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.

June 15, 2009

I'm Not a Celebrity. Get Me Out of Here!

So maybe you have recently wandered out of the yard and darkened the door of a church. If you've been out of church for awhile like I had, or if this is your first experience on the inside, it can be as intimidating as any reality TV show.

That's why I hid out in the balcony for a year. I did venture into a Sunday school class...once. It was dreadful. For several months I had wondered how you could find out about classes without getting trapped into actually going to one. (This was clearly before the internet made that kind or research easier.) I wondered if there were mixed classes that singles could attend or if I would have to attend a singles class, something I wanted to avoid at all costs. Clearly singles classes would have to be made up of people who were desperately seeking spouses, or who were generally dysfunctional. I wasn't like those people.

Somewhere along the way, I filled out a visitor card, even though I was already a member of the church. Since I had been on that 18-year sabbatical and hadn't received mail in years, I knew that the church had not kept up with my moves. So I outed myself and gave my address and asked to be placed on a Sunday school roll.

I was placed on the Singles 2 roll. (I hate Singles being used in the name of a class, but that's a blog for another day.) Singles 2 was - theoretically - a class for 30-39 year-olds. I was 32. So the April Sunday I finally mustered up enough courage to try it, I was a little surprised - no make that mortified - when I stepped into a room full of people who appeared to be well past 39. They weren't all older. Roughly a third of them fit into the advertised age range. There were a handful who were just a little past 39, but it appeared that more than half were 45+. When you're 32, that's a giant leap.

So after taking a step back into the hall to verify that I was in the right room, I took a deep breath and walked in, reminding myself I wasn't like those people. It wasn't long before I felt like I was getting the third degree. "Oh, you grew up here? What church have you been attending?" (Um, was I supposed to be attending church somewhere? I suspected that "I've spent the last several years worshiping by the pool" wasn't going to be the right answer.) Mercifully, it soon became time for class to begin. I don't remember for sure, but it seems like we prayed for the lost and for those who should be in church but aren't. It was my worst nightmare and I couldn't wake myself up. The nightmare continued when the teacher got up and talked about what an awful year it had been for many in the class as she introduced the guest for the day, the director of the Baptist women's shelter. Oh, yeah, I was going to get up and run as soon as class was over because I definitely wasn't like those people.

So I spent another 6 months hiding out in the balcony. Of course now I recognized the singles from the class and saw where they sat and vowed not to be part of that group.

Then one Sunday afternoon, a woman in the class who was trying to clean up the roll called me. Singles classes have a difficult time with the roll because a lot of people join, attend a time or two, and then move on. Some go to other churches, some move out of town, and some eventually marry. But their names remain on the roll as some kind of tribute to The Sunday They Attended Your Class.

So my name was one of many on the Singles 2 roll who had attended once or twice. She invited me to the Halloween party. Dear God in heaven, was that nightmare Sunday from April not enough? I told her that I might try to attend, but I wasn't really sure. (The heck I wasn't sure - there was no way I was going to a singles Halloween party. Yikes!)

Then she noticed my address was about a block from where the class was starting a weeknight Bible study that week. God was clearly leading, because even though that wasn't something I would normally have wanted to do, I asked her for the address and the time. More than that, when the night came, I actually went.

I recognized most of the group from that ill-fated Sunday 6 months earlier, although this time there was actually a girl there in her mid-20s. The Singles 1 class had folded a few months before and been mixed with the Singles 2 class (which still included the 45+ crowd), and while most of the twenties ran for the hills, a few brave souls stuck it out. And that night as we all visited together, studied Romans together, and prayed together, something happened. I realized that people are people, and regardless of where we come from, we're all pretty much alike. So it turned out that I was like those people, after all.

The next Sunday, I made my second visit to Singles 2. My preconceived notions were gone, and my mind and my heart were open to what God was doing in my life. And that's how I made the leap from hiding in the balcony to becoming part of a church family. And those people who were at the Bible study that night? They're still my friends nearly 17 years later. More than friends, really, they're like my family.

June 11, 2009

Leaving the Yard

If anywhere from 40-50% of the population is single, why isn't that percentage represented in churches? Why is it that single people so often avoid church, or work very hard at being invisible when we're in church? Could it be the culture of the church?

If Noah's ark consisted of 2x2s and the church seems to consist of 2x2s, what happens to the 1x1s who try to navigate the church? Do they get thrown overboard? Are they kept in steerage?

In some churches, the answer would be, um, yes. As in the ones who aren't thrown overboard get thrown into steerage. On the other hand, sometimes we choose to jump overboard. We may even sign up for steerage.

My drivers ed teacher was full of funny sayings. He'd ask things like "How do you know if you're driving in a straight line? People, you don't look at the Buick logo in the middle of the steering wheel to see if it's straight!" (How many 16-year-olds today would even recognize a Buick logo?)

Mr. Ramsey often asked us questions about various streets in Tulsa. He soon learned that if the streets were outside the boundaries of our school district, we would look at him with blank faces. One day in total exasperation he yelled, "People, the next time your parents leave the front gate open, I want you to wander out of the yard!" (I always wondered how we were supposed to know about these streets when we weren't driving yet, and could only go where we were taken, but that's beside the point.)

