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Single and Celibate in Modern Western Culture

Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out, Part Two

As a single Christian woman, I should be able to look to my church family for friendship, encouragement, and understanding as I strive to obey and worship God in celibacy. Check out part one of this series, Single and Celibate in the Church, to see how that can play out. Here’s a hint: often terribly.

Sometimes I get so frustrated by how I am perceived by the church as a single celibate adult that I glance to the rest of modern western culture, hoping that at least there I might find a bit more understanding and feel like less of a weirdo. After all, I live in Los Angeles County, a place known for embracing many different viewpoints, a place where living a lifestyle outside the “norm” should be more accepted. Even as the much of the younger generation redefines sexuality, emphasizing one’s choice in the matter and viewing it as a broad spectrum, adult celibacy is still viewed negatively.

When I was a high school teacher, I had students who identified as asexual, meaning they experienced a lack of sexual attraction to others, or lacked the desire for sexual activity. Though not the average experience, and certainly not represented often in pop culture, these students could at least feel they were part of the latest opinions on sexuality. However, if you have sexual attraction to others and the desire for sexual activity, but choose not to fulfill this desire because you believe this is what God would have you do, this does not fit modern standards. In fact, instead of people saying “hey, that’s your choice, good for you for following it” I’m more likely to hear words like “prude, repressed, unhealthy, immature, not-fully realized, or just sad,” more likely to be portrayed comically or as a brainwashed simpleton. And, just like in the church, the most frequent response to an adult virgin, or a celibate adult, is pity.

The idea that one can lead a happy, fulfilled life devoid of sex even though they might desire sex seems to be mind-blowing in all circles, secular and religious. Oddly enough, some outside Christian traditions have expressed concern for me, thinking I’m lacking something for not being involved in relationships which include a sex life, just as married Christians have felt sorry for me and others like me because they imagine our lives to be somehow unfulfilled without spouses and kids.

I’ve found a shocking lack of difference in the perspectives of both groups when it comes to celibacy.  Contrary to popular belief, sex is not necessary for the flourishing of each and every human. Rather than looking at celibacy as a viable life choice which may lead to personal growth, increased capacity to care for others, and deep spiritual joy, celibacy is mostly seen as punishment. From outside religious circles, it is often viewed as overly zealous, even cultish or unnatural. It’s even seen as the predecessor to horrible sin – as if every person who is celibate will eventually break due to repressed desire, and then run out and molest someone.

In our pop culture which prioritizes sex and takes it for granted, religious celibates are almost always depicted as hypocrites, either foolishly or violently. Think of how pastors and the clergy are portrayed in movies and television, highlighting those who have not glorified God in their singleness but have harmed others. Yes, there are people who choose celibacy then end up sinning horribly, committing awful crimes, and who need to be prosecuted, but this is not the majority of men and women who choose not to have sex because they are trying to live a godly life. (I take this very seriously, and see it as one of the worst violations. Check out Ann Voskamp’s response to the recent wave of churches covering up sexual assault for more on this.) I watch a ton of British television, and almost every clergyman (other than Father Brown) eventually gives in to his or her sexual urges, usually rather dramatically and often by having an affair with a married parishioner, or is seen as a doddering old fool. When families on TV or in movies include a single adult without an active sex life, they are most likely the senile old maiden aunt or pervy uncle. This just increases the perceived impossibility of living a chaste life well.

For those who don’t know the love of the God, who don’t know his grace and personal care for each of his children, the biblical call to celibacy outside of marriage can be seen as cruel, almost torturous. And, I’ve got to admit, sometimes it can feel that way. It’s not always an easy path. But to be honest, one of the most difficult parts of walking this path is feeling rather alone and unsupported. In both secular and religious sides of life, the voices we hear are more likely to mock, shame, and patronize than encourage, applaud, and respect.

So, whether you’re a Christian or not, the next time you come across someone who chooses not to have sex because they believe this is the life God has chosen for them (permanently or temporarily), don’t jump to stereotypical judgments. Get to know them and then, when you know them well enough, you can ask them about how celibacy affects their lives. You might be surprised by their answers.

