December 22, 2009

The Most Wonderful Time of Year!

I know a lot of singles who don't see the point of decorating for Christmas. They think it's just too much trouble. I disagree.

I don't always put a tree up, but I always decorate. I can't imagine not decorating. Actually, I can imagine not decorating, and that's precisely what makes me do it. I've been listening to Christmas carols on the radio since Halloween, but still, it doesn't feel like Christmas until my house looks like Christmas.

I understand that some singles feel lonely putting the tree up alone, but years ago, I realized that most of my married friends decorated by themselves. Oh, sure, their families would help decorate the tree, but the kids would lose interest long before it was finished, and the dads were usually not that interested to begin with. And no one wanted to take the tree down, so my married friends got to do that by themselves, too. And the truth is, while they may have had visions of the family helping, they knew it was easier when they did most of the work themselves. It was faster, less messy, fighting was eliminated, and they got to set everything up the way they wanted it. Once I figured that out, decorating the tree was a lot more fun for me.

I really intended to put my tree up this year, but as often happens, the clock ran out on me. It takes a long time to gather everything together, unpack it all and put it into place. I never found that block of time this year. But yesterday, December the 21st, I decided the tree wasn't going to happen but it still wasn't too late to decorate. I got out the stuff that was easy to get to, spent an hour or so putting that up, and discovered it was enough. My house feels like Christmas now.

Lights on the wreath give me something to plug in and light up the living room. =)

My cats think the greenery on the banister is almost as much fun as a tree.

Some of the ornaments that didn't make it onto a tree can still brighten my dining room table.

More ornaments made it to the chandelier.

And there's a retro tinsel tree, so I'm not totally tree-less. ;-)

Instead of listening to the random radio Christmas carols I've been listening to, this morning I pulled out the Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra CD and listened to the carols I grew up with, remembering the excitement of Christmas trips to Fort Worth to visit relatives on both sides of the family. Relatives who I can only visit in my memories now, memories that put me in the mood for Christmas, once again. I can feel the excitement looking forward to seeing those who are long gone, and the excitement of waiting for Santa. Along with those feelings of Christmas past, I begin to feel the excitement of Christmas present, and Christmas future. Now that I'm beginning to feel more like Christmas, I think I might have some friends over before New Year's.

If you haven't decorated, it's not too late. Get your stuff out and make your house feel like Christmas! Then get out the hot chocolate and play your favorite Christmas music and thank God for this time of year when we stop long enough to remember the miracle of God coming to earth in the form of a baby, to live among us, to know what it is to live in a human body, to feel human emotions, and to grow up to give His life for us. How can any of us feel lonely when there is a God who loves us that much?

Make the most of this Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of year!

December 17, 2009

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Let me make this clear: 
  • Santa Claus is about children.
  • Rudolph is about children.
  • Frosty the Snowman is about children.
  • Christmas is about One child, who came down from Heaven in the most amazing way to save the world, which is even more amazing.

Now that we've established that, one of my favorite Christmas rituals used to be watching the preschool choirs perform at church each December. I admit that I loved it because the kids made me laugh. Preschoolers can always be counted on to do something that older kids know isn't appropriate, from wardrobe malfunctions to hamming up their performances.

I remember a year when I was feeling particularly stressed and depressed as the holidays came closer. One Sunday, I was at church for hours of rehearsals for this mammoth Christmas production we used to do. We took a break so those who were involved with the children's choirs could go upstairs for their Christmas program. Some left for dinner but I went upstairs to watch the kids. I wasn't disappointed.

There was one 4-year-old boy who stole the show. He was towards the back, and yet he performed as though he was the only one there. He waved, he bowed, he may even have picked his nose. He sang louder and with more enthusiasm than all the other kids put together, as if he were the soloist and the rest were his backup singers. The fact that he was singing in front of a crowd in the sanctuary didn't faze him. The fact that we were starting to chuckle, and then giggle, and then laugh out loud didn't faze him. He was singing his heart out for Jesus.

I started laughing early on. During Away in the Manger I laughed so hard that tears began to stream down my cheeks. I couldn't stop laughing but I didn't care. And you know what? The stress I had been feeling began to melt away. I didn't feel depressed anymore. For the first time that year, I began to look forward to Christmas.

They say laughter can heal. Studies show that it boosts our immune systems, boosts our energy, and diminishes pain. Laughter reduces stress, and when people share laughter, it creates a bond. I have no doubt that God enjoys a laugh now and then, and he especially enjoys the sound of our laughter.

That was the last year that the preschool kids sang in big church. I'm not sure what the reasoning was, exactly. Maybe it was felt that a laughing congregation missed the point of Christmas, but we're Southern Baptist for crying out loud. (Although come to think of it, I guess there are a number of theological points that we may have missed along the way so maybe that's a valid point after all. Hmmm.) Maybe there was a fear kids would be traumatized by adults laughing, but I'm sure people laughed at choirs I sang in, but I don't have any lasting effect. (Gee, I wish my eye would stop twitching.)

All I know is that the teachers began inviting parents and any of the rest of us who wanted to hear them to their classes. I went a couple of times, but it wasn't the same.

I was reminded how much I miss the preschoolers during this year's Christmas program. The first graders and older sang, and they did a fabulous job. But despite a couple of wiggly boys, by first grade, kids are generally a little too inhibited, a little too practiced, a little too perfect.

I want to hear preschoolers sing in big church again. I can't help but think that Jesus wants to hear them sing in big church, too. And I bet he'll be chuckling along with the rest of us.

December 14, 2009

Self-Centered or Self-Sufficient?

About 10 years ago, the women's ministry at my church decided to start a mentoring program. They kicked it off with a weekend event and brought in a speaker who was over the women's ministry in her church in Texas.

There was a decent turnout of single women, which was kind of unusual for women's ministry events. My table was full of single women, all either approaching or past 40 at the time. I’m not sure our women’s ministry has seen such a good turnout of singles since. Small wonder, although any negative response was entirely due to the speaker.

During the Friday night talk, she told a story about a woman she had counseled before marriage. The bride-to-be was in her late 30s, and what the speaker had told her was something like, "If you haven't gotten married by now, you shouldn't get married at all because by this age you're too self-centered for marriage."

There was nervous laughter around the room, which the speaker didn’t seem to pick up on. She also failed to notice the expressions on the faces of the women at my table, which were evidently priceless because all around the room, women were craning their necks to get a look at us. Some were leaning so far back in their chairs to see our reactions that I was concerned for their safety. The reaction of these women was not offensive – it was more of a validation that they were sensitive to the insensitivity of the speaker’s comment.

Throughout the talk, the woman had also made some off-hand comments about the divorced that were not especially flattering. As the evening concluded, the woman from our church who had organized the event (who was divorced herself) came to our table to apologize. Evidently she also expressed a concern about the comments to the speaker because the Saturday morning session began with an apology. I’m sure the speaker felt awful that she said things that made people uncomfortable, but I didn’t get the feeling that she thought her opinion was mistaken.

