Last Sunday, at my wonderful Methodist church, the scripture reading was one with which I had almost physically wrestled, on the floor, on my knees, in tears, for years and years. It was one with which I had been bludgeoned repeatedly by other Christians, certain they knew what the right thing was for me and how easily they would have done it were they in my shoes.
It was the passage in Matthew in which the Pharisees ask Jesus one of their “gotcha” questions, a scene repeated throughout the gospels. They were the spiritual rockstars of their day, they knew their scripture, and they were gonna impale this radical upstart on a biblical petard. They asked him about divorce–didn’t the law say a man could divorce his wife for any reason? I think some of the context might be missing–they ask it in a way that presumes Jesus had previously said something to the contrary. I’m not a biblical expert so I’m not sure if that’s elsewhere in Matthew or to what they might have been referring.
Jesus replies that, yes, the law does allow for that, but actually marriage had more meaning than just a certificate and shouldn’t be ended lightly. He describes marriage as a divine bond that only God could separate. He goes on to say that if a man divorced his wife for any reason other than infidelity and remarries he commits adultery. Which everyone agreed wasn’t legal.
Always tough stuff, and from Jesus himself, for someone who left her first husband, who had no record of infidelity. Just because I didn’t love him and had failed to do so after almost 8 years of diligent effort. Just because I was miserable. Just because I routinely felt violated. Just because I couldn’t do it anymore.
I sighed, but really no big deal, I had heard this sermon many times before. I was at peace with God, and the sermon would cause me no real distress. Almost 20 years of a happy marriage and two kids later, it all seemed kind of irrelevant, even to the people in my life who condemned me at the time. The only difference this Sunday was that my kids now know my story and halfway pay attention in church. My daughter gave me a concerned look. My son looked at me and said, “Woah, Mom.” Yep, I know, bud. We’ll talk about it later.
But when the pastor got up, it didn’t go like I expected. This was the first time I had encountered this scripture in the context of our current church, a more liberal one theologically. Our church believes the Bible is a sacred text and a divine revelation. But our church also believes the Bible requires careful and humble interpretation that accounts for history, science, human discovery, and experience. Those things are revelations, too. Our church believes God and the Gospel are bigger than the Bible.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he said. “I struggle with this scripture. I don’t know what to say about this scripture. My wife is divorced, and she struggles with this scripture. I’ve seen it used to hurt people. So I’m not going to preach on it today. I’m going to preach on how God is sovereign, and we are not God.”
My kids looked at me with wide, relieved eyes. They weren’t going to see their mother endure public humiliation. Well, not today anyway. I looked back at them with the same amount of surprise. What just happened? A pastor who didn’t have all the answers? Who passed up a chance to single out the big-time sinners for extra special condemnation (that is apparently THE MOST FUN for many evangelicals)? A DIVORCE-ADJACENT PASTOR? What kind of Disneyland Harry Potter church is this?
After I got over my shock, my eyes filled with tears. Yes, I thought, I can do this. I can stay on this walk of faith. I have found a community with which to walk. I can raise my kids here.
Later, I talked to my kids about the scripture myself. I explained that a life of faith was more complicated than just following a paint-by-numbers plan. That the Bible was a lot more complicated, and that context matters. I told them Jesus was responding to the spiritual know-it-alls of his day and trying to make a larger point, as he did in many other places–that morality was deeper and bigger than rules, that there was heart in the matter. Also, that, given what marriage was at the time–a patriarchal economic arrangement in which women had no rights–Jesus was a feminist. He was telling men it wasn’t moral to throw their wives away like trash, leaving them helpless and without a livelihood, just because they were technically allowed to do it. Women mattered. Relationships mattered. Marriage was more than just an economic arrangement. All of these ideas were revolutionary at the time.
I explained to them that my decision to get a divorce was made in a completely foreign environment to that ancient, biblical one. Today’s view of marriage, based on a melding of hearts and minds between equals, was much closer to a divine view of marriage, but also harder to achieve. That was always Jesus’s view of morality–it was harder and less tangible and more inscrutable than the words on the page. You walk by faith, not by sight. You in fact can’t help but fail. That was his bigger point. That was always his point. And when you do fail, God’s grace is there to pick you back up. As it had been for me. As it had been for Pastor Jeff’s wife. And as it would be for them when they found themselves in failure.
OK, so what I said to them was way less eloquent than what I just wrote. I write for adults 1000% better than I speak to kids. Something about how they look at you skeptically and interrupt you with random thoughts about poop. What I said to them actually completely sucked, and if they took anything away from it, it will be a miracle.
But I loved the opportunity to walk them through a hard moral decision and how you use the Bible and how you don’t. And I loved how the pastor handled it. They saw real faith modeled by a real person. They learned it’s not about having all the answers. It’s OK to live in the questions.
I have no idea what kind of faith they will end up with, if any at all. It’s mostly out of my hands. But I know what kind of faith I want them to see as an option. And that was it, right there.
Thank you, Pastor Jeff, and Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church. You’re a balm for the soul every time and a beacon of grace.