Next week, in part three of this series, I’ll look at how important it is for celibate Christians to still have deep lasting relationships with other men and women.

*updated 1/15/18 to add in link to Ann Voskamp’s blog post.

Single and Celibate in the Church

Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out Series, Part One

When I first get to know people, they have a hard time figuring me out. Church-going Christians are often stumped by the she’s 39 and single/childless part and those who aren’t religious can’t grasp the celibate thing. In both circles, I am often seen as an anomaly; deviating from the norm, unexpected. In a national church that idolizes marriage and a popular culture which prioritizes sex, people like me just don’t fit. At best, we are seen as men and women to pity, at worst, as flawed or unwhole.

The truth is, however, we are not that much of an anomaly when you look more closely. There are a lot more of us that you think, and, according to the beliefs of the church and pop culture, we should be perfect fits for both realms. This week I’ll look at how single celibate adults are often viewed by the church, and next week I’ll get into how we’re seen in modern western culture. If you’d like to read more about my views on celibacy, check out Committing to Celibacy.

Yes, in America, the decline of marriage and the increase of parents who split while their children are young is a disturbing trend. Many an article, both Christian and not, has been written on the negative effects of this trend economically and psychologically, so I understand why the church has emphasized healthy marriages over the past decade, why Christian marriage and parenthood has become a priority of the church. Unfortunately, this respect for marriage can grow into the worship of it.

You’re a young man in college struggling with lust and becoming addicted to pornography? You should get married, and “not burn” but channel that in a God-glorifying way. You’re a dissatisfied single woman in her late 20’s who struggles with loneliness and depression? Do everything you can to find a good Christian man to marry and fill that void. Marriage becomes the solution in the minds of many to some of the struggles young adults have, yet the Bible and practical experience will prove this wrong. If you think marriage will solve your struggles with lust or pornography, loneliness and depression, you are in for the shock of your life, as is your spouse.

I’m not saying most churches actually preach this from the pulpit or give overt counsel to this effect, though some do, but this perspective has infused the very life of the church so much that this marriage-worship is subtly present in the very makeup of the church, from its social structure to its teaching.

One symptom of idolizing marriage is the subtle yet pervasive belief that God’s one plan for the future of his church, for his love and good news to be offered to the ends of the earth, for his name to be glorified best, is the traditional Christian family unit. Because of this, churches spend a lot of time and money developing their children’s programs, Bible studies for young mothers, Biblical Manhood retreats to encourage men to be godly husbands and fathers, women’s teas to remind the ladies to be god-fearing wives and mothers, cry rooms for infants, Awanas for the kiddos, Sunday schools and youth groups, and at least 95% of the examples used in preaching and teaching target nuclear families.

This is all good, even excellent. Churches do need to help build up godly family units. They need to serve the families in their communities. Parents and children should be taught, loved, discipled, and cared for. God does desire to use Christian families to show his love to the world, to stand out as special and beautiful.

But if this is the main focus of the church, then the 45.2 percent of all U.S. residents age 18 and older who are single will be problematic for the church. For the younger ones, usually 18-35, the solution seems to be singles ministries that have either an overt or covert goal to get most of them married off. Much of the Christian publishing industry targeted to this age group discusses “waiting” and “preparing” for wife or husband-hood. In fact, at even younger ages, we’re often groomed in youth groups and Sunday schools for the day we will one day be a godly spouse.

So what about the rest of us? Those who don’t marry for one reason or another? Those who are just not chosen by anyone as a lifelong partner? Those who fell in love with someone who didn’t love them back? Those who marry, but end up tragically divorced? Those who face the death of their spouse? Those who have same sex attraction, yet are committed to a traditional view of marriage so therefore remain single? Those who have never desired a spouse? Other than being taught we must remain celibate outside of marriage, how is the modern American church growing us?