What brought this uncomfortable weekend to mind? A never-married friend from high school sent me a link to a study on the emotional well-being of singles over 40. It wasn’t news to either of us, but it might have been to that speaker who seemed to think single women have an expiration date.

Authored by Jamila Bookwala, an associate professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa, the report was published in the Nov. 30 issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Among other things, the report discusses why some singles never marry, and you know what? It doesn’t mention self-centeredness at all. It does suggest that many singles develop a self-sufficiency that may make marriage less likely.

As for emotional health, the report indicates the never-married single might be doing better than our married counterparts.

Not surprisingly, an important factor in scoring well on emotional health is the presence of social resources…relationships with family and friends. If you’re not connected to family, or to a group of people who fill the role of family, you need to be. It can make all of the difference in the world.

As for self-sufficiency, I would suggest that for followers of Christ, it’s not so much self-sufficiency that we learn from our singleness as it is a reliance on God to provide all that we need, from figuring out how to fix the toilet to developing meaningful relationships in our lives. And no matter how many relationships we have, the one that makes the biggest difference in our lives is the one we have with Jesus Christ.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13

December 10, 2009

You Never Know

Twenty-one years ago, I went to California for the wedding of a friend from high school. The wedding coordinator kept saying she loved "older" couples.

Older? The bride was 29.

Twelve years ago, I went to Edmond for the wedding of a friend from Sunday school. The bride was 30, and I was 38. I was seated between two men, both over 40 and never married.

At one point, the minister, who had known the groom since college, turned to him and said, "we prayed for this woman to come into your life for ten years." The line struck me the same way it struck the men on either side of me, but only one of us voiced the thought...right at that moment. Under his breath, I heard the guy on my right say, "Ten years? Big deal."

Did I mention that we had somehow found ourselves seated on the groom's side of the church?

I struggled not to laugh out loud.

The guy who spoke up did get married a couple of years later, and now has two adorable sons. I couldn't help but remember that wedding in Edmond this past Saturday, as I attended the wedding of his sister. (To simplify matters, for the rest of this post, the guy who spoke up shall be referred to as BoB - Brother of the Bride).

The bride for this wedding - BoB's sister - was over 50. The groom's granddaughter was the flower girl. I'm sure the coordinator from the California wedding would have been downright ecstatic over this couple. They knew exactly what they wanted, and what they didn't want, and it was one of the best weddings I've ever attended.

One of the things the bride wanted was for her nephews - BoB's two sons - to serve as bell ringers, walking down the aisle just before she entered. After struggling not to laugh out loud at the "Ten years?" comment 12 years ago, I got to laugh out loud with the rest of the guests Saturday night as BoB's two sons walked/ran down the aisle at breakneck speed, ringing the bells to herald the bride's imminent entrance. It was one of those moments when I thought how nice it would have been if BoB could have known 12 years ago that his prayers would eventually be answered affirmatively.

At the reception, BoB sat down to visit at my table and I reminded him of that other wedding and the comment he had made. He shrugged his shoulders and grinned as he said, "You never know."

He's right, of course. None of us knows what the future will bring, and yet well-meaning people will often tell you that they "know" what your future will look like. It's usually loosely based on their own lives. But here's the thing. God isn't a home-builder who builds the same identical house over and over again with minor changes. He builds custom homes, and no two are exactly alike.

The life of my friend who married at 29 isn't the same as the life of my friend who married at 30, and neither of their lives is anything like the life of my friend who got married last weekend. And none of their lives has been like mine.

We get into a trap when we start comparing our lives with those of our friends and family. Sometimes it can begin to feel like a prison as we wallow in self-pity. That's not the life God planned for any of us. It can sound trite, but the truth is, if you're not happy single, you won't be happy married. Embrace the life God has given you...because He planned it just for you.

For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. ~ Jeremiah 29:11-14a

December 2, 2009

Single Heroes...and Heroines...of Our Faith

In our focus on marriage and family in today's church, we often overlook single adults in the Bible, from Old Testament prophets to the New Testament's early church leaders. Check out this Beliefnet quiz to see how much you know about Successful Singles in the Bible. There are only 10 questions, so it doesn't begin to cover everyone who was single.

Have you ever thought about the marital status of any of these people?

As long as we're on a Biblical theme, aside from Mary and Joseph, or perhaps Pontius Pilate and his wife, can you think of a married couple with whom Jesus interacted? It seems to me that Jesus met people where they were as individuals, not as a unit. That's still where He meets us.

So how did you do on the quiz?

November 30, 2009

Don't You Have Lots of Free Time?

Years ago, one of my single friends overheard a conversation between a former staff member and an older church member. The staff member was recruiting volunteers for an annual event and the older woman said words to the effect, "Make the singles do it. They don't do anything."

Excuse me?

This older woman had no idea what "the singles" were doing. If she had looked, she would have seen us in the choir, in the orchestra, in children's Sunday school classes and working in countless other ways around our church.

And, oh yeah, we have lives.

A few years later, I was in a meeting with other leaders from the single adult ministry, and a representative of the youngest single adult class repeatedly implied that the rest of us were "sedentary."

Excuse me?

This younger woman had no idea what the "older" (30+) single adults were doing. If she had looked, she would have seen us on mission trips, working at the food bank, leading adult Bible studies, Preschool worship, and children's choirs.

And, oh yeah, we have lives.

My friend in the first example has a servant's heart. But the implication that "singles don't do anything" irritated him to the point he started thinking about all that he did. He began to think about all of the things singles have to do for ourselves - aside from all of the areas where we serve within the church or the community. He pointed out that there are no gender roles for single adults - we do it all:
  • Laundry
  • Grocery shopping
  • Cook
  • Clean the dishes
  • Deal with the trash
  • Housework
  • Yardwork
  • Car repairs
  • Pay bills
  • Drop off / pick up dry cleaning
  • Home repairs and upkeep
  • Shop for birthday and special gifts
  • Wrap the gifts
  • Buy cards for every occasion
  • Take care of pets
  • Work fulltime - often more than one job
  • Volunteer
  • Entertain...when we can find the time and when the house is reasonably clean
  • And on, and on...
You get the point. No wife, no husband, just one person to do it all, and still try to leave the time and energy to maintain relationships with family and friends. 

When the holidays come, pressure is added. We still have to do all the things that we do the rest of the year, but add all of the extra things that are squeezed into the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We look at the calendar and wonder how we'll get it all done. There are years when I never find the time to put my tree up. Last year I got as far as putting my (mercifully pre-lit) tree in my living room, but never decorated it. (Now you know why I used to look forward to spending Thanksgiving alone.)

Having said all of that, it's tempting to say "Sorry, my plate is full" when asked to squeeze in one more thing each December. I want to say, "Thanks, but no thanks, December is just for me this year," or at the very least, I dream of having the time to nestle all snug in my bed with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

But I always relent, because I know that St. Francis of Assisi was right, that "it is in giving that we receive."

It doesn't matter if you're married or single, you are blessed when you bless others. Decorating the tree can wait. Allow God to use you this holiday season...because it's not about you.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. Luke 12:48b

November 25, 2009

Mind Games

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. Millions of us have an image of the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting in our heads, and for many, it’s a picture that raises expectations that will not be met.

