On Marriage, Church, and Sticking Around When Things Get Hard

My church has been doing an online study of Rachel Held Evans’s new book Searching for Sunday51kfcTilCOL, with a different parishioner writing each week on a section of the book. This is my contribution, on the section titled “Marriage.” If you want to read reflections on the other sections, go to my church blog here

I regularly watch syndicated episodes of the television comedy “The Middle” while I fix dinner or pack the kids’ lunches. The Middle’s plot lines, featuring Mike and Frankie Heck and their three kids, deftly capture the disarray, sweetness, absurdity, and rewards of suburban family life.

In one episode, wife and mom Frankie stops suddenly in the midst of a typical chaotic moment, and walks out the door. Frankie drives to her mother’s house, where she stays for several days, desperate for a break from her family’s constant demands and ingratitude. Her husband and kids, left behind and begging Frankie to return, struggle to meet their daily obligations without the one who, however imperfectly, keeps their family going day after day.

Watching this episode, I turned to my own husband and said, “Yeah, I’ve fantasized about doing that.” He laughed. I wasn’t joking.

I have now and then felt so worn out and so put upon, so tired of the never-ending parade of needs that make me feel like I’m being pecked to death by a brood of persistent chickens, that I want to just walk out the door without a word, get in my car, and go somewhere. Anywhere.  Anywhere except the house in which I’m constantly surrounded by people and things needing my attention. Now.

Sustaining committed, intimate relationships—even with people we love, people we’ve chosen to be with—is hard. Hard enough that sometimes we want to run away. This is true of family life, and it’s true of church life.

In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans explores how the sacraments, including marriage, illuminate our church life. Marriage and church are both intimate and communal, demanding and nourishing, ordinary and transformative.

“Marriage,” Evans writes, “like a meal of bread and wine, is just one more ordinary, everyday circumstance God transforms into an avenue through which to enter our lives.” Marriage and church have so much in common that in the New Testament, marriage becomes a powerful symbol of the sacrificial relationship between Christ and the church (see for example Ephesians 5:28-32).

I’m convinced that one factor in Daniel’s and my happy 18-year marriage is that we were friends for several years before we started dating. We knew each other really well, our exasperating quirks and deep wounds included. The down side of this clear-eyed beginning was that we missed out on those heart-pounding, giddy days early in a relationship when one’s beloved is surrounded by a glow of perfection. The up side is that we never had a rude awakening, when the glow fades and you realize that you’ve signed up to spend the rest of your life with someone who will disappoint you and hurt you and gross you out, pretty much every day. Our years of friendship, during which we each had our hearts demolished by others, meant that when we started dating, we already understood how far we were from one another’s vision of the perfect mate.

Both marriage and church remind us how far from perfect we are, and that Jesus called not the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17). For some inexplicable reason, God has put the fate of the world in the hands of the royally messed up. The ways in which we are messed up become particularly clear in the context of long-term, committed relationships, including marriage and church membership.

“Sometimes I think the biggest challenge in talking about the church,” Evans writes, “is telling ourselves the truth about it—acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marveling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ.”

If telling the truth about our flaws and scars—and believing that God equips us to build something good and worthy in spite of them—is one challenge, choosing to stay committed to other flawed, scarred people day after day, year after year, is another.

Sometimes the challenge is to stay in the aftermath of serious hurts and major betrayals—the extramarital affair, the pastor accused of sexual harassment. More often, the challenge is to stay when things have become dull and predictable and exhausting—when the kids are whining for dinner, your husband forgot to stop on the way home to pick up milk, and the dog just threw up—again; when the church budget is perpetually strained and volunteers burned out.

But it’s in staying that we get the greatest benefits of committed relationships. We are carried through our hardest moments, and carry others through theirs. We are forgiven for mistakes big and small, and learn to forgive others. We see firsthand how a ragtag group of quirky people can change the world, how communities and households built on a foundation of grace become refuges for the hurting and the lost, ourselves included.

This is not to say that staying is always the right decision. Marriages and churches can be poisoned by outright abuse or more subtle dysfunction. Sometimes leaving, not staying, becomes the ordinary circumstance that God transforms into a means of grace.

In her new memoir Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture, and Christ, Catholic writer Heather King writes about her ultimate decision to divorce her husband: “Love dictates for yourself and the other, depending on the circumstances, that you must stay or you must leave, no matter what the cost: financially, socially, emotionally, psychologically, and no matter what your friends or the world think.” For King, treating marriage as a sacrament means making the decision to stay or go with integrity—making her yes mean yes and her no mean no (Matthew 5:37)—and accepting the costs of whatever decision she would make.

I’ve never left a marriage, but I’ve left a church, after working really hard to try to stay. I was no longer getting the spiritual sustenance I needed, and I was no longer giving my best self to the community. In leaving, I disappointed people, myself included. I felt guilty. But I was no use to God or anyone else if I was continually grumpy, stretched too thin, and unconvinced that this was a place where our family could thrive. We came to St. James’s six years ago believing that this community would nurture our family’s faith in a way our former church didn’t. It does, but it’s not perfect, and neither am I.  My flaws color my church experience—my tendency to say “yes” to too many things and then get burned out, my impatience with processes that move more slowly than I’d like, my self-righteous judgments of priorities that don’t line up with my own. If I struggle sometimes to stick with my family and my church in those moments that I want to turn on my heel and walk away, my family and my church no doubt struggle sometimes to put up with me.

Rachel Held Evans writes about a feature of Orthodox Christian marriage ceremonies, in which the husband and wife are each given a crown to wear. “The crowns represent the reality,” Evans explains, “that every family is like a little kingdom, and that little kingdom can represent the kingdom of Jesus—where the first is last and the last is first, where the poor and the sick are welcomed in, where the peacemakers and the merciful find a home, where humility and self-sacrifice reign.”

In those moments at home when I’m beset by noise and mess, on those Sunday mornings when church is just another calendar notation adding to my fatigue, considering marriages and churches as “little kingdoms” representing Christ seems preposterous. But in the biblical narrative, God chooses the most unlikely people—the childless Abram and Sarai, the philandering King David, the young and frightened Mary, the bumbling Peter—to do his work. Remarkably, inexplicably, God chooses us, our exasperating families and our blundering churches, “to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, to point in its direction.”

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.