A few weeks ago I visited a different church, and as soon as they found out I was single they invited me to their singles young adult group. They were very excited, because they were just starting it up after a recent influx of a handful of single young adults. I gently said that, at 39, I just don’t feel comfortable in a young adult group, and would much rather get involved in a normal group, one with married people, kids, old folks and young. I somehow still ended up on the email list for this group, and had to once again politely decline.

The thing is that single adults are a large growing portion of the church, and yet we are often overlooked. Mostly by accident. If we can’t be lumped into the typical 18-30 single young adults Bible study, then we are absorbed into the average church group. I like this, actually – I believe this is how it should be. We should be seen as average church goers! We should be embraced as part of the church family! We should be drawn in to Sunday schools and Bible studies and ministries along with everyone else.

The struggle here is that these church programs have essentially been built for families, and Christians have primarily gotten used to ministering to others in life stages like themselves. So, it will be more natural for a young mom in the church to invite another mother over for a play-date, or for a married man to go out breakfast with other married men to hold each other accountable. Couples tend to hang out with other couples, or not even that, just their family and extended family. They might not even think of inviting a single adult over for dinner or a holiday. Truly becoming friends with someone in a different stage of life is awkward and difficult, so we might not even consider it. We singles are probably just as responsible as married Christians are. It will be more comfortable for single adults to hang out with other single adults, but the problem for us is often that the older we get, the fewer unmarried friends are left. If we don’t engage with married couples and those with children, we just won’t connect to the church at all.

Not just the programs, but the teaching itself is often geared toward those in a nuclear family. This is inevitable, since the vast majority of churches hire married men as their pastors, men who have or will have children. The elder boards tend to consist almost entirely of married fathers. Most adult ministry leaders will be married men with kids. It’s incredibly rare for a single man to be in these positions, and even more so a single woman. Sometimes, a single man in seminary or right out of it is given the position of youth pastor or another under-pastor role, but the expectation of this man and those who disciple him is that he will most likely get married and have kids one day in the next few years. Because of this, most sermon illustrations will be about being parents or spouses. They’ll deal with little leagues and spousal squabbles, weddings and sleepless babies. We are supposed to write what we know, after all, and often the only metaphors which come to mind when writing sermons or Bible studies are the ones we live.

I get it, I write about singleness because it’s my experience. I understand. But what pastors and teachers need to realize is that this can be a bit alienating. If, during a sermon, there are 5 illustrations used to teach a biblical passage, and all 5 of these depend on marriage and parenthood, I will probably zone out a bit, to be honest. I might spend the time delving into the scripture itself, trying to figure out how it relates to me. I may try to re-frame it in a way that touches on my life. But each time this happens, I can’t help but feel a bit left out. And this happens weekly. Monthly. In almost every sermon I hear, every class I sit in, every Bible study I attend. So, how does that help the 45.2% of American adults who are unmarried? I don’t think every sermon needs an illustration directly targeting singles, or each illustration needs to somehow fit us, but I do think it would be nice to just be considered. There are a lot of us sitting in the pews on Sunday who would appreciate being thought of every once in awhile.

I’d also love the church as a whole to start preaching more about singleness than just “waiting to have sex until marriage.” This is simplifying our lives to one issue. If the church is truly teaching us to live our lives according to the Bible, then single adult Christians fulfill 1 Corinthians 7 and Matthew 19, and we walk in Christ’s footsteps as a single man. I’d love to hear teachers and preachers extol the benefits of singleness, the beauty of a celibate commitment to the Lord, the courage of looking directly to the marriage of Christ and his church instead of finding comfort in the metaphor for it. I’d love to see mature single Christian men and women lifted up in leadership positions in the church, given voices, being heard. How awesome would it be to hear a youth leader even offer singleness as a viable God-honoring option for the future. I’d adore if the church could become a place that looks at single celibate adults as whole, not lacking, not creatures of pity but respect and honor.