An article in Sunday’s paper talked about the pressure caused by that one painting. Everyone wants to imagine a happy family filled with gratitude gathered around a table surrounded by love. Yet, even in the best of families, reality doesn’t always line up with the picture in our heads. Apparently Norman Rockwell had a problem with the painting himself, because rationing was in force at the time and he worried that the abundance represented was a little unseemly.

Those of us who are single have images in our heads of what marriage looks like. Mostly the images are formed by our own life experience, or couples we know, or even fictional couples from an unrealistic Ward and June Cleaver to a totally dysfunctional Brie and Orson Hodge.

Sometimes the images come in the form of a sermon illustration. There was one awhile back, where my pastor talked about an older couple he knew. As he told the story, I looked around and noticed the impact the story had on people around the worship center.

The couple he talked about had reached a point in life where they were separated for health reasons. The wife needed nursing care, and the husband was still able to live fairly independently. My pastor took the husband to visit the wife, and as they were leaving, the husband bent over to kiss his wife. My pastor talked about how, in that one kiss, he could picture images of their life together. He could imagine their first kiss. He could imagine the kiss when the wife greeted her husband as he returned from war. I looked around and saw choir members starting to wipe tears from their eyes. I could see people in the balcony reaching for tissue.

At the same time, I was picturing a specific couple. My earliest memory of this couple was when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, and although they were around the age I am now, in my 7 or 8-year-old mind, they might as well have been 100. I could see the wife standing in line for Wednesday night dinner, and turning to talk to her children, who were probably in high school at that point. The memory was so strong that I could smell the rolls that I somehow associate with this woman, perhaps because Wednesday night dinner was where I usually saw her. As I continued to listen to my pastor, I could see the wife, with graying hair, wearing a starched white blouse buttoned to the neck, with a straight skirt that went a few inches below her knee, and shoes that could only be described as sensible. In my mind’s eye, I could see her husband joining the family as he arrived at church from his office, dressed as he was nearly every time I saw him, in a coat and tie.

My pastor was now telling us he could picture the kiss the couple he was talking about shared when their first child was born.

I was picturing twin beds and wondering if the children of the couple I was thinking about could be adopted.

My pastor went on with the story and I saw many women in the choir give up on wiping the tears away to just let them flow, as some of the men stared intently at the floor. Marital status didn’t seem to make a difference – married, widowed, never-married, or divorced – their faces were reflecting the emotions they felt as listened to the story.

It began to dawn on me that we were seeing different mental images.

Depending on where they were in life, some were seeing something like this…

Others were seeing this…

Or maybe this…

I was seeing something more like this…

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of these images. A couple that shared a life together, filled moments of passion and moments of sheer drudgery. Moments of pure joy, and moments of intense pain. Moments of laughter, and moments filled with the mundane.

Moments that we all have, whether we’re married or single.

It’s easy to look at couples, imagining that their lives are perfect, and wonder why we can’t have that. But there are also married couples who look at other couples with the exact same feelings, thinking they’re missing something. And there are some who are married who look at those of us who are single and imagine our lives to be something that’s not based on reality either, wondering why they can’t have what we have.

The trick for both married and single, is to learn how not to be distracted by what we don’t have, and to just be grateful for the life that God has given to each of us.

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

November 21, 2009

Fixation Pauses

When I was in high school, I took Rapid Reading as an English elective. The teacher was just about everybody's favorite teacher. She was one of those teachers who could bring any topic to life. When she started teaching Rapid Reading, she hit garage sales to pick up as many cheap paperbacks as she could. She used those paperbacks to teach us the process of using your finger to lead your eyes quickly down a page, taking in all of the important information and learning to weed out the meaningless.

Over time, she began to notice a lot of fixation pauses. That was when a student would quit running his or her finger down the page and start to take in every single word. It turned out that our well-meaning teacher had picked up a bunch of Harlequin Romances thinking they would provide mindless reading. What she didn't realize was that Harlequin was just starting to venture into the territory of soft porn. Oops. If that happened today, I'm sure there would be cries for the teacher to be fired. People would claim she was leading young people into sexual activity. But the truth is, nobody in my class started having sex because they were reading Harlequin Romances. Those who were sexually active were influenced far more by their peers than by anyone or anything else.

I was reminded of that when I saw an article in this morning's paper about a speaker who believes "American teenagers are being kidnapped and brainwashed by an electronic culture with values their parents would never accept." He's blaming Hollywood but I think he's wrong.

You see, it seems to me that people are influenced far more by the behavior of people they actually know than by what they see on TV, or in a movie, or the music they listen to. I believe that it's the lack of morality among too many Christians that is the biggest problem our culture faces. Too many Christians who have extramarital affairs. Too many Christian couples who live together before marriage to save money for a church wedding. Too many single Christians of all ages who are sexually active, and their kids know it, their partner's kids know it, and their neighbors' kids know it. Too many Christians who fill their Facebook pages with all the right words, but their lives with all the wrong behavior. 

We're causing fixation pauses for those who are watching us, and who stop to take in the behavior that doesn't fit what we claim to be. When we're not blaming Hollywood for the lack of morality in our culture, we're trying legislate the behavior that we think everyone else should follow. But the truth is that if we, as followers of Christ, would follow the teachings we know to be true -- instead of manipulating the words to fit our desires -- we would have the power to change the culture through the example of lives lived as Christ taught us to live. 

So when are we going to start?

November 17, 2009

Thankfully Alone

Ask anyone. I'm not a people person. I'm task-oriented, and to be honest, I thrive on alone-time. Those of you who are not task-oriented seem to think that's a character flaw. That's okay, because like everyone else who is task-oriented, I know you would be lost without people like me. We're the ones who can focus long enough to figure the things out that seem to overwhelm you. (I suddenly have an awful feeling I stole that line from The Big Bang Theory.)

If you're task-oriented and single, it's a saving grace. Thanksgiving is next week, and I'm running across blogs about how awful it is to be alone on Thanksgiving. I get that, I know being alone on a holiday is hard for a lot of people. But the task-oriented side of me wants to scream, "FIND SOMETHING TO DO AND YOU'LL GET OVER IT!!!"

I have been alone on Thanksgiving, and while the first time was dreadful -- largely because of the full-fledged pity party I threw myself -- I had a plan in place the next year. I accepted that a whole day with no place to be and nothing I had to do a month before Christmas is nothing less than a gift from God.

You see, I love for my house to be decorated for Christmas, but it doesn't always happen because the time to get it done is so hard to come by. So I decided to use that day alone to my advantage and I began a tradition of putting my Christmas tree up on Thanksgiving Day. Granted, this only works if you have an artificial tree, because burning the house down would be grounds for more self-pity, but since I have cats (there's that whole Borderline Crazy Cat Lady thing), I find an artificial tree is the only way to go. You can also leave an artificial tree up as long as you want, which is clearly another advantage. (One year I woke up on January 8th to discover an unexpected snowstorm had hit overnight. Obviously even God was embarrassed that my tree was still up and he gave me another gift - a surprise snow day to take the thing down!)