He had the answer to a lot of life's questions in that one sentence. We have to wander out of the yard! We have our licenses now, we've got the keys to the car. There's no excuse for staying in our yards anymore.

I was baptized when I was 7, but by the time I was 14, I was pretty disillusioned with organized religion. I didn't want to do the church thing anymore. So I took what I now refer to as "my 18-year sabbatical" from church. About 11 years into it, I began to feel the need for something more, and I occasionally visited churches of different denominations - and churches of no denomination - but was still reluctant to change my attitude about church. I was particularly reluctant to change my attitude about the church I had grown up in. I thought "any church but that church."

So through my 20s and into my early 30s, I was one of those people who thought of Sunday as the loneliest day of the week. There was no getting around it - it wasn't just the loneliest day, it was the longest day, too. There were things I enjoyed about Sundays. I loved taking the paper out and reading it by the pool. Sunday mornings were quiet - not like Saturday mornings when neighbors were out and children and grandchildren were around. Sundays were peaceful and relaxing. I told myself that was my form of worship. But by Sunday afternoon, the families were back as if to remind me that I was alone.

But then one August, I found myself standing in the balcony of the church I'd sworn I would not go back to. And I knew I'd come home. It wasn't easy. My goal was to sneak in and out each Sunday and not be seen. I'd hide in the top of the balcony where I avoided talking to anyone. Is it any wonder it wasn't all that satisfying, and I still felt lonely, even surrounded by 1,000 people in worship?

But it was the first step. I had wandered out of the yard.

June 9, 2009

Transportation Comparisons

Years ago, I had a single friend who had come up with an analogy for singleness. She said that being single was like riding a motorcycle - you're exposed to the elements without any protection. Meanwhile, being married was like riding in a car. You have heat and A/C, plus protection from wind and rain, and more than that, some added protection in the event of an accident.

She went on to add that being married to the wrong person was like being trapped in a car with a wild animal.

Over the many years since then, I've often thought about that analogy, particularly when I was feeling sorry for myself. Recently though, I've started looking at it differently.

Sometimes when you're on a motorcycle - something I can mostly just imagine because I've only ridden on a motorcycle once in my life* - you can go around trouble spots rather than being held hostage in a line of traffic. Sometimes it's just an easier way to get around. And even though you're exposed to the elements, you can often pull under a bridge or a covering somewhere along the way - allowing God to provide.

On the other hand, riding in a car can have its negative issues, too. There's sheer terror when you tap on the brakes and realize they're not working. There are annoyances when the air conditioning goes out on the hottest of days and rolling the windows down just doesn't help at all. And we all know the frustration of a car that won't start. Some marriages are broken too, and riding in that car isn't remotely pleasant or comforting.

When we're riding a motorcycle on life's journey, we often learn to trust God in a way that I don't know comes easily to married couples. It's so easy to put your trust in another person and never learn what it means to lean on God for everything. The relationship with God that singleness brings is an amazing gift.

*My brother was driving the motorcycle and we were much younger then. Enough said. :-)

June 4, 2009

The Loneliest Day

A year ago this week, Tatum O'Neal was arrested for buying cocaine. When she appeared on Oprah last fall to talk about her arrest, Oprah asked her how she could make such a mistake after being clean for 10 months. "I wish I could describe why I would make a decision like this," she said. "I really can't. It baffles me." As I recall, Tatum went on to say that it was a Sunday afternoon, and her kids were with their dad. Oprah interrupted her to say something like, "Sunday is the loneliest day. That's what I used to think when I was single."

That jolted me when I heard it. I don't think of Sunday as a lonely day at all now, in fact it's my favorite day of the week. But it hasn't always been that way for me, and I had forgotten how lonely it can be.

Others say they have felt the loneliest on Sunday. Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman reportedly named their daughter Sunday to celebrate the end of lonely Sundays, saying they "dreaded" Sundays before they married in 2006. Keith Urban told Ellen DeGeneres, "particularly when you don't have someone in your life, in my experience, Sunday was the loneliest day. Everyone goes with their families and if you don't have a family, you don't have anybody. It went from being sort of the most dreaded day of the week for us to being the most joyous day, because we just had a family."

That is so painful to hear. While we worship God within the body of Christ, there are people from all walks of life who are doing all they can to make it through the day they think of as the loneliest of the week. And some of them are even worshiping with us, not fully becoming a part of the body. Why is that? Why do so many single people either avoid church altogether, or come to church but hang back, not experiencing what it's like to be part of the family of God?

Sunday can be the most joyous day of the week whether you have a relationship or not, whether you have children or not. Psalm 68 says that God "sets the lonely in families." But we have to be open to whatever kind of family He chooses to place us in. And there is a burden on those of us who are active in our churches - both single and married - to be more sensitive to those who still think of Sunday as the loneliest day.

June 3, 2009

From Stuff Christians Like

One of my Facebook friends posted a link to this blog the other day, and aside from the post itself which was very good, it has some great comments from readers about being single in the church.

How did you score? I got a 76.