Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon - "Divorce"

This morning I am stepping out on a limb to discuss a topic that I have fairly limited experience with. That’s always a precarious position to put yourself in. But I hope that we can be a congregation that goes beyond feel-good messages, to tackle some of the more complicate issues that touch our lives.
Divorce is one of those issues. It touches all of our lives. Every last one of us has been in proximity to a divorce. I know it for a fact. If not in your own life, a family member or a friend has gone through this trying time.
How many of you have had someone in your close family go through a divorce? And this is a little more difficult, how many of you have personally gone through a divorce?
We should clarify a bit. Obviously divorce refers to dissolving a legal marriage. But for gay and lesbian people, legal recognition of relationships through marriage isn’t available… yet! Obviously the separation of these same-gender households is just as complicated as divorce in the heterosexual world.
As I often do, I went to Wikipedia as I was jotting down ideas about this topic. What I found there was tons of information, statistics, legal codes, and a bit of history. Wikipedia was ready to tell me all about what divorce officially means. And that kind of information is readily available on the internet or through your attorney. But what we are more concerned about here as a faith community isn’t so much the logistics of divorce, but the multitude of issues that rest under the surface. The heart-break and hard decisions, the anger and the possibility of freedom and growth. Regardless of attorneys or legal marriage, all of these complicated factors interweave when two people who once loved each other go their separate ways.

One of the experiences that has deeply shaped my perspective on this topic was participating in a ritual to recognized the divorce of a couple in a church. It was a small congregation, and the couple that was separating both intended to continue their active involvement in the church. They also had children participating in the church. But like many, many other couples, they found that the love that had once brought them together could no longer sustain their relationship. So the members of this community came together to bear witness to the end of their relationship and honor them as separate individuals. Also the congregation took special notice of the needs of the children of the family and the additional struggle they would face.
That was many, many years ago. I don’t recall the content of the ritual and I wasn’t particularly familiar with the family to be honest. But what has stuck with me all these years was the bravery of the couple and the bravery of this community to acknowledge the pain and struggle, openly. And in the midst of that struggle they paused to honor two people for who marriage didn’t work. It was, and still is in my mind an amazing moment. It was a church community standing in solidarity to shield a family from the pervasive sense of shame that divorce so often imbues.

That is why we don’t talk about it. Yes, divorce is painful, but I think even more than that, it comes with a serious does of shame in our society. Though nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, still there is tremendous shame in it.
Of course the sneaky thing about shame is that it persists precisely because we don’t talk about something. It’s a sort of communal blackmail. The power is in the secret. That’s why I have wanted to preach on this topic for a long time. It’s also why I chose the simple one word title, “Divorce.” It is important to be able to say without euphemisms of suggestions. Divorce is a real thing that affects all of our lives, if not directly then through a friend or family member.
The shame of divorce comes through our unwillingness to talk about it, like a dirty secret. It also comes from the societal assumptions that one or both partners failed. As if the goal of being coupled forever to the same person is a panacea for human thriving. Part of our distaste for divorce is the pervasive pressure toward coupling. Is being partnered the ideal situation for every person? Is that what it takes to be happy and fulfilled? I honestly don’t think so. Certainly we all need other people we are closed to. But not everyone needs to be in a committed romantic relationship forever. Some people do better in different arrangements, and that is okay. It is okay to want something different for your life. There is no shame in that.
Shame also comes into play in an even heavier way when there are children involved. It is true that divorce is a very difficult thing for children to understand and adjust to. Believe me, finding an appropriate story for the multi-generational time this morning was not an easy task. But most of what is distressing about divorce for children is the acrimony between their parents. Yes, shifting a household is difficult, but children are much less self-centered than we give them credit for. Their concern isn’t so much about what house they will sleep in, as much as it is being in the middle of conflict.
Which makes it all the more clear. While divorce can be difficult for children, in the long run, it is much less traumatic than being raised in a conflict-ridden or unloving home. We often hear the old language about staying together for the kids. And obviously, there is serious merit to creating a healthy solid family environment for children. But what about separating for the kids? What about recognizing that two parents are fundamentally unfulfilled and unhappy. What about the fact that they could find better lives for themselves, and in turn create more stability for the children concerned if they went their separate ways?
The point is that divorce happens. It happens to lots of people, and sometimes it is really the best thing for everyone. There is nothing shameful about making a hard choice to change your life.
But, my mission here is not to justify or encourage divorce. It is a painful life-changing thing that should be avoided if possible. We all know that. Divorce is bad news, but it happens. We can accept that reality, and still know that forever is still a deeply meaningful promise between loving couples. Divorce is a painful piece of life, and we are spending a lot of time talking about it, but I want to be clear that in the face of pain and loss, there is also love and hope. The reality of divorce doesn’t make the promise of marriage any less meaningful.
As I was saying, shame is one big component of the experience. I think we can all do a bit about the shame involved by not treating this topic as such a taboo. But there are other challenges involved that I want to touch on. Divorce isn’t just about the pain of the present moment. It also signifies the loss of an anticipated future. I have done a good deal of talking with Gay and Lesbian people about the experience their parents have when they come out of the closet. One of the things that is described over and over is that the moment of coming out involves grief that is similar to a death. It’s not as if the child is suddenly dead to them. However, all the hopes and dreams that the parent had for that child, become suddenly much more uncertain. The life that had been constructed in their mind of what might one day happen, become radically different. So much so that it’s like the death of an imagined person.
Divorce functions in a similar way. The grief isn’t just for the present moment and the history shared. The grief is also about the future dreams of the relationship. Divorce means morning a loss of those dreams, a death of that imagined life.
Divorce means grieving an imagined future and it means breaking apart a household, a home. What could be a greater source of comfort than a home? Some will say it breaks apart a family. But you and I know that family comes in all sorts of shapes. The children of divorce still have a parents who love them, though they may live in different homes. Regardless of who they are or where they live, family still exists. They have family, we all have family. What they don’t have is the traditional household that once brought a sense of security and home.
Maybe I am sharing what you already know, maybe not. But it is important for us as a faith community not just to use the word divorce. It is important to talk about what it means, to talk about what brokenness means. Though it is cliché, a broken heart is a very real thing. Most of us have experienced this at least once in life. It’s not just about divorce, or even just about romantic love. It’s about having your hope broken so badly that you lose the capacity to love, or to care much about anything at all.

