Saturday, September 13, 2014

Engaging the Mess

As many of you know, I work in family law. I've found that several times when I am talking with Christians and they ask me what I do (or back in law school, when they'd ask me what I planned to do), I'd tell them that I planned to do/ currently do family law. Several times, the person asking has followed up with the question, "Does that include divorce?" in a seriously disapproving tone. For example, while I was in Haiti, two different conversations with Americans at the mission practically ground to a halt when they found out that I planned to practice an area of law that includes divorce law. I could just sense their confusion . . . I could tell they were thinking, "Wait a minute--you're here on a mission trip, so obviously mission and ministry is important to you, but your job back home is to do what?" I felt judged, and to be perfectly honest, I felt like those two people kind of wrote me off as someone who can't possibly be a serious Christian the second they found out that I wanted to work with people who are going through divorces. Because God hates divorce, so if you represent someone in their divorce, you're enabling them to sin, right? Not exactly. In fact, not at all.

Yes, God does hate divorce and the Bible tells us as much. I think we can probably all agree that God's design is for marriage to last for a lifetime. He is grieved over broken marriages, broken homes, and broken families. But here's how I need to respond when people incredulously question why any Christian would ever step into divorce law, and why I, personally, can do so and still consider myself to be serving the Lord in my career.

First of all, I want to honor God with my life above all else, and I would never have pursued a career that I didn't believe would accomplish that. Second, I really believe that God has called me to this field, and he has opened so, so many doors for me to work in this field. And I say that because this is where God has led me after lots and lots of prayer and indecision about what to do with my life. You don't have to defend God's calling on your life to anyone or justify why He's led you to do a particular task--frankly, you just need to obey His leading.

But with those things said, I think there are a lot of things we need to realize about my clients--people who want to get divorced or people who have gotten divorced already. First, when people come to a lawyer because their marriage is failing, it's not the lawyer's fault that their marriage is failing! Their marriage is their responsibility. I didn't make anyone's marriages fail; they made their marriages fail. Just because they come to me for advice on how to move forward doesn't mean I am playing any role in the collapse of their marriage.

And I would add here that not everyone who gets divorced does so for selfish or foolish reasons, and I don't believe it's right to judge people with broken marriages when we don't know their stories. Not everyone who seeks a divorce does so just because they "can't get along" with their spouse or because they argue a lot or because there's someone else. Some people, especially women, seek divorces because they're being constantly physically and emotionally abused, often in connection with drug abuse and alcoholism, and it's not safe or healthy for them or their children to remain in that environment. I'm not sure whether others would consider this theologically sound, but I believe it is acceptable, if not necessary, to seek a divorce in those circumstances. After all, the Bible doesn't simply command married folks to not get divorced while being silent about the issues of justice, protecting the welfare of children, and speaking up for people who can't speak up for themselves. If you or your children are in danger in your marriage, you need to get help, and in some extreme situations that may involve ending the marriage. Of course, in an ideal world we would never need to talk about this. In an ideal world, marriage would always work, and married people would always be safe in their own homes and with their own spouses. But I don't think anyone needs a reminder that we don't live in that world.

Moreover, in Georgia, as in many states, one party can seek a divorce on no-fault grounds, claiming the marriage is "irretrievably broken." This means that many people I see in my law firm have gotten served with divorce papers from their spouse even if they don't really know what went wrong, or even if they desperately want to give the marriage another shot. But if they don't deal with the situation and find someone to represent them, no one will be able to protect their interests moving forward. It's not just about representing people who are determined to get a divorce themselves; it's about helping people who are grieving and scared because their spouse has decided the marriage is not worth saving, and they don't know what to do. Irretrievably broken. I've seen those words on almost every divorce pleading I've ever read, and they still make me cringe. I've worked with many people who feel defeated by those words and their finality and what they mean for their lives, people who begin to believe that their lives are irretrievably broken or, even worse, that they are that way--damaged goods, cast off, unworthy. They carry those words around like so many scarlet letters, ashamed and wondering how they got to this point in their lives.

