We buried a very dear lady last week. The Sunday prior, I was talking to a gentleman from our church who lost his wife, suddenly, many years ago. As he spoke, he shared that he often chided his co-workers that it was better to be a widower than a divorcee, seeing as how he knew where his wife was and that there was no hope of getting together again on this side of eternity. He said that, when you are divorced, it's never really over. You might see your ex on the street somewhere, and you might think to yourself, "maybe I can get her back." Then he said the thing that has got me thinking; he said, "cause people can't handle rejection, and that's what divorce is."
Even if it is amicable, and even if you are the one who sought a divorce, it is still rejection. It may be you that is rejecting, not being rejected, but it is still rejection, and the one who is rejected will feel it. Generally, when a spouse dies, it is not rejection but loss. They aren't saying they don't want to be with you, they aren't saying anything. Oftentimes, they don't have a say in it. The few times they do have a say in it, it generally isn't rejection either. There are easier ways to get away from someone you don't like anymore. In those few times when a person has a say in their death, they are generally making a decision, right or wrong, that either has nothing to do with their spouse or everything to do with their spouse in a sacrificial, though misguided, way, even it is doesn't feel like it. But this post isn't about those kind of situations, it isn't really even about divorce, or death. It's about rejection.
Now, there are rejections that don't hurt any. You don't like the look of a person and so you have nothing to do with them; you reject them, but you never really accepted them in the first place, and they probably don't even know or care that you've rejected them. Divorce-style rejection is different. This is a rejection after an acceptance. Two people decided that they wanted to walk along together, they did walk along together for a spell, and now one or both of them is rejecting that arrangement and making dust. That is a painful type of rejection that can leave you wondering what you did wrong and how you might be able to fix it. It might not actually be your fault, and most often it isn't. Maybe they thought they were something they're not, maybe they were hiding something or not being honest about something about their own self, and now it has become too much and they make a break for it. Maybe they thought they liked you, but didn't really know you, and now they decide they can't live with you because you won't stop being you.
(Personally, I think life's more about being yourself and getting along with one another as is than it is changing yourself for one another.)
These thoughts became even more poignant to me that evening, as we gathered at the local funeral home for the visitation. When a person has lived in the same house for 58 years, as this lady has, they make quite the mark in the church and the community. The room was so full, I waited a good 40 minutes in the foyer, greeting with one person or another, before I dared go in - lest we over stuff the room and cause someone to pass out! So many dear people were there: friends, neighbors, family, and church family. The church family group was huge, although I must admit that I couldn't help but view them as two distinct groups: current members and prior members, and the prior members were the greater number.
Each one of those people I met - some of who stopped going to Eagle Mountain years before I came here but many who had left in the last seven years - represented for me a rejection. Each one, at some point, had decided that the church I love and am sacrificing myself for was no longer worth their time and presence. Well, that's not fair. Some of them moved, I suppose, and some experienced God strongly moving them to a new place. But the truth is that most of them can not claim that. Most of those who left did not leave on good terms, but with bills of divorce, and we all know why God permits divorce.
Now, of those who left because of the frailty of humanity and the hardness of our hearts, there were two groups. Several had left before I got there, and I couldn't really feel it was a divorce for me, per se, seeing as how I had not known them. They still represented a rejection to me because they had, at some time, rejected the church I was now a part of, but the divorce was from another. I had not walked with them, so their rejection did not quite sting so much. The others, though, how they hurt.
I don't think they, themselves, hurt, necessarily. The one who does the walking rarely feels the sting. They're on to better things, whether they are or not. No, when I say they hurt, I mean they hurt me. Some of them were on the pastor search team that called my family to visit EMBC in view of a call: they selected me out of so many eligible candidates and made me feel so special, only to rip my heart right out of my chest. Not all at once, now; but each one did it, individually, in their own time, over the course of about five years. Others weren't on that team, but they had either stayed around and started walking with me or had shown up after me and decided to walk along. That last group is probably the one that means the most to a person, because they don't have a ton of friends or a long history to keep them at the church when they aren't happy with you, and so you feel a bit closer to them for those first few years.
The hardest thing about getting together in the community, whether it is funerals, weddings, or some other event, is seeing those people who walked with you at one time but then filed divorce papers against you. Every single ex-member of Eagle Mountain Baptist Church who left in the past seven years feels like a personal divorce. Sure, there are some that, from time to time, I'm probably thankful to be free from, but I'd rather still be bound. I'd rather we figured out how to walk together, and I was willing to keep trying when they decided to leave me flat. (And yes, they left me. Most still have friends in the church and express their undying love for the church and community. I think that maybe makes it worse. They basically said, "We love you and we love this church, but not enough to put up with this guy!") There isn't one person I've told to scram, although there is a person or two I've considered rejecting outright. I don't get that prerogative, not unless I reject the whole group, and I don't.
Standing there, visiting with people who, at one time or another, decided I was not the pastor for them, made me remember those words from that morning. "People can not handle rejection." I know I can't. Rejection of this very sort is what threw me into a spiraling depression four years ago, and I'm not sure I'm over it yet. Others have added to what a few began. It has just about destroyed me. I don't know how pastors deal with it, other than the cliché Sunday school answers I refuse to give right now. My predecessor pastored EMBC for 17 years. He saw people leave and return, but he saw a whole lot more decide to walk with him for awhile and then leave. He seems a more friendly guy than I am; how did he handle it? Maybe it is easier when enough people are joining you to make up for those who are leaving you, but I doubt it. (I'm willing to test this hypothesis, though, God!)
Well, okay, I guess I'll give you a Sunday school answer. Jesus experienced everything that we do and more. He experienced rejection. He experienced the rejection of the people, the rejection of the leaders, and the rejection of his own followers. One of his followers betrayed him, another denied him, and all ran from him. No matter how bad we mess up, or how many people tell us we aren't worth their time and effort, Jesus doesn't reject us. So, we hold on to him and keep going. Sometimes, we go just enough for that day, trusting that he'll be there for us again tomorrow.
For my part, I try to focus on those who haven't rejected me, yet, and who I hope never will. I am thankful for the voices that are speaking to me today, and for the people who have filled those spaces others vacated. I find it interesting that some voices, who have said hello to me every week for seven years, are all of a sudden speaking more words to me, and words of wisdom, no less. Why weren't they speaking earlier? Was it because I wasn't listening? Maybe there were others in the way.
This is the Lepers' Gate. Like my church, it is a place for those who are rejected, who are unclean, who aren't good enough for the front door. We're here on the side, huddled in the cold, looking for a scrap of the body to be handed through the door. Just a scrap of Jesus is enough, he is grace enough for all of us. If you're tired of being rejected, I know a place where you won't be - Eagle Mountain Baptist Church. The church, like this blog, isn't cool or cutting edge, as you can see by our website, but it is good and honest and full of Jesus. I hope the Lepers' Gate is, too.