Archive for Christianity

Advent, Waiting, and Singleness

Each night in the month of December leading up to Christmas, my family would gather at the table for advent. Mum or dad would light one of the candles, then read part of the Christmas story from the Bible. Then, we’d pick a couple Christmas carols to sing together, mostly off-key, before taking turns to blow out the candle. It was a time of waiting, preparing, getting ready for the great celebrations that would come Christmas Eve night with the last night of advent, then stockings and one little gift to be followed by the opening of presents on Christmas morning, then a delicious late lunch.

I must admit that, as a child, most of my anticipation was looking forward to opening presents and spending time together as a family. Much of the magic of this season came from the twinkling lights, the beautiful tree, the repeated traditions, the sentimental decorations. Waiting was difficult, yet exciting, I didn’t mind this particular waiting – a practice of delayed gratification and the building up of expectations.

There is beauty in the waiting of advent season. Israel knew a Messiah was to come, but they waited for decades, centuries. Zechariah waited for Christ’s birth before he could speak again. Elizabeth and Mary waited to meet their sons, to see what God’s miracle meant. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we remember and honor this waiting for a savior, for the promised hope. We feel a tiny piece of what those before us felt, and we can’t help but ache for the waiting we now experience before Christ’s return to us, or before we meet him after death.

Over the past 15 years of my life, I’ve had moments (or even years) where I felt like I was stuck, just waiting for my future to happen. Waiting to see where I would end up, what job I’d have, what ministry I’d take part in. Even more so, waiting to see if I would marry, if I’d have children. Waiting. Not knowing if it would happen or not. Not being able to plan for the future without actually have two plans: If I get married then I’ll do this . . . if not, I’ll do this other thing.

I was taught to wait to have sex, wait to give my heart away, wait to have children, wait on God’s plans for my life to reveal themselves; wait, wait, wait. Yet here I am, celibate, single, with no children and no assurances of what exactly God wants to do with my future. This type of waiting wore me down, and my anxiety about the future increased. Waiting can be good, but we are often taught to wait for the wrong things and in the wrong way.

There is a deep beauty in the waiting, but only if we wait for the right things, and wait well.

Single Christians are often raised with the expectation that God will indeed bring us a spouse and maybe some children, if we just wait on his time. Fathers pray with their daughters for their future husbands. Mothers raise their sons to be good husbands. Parents raise their children to be excellent parents someday. Youth pastors encourage teens not to hang out with the opposite sex unless they are “ready” (by their own subjective standard) to seek a potential marriage partner. Churches preach at singles to be celibate until they get married, then they are suddenly expected to have the Best Sex Life Ever with their spouse.

Women who struggle to get pregnant are prayed over and told to wait on God’s time. For those of us who never get the spouse, never get the kids, we can become bitter and confused. After all, we waited! We did what we were supposed to do. Yet the expected result never came. So at this point, why bother with the waiting?

Much of Israel must’ve felt this way when Christ came. After all, they waited for centuries! They tried to follow the rules, and yet the military leader they expected to come crush Rome never appeared. To many, the Messiah or savior still hasn’t come. They are still waiting, to the point where some believe it’s actually now just more of a tradition than a reality; they don’t believe it’ll ever actually happen because it didn’t happen the way they wanted it to.

I’ve had to go through my expectations and remove the ones that aren’t actually promised in Scripture. I’ve had to realign my expectations, to reevaluate what it is I’m actually waiting for. Because if we’re waiting for something that’s not even promised, we are bound to be disappointed. However, waiting for something that is guaranteed? Something that is promised by someone who never breaks their promises? This is worth the wait.

I can wait on the Lord, on his justice and mercy and goodness. I can wait on the promises that he is working in my life, and that one day I will be united with him. I can wait on the guarantee of an eternal life without pain, with all beauty and truth, in community with the one who knows me and loves me better than anyone else. I can wait on an eternity with the truest of all loves.

Our waiting can look like little kids in the weeks before Christmas who get more and more hyper and excited, with increasing expectations. They are bound to crash on Christmas day, and be disappointed when they finally get what they have waiting for so long. Or we are like the children who get more and more grumpy, rebellious, bitter, and impatient because Christmas can’t come quickly enough for us.

Instead, I’m learning to dwell in the waiting with joy, to seek out the beauty of God with me now – not just at some time in the future, to walk day by day knowing my own plans might not come to fruition, but God’s plan is still moving forward and it is better.

