Tag Archives: Divorce

Hope Needs a Description

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”
Zechariah 8:4-5 (NIV)

There are certain stretches of the life journey when, as U2 sang, “You’re stuck in a moment, and you can’t get out of it.” There are times when everything seems to crash in around you and if feels as if nothing will ever be right with the world again.

As I look back this morning, it’s the period of time around the divorce that stands out as one of those stuck moments. It was certainly not how I envisioned things to go, and a circumstance in which I never thought I’d find myself. There was the shame that I, myself, felt. There was the condemnation of others telling me I was going to hell. There was a constant reminder that everything was out of sorts. There were days when I was so discouraged that I couldn’t see beyond it.

I’ve been journeying through the writings of the prophet Zechariah. His visions coincided with a time when the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. No one had been living in the rubble of the city. Everyone settled in nearby towns. Now, a remnant of exiles wants to return and rebuild. I can only imagine the discouragement of standing in front of the rubble heap and thinking, “How is this ever going to be a city again?”

In today’s chapter, Zechariah channels a stream of messages that God gave him for that remnant of exiles. What was fascinating to me was that it wasn’t just a pithy “Buck up, little campers. You can do it!” God gave specific word pictures of safety, security, and prosperity. He helped the exiles picture it in their heads: the old people sitting in front of their homes watching neighborhood children playing tag. He described times of plenty and times of peace.

It reminded me of particular friends who, during those dark days during the divorce, spoke to me specific things I had to look forward to. It wasn’t just a simple, It’s going to get better, but a “Tom, someday this is all going to be a distant memory. You’re going to walk alongside a brother who is going through it, and you’re going to be able to encourage him in his time of need.”

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that sometimes hope needs a description.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
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Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.

The Unexpected Prophecy

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3 (NIV)

During the 2008 presidential election, both John McCain and Barack Obama were interviewed at a leadership conference. Both men, in turn, were asked a fascinating question. The candidates were asked to speak about their greatest failure. True to his masterful ability, I recall that Obama spoke for a few minutes in response. His answer articulately wove a beautiful tapestry of words in that graceful, assuring baritone voice. And, I have no recollection whatsoever of his answer.

Asked the same question, John McCain’s answer was immediate and simple: “The failure of my first marriage.”

I will never forget a conversation I had with a wise counselor as I was navigating the failure of my first marriage. My life was strewn in shattered pieces around me. It was the lowest point of my life, and I had been scheduled to speak with this spiritual sage. To be honest, I expected to hear more of the condemnation I felt like I was receiving on all sides. I expected a message of judgment. I expected a righteous tongue lashing and words of dire warning. What I didn’t expect was a prophecy.

Someday,” the counselor said, “you are going to be called upon to walk along side someone who is going through exactly what you are experiencing in this moment, to guide them, and comfort them, and see them through their pain.” That is all that I remember from my hour with him.

It was an Easter Sunday morning several years later that I was walking out of the annual celebration service and spied a man who I had desired to befriend for some time. Seizing the moment, I pulled the acquaintance aside from the crowd and expressed that I would enjoy getting together with him and get to know him better. I’ll never forget the puzzled way he looked at me for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he leaned in and whispered in my ear a direct answer with the succinct clarity of John McCain: “Tom, my wife left me. Nobody knows it.”

I had the privilege of becoming a friend of that acquaintance, and walking alongside him as he traversed the same agonizing path of marital failure. I got to guide him, comfort him, and see him through that valley. I was privileged to witness, over time, God’s redemption in his story.

Along life’s journey I’ve experienced that suffering produces a common, repetitive question: “Why?”

Sometimes there  is no answer to that question, and I won’t pretend that there always is. Yet, I’ve also experienced in my own suffering that there is often purpose in my pain, just as I’ve read time-and-time again in my chapter-a-day journey. Consider these three similar messages from three different authors writing to three different audiences:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-3

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7

In the midst of my greatest failure, and in the deepest valley I have thus far traversed in my journey, I unexpectedly learned a valuable lesson through the words of a prophet. Sometimes my suffering, and the spiritual comfort I come to find, in Christ, amidst the agony, prepares me to someday comfort another who is making their way through the same dark valley.

