Wedding Ceremonies usually happen in a church or with a minister. The celebratory union of two lives is blessed by God, sealed by vows, and witnessed by family and friends.
In contrast, divorces happen in a courtroom with a judge. There is no blessing, a gavel seals, and few witnesses attend.
Society’s exaltation of love and marriage in its television, movies, and songs can serve as constant reminders of one’s divorce. In the church, the marriage norm isn’t necessarily glorified. It is, however, often silently considered spiritually superior.
If divorced people walk into a church, they are silently reminded of their broken vows and of how their marriage began. If they read the Bible, they read that God hates divorce. And if they hear sermons about marriage and announcements of upcoming wedding celebrations, they feel out of place as a once-married-now-single person.
For these reasons and more, they don’t always come back to the church.
And when they do, they’re wary to reveal the Scarlet Letter D on their chest. Their own story is unique, full of joys and sorrows, successes and failures. And yet to other Christians, their Scarlet Letter only means failure, especially if they were a Christian when they divorced. They often wonder if other Christians’ judgments are the same judgment God offers them.
No one who walks down the aisle hopes to divorce in the future. But statistically many American marriages end in divorce. While divorce may be a relief, it is also filled with pain and questions. We need to pastor divorced people in a way that ensures they find peace with God and other Christians. Besides counsel and other help, we can offer them a ceremony that seals the end of the marriage in a similar manner in which the wedding sealed the beginning.
Would a ceremony mean the church encourages divorce? No. It means that the church acknowledges and walks beside divorced people. Gary Thomas, a man whose career is dedicated to empowering marriage, blogged that while God hates divorce, there are other things God hates more. Is it possible that God hates having people leave the church and Christ more than God hates divorce? Is it possible that God hates alienation and unforgiveness more than God hates divorce? All a divorce ceremony does is acknowledge and care for divorced people in the pews.
My friend was married when I met him and I spent time with their family. As the years passed, I watched his marriage painfully disintegrate. She took the kids and moved to the Midwest. He worked for reconciliation and failed; their marriage ended in a courtroom.
Though I was angry and grieved with him, nothing could surpass the pain I watched him suffer in this great breaking. While he could have become bitter, he leaned into faith and began to look more and more like Jesus.
I rejoiced greatly when he and one of my best friends started dating and then were engaged. They even asked me to officiate the wedding!
The wedding date drew near. I realized that in order to join their lives, I needed to ensure that he had let go of his previous wife and felt reconciled to God. We planned a Divorce Ceremony to which he invited his closest friends.
On a Sunday evening, a small group gathered and stood in the place he had made his vows 20 years before. We were ready to join in what we called a “Ceremony of Reconciliation, Healing, and Freedom” for him. The purpose was to publicly accept that she divorced him, thus freeing him from his vows. Like an Ash Wednesday service, this service would be a journey. It would move us first to the dark depths of sin, then toward forgiveness, healing, and freedom, ending with our past, present, and future hope shown through the Lord’s Supper.
Since divorced people may question whether God is still judging them, we began with an adapted Rite of Reconciliation from the Book of Common Prayer. We all confessed together and silently; he had the opportunity to confess particular sins he committed in the marriage, out loud if he desired.
Not only did we ask God for forgiveness, he was also given the opportunity to forgive his former spouse. The Greek word for forgive means “to let go” “to send away” or to “keep no longer.” I asked, “Do you, then forgive (former spouse) who sinned against you?” And he answered “I forgive her, I let her go, I keep her no longer.” I responded with words of absolution and reconciliation with God and the church. The invited witnesses responded by each stating to him, “You are forgiven, released from your previous marriage vows, and reconciled to God.”
As we moved on to prayer for healing, we acknowledged that he wasn’t letting go of the great good from his marriage. We anointed him and prayed for overall healing. Then we took turns coming against the lies he had believed because of the divorce. It was patterned like this:
Leader: You made vows long ago, and they have been broken in ways you could not control. We mourn that, but we confess the truth:
All: You are a man of your word.
Divorcee: I am a man of my word.
We worked through many possible lies and then moved on to declarations like, “I know that divorce is honoring the truth that my marriage could no longer continue.” “I really ‘get’ that divorce is not a failure, and that I am not a failure.”
As one, we faced him and said, “God has freed you from the lies. We urge you then, live in freedom!” By this time, we had moved out of the dark depths of this journey to the unifying rite of Communion. We consecrated and shared the elements with light and joyous hearts. After receiving, we offered words of blessing to him by turns. And then we returned to the house for a joyous feast.
Ceremonies like this are powerful. They name changes and seal transitions. They can even effect change. The witness of friends makes the reality of the transformation all the more real. My friend had done all the hard work of moving forward. I was just there to witness and seal the emptying.
I was also there, a few weeks later, to witness and seal the filling, the unifying of two lives into one.
It was with tears of joy that I watched his kids walk him down the aisle. I knew he was free to be joined.