So this advent season, I encourage you to douse yourself in the waiting. Just make sure you’re waiting for the right things in the right way.

Here are a few things that are helping me wait this advent season:

Paper Cuts, Singleness, and Politics

Since school started up again a few weeks ago, my hands are covered in little paper cuts. As a book-wielding librarian, these little slices are the inevitable collateral damage. In the midst of a busy class, I often don’t even notice when a page I’m turning or a plastic book cover has broken the skin until after the kids file out of the library and I glance down to see yet another angry red slash on my fingers. In that moment, when noticed, the pain finally hits and can take days to heal enough to no longer irritate me.

Similarly, these past couple of years, I feel like I’m walking around with little barely-there slices and dices out of my heart, my soul, myself.

A much beloved former student reposts a meme about how untrustworthy all single people are, how married folks need to avoid us lest we seduce them away from their spouses. Supportive comments follow, mostly by men, all affirming the truth of this ridiculous cliché. And it cuts.

Kavanaugh lies and dissembles before the senate and is defended and even praised by people I know, people who claim to love God and love others. He would never assault a woman because he’s such a “good” guy. And why didn’t she report it? And if he did . . . it was just a youthful indiscretion. And if we start holding all men accountable for the dumb things they do as teenage boys, where would we be? These slices hurt more than you initially think possible, endlessly causing pain and discomfort. Even when I’m not thinking about it directly, the pain lingers.

The mother waiting for her child to finish his AR test after school strikes up small talk by asking me how old my kids are. I flinch, awkwardly not knowing how to respond, confused by this out-of-nowhere assumption. When I reply that I don’t have any kids, she looks at me with confusion, then surprise, then pity. One more slash.

Alums from my graduate school days post unwavering support for a divisive, unnecessary, and incredibly problematic statement made by many modern American evangelical pastors and leaders against social justice. Another furrow gashes my heart.

I know many people who would just call me a Snowflake and tell me to suck it up. They’d look at my sliced up self and scoff, thinking I must be weak and overly sensitive, a SJW who just needs to lighten up. But the minute I question the church’s idolatrous views of marriage, the GOP’s continued support of irrational, abusive, but powerful men, or the shirking of the church’s mandate to love its neighbor, I am faced with people questioning my faith, my character, and my intellect in shocked, offended tones.

What’s so wrong about being sensitive to others? I’m a Christian forgiven and beloved by God, a school librarian who works with little children, and a counselor who helps those in the darkest of times – shouldn’t sensitivity be a requirement in my life? Can’t that sensitivity strengthen my resolve to fight for what is right and good and just? Shouldn’t I be a warrior for all kinds of justice?

I am an educated, middle class, employed, white woman living in a first world country with a supportive family. If I walk through each day like the walking wounded, bracing myself for the next injury, flinching at each attack, I cannot imagine what life must be like right now for those with less privilege.

So each day, I walk through life with tiny open wounds – not enough to kill or cause permanent damage, but enough that even tiny movements are felt, every flex of my fingers may make me wince. Each turn of the page reminds me that my skin is breakable, that I’m at risk. I used to be tougher, better able to ignore all the incisions, but now I’m just tired and sore.

So each day, I apply bandages to these injuries, to protect myself. I fortify myself with prayer and Scripture. I deleted Twitter. I stopped going to small group at church. I give myself permission to block or mute people on social media so they cannot continue to wound me or my readers. I read fewer news articles. I seek out podcasts and sermons that lift my eyes to the Lord. I cling to my family and friends. I check to make sure I’m registered to vote. I co-facilitate GriefShare each week, and grieve deep losses with those who suffer deeper wounds than mine. I listen to music that lifts up my soul. Little things that help me heal. Band-aids and plasters to cover up the cruelty of this world. I know these paper cuts are part of our broken world, inevitable and unstoppable, but I still pray for a day when fewer of them are caused by those of us who claim faith in Christ.

Not Everything is Terrible

Looking back over my blog, I realize that I often highlight the negative. If you only know me through this blog, you definitely see my struggles and my cynicism, but I’m not sure if you can see my joy. Perhaps joy is actually more difficult for someone like me to express in blog form because there can be something so ineffable about it, something hard to put my finger on.