If 45.2% of adult Americans are single, then why are so many of us made to feel like we’re the weirdos the minute we walk through those church doors? So many of us love our churches; as single adults they are often the greatest example of family we have. For some of us, the are the only family we have. We love our churches, but we often feel like we’re not truly part of them. We’re the weird relative the rest of the family pities and doesn’t quite know what to do with, or the one everyone has a plan for, advice for, but never listens to. We’re seen as not-quite-ready for ministry, not-quite-appropriate for friendship, not-quite-fulfilling God’s plan for the church. The church is a beautiful family, and it needs to stop treating its single adults like parents who are upset that they haven’t been given grandkids yet, and more like nieces and nephews who look up to their cool unmarried aunties and uncles because they know they are loved and served by them.

To be honest, until the church develops a better theology of the value of its single celibate men and women, until it gives them an opportunity to grow and minister, then single men and women will not stick around. Just like a family who doesn’t support and encourage the 39 year old single cousin will lose contact with them, so too will the church lose these valuable members. And just as these single men and women will suffer tremendously as they lack familial support, so too will they suffer apart from the church. We are meant to live life together, young and old, parent and childless, married and single.

Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us a vision of the beauty of the church. Imagine if we all, married and single alike, looked at one another this way. If we realized that we aren’t all meant to live the exact same cookie cutter life, but were created as different members of a whole. Separately, we are so unique, which makes us so much more beautiful and effective when we come together.

Romans 12:1-13

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

I challenge modern American churches to look critically at themselves to see if they are serving the singles in their midst, or alienating them. I implore them to raise up single men and women in leadership positions, to encourage them to take on ministry opportunities, and to teach Christian children that celibate singleness is a beautiful God-honoring way to live life.

I challenge singles not to give up on the church, but work to become productive members of this incredible body of Christ. Speak up. Make appointments to talk to your pastors about this. Bridge those first awkward gaps by inviting yourself into lives of families. Gently exhort the church leadership to grow in this area. But don’t give up. When the church loves as God would have us love, his grace is most evident and our joy most profound.

The Sacredness of Friendship

When I was a little girl, I saw good marriages and strong families as pieces of the sacred: special and consecrated to the divine in their own small, flawed ways. I assumed that, someday, I too would enter into this type of relationship; one dedicated to God, two people (probably plus some kids) mutually working for his glory. I don’t think I had a romanticized view of marriage and family, as I saw many a marriage and family fall apart around me, and witnessed time and time again how hard these relationships were. I knew they were work, knew they were messy, knew they didn’t always last. I am, after all, a rather pessimistic type. Yet still the sacred shines through in the ones that endure, my parents growing together until my father died, family members struggling through those first few tough years into beauty, friends who by God’s grace found second loves greater than their first, women and men who repent and forgive and strive to be better together. The sacred can be so apparent in marriage.

Like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” Each year I understand more and more that the sacred partnership of marriage is something I will most likely witness from the outside alone. Does this mean I am, and other singles are, cut off from experiencing sacred, beautiful, deep relationships? Are the human bonds we make merely secondary, the most important one held out of our reach? Are we relegated to an inferior experience?

On the contrary, John 15:12-17 records Christ speaking to his best friends, his disciples. Here he uses sacrificial, selfless friendship as the picture of the greatest love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

Jesus did not marry and have children, nor did he emphasize that as necessary during his teaching on earth. Instead, Jesus formed deep, beautiful friendships. His relationships with Peter, James, and John, with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, with the rest of his disciples, were powerful and God was glorified through them. They were sacred, set apart for the purpose of service to God. Indeed, the Bible is filled with holy friendships that bring glory to God; look at Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, Elijah and Elisha, Naomi and Ruth, Mary and Elizabeth, Paul and Timothy as well as the many other friends Paul calls on by name with great love in his letters.

In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis defines four kinds of human love: affection, friendship, eros, and charity. The dust jacket claims Lewis depicts friendship as “the most rare, least jealous, and, in being freely chosen, perhaps the most profound” form of human love.