We are talking about divorce today, but the same principles apply for the death of a spouse and many, many other dark days of our life. As a faith community and as caring people we are called to respond to the brokenness in the world around us, and the brokenness in our own hearts. We all want to help when we see suffering in the world. We are called to respond, but how? Though we may wish for a quick fix and an immediate end to the pain, the answer is not a tube of superglue. Unfortunately the answer is more complicated than quick solutions.
From what I can tell, we are called to respond to divorce and brokenness in three different ways. The first way is by far the hardest. To be a real help, we are called to bear witness to pain. It is a very, very hard thing to do. Ironically, the closer we are with someone, the harder this task becomes, because as we hear their pain, we feel it ourselves. We take it on, and we want to stop that pain as quickly as possible. But super glue isn’t going to do the trick. If you can’t listen to the pain that is in someone’s heart, then send them to someone who can. That may be another friend, a minister, or a therapist, but someone needs to be able to listen to it. In the midst of pain, we need another human being to hear what we are saying. We need to know that our suffering has been heard before we can more on.
First we are called to bear witness to the struggles. And second, when the time comes we are called to help in the difficult journey of rebuilding trust. The only way trust is rebuilt, is through spending time with friends and family who are trustworthy. This part isn’t rocket science. It is about being a reliable person. It’s about being honest, caring, fun, reliable all the things we look for in a friend. Because, eventually a broken heart has to learn to trust other people again. That can be a very long road, but rebuilding trust is essential. It can take years to learn in our hearts what we know in our heads. The inherent worth and dignity of every person, is something we talk about often, but actually feeling it, especially after being hurt, takes work.
That’s probably the one unique piece of Unitarian Universalism that has a strong bearing on this conversation of divorce. The inherent worth and dignity of every person does not equate to compatibility in romantic relationship. There are plenty of people that I respect and honor, but it does not mean I want to share my bed, my home, or my life with them. But, remembering your ex is a human being is important, even if he or she didn’t have the tools or motivation to make your relationship work. Remembering this and verbalizing this is of supreme importance when children are involved.
So the second thing we are called to do is help rebuild trust. And the third, and final way we support oddly, is what we are inclined to do in the very beginning. Once some trust in humanity has been rebuilt, then it is time to re-imagine a future. It is time to hope for some specific life that is different from before, but still one that is exciting and motivating, hope that is built on the reality of the present moment. Eventually with time and support, those shards of broken heart, broken dreams, broken households come together into a new mosaic, a new unexpected brilliant pattern of life.
Before finishing, I want to acknowldge that the type of healing that I have described here is not easy, and it’s not quick. It’s not easy for the survivor of a divorce either. Because it requires us to wrap our minds and hearts around two separate realities, one painful, the other hopeful. I often say that this is the great task of religious community, but it’s also the work of any healing person, to hold in our hearts the brokenness of the world and a commitment to hope and wholeness. It’s no small task, but it is what we are called to do to respond to the brokenness and beauty in the world and in ourselves.