It is my job to minister to people who are grieving their failed marriages and shattered dreams and to show them the love of Jesus while I fight to protect their interests. Yes, of course the Bible talks about how God hates divorce. But God also hates injustice. God hates it when children are left in vulnerable situations with no one to speak up for them. God hates it when the "least of these" are ignored. God hates it when vindictive spouses try to personally or financially ruin the person they previously loved, leaving a trail of broken hearts and broken lives in the process. Love of neighbor and justice for the broken and destitute demands that believers step in to situations like these. I'm drawn to these situations because God has led me to this field, and while the brokenness of others makes me grieve for them, I just can't ignore it. I can't step aside just because the mess is distasteful or the emotions are painful. I find great joy in offering whatever light and hope I can to people who are in these agonizing situations, because they will remember the person who was kind to them, who listened to them, and who helped and protected them in their time of greatest need.

I might add that I consider my job to be just as much about helping children as it is about helping married couples, which is why I want to eventually volunteer some of my time as a guardian ad litem to speak up specifically for children's interests in these types of cases. Almost all of these couples have children, and those children need to be protected and provided for financially through our child support statutes when their parents break up. It's common for the standard of living for women after a divorce to drop by up to about 33%, and women get primary custody of the children a majority of the time. Part of my job is to help minimize those painful financial impacts so that my clients and their children remain provided for. I've also worked with men who weren't the breadwinners and who would be left with virtually nothing and entirely taken advantage of by their spouses if their interests weren't protected. It's my job to step in to situations like that.

In my three weeks at the firm, let's just say I've already seen and heard some nasty stuff that breaks my heart, things I can't talk about with others but that I certainly can pray about. I know that I will need to go to counseling on a pretty regular basis throughout my career just to be able to talk to someone about some of the terrible stuff you see and hear when you work on divorce cases. But I can pray about those situations, and I can pray for those children. I can pray for them by name on my way to the courthouse for their custody hearing, as I did this week.

Divorce is messy stuff. There's no denying that. But who is better at engaging the mess than Christians? If I don't help these clients, they will go to another attorney. It's not like they're not going to get a divorce if I refuse to represent them for fear that I'm "promoting divorce." They will just go to someone else--and I'd far prefer that they come to me, someone who is a Christian and does care about them and wants to minister to them in their time of need--than to someone who just wants their money. Christians are called to be in virtually every field of human endeavor, including this one. I don't see my job as helping marriages break up. My job is to protect the interests of my clients and help them to look out for the welfare of their children and their finances when they are already traveling down the path of divorce. And if I think there's any possibility of reconciliation, you'd better believe I'll encourage my client to get back in there and try to work it out. I'm blessed to be working with other lawyers who feel that way about it too. Our business model is to encourage prospective clients to work it out, even if we lose their business as a result. I've respected my boss from the day I first met him because I could tell he's in this for the right reasons. But I've never respected him more than the day he told a prospective client, "I hope you don't ever have to come back to our office. We'll help you if you do, but if you think there's any way you can make it work, I want you to go make it work."

I see my job as being to minister to people in a time of their greatest brokenness. Believers, we need to engage this mess, because if we don't, someone else will. And even if my clients have never given faith a second thought, maybe someday they will look back and think that their attorney showed them the love of Christ and be willing to give Him a chance. Maybe they'll realize that He is the only one who can truly heal and redeem our brokenness. That He makes all things new. That He specializes in picking up the shattered pieces of our lives and molding them into something beautiful. That because He allowed Himself to be bruised and broken and shattered for us, nothing in our lives is beyond redemption. Maybe they'll realize that because of Jesus Christ, our lives cannot be irretrievably broken, no matter what words our laws use. Because he tracks down and picks up all of the shards of a shattered heart. He declares that our past cannot define us and our present is not the end of our story. I want my clients to know Him through what I do. That is my hope, and this is my job, and I won't apologize to people for it. 

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