In his article in Christianity Today, “The Way of Friendship,” Colin Duriez looks further into C.S. Lewis’ view on friendship. He claims “Lewis took a classical and Judeo-Christian view of friendship, seeing it as “the school of virtue.” Properly lived out, friendship could open one’s eyes to previously unseen aspects of reality.” Using The Inklings as an example, Duriez reveals “Lewis’s belief in the restorative and perception-changing nature of friendship.” If this doesn’t describe a sacred, set apart, consecrated bond between people then I don’t know what does.

Here are a few things C.S. Lewis found in friendship that he did not find in any other kind of human love:

Sacred friendships are actually created by God, not us.

“But in Friendship, being free of all that, we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting—any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Sacred friendship helps us form and hold fast to our views and standards.

“Alone among unsympathetic companions, I hold certain views and standards timidly, half ashamed to avow them and half doubtful if they can after all be right. Put me back among my Friends and in half an hour – in ten minutes – these same views and standards become once more indisputable. The opinion of this little circle, while I am in it, outweighs that of a thousand outsiders: as Friendship strengthens, it will do this even when my Friends are far away. For we all wish to be judged by our peers, by the men “after our own heart.” Only they really know our mind and only they judge it by standards we fully acknowledge. Theirs is the praise we really covet and the blame we really dread.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Sacred friendship is not jealous, but generous, drawing others into relationship.

“But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best. And the reason for this is important. . . In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. . . Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves.’ For in this love ‘to divide is not to take away.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Sacred friendship is built upon humility, equality, and affection.

“In a perfect Friendship this Appreciative love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together; each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walk have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze and our drinks are at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Last winter while I was in England for a few months, I had the opportunity to go to Oxford twice. Both times I made the requisite pilgrimage to the Eagle and Child pub, the main gathering place for one of my favorite groups of friends, The Inklings. My “fly on the wall” moment has always been to be able to observe these men mid-debate, 2 or 3 pints in, on a cold English night. The first time I went to the pub by myself, and actually got a tiny table in a corner of the the Rabbit Room, right next to the bench at which these writers, teachers, and theologians would have sat. For a couple hours I nestled there with my beer, shepherd’s pie, and journal, yearning for something like what they had. I knew when I got back to the States everything would be different for me. Most of my dearest friends would still be in LA, and I would be starting almost-fresh in my hometown. My greatest longing was for creative, intellectually stimulating, challenging, deep, Christian community and I knew that would be hard to find.

These days, back in the US in my hometown, instead of yearning for the partnership of marriage, or pining for the close community I had in my church in LA, I am learning to appreciate the friendships the Lord has brought into my life both in Los Angeles and here. I am working to grow these friendships, to create space and carve out time for them. For some of us, these times and spaces may come organically through mutual friends, work, church, Bible study, or other weekly activities. For the rest of us, we may need to create groups that meet monthly or quarterly so we can cultivate these friendships on a deeper level. Singles in particular need these bonds; they are not secondary or superfluous but valuable and, as Lewis claimed, “perhaps the most profound.”

May we all find sacred friendships and draw others with us; may we create time and space in our lives to find warm places to gather like The Bird and Baby, and create stimulating friendships like the Inklings.

The Lesser Sanctification of the Childless

I have a cold. Which means this week, I spent quite a bit of time after work on the couch or in bed and way too much time on social media. And, during one of these online binges, I came across this brilliant tweet by Rachel Held Evans:

I read this and thought, in my sinus congested brain, this makes a lot of sense. I also thought about what things in my life helped shatter the “follow-your-bliss” and “live-a-thrilling-story” idols I’ve had. And I loved her last line about “just showing up and being faithful.” So many Amens to that.

And then . . . well, then I made the mistake of reading the comments. While most of them were awesome or at least innocuous, there were the usual few that took this principle one step further and turned it into something along the lines of “parenthood is the ONLY way or the ULTIMATE way” these false life goals are routed out of us. As a single woman who already struggles with the awkwardness of not having kids, this line of reasoning never ceases to disturb me. As if God only uses one method, the same method, to help each and every one of us grow. As if raising children is the only way, or even the absolute best way, to stop believing a false narrative of personal fulfillment.

