July 8, 2014

Unequally Yoked

She put her arm around my shoulder to soften the gut punch she would deliver next.

“I’ve been praying,” she said. “And I think you should spend some time studying this scripture.”

This church leader handed me a page from 2 Corinthians. She highlighted 6:14: “Be ye not unequally yoked together.”

I had been dating her pastor for about three months, but already we were serious. In retrospect, I can see her comments came, at least in part, from fear. She worried our relationship might take him away from serving her congregation. And indeed, within a year, we had married and moved to another state, where he began seminary while serving two Methodist churches.

Regardless of her motivation, that moment sticks in my memory as an example of how even “church people” can lash out in mean, vindictive, and hurtful ways. I suppose she was trying to tell me that she thought I wasn’t a spiritual match to her pastor, my now-husband of seventeen years. I guess she was afraid I might drag him down, lead him astray.

Nearly two decades later, the conversation still stings. But I’ve come to realize that she taught me two important lessons.

First, she was right: we are “unequally yoked.” Just as marriage is not a 50-50 partnership but sometimes 90-10, 75-25, even 110-0, our spiritual lives are not always equally yoked. There are times when I’ve felt forlorn and forsaken: the day my parents announced their separation, when I miscarried, alone, in a hotel room at a church conference. When the first child of a loving couple died in the womb. When doctors thought flesh-eating bacteria was working its way through my husband. I’ve questioned my faith, been angry at God, forgotten to pray or ask forgiveness, zoned out during worship, taken the Eucharist without preparing my heart. But so has my husband. I’ve also felt the loving hand of God nurture our first child when doctors said she wouldn’t survive. I see God in the great expanse of the horizon, in the laughter of friends, in the celebration of new beginnings, and when my heart is strangely warmed. So, too, does my husband. In our life together, there are times when he’s helped lead me back into a stronger relationship with God. And there are times when I’ve helped him.

When a pair of oxen is yoked, they work in tandem. But they don’t always pull the exact same amount. I think God is OK with that.

What I believe God is not OK with is when God’s people use scripture as a weapon. We witness interest groups brandishing scripture to augment their position on issues such as sexuality, birth control, and the role of women. But this misuse of God’s word also happens in much smaller ways, like when a church leader tries to make a young woman feel unworthy.

This is the second lesson. Church people can be mean. They are human, battling insecurity, jealousy, and pain. The challenge, then, is to keep my own faith from being defined or damaged by the hurtful things done by people of God in the name of God.

I am yoked. To God. To my husband. To my children and family. Sometimes unfairly. Sometimes pulling way more than my fair share, sometimes being dragged along. And for this unequal yoking, I give thanks.