Over the years, my Thanksgiving Day plan changed a little. One year I had single friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. A couple of years I baked my grandmother's pumpkin chiffon pie to take to another friend's house. But as soon as I could, I'd get my tree out and start decorating. That allowed me to relax and enjoy the weeks leading up to Christmas, smiling to myself each time I opened my front door.

In recent years, my family has been in town for Thanksgiving, and we have begun spending the day with the cousins we used to spend Thanksgiving with when we were kids. It's a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving that makes me want to sing "Over the River and through the Woods..." as it brings back memories of grandparents and parents who are no longer with us. I love these Thanksgivings, but I know that should I find myself alone again on Thanksgiving Day, it will be okay because I have a plan.

Maybe your plan is different. Maybe you want to stay in your pajamas all day and watch Christmas movies or sit down with that book that you've been wanting to read. If you're a people-person, you can sign up to serve food at a shelter, or if you love to cook, you can have other singles or empty-nest couples over to your house for dinner. (Don't assume you're the only one in the world who is alone for Thanksgiving. Ask around and you'll find others who will be by themselves, and while some are perfectly happy to spend the day alone, others are hoping for an invitation.) If you don't like to cook, make the meal potluck. If you like to organize people, get a group together to cook and take food to the home-bound in your neighborhood or your church. The point is to find something that suits your personality, keeps you busy, and fills you with a spirit of matter how you choose to spend the day.

"...give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." - I Thessalonians 5:18

November 12, 2009

50s-Style Guidance for Facebook Relationships

While Googling "It's Complicated" for the post It Shouldn't be THAT Complicated, I ran across this funny video on YouTube about Facebook relationship etiquette. And by the way, I've tried changing the HTML code on the object height and width, but nothing works. Any ideas?

November 11, 2009

It Shouldn't be THAT Complicated...

You can always spot them on Facebook. They’re the newly single. These are the people who think they have to keep the whole world updated on their current relationship status.

Truly, this is an area where there’s such a thing as TMI.

TIME did an article earlier this year on the pitfalls of relationship updates. According to the article, 60% of Facebook users fill in the relationship status. Honestly, we really don’t need to know that you’re In A Relationship the minute you’ve made it through a second date. That nearly always leads to an uncomfortable series of status updates down the road, eventually making your way to It’s Complicated and then the notice to your friends that you’re Single…again.

You have to remember that Facebook was designed for college students. That’s why there’s no Separated under relationship status. Don’t believe me? Look for yourself:

The designers were clearly young and naïve...but obviously not so naïve that they didn't consider open relationships. They just weren't thinking that middle-aged people would join Facebook in droves, bringing much in the way of relationship baggage. While they may have envisioned It’s Complicated could cover everything from a long-distance relationship that’s up in the air to a repeated break-up/reconciliation/break-up cycle, they probably didn’t picture their parents using it for divorce #3.

Maybe there should be a Facebook group demanding that Separated be added as an official Facebook relationship status. But to tell you the truth, I don’t have much hope for that happening. You see, I started trying to get Separated added as an official marital status box on my church’s visitor forms in 1995. After 10 years of blank stares, I threw in the towel. Apparently married ministerial staff doesn’t see the point of a relationship status that would recognize the limbo that exists between Married and Divorced. Actually the blank stares offer some small comfort. All of these guys served in other churches before they came here, so this situation must not be unique to our church.

Here’s the problem with omitting Separated as an option. A separation is one of those major life events when many people are ready to turn to the church for support, but there’s no place on the visitor form for them to honestly report their current marital status. There’s only Married, Divorced, Single, or Widowed. If you’re separated and in the midst of a painful divorce, which box would you check? Married doesn’t work so most choose Divorced, even though an official divorce may be months or years off. So when people are at a point in life when the teachings of Christ tell us they should be open to the possibility of reconciliation, the church visitor form tells them they should consider their marriage over. The form says it’s OK not just to lie to others about your marital status, but it’s even OK to lie to yourself. There’s something wrong with that picture.

Hmmm, I wonder if I should suggest a checkbox for It's Complicated...

October 28, 2009

Crazy Cat Ladies and Contentment

How many cats before you're considered a Crazy Cat Lady? Really, I need to know because I may have crossed the line.

My grandmother on my dad's side was a bit of a Crazy Cat Lady. Pearlie was widowed the last 17 or 18 years of her life, and she would heat up food for all of the strays in the neighborhood. It seemed like every stray in Tarrant County knew when it was feeding time at Pearlie's. I've never seen so many cats! She didn't let the cats in the house, so she wasn't totally crazy, but it was a fine line that she walked.

Officially I only have 2 cats, Lucy and Ethel. They were rescue kitties and I've had them for 3 years. I think 2 cats is well within reason. But then one fateful day about 3 months ago, one of my neighbors stopped to ask if I had been feeding the black cat.

The black cat? I had noticed a black cat from time to time wandering around, but it always seemed to be on some sort of cat mission and it didn't seem hungry, so I hadn't paid much attention to it. "Good," he said. His grandkids had adopted the black cat and taken her home with them.

A couple of days later I opened my front door to find "the" black cat sitting on my front porch, meowing at the door. Up until that point, neither my neighbor, nor I, had realized there were TWO black cats. So began the ritual of feeding the black cat in the morning and again in the evening. It took me a few days to figure out he was living in the carport right in front of my condo. He would jump up on a car, and from there, jump into the rafters to sleep, undisturbed. When he heard my front door open, he would come down for a meal. In the beginning, my next-door neighbor was also helping with the feeding chores, but within the first couple of weeks he moved out of state, leaving me with the task.

As the weeks went by, the black kitty became more attached to me. Anytime he was within earshot when I stepped outside my door, he would come running - make that bounding - to greet me. He wasn't always looking for food - often he just wanted to rub against my legs and have me bend down to scratch his head.

We had a lot of rain this fall, so I took a golf umbrella my neighbor had left on his front porch when he moved, and made a little tent to protect his food. But then it started getting cold. I worried that the cat would climb up into car engines to get warm. And I worried that as Halloween approached, he would not be able to escape harm.

I had put him on a couple of shelter waiting lists back in August. Around the first of October I finally heard from Barbara at one of the shelters and she said they were probably still at least a month away from having room for him. She suggested that I bring him inside and keep him in a room separate from my cats, not only to keep him safe, but to help prepare him for the shelter. Bring a stray cat inside my house for an undetermined period of time? That sounded borderline Crazy Cat Lady to me. But I did it 4 weeks ago this weekend.

Initially the poor kitty was so relieved to have a warm, dry, and safe place to sleep that he didn't seem to notice he was confined to a 10 x 10 bedroom. For the first 2 weeks, he didn't even scratch on the door! I told myself it was just Stockholm Syndrome.