One of my pet peeves as a single woman in the church is how often I hear these messages; these “truths” build up one type of person while putting down another, usually inadvertently. By changing just a word or two, from “a gift of parenthood” to “parenthood is the one and only way, or the best way,” this beautiful idea becomes a patronizing way of saying that parents are able to be more sanctified than non-parents, in this area at least.

Let me paraphrase a few of the comments to show you what I’m talking about:

  • Parenting is the best destroyer of the ‘what matters most is doing what feels good’ mythology.
  • I think parents pressure their adult kids into having babies soon after marriage because they can’t wait for us to learn this.
  • Kids are the ultimate teacher in the school of dying to self.
  • Have kids, and you’ll find out what you really believe. Parenting is boot camp for the rest of your life as adult.
  • Becoming a parent is the most sanctifying thing ever.

Since the vast majority of Americans have children by the time they’re 45, making statements like this may seem insightful at best and harmless at worst. But for the rest of us, those of us without children, declarations like these leave us out in the cold. If parenting is the best, main, or only tool God uses to teach his children that the “follow your heart” ideal is horribly flawed and rather being faithful in the little day to day things can truly give us our best lives, then all childless adults are doomed to live lesser lives with that false bubble still intact.

The thing is, that’s not true, is it? We’ve all met parents who still firmly believe the lie Rachel Held Evans exposes, and we all know single people who don’t buy into it. Sanctification is not limited to parents.

Instead of perpetuating this common idea that parenting is some magic formula to sanctification, we should be focusing on the fact that God can, and does, use all things in our lives to grow us more like Christ.

Paul, assures the church at Philippi “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

In Romans 12, he discusses how all followers of Christ should present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. He goes on to explain how we are many members of the same body, all of whom have different gifts, but in whom the Holy Spirit is working. Parenting doesn’t even come up because it is merely one of the many tools God can use to help draw us into his vision for life.

Here are some other ways the “follow-your-bliss” and “live-a-thrilling-story” life goals are often revealed to be empty objectives in life thus far, none of which include raising a child.

Death

When someone you love dies, it takes everything in you to just show up and be faithful because you can’t do anything else. The thrilling story of my life as I saw it was supposed to include my grandparents, friends, crush, and father a lot longer than it did. Grief does not allow the “follow-your-bliss” narrative to continue because it strips your bliss away, revealing what’s underneath. Hopefully, revealing faithfulness and love.

Illness and Injury

It’s hard to live a thrilling story when every step you take is excruciatingly painful. Sometimes we have to cancel our exciting single and carefree plans when, instead of jumping on the airplane for which we have a nonrefundable ticket, we end up in the emergency room unable to move due to a back injury. In moments like these, or lifetimes for those who suffer from chronic pain, just showing up is the hardest thing in the world. When all of one’s strength is taken by not giving in to despair, faithfulness is all that’s required of us.

Financial Insecurity

One comment on Evans’ tweet highlighted that this idol of following our hearts and leading exciting lives is one only the financially stable can afford to have. They point out that this dies pretty quickly when you have to work multiple jobs just to scrape by to pay the bills. As someone who grew up quite poor and is currently working 3 jobs just to cover my necessities, I agree. There isn’t much thought to “bliss” when you’re just doing what you have to do to get by.

Being Part of a Church Family

God uses his children to help each other grow. It doesn’t take a toddler to teach patience, or a sick child to teach selflessness. God can and does use everyone around us. For parents, yes, this means he will use your children and spouses an awful lot, as well as your coworkers, friends, family, and church. For those of us without kids, he’ll use everyone in our lives too. If you’ve ever been part of a church family, you know how hard that can be. Just showing up and being faithful is my mantra these days, because so often I don’t even want to show up.

Following Your Bliss

One of the best ways to realize the emptiness of a self-focused life built on the idea that we can be fulfilled by chasing our own pleasure comes from trying it out for awhile. Many a soul has pursued this very goal, seeking the thrilling life of adventure and running after whatever brings immediate gratification, only to find it hollow and unfulfilling. Jesus uses one such story, that of the wealthy young man who gets his inheritance early and leaves home to chase pleasure, only to return to his father as a lost prodigal, destitute and miserable (Luke 15). For those of us who don’t want to figure this out for ourselves, we can learn from reading parables like this, and stories depicting this truth over and over again in great literature and history.

