Church Hurt: The Story
Since sometime in 2016 I’ve written vaguely—and sometimes less vaguely—about a church hurt our family experienced in 2015 that ultimately led to us leaving the very church upon which we had been building community for our family. I found myself just this summer considering things slightly deeper and more clearly than I have in a couple of years, and I wanted to write it down. Perhaps in years to come I’ll be able to go even deeper, and this essay will serve as a memorial guidepost on my journey of understanding and acceptance.
You’ll want to make it to the end, dear reader, because I had a revelation from God last week that, of course, had been there all along, but one that I could only see just now. It’s just that way sometimes with God and with people. An 11-day journey can take 40 years if you’re not careful. And, while this has felt like both days and years, I can finally, faintly, smell the milk and honey waiting for me on the other side.
Cutting to the chase, G-rated version is this: Several months after our engagement, and about two years after we began attending the church, Charles and I, both divorced, approached our pastor about settling on a wedding date that would work for all of us, because it was important to us to be married in a house of God surrounded by our family and our spiritual family. Our pastor was immediately hesitant because of our prior marriages, fumbling to articulate it, and I was blindsided. We weren’t trying to get married in a Catholic church, after all, and the congregation had all congratulated us when we’d gotten engaged in the first place, so I was unprepared for this flashing stop sign in our path.
After several days (maybe a week or two?) of wrought back-and-forth, our pastor said that his boss (some regional bishop-type head but not a bishop) conveyed that he (our pastor) would have to ultimately decide if he could perform the ceremony because he knew us, and our situation, better than the boss did. I’ll give our pastor credit for not lying to us. He could have said his boss said no, but he didn’t. Instead, he told us that he couldn’t, in good conscience, marry us.
Here’s why: While Charles and I were both divorced people seeking marriage, I was the only one who was Christian at the time of my divorce. Not only was I Christian at the time of my divorce; I had left my husband. I’d been the one to end my marriage. And, not only had I left my husband, but I’d done so outside of anything the church viewed as scripturally valid reasons to break a holy covenant. Alas, I was the one who was not permitted to seek remarriage in the eyes of this church. My choices were, ostensibly, to reconcile with my ex-husband, or live single and celibate for the rest of my days. I was 30 years old with three very young children.
The crux of the hurt, as I’ve gone over it and over it in my mind over the last seven—SEVEN—years was really this: A verdict of sorts was reached that I (me, not my husband) was in willful disobedience to God. Me! Willful disobedience! These were not the words used, but I knew, and know, enough now about Scripture and the Body of Christ to know that’s what was being said. Let me be clear: I understand none of us are without sin, but there are very few times I can remember—and I remember them all clearly—where I was face-to-face with a choice and had God’s Word ringing loudly in my head and I chose wrong. I don’t abuse grace the best I can help it.
There was more at play, though, and I didn’t have the biblical literacy to spot it, and didn’t have the emotional or spiritual strength or support from anyone in the church at the time to call it out. What was happening was differing views of Scripture and a whole lot of a lack of grace and mercy. Different interpretations of a few texts (including the words of Christ himself) around divorce that have ruffled feathers in denominations for centuries. Millenia. I was not fighting a new fight. This was the same old- same old in a lot of ways.
I’ve come to understand that even when you’re not fighting a new fight, when you’re the one in battle, it sure can feel like you’re the only one in history to have ever experienced x-y-z, and it can make one feel like they’re losing their minds. I sure felt that way. For days I couldn’t eat and could barely sleep. I cried all the time. My soul was in true anguish like nothing I’d felt before. It felt worse than the divorce they were judging me over, to be honest.
Regardless, there were people in the church who were upset with the stance the church was taking, but none that really took up for me in any sort of way. Very few people would even touch us with a 10-foot pole as it was all unfolding, and to this day none have apologized for the way they treated Charles and I during that time. Not a single person. We’ve maintained some loose aquiantences from that church, and have had some conversations that were close to an apology, but the apologies haven’t ever come. And they very well might not. It was a huge deal in the church at the time, but I’m sure most of them have forgotten about it, or only remember occasionally. However, it doesn’t hold the same weight for them that it held for me and Charles.
I’m not even beating up on myself for not having the biblical literacy then that I do now. That was seven years and one whole master’s degree in divinity ago. I could fight that fight now, but I know I’d still lose. I’d unknowingly found myself in a church that doesn’t support remarriage of divorced folks except under the most slender of circumstances. I just didn’t know. Had I known, we likely would have continued being members of that church for some amount of time I suppose, and have just gotten married with a JOP, or something.
As I mentioned earlier, if we’d wandered into a Catholic church in 2013 and had made that our home, I likely never would have even approached the priest for a wedding. To be sure, there were couples in our church who were on their second marriage or who were divorced, but they were in that station before becoming members of that church, so they didn’t walk through the same valley we did. Their advice to us didn’t actually come from the same experience, so it was all taken with a grain of salt. Or two.
Speaking of salt…
To pour a pound of salt on an open, pulsing wound, an ordained member of our small group at the time said that (after knowing us intimately for two years) he felt comfortable marrying us if the church wouldn’t. Less than twenty-four hours later, by email, he rescinded his offer.
I thought I’d deleted this email, but I found it just yesterday, along with a slew of others from that period. My heart pounded as I read them, and I felt sick. My face was flushed. What surprised me most, however, was the clarity with which I’d remembered the unfolding. Nearly every detail from my memory was preserved in those emails. Clear as day. I texted a new friend who is familiar with church hurt in general and she texted back, “DELETE, DELETE, DELETE!” So, I did. Because it’s been seven years.
I’ve wandered the wilderness for the last seven years trying to silently exonerate myself for a crime I don’t believe I committed, from people who I don’t even talk to anymore, and it’s tiring. I need to set it down. I’m in right standing with God. He saw us through the whole mess and is with me today. Our marriage was granted by the Episcopal Bishop in our area and performed by our lovely priest in the church we attended from December 2015 to the fall of 2018. We’ve had a solid church home now for the last four years—twice the length of time we’d spent at the original church. We have friends, a small group, and our children are thriving in service positions and with the youth program.
As I read through this draft again, I was struck that I’d written “seven years” so many times without being conscious of it. It wasn’t just quite a long time ago, but biblically speaking, the time has come to release it. Even the word release I just used, before turning to Scripture, has deep meaning. In Deuteronomy 15, we are introduced to the Sabbatical Year, and all that must occur during it, including the cancelling of debts. Deuteronomy 15:1 in the ESV states, “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release.” The chapter goes on to explain that no one is to collect from his neighbor, brother, etc.
It gets tricker here in the application phase because I must release two debts.
The first is releasing them from what I think I’m owed. What I feel all those people owe me—an apology, a “you were right; we were wrong.” Not to over-spiritualize the “debt” sense of this, I need to mention that forgiveness is required everywhere you look in Scripture. What’s interesting is that I’ve never once prayed for any of them to apologize to me. Mostly because God isn’t a vending machine, but I spent so much time in my pain that I couldn’t even say I want them to see the light and apologize. Because, all along, that never really mattered. I only needed healing and care from God.
This is why the second—and most damning–debt I must release is of myself. I have paid a steep enough price for nursing this hurt for seven years. I’ve courted unkind thoughts and clenched betrayed teeth for too long. This won’t remove the hurt, and I suspect there will come a day when I’ll only remember that this all hurt and stop feeling it, but that day isn’t today.
Today, however, is the day of releasing. Of surrender. Of unlocking my chains and kneeling, spiritually, in front of those who caused me the pain to turn the key on their shackles in my spirit as well.
Even so, it is well with my soul.