The Mess of Relationships

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)

My friend Matthew is a marriage and family therapist here in our small Iowa town. This is a great little community founded in 1847 by a Dutch pastor and his devout group of Jesus’ followers. After 170 years our community retains a strong culture of Christian values, and I would daresay that a majority of our town’s citizens would claim to be believers. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed over the years that my friend Matthew never ceases to be booked solid with clients. My quiet observation is that even among those who sincerely seek to follow Jesus, relationships are a never-ending challenge.

Today’s chapter reads like a modified bullet list from Dear Abby as Paul advises those who are married, those who are single wishing to be married, those who are widowed, those who are separated from their spouses, and those who are married to unbelievers. He weaves in and out of stating what he knows from Jewish laws and tradition, and what he believes in his own opinion as the first century believers struggle to determine what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in a rapidly developing faith tradition. Based on what he has already established earlier in his letter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of Jesus’ followers from diverse cultural traditions living in what is primarily a pagan Greek town in the first century Roman Empire. Most of what the Corinthian believers knew of Jesus’ words and teaching was transmitted orally by the Apostles. It is likely that none of the Gospels had even been written when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.

I’m an amateur student of history, I’ve come to accept that every generation of believers in every culture have struggled with all of these relational and marital issues. Courtship, sex before marriage, marriage, sex within marriage, infidelity, separation, divorce, widowhood, sex outside of marriage and remarriage have always been challenging issues. They have always spurred intense debate and emotional turmoil for individuals, families, churches, communities, and nations. I believe they always will this side of eternity.

As I read through today’s chapter and couldn’t help thinking of real people I know in very real and very unique life situations. It spurs questions of “Yeah, but what about….” God’s Message through Paul provides a general  guide for believers, but it certainly isn’t  exhaustive and it doesn’t come close to addressing countless specific situations. Being a divorced and remarried follower of Jesus, I have grappled with my very own relational struggles and failures. I have received (both solicited and unsolicited) diverse opinions from other sincere believers ranging from grace and forgiveness to judgment and condemnation. [sigh] Life gets messy on this earthly journey.

This morning I find myself grappling with my own past. I have continuously journeyed through and studied the Bible for almost 40 years. I have sought to increasingly live as a sincere believer of Jesus, though I regularly fall short. The failure of my first marriage and all the personal shortcomings that led to it are right up there at the top of my failure list.  Yet, there are a few things Holy Spirit continually whispers to my soul when my shame rolls in like the tide:

  • First, nowhere in God’s Message does the failure of a marriage exclude a person from God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.
  • Second, God has a long track record of redeeming and using broken people with personal failings for His good purposes.

The good news for my friend Matthew and his colleagues is that they will have job security as long as imperfect human beings date, get married, and seek to successfully live together in this fallen world.

Kingdom Economics 101: Paying it Forward

All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (MSG)

I’ve always loved the movie Pay it Forward. It’s a bittersweet story, but the reality of life is bittersweet. Along our life journeys we all slog through deep valleys and we all have our mountain top moments. The story of Pay it Forward is predicated on the notion of people simply going out of their way to perform a random act of kindness for others, asking only that the recipient of their kindness “Pay it forward.” The whole idea is beautifully void of organization, legalism, regulation, or institutional systemization. It is organic and relational and personal and spiritual.

One of the deepest valleys of my own life journey was the period of time that I was going through the end of my first marriage and subsequent divorce. I’ll never forget meeting with a wise counselor, who also has a prophetic gift. I remember meeting with him expecting condemnation and judgment, as I’d experienced a generous dose of both during that time. This wise counselor, however, extended grace and kindness I didn’t expect.

He acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and then said, “Some day, you are going to walk along the side of another who will find themselves walking this same path. You will help them, and give them comfort.” In other words, “You will take what wisdom and comfort you experienced while traversing this valley, and you will pay it forward.”

I have been able to pay it forward more than once. In the Kingdom of God, paying it forward is Kingdom Economics 101. It’s how God operates and it underlies all of Jesus’ teaching. He gave to me so that I might give to others. He laid down for me so that I might lay down my life for others. He comforts us so that we might pay it forward.

That’s exactly what Paul is getting at with the followers of Jesus in the ancient city of Corinth in this morning’s chapter:

He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

This morning I’m thinking simply about how I might pay it forward today. I realized long ago, but need continuous reminders, that being focused on myself and my momentary difficulties blinds me to the many opportunities I have to show random acts of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness each day. I have to stop looking inward (at my I-phone, I-pad, I-mac, and I-everything) and looking around at others if I truly and consistently want to pay it forward.

