Unless you air your laundry, divorce in the church is as isolating as a child’s temper tantrum during the Sunday morning service.
When my husband of 27 years suddenly and unexpectedly left, it was weeks before my large-church-pastors noticed I was missing from Sunday morning services. And even weeks more before someone called to check in.
I can’t blame them. I didn’t reach out. I was busy. I was inhaling and exhaling, managing shame, scrounging for hope, paying bills, and depositing what little emotional reserves I had to care for my devastated daughters, reeling family members, and befuddled friends. I was too busy facing the disappointment of opening my eyes in the morning, realizing that God hadn’t granted my nightly plea to take me in my sleep because I didn’t know how to live this way.
There were so many things I didn’t know about how to go through an unexpected divorce. There is no YouTube video, no manual, no to-do list for how to do it well. Yet, the one thing I did learn is that you won’t get a casserole from church when you’re in the middle of burying a marriage.
I realized this after the fact. A year after my husband left and before the divorce was final, my dear church friend lost her husband to a sudden heart attack.
Here is the thing I learned when Joe died that I hadn’t even thought about when my husband dropped off the face of the earth. There are dozens of casseroles in the church freezer.
When Joe died, the church stepped up big for Sue. She had meals for months while she figured out how to manage the house and budget by herself. She had lawn boys, free electricians, and pro bono mechanics when her cars broke down. She received hundreds of cards from church friends – we watched them overflow her mailbox. Women came to clean her house. Strangers did her laundry and folded her towels. And not one person asked what she could have done differently to avoid Joe’s death or suggested that things would get better because some new man would snatch her up in a second.
I am so glad. I love her and am grateful for each person who stepped in to meet her in her grief and need. One time, she gave me an extra casserole because her freezer was full. It was really tasty and I ate it for days after we wryly talked together about the differences in our experiences of the death of a marriage. We both acknowledged the casserole rules. The church didn’t give divorce casseroles – except for the one she gave me.
The very next summer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I learned that you do get casseroles for breast cancer. Elders visit, people pray, your name gets mentioned from the pulpit. People call, email, and send cards. They rake your leaves.
I was grateful, although a bit bewildered. During those six months of diagnosis, surgery, and radiation treatments, I never once prayed for God to take me during the night, I never cried myself to sleep over breast cancer, never imagined what I did wrong to be so unworthy. There was no shame. Each morning, I was happy to open my eyes. Sometimes, I even longed for the phone and doorbell to stop ringing. I got free yard work for weeks. And, I got lots and lots of casseroles.
To be clear, this isn’t about a church, it’s about the Church. My church tried in the best way they knew how. I don’t blame them for any inconsistencies. I had never noticed them before either.
We can’t know our blind spots by seeing them, we must feel them.
It’s complicated, isn’t it? As people of faith, we are very good at meeting people in times of death and illness. There are no judgments around these things, and we do not need discernment about who was in the wrong. We don’t have to wonder about whether one’s grief is deserving of a casserole. The rules about other human conditions are not so clear. Casseroles for the death of a marriage? For a mental breakdown? For rehab? How can we know whose fault it is? We all learned that God’s favor falls on those who follow God’s good rules. Maybe then, it’s just best if we offer a sympathetic side-eye and let the chips fall. There are rules, after all.
Or maybe the rules are just misunderstood. Maybe, loving our neighbor is a rule that means need is need, and grief is grief, and a casserole is the love of God made real for all who suffer- no matter the cause. Maybe.
Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of every-day life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.