Singleness

Singleness, in and of itself, can be a testing ground for this idea. When so many of us have future dreams of falling in love, getting married, and living an adventurous life with our partner, our prolonged or permanent singleness can be the greatest teacher. We either must re-frame our idea of a successful life, or live in bitterness. Most people I know who have been single for a long time learned awhile ago that “just showing up and being faithful” is the only way to be content, the only way to see what God has for us rather than what we wanted for ourselves.

There are a million other way in which God is working in all of his children, whether parents or not, married or single, to conform us to his image. Please don’t fall into the trap of believing or causing others to believe he has the same way of doing this for everyone.

Romans 8:28-31
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according this his purpose.For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

It might seem a bit nit-picky, but for singles and those of us without kids who hear this rhetoric All The Time, it adds up and can get into our heads. It can also get into the heads of parents, Christian professors, and pastors – like their adult children, students, and parishioners won’t be quite sanctified enough until they are married and have kids of their own. Let’s be careful about what we are saying, because it seeps into what we believe and can eventually lead to entire churches and groups of Christians believing false theology. Let’s give hope to every follower of Christ that God can and will work in them, using the varied tools he so chooses, to help them fulfill their calling.

Why I Write

October 20th celebrated the National Day on Writing, bringing with it the hashtag #WhyIWrite as it has for the past 9 years. This year, preparing my tweet to accompany this hashtag was particularly difficult. Why do I write? It’s a big question, with more than one answer, and I’m still sorting my way through them.

As a child, I wrote because I had school assignments and to enjoy my imagination by creating stories.

As a teen, on top of writing for school, I wrote bad emo poetry, muddled short stories, and journaled to help me process my depression. I wrote letters to my best friend because she lived in a different city.

In college, as an English major, I wrote everything from essays to stories, poetry to papers because they were required. I wrote letters to my grandfather, getting replies from him each month about how his orange tree was doing or what neighbor had stopped by for a muffin, because they brought us both joy.

After college, when I traveled, I kept a detailed journal to remind me of what I experienced.

As a social worker, I wrote reports about each client as required, and I journaled to process the difficult things I saw.

As a teacher, I wrote lesson plans and samples to help my students understand their lessons, I wrote chapel messages to try to help my students more personally and spiritually, and I wrote speeches for events to help the school.

As a member of the women’s writing team at my former church, I wrote a blog a month for almost 3 years to try to help the members of my church grow in godliness and joy, and to give voice to the women of the congregation.

As a conference speaker, I wrote on specific topics that could help the attendees.

As a counselor, I wrote notes so I could better prepare for my next session and I journaled to help me deal with the difficulties of counseling.

When I was at L’Abri in England, I wrote letters to friends and family back here in the States because I didn’t have internet access often and I loved getting letters back, and I journaled daily to help process what I was learning in my tutorials, from my reading, and the lectures.

For years, I have taken handwritten notes (and randomly doodle) in a journal at every sermon or conference I attend to help me focus while the speakers speak, and help me remember afterward.

But, why do I write now? I am no longer a teacher, and no longer part of a church writing team. I have taken a break from official counseling. I am not traveling. And no one writes letters back these days, we all just text. Yet, here I am, still writing. Why?

I (often) enjoy writing

Writing is fun. It’s challenging and difficult but the mental exercise of figuring out how to put thought to word, word to page is rewarding. The discipline of sitting down at my desk in the back room, door closed, with the goal of finishing a blog post in a certain number of hours is oddly enjoyable. Instead of allowing my creativity to stagnate, each week I try to utilize it to express my thoughts, which energizes me. I write because I want to write, I enjoy it. Sometimes I hate it, but I get past that and enjoy it again.