The last couple of weeks he has been more assertive about wanting out, but not in an obnoxious way. He scratches on the door from time to time, but not a lot. He tries harder to make it past me and out into the freedom of my hallway each time I go in his room, but he accepts it when I block his path. I'm not sure why he wants out since the only cat sounds he hears on the other side of the door would be Ethel growling or Lucy hissing. They're not happy to have this cat taking up residence in the room that has the best view of their world. They're not happy that they find themselves locked in another room a couple of times a day where they can hear me talking to the black kitty I've begun to call Oscar. ("'Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener...")

And yet, as Oscar has clearly begun to think more and more about an escape from the room in which he has spent the past 4 weeks, he is the picture of contentment. His only demand is that I spend time playing with him and petting him. Not a lot of time - just a few minutes a couple of times a day to let him know he's loved. If I try to leave the room too soon, he's right on my heels trying to squeeze through the door behind me. But as long as I take the time to let him know he's not alone, he's happy to lie in the middle of the room and quietly watch me leave, ready to face another day.

The shelter has a spot open for Oscar so he'll be leaving me next week and Lucy and Ethel and I will return to our normal routine. They'll be relieved, and on some level, so will I. But I'm also going to miss Oscar and the lessons he has taught me about contentment. Because Oscar has reminded me that when I spend enough time with God to feel His love for me, I'm ready to face another day, too. I suspect my grandmother learned the same lesson from the cats she fed.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. - Philippians 4:12

October 22, 2009

Things That Go Bump in the Night

A few nights ago I was with a group of women, most of whom are attached - either married or living with a boyfriend. They got on the topic of what they do to feel safe when their significant other is out of town. One suggested keeping a brick by their bed. Really? Does that seem like a good idea? Another suggested a power drill plugged in by the bed. I kind of liked that one. There's nothing in the drill, mind you. Her theory is that the sound would startle any intruder into making a run for it.

But the truth is, the entire conversation took me by surprise because I've lived alone so long that the possibility of someone breaking in while I'm asleep rarely crosses my mind. Once or twice a month in cold months, when I don't have the white noise of a fan running all night, I'll wake up to the sound of police helicopters scouting the neighborhood. Even then, while it crosses my mind that someone could break in somewhere, I don't worry much about myself. I usually say a prayer for safety for everyone in my neighborhood, and go back to sleep. But that fan isn't off more than 4 months out of the year. The other 8 months someone could come in and pack up my whole house and I'd have a good chance of sleeping through it.

It wasn't always that way. When I was younger, I worried more. I'm not sure when that stopped, but I know it was after I began to let my faith become real. For years I'd pray for safety for myself each night before I went to sleep, but as I've gotten older, I guess I've learned to trust God more and more. I fully understand that there is evil in the world and that bad things can happen to any of us at any time, but I know that whatever happens, He will be there for me. Life is too short to be afraid to sleep alone in your own house.

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. - 2 Timothy 1:7

August 16, 2009

...And Not for Everyone

If you have read my last post (or even if you haven't), let me make a couple of things clear:
  • I don't think every unmarried person on the planet is called to sexual abstinence, but I do believe that those of us who are followers of Christ are called to that standard. It's not my job as a Christian to tell non-Christians how they should behave. It is my job to live my life as God calls a follower of Christ to live.
  • One of the issues singles in the church have whenever this issue is raised is a perception of smugness among our married peers. Whether that perception is real or imagined, I don't know. I do know that there's not much room for smugness in this area. Even if you waited until you were married to have sex, keep this in mind: if you were to find yourself single tomorrow, this would likely be an area you would find challenging, too.
  • While more and more single Christians are rejecting the idea of sexual abstinence, there are still many who believe that the Bible teaches celibacy for singles of all ages, and are faithful to that teaching.
  • This isn't about a specific denomination. It's about followers of Christ.
  • Becoming a poster child for middle-aged abstinence is not exactly among my lifetime goals. ;-)
People who only know me superficially assume I fit the Southern Baptist stereotype, but those who know me well would tell you that's not really the case. For instance, I can't read the quarterly (for you non-Baptists, that's the literature many Sunday school classes use) because it just makes me mad. Really mad. Generally I think Southern Baptist literature is written by pastors who would serve us all better if they'd just stick to their hillbilly congregations.

The last time I made the mistake of reading a quarterly lesson was a couple of years ago. The writer went on at length on a passage from Titus 2 about "older" women and drinking, suggesting that older women should not drink. Period. What my NIV Bible says specifically on the topic is "Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good." The writer of that lesson was guilty of slanting the material to fit Baptist tradition, despite what the Bible actually says on the topic.

What the Bible says on the issue is important, because medical science is coming to the same conclusion, that while older women should limit alcohol consumption, they are not being told they need to eliminate alcohol altogether. As is often the case with the teachings of the Bible, it turns out there are legitimate reasons behind the words. As we age, alcohol begins to affect us differently, and while there is a negative impact on both genders, older women are affected even more so than older men.

My point - and I do have one - is when we change the teaching to fit our own traditions or rationalizations, we water down the lessons of the Bible. I'm convinced that pragmatism is one of God's most underrated qualities. He doesn't give a list of rules to make everyone's life hard. He does call us to standards of behavior that elevate a society. Standards that show the world there is a difference when you put your faith in Him.

And so it is with sexual abstinence for Christian singles. While the world says that we are defined by our relationships, God says that the only relationship that should define us is our relationship with Him, through Jesus Christ. If we allow Him to guide us, the world should see something different in us, something transformational.

Here's what Paul said about that kind of transformed life in Romans 12:1-2 (The Message):
  • So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

August 15, 2009

Not Just for Kids - Not for Wimps Either

I was once at a seminar on relationships led by some local Christian counselors. Not surprisingly (at least not at the time) they discouraged sex outside of marriage...repeatedly.

There was a woman who wanted to argue the point. She said the Bible did not teach against sex outside of marriage, and that was only something the Puritans made up. The counselor then began to quote the Bible on this topic -- chapter and verse -- but she remained unconvinced.

In the years since then, the viewpoint of the woman behind me seems to have become much more prevalent. A few nights ago I listened -- uncharacteristically silently -- as a group of Christian friends discussed sex as though it is assumed in any dating relationship. A couple of days later I ran across a blog discussion on the topic, with a lot of Christians taking the same viewpoint.

There's a lot of blame to go around for this change in attitude about sexual sin. (I recognize that many will bristle at the suggestion there's still such a thing as sexual sin.) As a Southern Baptist, I come from a denomination that has a reputation for making up rules. No drinking, no dancing, and depending on where you grew up, maybe no card-playing or no smoking. All made-up rules. Now more and more Christians are convinced that abstaining from sex outside of marriage is just another made-up rule. They believe abstinence is just for kids, and that mature adults should be able to have mature sexual relationships.

But here's the problem. The call to sexual abstinence isn't a rule. It's a standard of behavior to which we are called to as followers of Christ. Sometimes we fail at it, but that's not an excuse to toss out the standard. It's a reason to lean on God a little more.

As much as I hate the 2-dimensional image of singles that I'm afraid some will get from this topic, I have a lot more to say about it, and I will in the days to come.

Sexual abstinence is not just for kids. And it's not for wimps either.