After struggling through my last bad bout of depression two years ago I made some radical changes in my life (which I explain in my first ever Awkward Spinster blog “Life, Episode VI”). One of the things which has really helped change my outlook is learning to consciously realize not everything is terrible, and to actually put in work to change my focus from all the bad things to the good as well. For this pessimistic soul, this takes continual effort and does not come naturally.

Perhaps this shift in thinking doesn’t come naturally for you either, so I invite you to try out the following steps for a bit and see if they help. If you’re an optimist, that’s awesome, keep reading for tips for your not-quite-so-perky friends, or for the inevitable crash that will happen when things don’t turn out quite as brilliantly as you thought they would (Oops, my cynicism is showing a bit too much!).

So, here are the Awkward Spinster’s 4 steps to realizing that not everything is terrible:

Recognize the Excellent Times

Philippians 4:8 tells us: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

But how can we think on these things if we don’t even realize they’re happening? In the midst of hard times, it can be difficult to see past our struggles. The first step I have to take to overcome my pessimistic mind is first to even recognize that truth that not everything actually is terrible, no matter how much it might feel like it is. I must pay attention to and acknowledge the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy things as they happen.

Last Monday, I got to spend an evening with two of my best friends. As we sat on the patio drinking good wine, eating good food, and talking I realized that for once, all three of us were happy. At the same time! For a few years now, we’ve each gone through some tough times personally, physically, and professionally, but in this moment we were all doing well. Instead of letting that realization pass by, I acknowledged it out loud. Somewhat incredulously, with a huge grin, I asked them “Wait a second, are all three of us actually happy with where we’re at right now?” They responded with big smiles as we toasted this precious moment.

You see, the three of us have picked each other back up from hard times, encouraged one another, and prayed with and for each other time and time again. It was important for us to pause and acknowledge this wonderful moment, to not let it slip past.

It’s also helpful for me, when trying to see the good things in life and not just the bad, to celebrate the excellent times in the lives of others as well. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” I’m pretty good at weeping with those who weep, but we also need to rejoice with our friends and family in their good moments!

My little niece is so excited about birthdays and Christmas, pretty much any opportunity for gifts to be opened. But when my nephew had a little graduation party, she struggled to enjoy it in its entirety because she didn’t know how to rejoice with him when he was being celebrated instead of her. She is just beginning to learn the freedom and excitement of being genuinely happy for others’ good fortune instead of giving in to jealousy.

I have found soul-deep joy in the marriages and children of my dear friends, even though God has chosen not to give them to me. Enjoying when lovely things happen to those around us, even if things aren’t particularly great in our lives at the moment, can help us see past ourselves and remember there is good. Instead of feeling sad or bitter when we’re stuck at home while a friend goes on a lovely vacation, our love for them can lead us to feel happiness on their behalf, which spills over into our own lives.

Linger in the Sweet Moments

Once we recognize that we are, indeed, in the midst of a particularly sweet moment, we can do our best to linger in it. This isn’t always possible, as some moments of grace and goodness are fleeting. But I’m actually starting to realize that, even in the midst of my busy days, I have the ability to pause a little longer and change the course of my day ever so slightly by lingering in these moments of joy.

When we recognize that good things aren’t always big things, then even pausing on the walk from the car to the classroom to look up to the sky can help change my focus. After all, Psalm 19:1 tells us “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

I blogged a bit about my quest to find more beauty in life, and once I’ve found those moments I’m trying to stay in them a bit longer. I’m an efficient worker, so this takes practice for me. It can feel wasteful or hedonistic at first – but it is necessary and life-giving, bringing glory to God and peace to our souls.

This Sunday afternoon, my mom invited my brother, his wife, and son over after church for lunch. She told them that I needed to blog, so probably wouldn’t be able to stay outside with them for very long, but they were welcome to stay as long as they liked. But the minute we set up the little paddling pool and Benji jumped in with glee, my heart was filled with incredible joy.

Several times I tried to head back in to my desk to work on this post, but I kept ending up back outside with the family, laughing with my sweet boy as he splashed around with sheer joy. Instead of stressing me out because I didn’t get my writing done when I’d planned on it, I came back to my laptop after they’d gone, inspired and refreshed. Prioritizing that beautiful time, choosing to linger outside, helped change my perspective.

Be Grateful for all Good Gifts

Acknowledging and extending beautiful moments should naturally result in feelings of gratitude. Interestingly, even if these feelings don’t come naturally all the time, we can develop them with practice. On joyous occasions, our gratitude should bubble out of us like children at Christmas who can’t stop thanking their parents for getting them exactly what they wanted even though they weren’t sure they’d get it.

