Saturday, November 29, 2014

Time for a Divorce Ceremony?

A friend is going through a divorce. Unlike when someone dies, she said, when a marriage dies there is “no commemoration of a life that you lived, there is no respectful acknowledgement of passage, and there is no announcement in the paper . . . it's an odd thing for a Christian to have to grieve the death of marriage by divorce. I feel very alone in the grief.” Actually, I told her, there are some churches and other faith groups that are offering divorce ceremonies to people whose marriages have ended, as I wrote about a number of years ago. 

I’ve been to a lot of weddings in my life. But I’ve only been to one divorce ceremony.

It happened a few years ago. I was visiting a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania. Near the end of the service the pastor asked the congregation to stand to read a “blessing of separation” for two members whose marriage had sadly come to an end.

As a congregation, we read a litany that invoked God’s blessing on the former couple as they went their separate ways. It was sad occasion, yet hopeful at the same time.

Later, I was told that this couple had tried counseling. They had worked on their issues. But in the end everyone agreed that divorce was inevitable. 

That Mennonite church is not unique. Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Unitarian and Episcopalian churches now offer blessing ceremonies or special prayers for people who are getting divorced.

For some, any talk about blessing divorced people is tantamount to surrendering to modern culture’s belief that nothing is permanent and marriage vows are meaningless.

But none of these groups have abandoned their belief in life-long marriage. They are simply coming to terms with reality—Christians get divorced, too.

But it’s still a leap from there to actually conducting divorce ceremonies. So why do it?

In their book A Healing Divorce, authors Phil and Barbara Penningroth note that faith groups have lots of rituals to mark transitions from one stage of life to another—christenings, baptisms, weddings and funerals. 

But there’s nothing for divorce, which is a huge transition for the couple, their families and their friends.

“Whether one sees [divorce] as a failure or as a sin, it is without question a major life transition for millions of couples and their children,” they say.

For many this transition is “handled coldly and impersonally by law and the courts,” leading to anger, bitterness and pain.

By “reframing divorce as a life transition and using ritual to facilitate the divorce process,” they believe it can be an occasion to “heal hearts and transform lives.”

Divorce ceremonies vary. In one, a couple simply repeats their vows, replacing the words “I do” with “I’m sorry.”

In another, the couple confesses to each other about where they failed, asked forgiveness and blessed each other as they began their future apart. At that point, the pastor pronounced them free from their marriage vows.

After a friend’s husband left her for another relationship, she asked her pastor and some church members gathered in her home to read scripture and pray.

During a short ceremony, she took off her wedding ring and she replaced it with a new ring to symbolize a new beginning. “It was an incredibly emotional” experience, she told me, “but healing as well.”  

Couples who want help preserving their marriages often turn to the church. But where is the church when marriages end? Maybe the church needs to find a way to also provide healing and care for people experiencing divorce. 

Or, to put it another way, if marriages start in the church, maybe they can end there, too.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Can a Pacifist Wear a Poppy?

Every year, Mennonite Central committee urges people to wear peace pins that say "to remember is work for peace." I don't think they should do that. The days leading up to Nov. 11, Armistice, or Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth, is a time to remember those who went to war, and especially those who were killed and wounded. If feels small, somehow, for anyone else to piggyback on, or even hijack, that day for their own agenda. That's why I wear a poppy, not a button, in November, as I explained in my 2012 column in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Can a pacifist wear a poppy?

The answer is yes -- I'm a pacifist, and I wear one. A few others I know do, too. But many people who oppose war have ambivalent feelings about poppies. 

I think they're afraid wearing one will suggest they are, tacitly or otherwise, supporting war and militarism.

Some compromise by wearing red buttons that say "To remember is to work for peace." Every year the Mennonite Central Committee distributes thousands of them. 

It's a good message, but I think it says the same thing as a poppy. After all, I never met a veteran who thought going to war was a good idea. 

I don't wear a poppy to celebrate war. I wear it as a sign of respect for the many men and women who sacrificed years, youth and their lives during this country's wars. 

They did not plan those wars. They did not seek them. They did what they were asked to do and what they thought was right. 

As a veteran said to me, explaining his service in the Second World War: "Someone had to stop Hitler."

I also wear a poppy for personal reasons.

I wear it for my Uncle Harry, who was wounded in France in the Second World War. Each Remembrance Day, he would march with other veterans to the cenotaph in my home town, pausing to remember the dead.

Later, he'd go the Legion and drink and reminisce and cry with his buddies, remembering the friends who never made it home.

Uncle Harry, like most veterans, never talked about the war, even though I pestered him as a child. He'd just shake his head and change the subject.

I also wear the poppy for my father. Due to a medical condition, he was rejected for military service in 1944. This bothered him his whole life, especially since so many of his high school friends went overseas. Some of them were killed.

After he died, I went though his belongings. Among his prized possessions I found his "certificate for rejection for general service." 

Why did he keep it all those years? I think it was his way of proving, to himself, at least, that he was no shirker -- it was his special way of keeping faith with friends who served and died.

I wear a poppy for all the young men who fought and died in war -- many of them teenagers. 

Author and veteran Paul Fussell was in his early 20s when he fought in the Second World War. He was one of the oldest in his company.

In his book, The Children's Crusade, he wrote: "At this distance, it may not be easy to remember that the European ground war in the west was largely fought by boys 17, 18 and 19 years old. 

"Some of these men-children shaved, but many did not need to. Not a few soldiers hopeful of food packages from home specified Animal Crackers, which, one soldier said, 'can do wonders for low morale.' "

I wear a poppy for conscientious objectors -- for those who bravely decided to follow their deeply held principles by choosing not participate in the military during this country's wars.

During the Second World War, 10,782 Canadians chose to do alternative service -- serving on farms, in hospitals, planting trees, building roads and other things. 

Over 3,000 were from Manitoba -- more than any other province. By choosing a different path, they showed there are ways to serve your country other than fighting.

I wear a poppy for all who suffered in war. The widespread wearing of a poppy was popularized by a French woman in the 1920s; she sold handmade poppies to raise money for children affected by the Great War. 

In Great Britain, the first poppies for the public were made by disabled veterans, as a way to provide them with work. It was designed to be assembled by someone with just one hand.

I wear a poppy because I am a pacifist. Over my career in international relief and development, much of my work has been in response to hunger and suffering caused by war -- people uprooted by conflict, in need of food, shelter and safety.

According to Project Ploughshares, a Canadian peace organization, an average of one person a minute is killed directly or indirectly through armed violence. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, over five million people have lost their lives due to war.

The World Food Organization says that over the past 20 years, the proportion of food crises that can be attributed to human causes has more than doubled from 15 per cent to over 35 per cent -- with most of these emergencies triggered by war. 

In the developing world, conflict has displaced millions of people from their homes, leading to some of the world's worst hunger emergencies.

The effects of war on hunger are also felt long after fighting ends. Fields are often unusable due to mines and unexploded ordnance; people either abandon their farms or risk their lives to grow food.

Finally, I wear a poppy to show that pacifists can be patriotic, too. I love my country. It sometimes lets me down and disappoints me. But it has given me so much, too. 

I don't think I need to fight to prove my patriotism, but I respect those who did. And I think we can also serve by volunteering, by supporting charities that help needy people here and around the world and by promoting a vision of peace for everyone, everywhere.

That's why I wear a poppy. Why do you wear one?