August 13, 2009

Why It Matters

Sometimes I am amazed at the speed with which a Facebook friend can go from listing their relationship as Married to It's Complicated to In a Relationship. A new relationship, not the relationship with the person to whom they were married just a couple months earlier. The person they were married to for years. The person they had children with. In the blink of an eye, they're in a new relationship. Sometimes they haven't even filed for divorce yet.

Has that become the new normal? Is it that people believe lines like "first you were half now you're whole" and all that followed it?

In my last post, I offered unsolicited advice to divorcing parents. A couple of items might seem particularly harsh, but when kids are involved, it's not just about you.

  • Whether you have decided to divorce or not, you are married until your divorce is final. Don't even think about dating - not online, and not in real life. Moving on too soon can be difficult for your children, and it's not wise for you on an emotional level. What your spouse chooses to do is beside the point. You are only responsible for your own choices.
  • Should you go through with a divorce, work on same-sex friendships before you start thinking about dating. A woman who acts boy crazy when her marriage fails makes bad choices and sets a horrible example for both daughters and sons. The same goes for men who start dating too soon.
You're used to having someone by your side, and it's natural to feel like a part of you is missing when you find yourself living without that person. That's how it's supposed to feel. It's a grieving process, and you have to work through that grief for the sake of your emotional health. It also shows your children how to get through a painful experience.

Why is dating too soon a bad example for kids? Because it teaches them that people you have loved are disposable. Younger kids will extrapolate that to mean that they're disposable, too. And if you're more concerned about your new relationship than you are in your children's adjustment to your separation, you're only reinforcing that view.

It gets more complicated with older kids. They may feel disposable, too. In addition to that, if they see you use a new relationship to boost your self-esteem, they're likely to do the same. That can lead to choices that will follow them throughout their lives. Half a person isn't going to be made whole by finding someone new, and you don't want your children to think relationships will solve everything.

I know how your actions impact your kids because my parents were divorced. My mom made some choices that must have been difficult for her, but she did what was best for her family. She showed us that faith in God will get you through anything. She taught me that the only relationship that will make you whole is a relationship with Christ. I love that about my mom.

August 12, 2009

Change is Hard

I have a couple of friends who were married in their 20s, and both have been single the last 25 years or so. As it happens, both got engaged this summer. At least one of them has expressed concern over the adjustment to married life after so many years on her own. But they're both bright women who have learned a lot in the last 25 years, and neither one has taken the decision to remarry lightly. I have every confidence that they'll work through whatever challenges come their way as they adjust to this happy chapter in their lives.

They'll have plenty of help. As I mentioned in one of my first posts, there are plenty of resources on marriage. There are books, there are magazine articles, there are marriage retreats, Dr. Phil counsels couples on marriage, and even the never-married Oprah offers marital advice. Both of my friends are involved in their respective churches, where there will likely be the obligatory marriage sermon series every couple of years. And of course churches affirm marriage in dozens of other ways.

But what about those who are adjusting to singleness after many years of marriage? We've watched a couple of high-profile marriages go through some rough times this summer. Just this past week, Jenny Sanford moved out of the South Caroline Governor's Mansion and plans to work on her marriage from a distance of 120 miles. It's a picture that is played out across the country every day.

Kate Gosselin has been making the talk show rounds this week answering questions about her marriage that seems to be beyond hope. It's a story we've all heard from friends in our lives.

And yet, Jenny Sanford, Kate Gosselin and all the others in their position won't get the same degree of support that couples receive. While those of us who have been single for decades have learned how to deal with singleness, those who have been married for many years often have a very difficult time navigating life on their own, particularly when there are children to raise.

Jenny Sanford is entering the marital limbo of the separated couple. While still married, it doesn't feel the same. She's probably not feeling single either. Even though the Gosselins have decided to divorce, that seems to be where Kate is, as well.

What would I tell these ladies and others in their position? While this advice is directed at women, it applies equally to men.

  1. Whether you have decided to divorce or not, you are married until a divorce is final. Don't even think about dating - not online, and not in real life. Moving on too soon can be difficult for your children, and it's not wise for you on an emotional level. What your spouse chooses to do is beside the point. You are only responsible for your own choices.
  2. Yes, your husbands have behaved stupidly and humiliated you in front of everyone you know. You can pour your heart out to your friends and vent about their bad behavior to them. What you cannot do, is vent to your children. Tearing the other parent down is an awful thing to do to kids, and it doesn't reflect well on you. After all, you're the one who chose this guy to be the father of your children. That's the first thing your kids will figure out. Over time, they'll make up their own minds about their dad's behavior. Painful as it is, you'll have to let that play out.
  3. Only vent to friends who are discreet, and don't vent in public. You don't want what you say to others to get back to your kids.
  4. Pay attention to what's going on with your kids. They don't want you to know that the pain you're going through is also creating havoc for them. Spend quality time with them. Stay on top of their schoolwork, make sure you know who they're hanging out with, and maintain the same expectations you have always had for their behavior. Don't let them fall through the cracks.
  5. Do not shut your spouse out of your kids' lives. They need both parents to be actively involved in their lives to get them through what is difficult time for them, too.
  6. Should you go through with a divorce, work on friendships with women before you start thinking about finding a new guy. A woman who acts boy crazy when her marriage fails makes bad choices and sets a horrible example for both daughters and sons. (Do I need to remind you again that this advice applies equally to men?)
  7. Find a support group. DivorceCare is a great group that can be found in many churches. You'll find other groups online, too. You'll learn that many of the feelings you're going through are the same feelings others have. It will help you to get your life back on track to know that you're not alone.
  8. Recognize that you made mistakes, too, and figure out what they are. Blaming your spouse will not help you to grow.
  9. Allow God to heal you, and allow Him to heal the relationship with your spouse as much as possible. Back to #1, what your spouse chooses to do is beside the point. You are only responsible for your own choices.
We all go through seasons of life. We never know how long the season will last, but we serve a God who knows all, and who is prepared to give us whatever we need, in the good times and the bad. Trust Him to be there for you.

July 24, 2009

Stereotypes Work Both Ways

Facebook has a way of breaking down barriers that life puts in our way. I have a Facebook friend from high school who lives in Japan. I don’t think we ever had a class together, and I don’t recall ever meeting him at a reunion, but we’ve become friends on Facebook. Not just names in the list of friends, but the kind of friends who actually post on one another’s page and who work on each other’s farms and occasionally chat in Farm Town (I know it’s addictive and I can stop anytime I want). We have also discovered – from our comments that we post on each other’s pages and those of mutual friends – that we share at least some political views in common. When our next reunion comes around, I’m sure we’ll make it a point to visit because we’re no longer strangers.

That’s the interesting thing about Facebook. You get to know people who may not have been on your radar before. There are others who have been acquaintances who you get to know better. And even when you don’t find a lot in common, you get past stereotypes and begin to develop a greater understanding of one another.