The Messiness of Family

The Josephites—Manasseh and Ephraim—received their inheritance.
Joshua 16:4 (NRSV)

Family is messy.

We all have ideals of a nuclear family that remains in-tact and everyone gets along in peace and loving-harmony through the generations. The reality is that few of us are blessed to experience anything near idyllic. It is true that our society today has experienced more and more fracturing and blending of families. I have a divorce decree in the file cabinet next to my desk as a testament to that reality. That does not, however, mean that family was less messy in an age when social, religious and cultural constraint held families locked together in tenuous unions.

As I have dug into my family history I have discovered that the messiness that results from our human flaws and frailties is universal through the generations. Underneath the stoic glares in the black and white photographs of our forebears, our family histories are rife with illegitimate children, children born out-of-wedlock, couples who hurt one another body and soul, parents who marred their children emotionally and spiritually, and a host of other injuries we flawed human beings foist upon one another out of a diverse host of motivations. It used to be that these things were buried, covered over, ignored, and only hinted at in whispered conversations. Most of them are forgotten and lost with history. It doesn’t change the fact that family is messy.

Under the stoic, ancient legal text of today’s chapter we find a reminder of the messiness of family. The 12 tribes of Israel were sons born from four different mothers. Two of the mothers were sisters, and the other two mothers were their handmaidens. Talk about messy, blended family.  The ten elder sons of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) hated their young half-brother, Joseph.  They were jealous of their father’s love and favoritism (Favoritism? More messiness!) for the baby of the family. So they threw him in the bottom of a well, sold him into slavery and then told their father that he was dead. Joseph ends up in Egypt where he rises from slavery into power and is used by God, many years later, to save his birth family from famine (and inspire a Broadway musical that would resurrect Donny Osmond’s career). Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim, as his own. They are grafted into the family and given Joseph’s portion of the family inheritance.

Today’s chapter is the fulfillment of Joseph’s sons receiving their share of the family inheritance. Under the legal property description of todays chapter is a family history of deceit, polygamy, jealousy, sibling rivalry, favoritism, violence, and disregard for human life. It is also, however, a story that is ultimately about divine providence, purpose, reconciliation, forgiveness, and redemption.

Today I am reminded of the messiness of family and the misery we so often inflict on those to whom we are closest on this earth. I am equally reminded that God is a master story-teller who seeks to weave the broken threads of family together with His themes of purpose, reconciliation, forgiveness, and hope. For those willing to seek Him, there is redemption to be found in the messiest of families.

Choices and Ripple Effects

The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.
Judges 1:21 (NRSV)

Going through a divorce was not a pleasant experience. I continue to learn a number of deep life lessons, both tragic and redemptive, through the process. I have observed that divorce often gets considered and treated as an event and a label. I was divorced in 2005. I am divorced. Yet, the event is a climactic moment in a long story, and the label is merely an adjective which reveals nothing of the context.

Though I now look back on the divorce event from a waypoint further along life’s journey, I continue to observe the ripple effects of  that event in my life and the lives of my children. That’s life. Divorce is an easy example, but I have learned along life’s journey that we all make life choices which will produce generational ripple effects and consequences, both tragic and redemptive.

Tucked in today’s chapter is such an event. The tribe of Benjamin conquered the city of Jerusalem during the conquest of Canaan, and rather than driving out the Jebusite inhabitants they chose to co-habitate the city. That decision would have ripple effects throughout history which we continue to feel today.

Fast forward a couple hundred years or so and you find David making the city of Jerusalem the capital of Israel. David, who had spent years in the wilderness leading a band of multi-cultural renegades (including Jebusites), found in Jerusalem a politically and culturally diverse population stuck between the northern and southern factions of Israel. He had been uniquely prepared to lead and succeed from that position. Jerusalem, to this day, remains a global hotspot of racial, political and religious diversity.

Today I am thinking about ripple effects of life choices. We live in a fallen world in which seemingly innocuous choices made, even with the best of intentions, can lead to tragic events. I have also, however, found God to be the master of redemption, creating life-giving results from deathly circumstance. I cannot control the ripple effect of my choices, only the choices themselves. This day, and each day of my journey, my job is to continue to pursue peace, joy, and love – and to choose life.

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