Dear Addie,

 

My husband and I are in increasingly different places with our individual faith journeys. We were married 23 years ago. I was a faithful church leader and worker. Our church, however, sort of went off the rails. I persevered, finding another church. I am content at this new church.

 

Problem: since I am a “professional minister,” the church wonders where my husband is, since he doesn’t accompany me to church. Neither do my younger two children, since the blow-up at our old church happened at a particularly formative time in their lives and they absorbed all of it.

 

I am okay with deflecting questions about the rest of my family from the people at my new church. But…I am all at sea about how to navigate this unfamiliar territory AT HOME. I know this is a site about spiritual baggage and daily struggles. Well, this is my current struggle. Thanks.

 

Eliza

 

*

 

One of the big, recurring topics of discussion in my high school youth group had to do with being unequally yoked. For a 15-year-old girl from suburban Chicago, I knew an awful lot about oxen and their yokes – the wooden bars joining them together and to their cart. I knew that if one of the oxen was “weaker,” it was a recipe for disaster. The pair of them would only walk one frustrating circle after another, never going anywhere.

 

When I later married my husband, Andrew, I thought we were equally yoked in every way. We came from similar upbringings and families. We were connected at the heart and at the soul, where our faith lived. When we got married, they sang “Be Thou My Vision.” We were 20 and 22, and when we closed our eyes, the vision we were seeing was, I think, exactly the same.

 

What a surprise it was to blink awake, four years into my marriage, and find that everything had turned upside down.

 

That year, the house church that delivered the final blow to my weakening faith somehow managed to bolster his. And although Andrew had grudgingly agreed to leave that church behind, he didn’t really. He kept meeting with his men’s group and with the leadership team that had selected him (but not me) to join.

 

While he was gone I sat in our apartment or in a coffee shop, or, increasingly, behind the Don Pablo’s bar. I drank tequila to dull the sharp pain of my splintering identity, to make me less aware of the way the ground beneath me was shifting.

 

We were both blindsided by the whole thing. We hadn’t known that you could start out equally yoked and end up there – so far away, so changed, so different from one another. We had imagined that if we did all the right things, our faith would continue to grow, twined together – a vine on a trellis reaching closer to God.

 

But of course, that’s not how faith works. It ebbs and flows. It moves through seasons; it waxes and wanes like the changing moon. And sometimes, even when you are married to someone who is committed to the same faith, you find yourselves in two different seasons at the same time.

 

We didn’t understand this and our marriage almost failed. We trudged in frustrated circles – unequally yoked, and pissed at each other for it.

 

*

 

I don’t know the details of your story, Eliza. I can’t tell much from your note about the faith season your husband is in except that it is colder and dryer than yours Is it possible that the blow-up at church affect him like it did your younger children? Does he still believe in God or has shifted away completely?

 

What I do know is that our marriage survived largely because of Andrew.

 

The thing about the oxen and their cart is that it only goes in circles if they are walking at different speeds. The weaker or shorter ox walks more slowly, and the taller or stronger one goes at its normal, fast pace, and that’s when the cart tips over.

 

During that hard year, I did not have the capacity to increase my pace and match Andrew step for step. I was broken and angry and hurt by the Church People. I was frustrated with God who, it seemed, hadn’t come through for me when I most needed him. I didn’t want to hurry up and join Andrew…and even if I did want to, I couldn’t have done it.

 

But he could slow down. And that’s exactly what he did.

 

We took time off from church, hitting flea markets on Sunday mornings instead to buy dusty, antique crates. He scheduled marriage counseling. He did a lot of listening. He slowed down until he was next to me. He made walking with me a priority over performing spiritually.

 

He could have kept going, yanking me along with him. But instead, Andrew came back and found me. He walked with me slowly while I raged and healed and, finally, found God again. It made all the difference.

 

 

 

I know that you’re a “professional minister,” Eliza. I do not think you need to give up the calling you have received and pursued, or the places where you’ve found meaning.

 

It sounds like you all went through something terrible at church, and it affected each of you differently. It propelled you into ministry, but it seems to have sent your husband running. Of course it feels unequal to you right now. Of course you’re frustrated, moving in circles, feeling alone.

 

But you are the “stronger ox” in this scenario. This doesn’t mean that you’re a better or truer Christian or that your faith itself is stronger. It just means that you’re in a growing season right now rather than a stripping one.

 

It also means that it’s up to you. You have to be the one to slow down.

 

I think you’ve already started this work. It doesn’t sound like you put pressure on your husband or your family to join you at church. You seem to understand their need for space and healing. Giving them that grace is a lovely thing.

 

But what else might it mean to slow your pace and walk alongside your husband?

 

In the aftermath of our church issues, I felt abandoned by people whom I’d imagined would love me unconditionally and encourage me to walk with God. It is very lonely to lose a church community. But it’s lonelier still to watch your partner belong where you cannot.

 

Consider asking your husband how he feels when you go to church.

 

Maybe he doesn’t care. But maybe you’ll get a sense that you’re walking a little fast for him and what he needs is for you to pull back. That doesn’t have to mean leaving altogether. It might just mean finding different ways to engage with your spiritual community, ways that allow you to be present with your husband during a season when his faith may be wintering.

 

As much as you can, let him lead the conversations about faith. Listen more than you talk. If he needs to rage, let him rage. If he needs to drink about it, raise a glass.

 

Resist the urge to fix it, to fix him, to try to urge him along faster. He is going at the pace he can. He is in a particular faith season, and seasons, by their nature, change. But there’s nothing we can do to make winter go faster. There’s no way to rush spring. All you can do is wait.

 

Take his hand and don’t let go. Walk at his pace. Let your heart rate slow to match his. It will feel unnatural at first. But before long you’ll start to notice the world around you come into focus: blades of grass, sounds of birds. Tiny reminders that even the longest winters must, eventually, give way to spring.

 


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