The Backstory: “God hates divorce” and therefore my dad?

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My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

Sorry about leaving y’all hanging after that last post. I had to write a paper. Mission accomplished, so back to our regularly scheduled biography….

So. Apparently my mom is the only person I know who practiced “missionary dating” and it turned out ok.  She started dating my dad with the hopes that he would become a Christian. And he did. And they decided to get married.  He bought her a lovely diamond & ruby engagement ring. They were in church for every service (if he wasn’t working).  He became a voracious student of the Bible, attending Bible conference services (which were a common occurrence for their church), went to Sunday School, started singing in the choir with her.  (She was an alto; he was a tenor.)

So how could things go wrong?

It’s hard for me to explain independent fundamental churches. If you grew up in that world. you will understand.  If you didn’t, then I don’t really know how to explain it.  I’m not interested in detouring into a long explanation. I’ll just try to explain what happened and leave the analysis for another day.

Their church was run by a pastor & some deacons. The pastor, an older Rev. H., kept it old school.  His face is a distant memory in my mind — he retired from the pulpit by the time I went to kindergarten. So I can’t tell you if he was a good pastor or preacher. I just know that it was hard for me to sit through long sermons and be quiet, but my mom knew all the tricks for helping a kid learn to self-entertain.  Three words: paper, crayons, patience.

Like many conservative pastors of his generation, Rev H. took the verses about divorce really seriously ….and without any of the nuance appropriate to reading the whole counsel of Scripture rather than proof-texting it.

So as far as I can tell, while he never really opposed my parents’ dating, he absolutely refused to marry them when they asked.  Why? Because mom was a divorcee, and that meant she could never remarry …. because “marrying a woman who is divorced is committing adultery.”

My parents were stunned.  Mom had been very happily involved in her church for years — the church became a haven for her in the difficult years of single parenthood. She taught Sunday School (4th-6th grade boys) for years, did VBS crafts, sang in choir, participated in ministry.

My dad had become someone welcome in that assembly, as well.  But they were welcome only as long as they dated?

So… they took matters into their control.  They found a preacher in a church in West Virginia (I don’t know anything about why they picked him), drove down there with a couple witnesses, and got married on a beautiful June day.

A week later, they showed up at church, married. And that’s when everything  went to hell.

As you might expect, Pastor H. was livid.  And  I can understand.  I mean, most of us don’t take kindly to a poke in the eye.

His retribution was swift.  He called my dad an adulterer publicly, banned my parents from teaching or ministering at church ever, threw them out of the choir.  For the next 7 or 8 years, they were pariahs, declared unfit for service because they were living in a constant state of sin.  To marry a divorcee was to be an adulterer, and no one living in sin was worthy of the kingdom of God.

My dad was understandably blindsided by how quickly he could go from a guy everybody liked to a man who had no right even to take up the offering. It made him angry; it made him feel demeaned and worthless.  It bred in him a hatred of hypocritical Christianity.

But they didn’t leave.

I’ll never really understand why.

For years, they went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Bible school, monthly Bible conference services. My dad was angry. My mom was embarrassed. Yet they continued to go.

It’s not like we lived in a church-desert.  Even within the tiny isolated circles of fundamentalism, there were 4 churches within driving distance of our house, including the church that ran the Christian school I attended.

But they stayed. I think they were just too stubborn to give people the chance to say the pastor had run them off.  Or maybe the abuse was somehow more palatable than the idea of change?

My brothers (a story I’ll pick up in a future post) shortly afterward abandoned the church forever. Neither is particularly religious to this day.

To be fair, many of the individuals in the congregation were very good to us and remained our friends.  A new pastor showed up, one whom we hoped would make a difference in the church’s attitude…. and he kind of did.  My memories as a kid are positive. I had several good teachers; I enjoyed the children’s activities; I loved seeing the slide shows when missionaries came into town.

(Another historic battle between my dad and the church: He was appalled that the congregation voted to spend thousands of dollars to build a “fellowship hall,” when one of the missionary couples who had visited the church on deputation had holes in his shoes and a car that barely ran. The husband was selling vacuum cleaners during the week to try to keep food on their table. The church voted against supporting the couple as missionaries because they didn’t have the money in the budget due to the building program. My dad immediately wrote the missionary a check to fix his car and get some shoes, and my parents picked them up for monthly support until our own financial situation meant we had to stop. )

A few years later, when I told my parents that a Sunday School teacher informed me that I would never be allowed to participate in the church’s proposed talent show (a statement that my parents took as evidence that their disgrace would be a generational curse), they left.  I was in 4th grade.

My dad stopped going to church at all (for a series of reasons).  And my mom did too, for a few years.

Ironically, the church put us on their Tuesday night visitation rotation — meaning that we were backslidden Christians who needed to be visited by members of the church who would try to convince us to repent of the sin of not attending church.  So for about 18 months, we hid in our house on Tuesday nights. It was easy to hear people coming down our long, secluded driveway – the distinct sound of car tires on gravel – and we dove for cover, doused the lights, turned off the TV, closed and locked the door.  Church folk knocked, we didn’t respond, they eventually gave up and left, and we came out of hiding to return to our regularly scheduled programming.

It wasn’t until I was in 6th grade — and probably because I felt left-out and guilty when the kids in my Christian school asked me where I went to church — that I pestered Mom to start taking me to church at Mt Carmel (where I also went to school).

The specter of divorce haunted my mom the rest of her life, even in a new congregation.

After the Mt Carmel people asked her repeatedly to teach VBS classes, she finally agreed, but only if she was the helper rather than the lead teacher, and she never talked about it much.  I think she felt like the scarlet A was visible to everyone but they were too nice to say it.  And there was a single divorced lady at church who wasn’t really able to do much either; perhaps Mom didn’t want to make things worse for her, or enjoy some kind of special privilege because people at the new church didn’t know my mom’s story while this other lady had to live with the stigma of being divorced.

I don’t know.

But I learned early on that church wasn’t a place for authenticity or honesty.  Being honest about certain kinds of failures would get you slapped upside the head.  Or thrown on a bizarre trash heap of never-ending irrelevance where people who didn’t really want to have anything to do with you insisted that you attend anyway.


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