Welcome and Wanted

TearKen Wilson, in a blog post that appeared here reminded me once again of the great importance of language in dealing with issues that at times so divisive that it threatens to break apart the Body of Christ without an Eucharistic prayer or flare.

I especially found this article helpful and hopeful for my love of the United Methodist Church because it shares such a crossroad with my own story.

Before I go any further, I want to add a caveat. I am working this out in my life…I have not arrived. I want to hear from people who disagree with me from both sides because then and only then will I find the iron and the presence of Spirit that will sharpen us all. I don’t want diatribes about my misguided “thinking” leading me on a path straight to hell. (I have a good feeling that I will delete those replies with more reluctance than relish but delete them nonetheless.)

So here goes…

Let me start with my story. At the age of twenty, my girlfriend became pregnant with our second child. (The tragic loss of our first child is another confession for another day and has little to do with this story, so I will move forward.) It was decided that the best path forward for the two of us was marriage. So, on her Senior prom day, we were married. We honeymooned in Pipestem, WV for a weekend and she went back to school and I went back to work in the convenience store industry. Our daughter, Leslie, was born a little over three months later and was welcomed and wanted in our family.

For a short time, the marriage went well. But truthfully, I was not good at communicating my needs and I was even worse at listening to my young spouse. Our marriage went downhill fast and by the time Leslie turned two, her parents were divorced.

Meanwhile, I had begun to answer a call to ministry that began sometime in my early teen years. I wondered what the cloud of an “unmarried pregnancy” and then a divorce would do to my ability to serve God’s people in the United Methodist Church as a pastor and Elder. I knew my Bible. Fornication was a sin and my child has been conceived in this very way. Divorce was also clearly a sin and the fact that I fully intended to marry again someday made that sin even worse according to plain reading of Scripture because this would mean that I and my new spouse would place ourselves in a perpetual state of committing adultery.

(As a side note, during the time I was divorced, I met up with some well meaning, extremely faith filled divorced persons who were holding onto “Covenant Marriages” with their divorced spouses. They swore off the possibility of ever marrying again and considered themselves forever married to their first spouse even when that spouse moved on and remarried. I found this whole way of thinking beyond anything that made any type of sense to me – despite my Biblical knowledge. There would be something wrong with me saying I was still married to my first wife when she married her third husband. I had a word for this – creepy.)

Eventually, I met and married Pam, the love of my life and the mother of my two other daughters as well as the very close “bonus” mom to Leslie. And I continued my theological education and my quest for ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church.

One time…one time…did this whole marital history come up in the midst of the many interviews that I went through. It was not a question about my fitness for ministry, though. It was a question about how I had dealt with the pain and healing that God’s grace had seen me through. It was a pastoral question.

I graduated from Duke Divinity School and was ordained an Elder in the United Methodist Church in 1998. I have served in that capacity without anyone filing a complaint against me for committing adultery against my first wife – despite what the Bible says. In fact, I remember the first words from the Board of Ordained ministry that approved me were “Welcome! We want you to do marvelous things with God’s grace working in you.”

I share all this because after reading the article on C. S. Lewis and his marriage noted above, it struck me that I had benefited from years of the words-can-hurt-or-heal1Church working through the language needed to deal in a pastoral way with a very difficult cultural and theological problem. Divorce was rampant in our society and yet this did not stop God from calling people like me to ministry and ordination. And yet…and yet…the church struggled enough to find the language that would work with a sinner like me – “Welcome” and “Wanted”.

Ken Wilson suggests that these words may be the way that we approach everyone who wishes to become a part of this great story that is God’s Kingdom incorporated in the structure of the Church. It could be about that person’s struggle with addiction, their gossipy nature, their tendency to destroy God’s temple with overeating, the reliance upon trusting in their own ability to provide for themselves rather than giving freely to God or it may even be about sexual identity. It most certainly could be about the divorce/remarriage problem that plagues our churches. (I hope you note that all of these things I have listed are clearly prohibited by Scripture and have as much to do with choice as anything else might have to do with choice.) We are all captured by the sin of our choices and we could all begin to work through them together with the use of two very powerful theological words:

Welcome…

Wanted…

These words do not affirm anything going on in the spiritual growth of the person, but they acknowledge that in God’s Kingdom, there is work to be done. We can welcome and want people to be a part of that story wherever they are in the story of God’s redemption and perfection of our lives. And we can live out that redemption and perfection in our own lives without having to cast out others who we think are not there yet.