James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Each moment of beauty, each time of rest, each bit of peace we experience, each laugh and smile – these are all gifts from God.

When I watch my little nephew giggle with such pure glee from splashing in the water, when I see my brother and his wife laughing with him and experiencing so much pleasure watching him have fun, I am overcome by gratitude to God for giving us this moment.

As we recognize awesome times, and try to linger in them a bit longer, our gratitude should extend to others as well as God. By stopping to thank my mom for making us lunch and getting the little pool, it helps me appreciate the thought and effort she put in to making this day happen. By thanking my friends for having me over after a long day of work, making me drinks and cooking for me, I’m noticing even more little things which were gifts that night.

I’m learning that a heart filled with gratitude is a bit less easily darkened by depression.

Remember the Not-Terrible Things

My last tip is to fix all these little joy-filled moments in your mind to remember when things do get terrible again. Because they will. That’s not the cynic in me speaking, it’s the reality of this world. And for those of us prone more to negative thinking or even depression, it’s easy in the hard times to forget the good, it’s easy to feel like things will always be this bad. This is when we must preach the truth to ourselves over and over again – after all, Philippians 4:8 begins by telling us to think on “whatever is true,” it is the first thought on which all else hangs. And the truth is that God is good and he loves us.

If we’ve rehearsed thinking on these things – the times in our lives he has given us good gifts of children’s laughter, majestic skies, good meals with friends, an endless array of beautiful things both big and small – then in our darker moments we can remind ourselves that not everything is terrible, even if it feels like it is.

Psalm 116:5-7 states “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Our souls can return to rest in these memories instead of letting the negative ones swarm over us completely.

These steps aren’t the magic bullet to contentment and happiness, there is no such thing. But they’ve helped me through the past couple of years. They’ve helped me this Sunday, as I struggled once again with trying to fit into a church family, yet ended up feeling like the bastard child yet again. Even now, I can choose to spend my mental energy replaying the difficult time I had this morning, or Benjamin’s laugh.

Not everything was terrible today, after all.

*The fabulous “Not Everything Is Terrible” bandana pictured above was a gift from a dear friend, and was designed and screen printed by artist Janine Kwoh. You can find her fabulous work for sale at her Etsy shop: kwohtations

When Sunday Is the Most Difficult Day of the Week

It took me two tries to make it to church this Sunday. I woke up tired, my mom woke up still feeling the last lingering effects of the cold she had last week. I didn’t get out of bed as quickly as I should of, so was running late. I knew the lesson my small group was going to go over today would be a struggle for me, and I’d either have to speak up and be the one voice of dissent or bite my tongue the whole time, so I decided to just go to the service late and then come home instead of going to group after.

Coffee was spilled on a dress in the car on the way there. The Jeep we parked next to had a Bill O’Reilly air freshener hanging from its rear view mirror, I kid you not. Other cars greeted us with their not-so-friendly NRA and AR-15 stickers. Because we were late, it was hard to spot empty seats. It had already taken everything we had to get to this point, so we left and went home. In this struggle, I was very much The Awkward Spinster.

Knowing full well that a large part of this struggle was my own attitude and feeling convicted, an hour later, we headed back for second service early, got seats, and made it through the whole time. The service was fine.

John 13:34-35 records Christ’s words during the last supper. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Why is this so difficult? Humans, that’s why. We are so bloody difficult. I am difficult. And, as a single woman who is almost 40 trying to integrate back into a city I happily left in my 20s, I am finding it more arduous than ever. Being with my family is fantastic and quite easy. My prayer group of family and a couple close friends is lovely. But church? Church is the hardest part.

And I think I’m failing right now. I’m not really loving the people in my church because I don’t feel like I’m actually part of my church. I feel like the weird spinster aunt who’s just visiting so everyone puts up with her. You know, they all tolerate her odd ideas because she’s just the slightly wild one who never bothered to get married or have kids and actually thinks universal healthcare is a good idea.

I don’t really have a lesson in this or a solution to my problem. This is just the reality of an issue I’m in the middle of. And, since this blog is meant to openly discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of the life of this particular Awkward Spinster, I didn’t want to dodge this aspect of single life.

