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...