Two simple words…welcome and wanted. They are words I am glad have been said to me. They are words I will gladly share with many others.

Ask Almost Anything AGAIN!! (I will never get tired of this!)

Is divorce a sin?

When I first set out to answer this question, I thought that it would be one of the “easier” ones for me to tackle.  I have been through a divorce and I believed that I had thought through the issue fairly well.  On top of that, our denomination is fairly clear on the topic with a stance that does not condone divorce yet at the same time offers hope to a person who is facing or been divorced.  It is a stance that I would say reflects my personal views as well.

“God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage.  The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages.  However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful  consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness…Divorce does not preclude a new marriage.  We
enc
couple-arguingourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.”  (Book of Discipline, electronic edition page 161)

What happened as I began to answer the question, though, was that I began to recall very vividly the “struggle” I had when I was going through my divorce.  Although no one in the church ever spoke a word of condemnation to me, I “felt” it.  Most likely what I was feeling at the time was a combination of guilt brought on by thinking I had “failed” and some misunderstandings of my own concerning Scripture.

When you read the New Testament passages that speak about divorce and especially about divorce and remarriage, it is extremely clear that both are considered sinful.  (It appears to me that there are four main passages in the Gospels that deal with the issue of divorce – Luke 16:18, Mark 10:1-12, 1 Corinthians 7:10 and Matthew 19:1-12.)  The clearest of these passages, the Matthew reference, says flat out that a divorced person who remarries is committing adultery.  At that time in my life, age 23, I could not even imagine going through life single.  And yet, when I was reading the Bible, I knew that to remarry would mean that I would be breaking one of the commandments.  I knew the United Methodist position, but just couldn’t make all the “bad feelings” about myself go away.

To me it was pretty clear, Scripture said that divorce is wrong and remarriage after divorce is sin.  Our denomination said that divorce doesn’t preclude a new marriage.  How could that be?  Wouldn’t the person who divorced and remarried be living in perpetual sin?  Wouldn’t they need to “repent” and change their way, their life and stop the sin that they are committing?

I searched the Bible for some way to say that it would be okay for me to one day remarry but I couldn’t find anything.  Yes, my divorce did meet the slim criteria set forth in Matthew for the possibility of remarriage but I didn’t want my eternal life hinging on the reasons my first marriage ended.  A lot of times – and this was certainly true in my case – infidelity in a marriage is just a symptom of something deeper being wrong.  I couldn’t trust my eternal life on how we look at what went wrong.  I needed assurance!

sign2treeIt wasn’t for some quite some time that I began to understand that my problem was in how I was reading the Bible.  I was looking for a tree – God was offering me the whole forest.  It happens each and every time we look at the Bible for some “pat answer” to what is right and what is wrong and how that affects people who follow Jesus.

Romans 13:8-10 says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  The single most important thing we do as Christians is told to us in this passage – love one another!  (Now, I know some would say, “Preacher, that’s just looking at a different ‘tree’ and basing your eternal life on it.’”  In one way I would say, “Yep.  Sure is.”  In another way, though, this passage isn’t so much a “tree” as it is a “sign” pointing us to the forest God gives us.  If you have any doubts, just read John 3:16 AND 17!)

I can tell you this much…there was no way for me to remain married and “love” my first wife.  Besides the child we gave to this world, the most loving thing we did for each other was ending our marriage!

And the way I feel about my present wife, Pam?  Well, suffice it to say that one of the greatest gifts I have ever received from God is the gift this Godly woman is to me.  After meeting Pam and getting to know what a gift she was to my life, it would have been silly for me to reject her based on the passage from Matthew.  I would have practically been denying God’s love for me not to accept the love he was sending me through Pam.  Marriage was not just an option…It was a fulfillment of the love God had for me!

So, is divorce a sin?  Yes, it most certainly is.  The question that wasn’t asked is this: “Can a divorced person remarry?”  Yes.  They most certainly can.  We would have to stand in judgment of a person for the rest of their life because ojerry-maguiref the “sin” of divorce if we deny them the right to remarry when God brings someone into their life that most certainly makes them complete – “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:6 (Not Jerry Maguire!)

I hope this answer was worth the wait…next question?  “How was there nothing in the beginning?”