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.