I do think church is hard for everyone, not just singles like myself. I know many a married mother and father who also struggles with church community, especially in the current political and social climate. But as someone who experienced singleness in the context of an imperfect yet loving, embracing, supportive, empowering church family for years, that makes starting over again even more painful. I don’t have a husband to hold my hand when I’m upset in church, a partner in the awkwardness and pain. It’s just me, sitting in small group surrounded by people, feeling utterly alone.

Sick Days and the Blues

You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging as regularly over these past few weeks. You see, I’ve been ill, and between sinus, eye, and now possibly ear infections, my uterus trying to kill me, anemia, dizziness, and exhaustion I haven’t been able to stare at a screen for very long without my head getting floaty. Sigh.

But in the midst of this, today, I still want to blog. Because this is real life, right? We get sick. Our bodies rebel against us. We have to miss work sometimes (I HATE missing work) and we have to rest sometimes (which is not nearly as fun as it sounds if you’re not feeling well) and we have to trust that God is still at work in our lives when we are quarantined and can’t go anywhere or talk to anyone in person.

Today, on top of the illnesses and weaknesses, I am feeling blue. One of the benefits of being ill is I’ve been sleeping in and have missed my usual morning podcasts. I’ve been limiting my screen time so I don’t get dizzy, and therefore haven’t been paying as much attention to the news. But this morning when a local city voted down California’s Sanctuary City laws, and Christian men that I know and respect posted about it in glee, I was done. The tears I’ve been holding in for weeks fell. Seeing Christians celebrate harming people, separating children from their parents, and turning against the beauty that the word “sanctuary” supplies, which should be part of every Christian’s life, just broke my heart. “What happened to compassion?” my mum just breathed in a deep, soul-wrenching sigh.

I tweeted about it, but daren’t post on Facebook because I’ve gotten some brutal backlash there before for posting my “liberal” ideas and I honestly don’t have the energy to deal with that right now.

The battle within me about whether or not I can remain a part of the white evangelical church rages continuously.

A friend’s recent experience at a Biblical Counseling conference in her city isn’t helping. She was texting back and forth with me throughout the day, part excitement for the excellent talks given on anxiety and depression, and part dismay for her experience as a single woman there. She went up to speak with the youngish male director, and right away his wife came and joined the conversation very awkwardly.

She texted “I feel like in some Christian settings girls can’t talk to guys. Like I felt awkward when she joined in some way. Like I can’t control that I am a girl or that I don’t have a ring on my finger. But I am not a threat and I felt that perception in that moment. And if I was a guy with an MABC [Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling, which this friend and I both have] they would be thrilled.”

My response: “Yeah. Being a mature, single, educated Christian woman in evangelical circles can be so awkward. I kinda want to wear a sign saying ‘I’m not trying to steal your husband. Calm down.’”

Friend: “I feel like sometimes I am only seen as a threat or someone with ulterior motives or a temptation instead of a person.

Me: “We should make t-shirts!”

Friend: I was going to Master’s Seminary library once. I had to write a 20 page research paper and only the seminary had the books I needed to check out. And the ladies at the circulation desk made a comment about me finding a husband and I felt like as a non-seminary wife, everyone there would think that I just wanted to look for a husband instead of purely intending to study the Bible. I wanted to wear a ring on my ring finger to avoid that perception and awkwardness.”

Me: “Yeah. They did that when I had to work the Shepherd’s Conference. Sigh.”

Friend: 

One of the many sad parts about this conversation with my incredibly intelligent and very conservative (way more conservative than me!) friend was that instead of discussing the wonderful resources for anxiety and depression she’d learned about, or expressing her joy for being accepted into the new Biblical Counseling center as a potential counseling volunteer, she left feeling awkward and unwanted, and possibly even like a threat.

Welcome to how so many of us often feel around other Christians these days: awkward and unwanted, and possibly even like a threat.

But instead of despairing completely, I’ve reached out to some of my closest friends for prayer. My dog snuggled me until I laughed again, not leaving me alone until I was smiling. Our roses and primroses are blooming, and I can enjoy them because they’re some of the flowers my sinuses are cool with. I’m brewing a cup of my favorite apple cinnamon tea. And I will remind myself of God’s love and goodness, remind myself that God does not look at refugees, immigrants, and unmarried women like we are awkward and unwanted, but with compassion and deep deep love.

Psalm 9 speaks to me today. It is long, so I’ll leave you with verses 1-2, 7-11, and 18:

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High . . . But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forgotten those who seek you. Sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds! . . . For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.”