “nobody’s fault but mine.” I had lost my job because of selfish, poor choices but at this point, more than my job was on the line…my marriage was at stake.

In the not too distant past, in what feels like another life, I betrayed the trust of many people, most importantly so the trust of my wife. Honestly, I don’t expect ever getting over the infinite ache of hurting my best friend like that. Somewhere between the borders of anxiety and regret, guilt had possessed both my piety andIf pride.

In rebuilding our lives, I just wanted a job that brought a sense of esteem and purpose but that would not be for some time. Thankfully, God had plans for my heart long before He had plans for my wallet.

I landed two interviews, one at Caribou Coffee and the other at Target. Caribou never called back, but Target did and I landed a position working in their backroom, pulling and stocking merchandise. I vividly remember leaving the drug test place, driving back to my brother’s house where we were staying at the time and being overcome with emotion.

I wept for the rest of the ride as I realized that I was starting over, literally earning a little more than minimum wage.  I was crying from my self-pity as reality shook me out of the disillusionment I had been trapped in.  I pulled into the driveway as the song, “Take My Hand and Walk” by The Kry played on the radio.  It felt like concrete gripped my hands and feet…I didn’t want to go inside.

Amy was anxiously waiting for me at the top of the stairs interested in our financial future.  The pain of my previous decisions were still fresh and she was very sensitive still to my every word and action.  I walked up the steps, looked at her and could barely get the words out through my tears…”I got the job.”  Now here is where my wife is the most amazing, phenomenal woman to grace this broken life.  Here is where I, as a man, humbled, shattered, bruised from self-inflicted wounds and having wounded her deserved nothing.  But this was her gift…she reached out, embracing me deeply, leaned into me and whispered, “I’m proud of you.”

If ever in my life I have known mercy, it was here in this moment.  Two years later, this gift of mercy remains the greatest tool of leadership she has employed in our marriage.

A quick Google search on ‘leadership tools’ is a recipe for information overload.  The very word ‘tool’, in the context of leadership, can hint at Machiavellian power struggles, just another manipulative accessory for climbing a ladder.  I would hesitate to use this utilitarian word, ‘tool’, if it wasn’t for its perfect definition – something (as an instrument or apparatus) used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession.  Even for more abstract enterprises, like “leadership” or “marriage”, there is a gamut of tools for success.

From psychology to technology you will find top 10 “tools” proclaimed everywhere in this digital frontier.  Things like vision, mission, personality type, coaching, empowering, social platform, etc.  These are all fine and can serve leaders well whether sacred or secular.  However, the ‘tool’ I am espousing, when employed faithfully, can keep you out of the rat race or the Machiavellian camp and settled peacefully in the, ummm…Jesus camp.

From this story, you probably already know the ‘tool’ I’m espousing is mercy.  What better way to shun manipulative tendencies than to surrender one’s pride and offer something far less lucrative like mercy?  What better way to laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry than through the lens of mercy?

Finally, and most importantly, what better way to use mercy as a tool for leadership than to remember a time where you were granted mercy yourself.  If I’m anything at all today, as a leader or as a husband, it’s because I was given the unmerited mercy, grace and favor of my Savior and my wife.

May you too one day know the triumph of mercy over judgement.