Facebook also helps you find friends by showing people you might know on your home page. Occasionally a young woman named Cindy from my church would pop up there. I had never been around Cindy much and might never have noticed her at all, but her father-in-law is on our church staff. There’s also a bit of a family connection. My brother first met her in-laws at OBU over 40 years ago, and in recent years my mom had taken a couple of trips with them. I often greeted Cindy when she came in with her two boys on Sunday mornings as her husband parked the car. I put Cindy in the category I tend to put most young married couples I don’t actually know in – people who will get interesting once their kids are grown. I know there’s an irony there. I get annoyed at the church for too often stereotyping single adults, but I do exactly the same thing to the young couples I know nothing about.

Last winter I began to realize Cindy didn’t belong in the box into which I had placed her. She wasn’t someone you could easily categorize at all. I was in a Bible study with her that I had to drop out of after just a couple of weeks, but Cindy managed to make an impression on me in that brief time. Several years ago she and her husband were in a serious car accident that nearly took her life. I remember praying for Cindy through that long recovery. It was only after much physical therapy that she was able to get back to her life. During the Bible study she spoke of that time in a way that made it clear how difficult it had been in every possible way, and yet she did so with humor. I don’t know many people who could do that. She also spoke – as any mother would – of her passion for her boys and her deep desire to protect them from the pain of life. As she spoke, I thought of the months that we had all prayed for her recovery and God’s grace in answering those prayers.

I began to pay more attention to Cindy after that study. Her family was usually seated a row or two behind me, and I often overheard the whispers she shared with her sons. She was the Assistant Director of a faith-based women’s shelter. I saw her at a benefit concert for the shelter a couple of weeks ago where her devotion to her work was apparent. Many Sundays she would step out of worship to answer a call from the shelter. Just last Sunday I looked up to see her coming back in, presumably after such a call, and I admired her dedication to the women she served.

Over the last several months, there were a couple of times when Cindy’s name popped up on Facebook as someone I might know, and I clicked and went to her page. I happened to go there last Tuesday.

Her page had the usual pictures of her family, including a darling profile picture of her with her husband and kids on what must have been Easter Sunday. But there were some clues there that she didn’t fit the usual mold. That shouldn’t have been surprising since Cindy wasn’t raised in the Baptist church. One of her favorite movies listed was Sex and the City. I know that’s not on the politically correct movie list for a good Baptist girl, but I liked it, too, and I admired her for putting it there. Under politics she put Democratic Party, which was a bit of a jolt because probably 90% of the members of my church who answer the politics question either put conservative or Republican. I can probably count on one hand my Baptist Facebook friends who tell the world they're Democrats. Under Cindy's favorite quotes was one that made me laugh to myself: “Liberals are just Evangelicals that actually read the Bible.” For a brief moment last Tuesday, I considered clicking the Friend Request button but decided I’d do it someday, but not just then.

Cindy died unexpectedly Wednesday morning. Today, I join with my church family in continuing to pray for the husband and boys she left behind. And I can’t help but think of a missed opportunity to get to know someone better who I might have found I had a lot in common with despite the differences in age and marital status. It hurts to be stereotyped but it also hurts us when we stereotype others because we miss out on some of God’s greatest blessings.

Don’t miss those opportunities to reach out and make new friends…the kind of friends you make in real life. God can even use Facebook to make it happen.

July 18, 2009

How Do We Get There From Here?

Let me begin this post by reminding you that the reason I write this blog is to be an encouragement to single Christians who are middle-aged. It is my goal to encourage singles in their walks with Christ, and encourage them to take their place within the body of Christ. If you're married and get something from it, that's great. If you have a single friend you want to send the link to, please feel free to do so.

This post is aimed directly at everyone, married and single, to try to explain some of the hurdles singles face within the church. Generally speaking, my own church does a great job with singles. But we can always do better. Some of the examples you'll find here are taken from my church, and some are generalities - I'm not going to tell you which is which.

Why do middle-aged singles need more encouragement than anyone else? Because we're largely overlooked by everyone else. Outside the walls of the church, nearly half the adult population is single. Within the church, the percentage is usually much lower. Singles ministries are often geared towards younger singles, which makes churches feel good because they think they're doing their part to help young adults find Christan mates.

But what happens to those of us who have never married, or those who are single again due to divorce or the death of a spouse? It becomes more and more difficult for those of us who fit in this category to find our place within a church that seems geared towards couples who are raising their children.

Why does this matter? Because Paul tells us that the body of Christ is more than one group of people. It's single adults of all ages, senior adults, newly married couples and couples who have spent their entire adult lives together. It's singles and marrieds with children at home, those with children who are grown, and those without children. And each part of the body must be concerned about every other part in order for the body to function properly.

When that doesn't happen, some parts often wind up feeling excluded from the rest of the church. Much of what I'm saying in this post would apply just as much to senior adults as it does to singles, but some of it is exclusive to singles. Here are some of the situations that can exist in any church where most of the body ignores the single adults.

  • Single moms and dads have a difficult time building relationships with the parents of their children's peers. Too often, that makes it difficult for their children to make friends within the church, which in turn, causes the children to feel left out of the body of Christ.

  • Singles who choose to go to mixed classes can find themselves feeling invisible. Sure, there are people who talk to them, but too often it's the handful who are in class leadership, and not the members who don't consider it their job to visit with those outside their group of friends.

  • Singles who have gifts to share are often overlooked, leaving them feeling frustrated. When church leaders are looking for people to do work within the church, their minds seem to automatically gravitate to lists of couples.

Are these problems the fault of the structure of the church? Partly.

Is it the fault of pastors who sometimes seem to forget that there are single people in the congregation? Partly.

Is it the fault of married couples who sometimes seem to diminish singles in the church? Partly.

Is it the fault of singles ourselves? Partly.

There is a huge chunk of the population that avoids church solely because of marital status. Unlike couples, they don't walk into a church with a built-in person to talk to, or a spouse who is naturally more outgoing and helps build friendships. They're walking in alone, and it's hard to walk into a church alone. It's so hard, in fact, that many single adults will not give a church more than one chance to make a good impression, which is unfortunate because we all have bad days. Churches have to be sensitive to the needs of singles all the time if they want to make a dent in the statistics that show us that singles would just as soon avoid church altogether, thank you very much.

How can the structure of the church change to make it easier for singles to feel included in the church? Well, that depends on the church. A huge help would be to put singles in an area with their married peers instead of segregating them. Every committee should make an effort to include singles - and not the same handful of singles stretched to serve on every committe.

Pastors can include singles in their sermons. It's natural for a pastor to use illustrations they can relate to themselves, but if you want a congregation that doesn't look exactly like you, then expand the illustrations to include singles, and for that matter, seniors. Part of a pastor's job is to lead from the pulpit, and if you want a diverse congregation, you're going to have to model diversity in your sermons, and in your actions.

What can couples do? Make an effort to get to know the single parents of the kids in your own child's class. Include those kids from single parent families in activities with your family. Invite singles (or seniors) to your home for a meal. When you have friends from church over, include some singles.

What can singles do? Visit a church several times before you write it off. Get involved. If you decide to join that church, look for areas in the church where you can use your gifts and volunteer to serve there, and serve faithfully. You too, can invite a couple over for a meal, or include couples when you have singles over. Every single adult who gets involved makes it easier for others in the church to remember to include singles. Just as the rest of the church should be concerned about the singles in the church, single adults should be concerned about every other part of the body.

