In the Song of Solomon 2:15, the bride pleads to her husband, “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” Little foxes cause big problems. Little sins, little heart issues can destroy marriages. Angel (whose words will be italicized) and I know that all too well.
The seeds of heart-issues of our childhood would, like foxes, cause big problems. For me, that seed was not understanding my identity as a child of God, but rather as a pastor.
For me, the seed was not understanding my identity as a child of God, but rather as a pastor’s wife.
These destructive seeds turned into seedlings in our seminary years. But it wasn’t until I took my first calling as a pastor that these seedlings quickly grew into saplings, and then destructive trees.
I still remember my first day at Westerly Road Church as a pastor. I was only 27, but for a young man who had felt called to vocational ministry at ten years old, it felt like I had been waiting a lifetime. Like a thoroughbred, I was released from the gate, and, with a kick of dirt, was off and running. In the weeks before I was hired the elders made a commitment to relocate the church to another property (where we would build a new church) and the responsibility of leading that charge was tasked to me. “Fun!” I thought (oh, the naïvete!). A few months after I began, our Care Pastor moved on to be a Senior Pastor. “No big deal,” I thought. His role wouldn’t be filled for several years.
Meanwhile, my ministry wheels were whirring: “We really need a young adults’ ministry,” I shared with my wife. “We should lead it.” “We have to create community on Sunday. What if we had bagels and coffee on the courtyard?” And Angel took it from there. “We need a better way to triage care at the church.” Angel took the ball and ran with it.
And so things snowballed.
“It’s just a season,” I would explain to Angel as my hours crept upward and upward and evening meetings multiplied. As responsibilities were piled on, I was dogged in my determination that no one be let down. I wanted a pat on the back from everyone. No, I needed a pat on the back from everyone. Or at least the assurance that I owed no one anything. My identity was fed in ways it had never been fed before. I was a pastor!
I was doing what I was called to do… no, I was doing who I was… and I felt in a way I had never felt before that I was who I was supposed to be. In fact, if you had asked me at that time whether my wife or whether the church was my priority, I would have said they both were. After all, if the church was Christ’s priority, shouldn’t she be my priority? There were three people in our marriage: Angel, the church, and myself. I had not protected our marriage at all because I didn’t see the need to do so.
Meanwhile, I tried desperately to figure out how to be the pastor’s wife I felt I ought to be. I didn’t push back on John, and dove headlong into my own ministry in the church and in my counseling practice. My illusion of the life of a pastor’s wife slowly deflated, I worked so hard to try to create an identity outside of me. Maybe if I could create an independent identity as a counselor (and then later as a photographer and then as a yogi and then as a sales woman) I could be protected from the deflating reality of life as a pastor’s wife.
In the summer of our tenth year of marriage disaster struck. On top of the wild juggle of our lives—two young children, pastoring, counseling, and running a relocation and capital stewardship campaign—we always had at least one person living in our home with us. That was almost always a good experience, but in that year we had someone living with us who was in a very difficult season of life. He was in the midst of a transition and, we didn’t know it at the time, but he was profoundly struggling with mental health issues. His depression manifested itself in making our home life very difficult. He was reclusive and made Angel feel like a maid. Meanwhile, I did a poor job of advocating for Angel and for seeing his mental health issues for what they were and advocating for him to get help.
As summer arrived, he moved out of our house. A week later he attempted to take his own life sending shock waves through the church. My responsibilities ramped up from an already unsustainable pace.
Two weeks passed and it came out that the counselor I had been working for had a sexual relationship with one of his clients. Much of the running of his counseling practice was dropped in my lap while the complications of investigation and church discipline was dropped into the elders’ lap (of which John was one).
Our margin-less life crashed inward. The spiritual, emotional, and even physical stress of the hours we were working and the load we were carrying weighed heavily on us. A final blow of news from home brought me crashing down. I went dark spiritually and emotionally. My bitterness at myself and God was boiling over, I checked out. If this was what God had called me to, I was out. It was a defining moment of deciding to go my own way, and do my own thing.
I knew Angel had checked out and my world was rocked. Everything snapped into perspective. I had to try to save my marriage. But it was too late. She was emotionally and spiritually gone.
I first found sanctuary at the gym. 5am every day I was at the front doors as the gym opened. I developed a relationship with a trainer who became a safe space for me to confide. That relationship turned sexual and once that happened, I didn’t just loathe John, God, and the church, I loathed myself.
I pulled away from John, the church, and counseling. My refuge was the gym. I had a series of one night stands. I quit counseling and took a job at LuluLemon Athletica. John asked me if we could go to counseling. He tried to woo me. He was present in ways he hadn’t been before. But my heart was hardened.
I was desperately lonely and battled depression. My best friends had moved away over the previous year and I didn’t see anywhere to turn. There were, of course, places to turn: friends and family to call, but my mind was too dark to see it. And so I struggled through as best as I could. As the months turned into a year and then two years I went from thinking that this was a season that would pass to coming to terms what this cold, loveless marriage would look like in the decades to come.
In this season, though, God had not abandoned us. Even as the foxes took over our life, God was present. My prayer life was richer. My relationship with God was deepened. I needed him in a way I never had needed him before.
And he pursued me into the depths of my rebellion. Even while I loathed him, he loved and pursued me.
Photo credit: Tavis Beck/Unsplash