This isn't intended to be a comprehensive list of changes that would make churches more single-friendly. But it's a start.

July 16, 2009

When Do You Hand Your Desires Over to God?

This morning we learned that the woman who gave birth a week shy of her 67th birthday, sparking a debate about how old is too old to give birth, died over the weekend. Her twin boys are not quite 3-years-old. Her mother had lived to be 101, but even as Maria del Carmen Bousada was undergoing the fertility treatments that allowed her to give birth, God knew that Maria would not experience her mother's longevity, and she would not live to raise her two sons.

I can't begin to pretend that I know what Maria went through that drove her to lie about her age and go through fertility treatments at a time when most women her age would be planning retirement. It would be presumptuous of me to say that God could not have been behind that intense desire. I only know that for me, there came a time to let go of the dream of children and hand that desire over to God.

I used to think I would have 3 or 4 kids. By my early 30s, while I began to suspect God had a different plan, I still had an intense desire for children. I finally prayed, if it wasn't going to happen, that God would remove the desire for children from my heart. Not knowing that was my prayer, a few years later a friend told me she would never pray that prayer because it seemed selfish to her. She thought it just seemed too easy. I was able to assure her there was nothing easy about it.

God designed us to have hopes and dreams. He also designed us to grieve over loss. We grieve when we lose people we love. We grieve when we lose pets. We grieve when we lose jobs. And we grieve when we lose dreams.

So when I asked God to remove the desire for children if they were not to be a part of my life, He led me though the grief process for my lost dream. And because grief takes time, it was a long process, at least 2 or 3 years. It was every bit as painful as the death of a close family member. I knew I had come through it when one day a friend from high school asked if I would be OK with never having kids, I responded "yes" without hesitation, and without pain.

It was during this time that I began to understand the meaning of Psalm 37:4 - "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart." I realized that verse was never meant to be a blueprint for manipulating God and that it doesn't mean that if we spend enough time with God then He will reward us with whatever we desire. It means that if we spend enough time with God, our desires will be replaced with His desires. And I learned to trust His desires for me and my life. And I learned to love Him that much more.

June 24, 2009

Parental Unit Recogniton

One of the worst moments for me as a single adult in church was actually caused by another single woman. It was Wednesday night and as part of the prayer meeting, there was kind of an open mic element, meaning anyone could go to a microphone and share a prayer request.

This particular Wednesday, a woman from my Sunday school class went to the mic and tearfully requested prayer for all of the singles saying “the singles in this church are hurting.” Everyone at my table froze for an instant. We knew that every single wasn’t hurting at that moment, and more to the point, we knew what was driving her prayer request wasn’t so much about “all” the singles. She had recently been dumped by her boyfriend, also a member of our Sunday school class.

The other 150 or so in the room that night didn’t know that little detail. Neither did the pastor.

Next thing I knew, the pastor, in an effort to be sensitive to such an emotional request, asked all of the hurting singles to raise their hands. Around the room, single people were sitting on their left hands so no one would notice the lack of a ring. Slowly, a few people raised a hand not so much to admit to hurting themselves but to rescue the woman at the microphone from feeling more alone than she already felt. If I were a more considerate person, I might have raised my hand, too. Instead I sat, frozen in my seat, sitting on both hands, and visually measuring the distance between my chair and the door, wondering if there was any possible way to drop to the floor and crawl out of Fellowship Hall without being noticed.

The couples and those of us singles who didn’t raise our hands were then encouraged to lay hands on the ones brave enough to admit to their hurts and pray for them. As I recall, I chose the woman seated next to me – I don’t remember much about the quickly mumbled prayer. I do remember the intense desire to run when it was over.

Another please, God, let the earth open so I can fall in moment used to be Mothers Day. As still happens in a lot of churches, each year all the mothers were asked to stand so they could be recognized, leaving the childless to sit in our seats, feeling particularly empty, and wondering if there is a way to crawl out of the auditorium without anyone noticing.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate motherhood. I take the Jacqueline Kennedy view on parenting. Raising children is the most important thing any parent will ever do. As Jackie said, “If you bungle raising your kids, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much.” It’s a simple philosophy that clearly demonstrates the importance of raising children for those who are parents.

But somehow it seems that when we applaud women (or men) simply for being parents, it’s as though church members feel a need to pat each other on the back for procreation. It’s seems particularly self-centered when you realize it causes some in the congregation pain. It’s not just women who are single and childless who have a hard time on Mothers Day, there are many couples who struggle with fertility and miscarriages, there are moms who have lost their children, there are (married and single) mothers and children who are estranged from one another, and there are always children – of all ages – who have recently lost their moms and are struggling with grief. And there are those who chose not to have children who feel alienated by churches who make them feel flawed for that choice.

My church has now reached a point where I feel like we have found a happy balance on Mothers Day. Recognizing that Mothers Day isn’t always cause for celebration, we’ve made it more low-key. This year a mom from the congregation prayed for mothers, thanking God for them and asking Him to grant them wisdom, without the big moment for all the moms to stand so we could applaud.

And after that service, I did the unthinkable, smugly patting the church on the back in my mind for recognizing mothers without going out of the way to cause pain to those who weren’t feeling particularly joyful about the day. I forgot about the men in our congregation until this past Sunday, which was Fathers Day.

I am ashamed to admit that I have never given much thought about Fathers Day services. Fathers Day, after all is different. It’s about ties and cookouts. It’s not as warm and fuzzy. And surely, men don’t have the same issues women have.

This past Sunday it finally hit me that all of those things I spelled out that can make Mothers Day difficult apply just as much to Fathers Day. There are men in those couples who struggle with fertility and miscarriages, there are dads who have lost their children, there are (married and single) dads and children who are estranged from one another, and there are always children – of all ages – who have recently lost their dads and are struggling with grief. And there are those men who chose not to have children who feel alienated by churches who make them feel flawed for that choice.

On top of that, while the church has come around on the issue of single moms, we too often think of single dads as lacking. I think groups like PromiseKeepers - while doing much good in the lives of untold numbers of men strengthening them in their walks with Christ - may have had the unintended consequence of making churches more judgmental about single men. When I tell people I’ve just met that I’m single, they often say something like “I think single moms are great.” They don't ask if I have children – they just assume that I do. But I’ve never heard anyone volunteer to a single man that they think single dads are great. In the church, the assumption is often that single moms are struggling to raise their children alone while the dads are living the high life, oblivious to their kids.

The church has to let go of old stereotypes. There are childless men who wish they had kids, just as there are childless women who are grateful they don’t. And there are single dads who move heaven and earth to provide for their children, spending as much time as humanly possible with them, attending soccer games, school performances, and parent teacher conferences. They work hard to make every moment with their kids count. Single dads are great, too.

We often wonder why, by middle age, there are relatively few single men who regularly attend church. I think a greater mystery is why we have any at all. I have to believe that the church that finds a way to encourage single men instead of making them feel inferior will find a lot more single men who want to be a part of their church family.