Writing, for me, is a form of worship

One of the reason I love the written word so much is because I think writing can be a form of worship. We are interacting with ideas that only exist because God created us to think and express. Created in the image of the most unique, creative, expressive artist, we worship him by reflecting these traits in our own lives, in our own ways. Since I’m not particularly good at acting or painting, woodworking or building video games, writing is one way I can utilize gifts God’s given me and skills he’s allowed me to develop. I become more fully human when I express my thoughts in words, and I was created to be human.

Writing helps me process what I’m thinking

Sometimes I have so many things going on in my head that I can’t process them, can’t even begin to start figuring out what questions I actually have and what I really think. Journaling helps me work through my thoughts, and blogging helps me make sense of them a bit more. Writing helps me make decisions, and if I can’t decide, it helps me come up with better questions.

I believe having a voice is important

I was so that English teacher who taught my students that everyone has a voice and they should all use them. I taught this because I believe it. Writing is one way for me to try out my voice in a more public sphere than just my friends and family. I get nervous, because I know there are other people writing blogs and books and speaking about the things I write and speak about, about singleness and the church, about life experiences and the Bible, but they do not have my voice. I have a BA in English literature, an MA in Biblical Counseling, experience in social work, teaching, counseling, speaking, and library work. I have a lot of years of study and practice under my belt. I’m a geeky, slightly odd Christian woman stuck between conservative and liberal. I’ve lived a lot in my 39 years, have experienced much joy and much loss. My voice is valid and unique and, I hope, helpful to others.

Writing opens up the world/exposes me to other voices

Since I started this blog, I’ve been reading more blogs by other writers. I’ve sought out other single Christian bloggers to follow on Twitter, theologians and teachers who touch on topics that interest me. When I know I want to write on a topic, I’ll research it first which exposes me to new voices. I love how writing tends to open me up to other writers. Though it might start as a very personal thing, me sitting with my laptop expressing my own stuff, I hit publish and now I have readers to interact with, other articles sent to me, and a whole world of ideas of which I’m now an active part.

I think my writing can help people

When I was graduating from college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life other than that I wanted to help people. One of the reasons I write my blog is in the hopes that I can help others – other single women and men who feel like they don’t quite fit in, other Christians who are searching for the best way to interact in this difficult climate, other geeky awkward souls who stumble upon my page. I want my writing to help point to God’s grace and love, to challenge some preconceptions the church has about singleness, and to help people feel a bit less alone in their awkwardness.

I’d like to write a book

Someday soon, I hope to start compiling my thoughts, research, and experiences as a single Christian woman in modern America into a book. I’m putting this out there even though it scares me to make this desire public. I don’t really fit anywhere, too conservative to be a progressive Christian, too liberal to be a right wing evangelical, so I’m not sure who would publish someone like me. But there it is, one of the reasons I write is to try to get my thoughts in order before working on a book outline. Why would I write a book? For all the reasons above.

So, that’s my “Why I Write” list (for this episode of my life, anyway). If you put pen to page, or fingers to keys, why do you write?

Singles and Self-Care

Somehow, I got it into my head that “self-care” is a dirty word. Not for other people, just for me. I’ve always encouraged friends and family to take care of themselves: to rest when they’re tired, see the doctor when they’re ill, care for their injuries, be gentle with themselves when they’re depressed or grieving, and to say no to other plans when they’re overwhelmed. Yet, when it came to myself, I was relentless.

I’m the girl who sprained my ankle more than 20 times and yet never went to a doctor about it. The one who worked 70 hours a week, and still agreed to volunteer at church or help out with the school play. The person who always answered her phone, texted back right away, or responded to emails at all hours of the day and night. The teacher who edited student college essays via Google Doc even on vacation, or after they had graduated and were at community college, and who never said no when asked to write a college recommendation. The insomniac counselor who could always chat at 2 in the morning when my counselee was in crisis.

That’s who I was, mostly defined by my lack of self-care. And, in the Christian community, this was seen by most as good, godly even. I got Teacher of the Year and was constantly praised for what a great role model I was. I was commended for my commitment to my counselees and students. I was encouraged to keep up the good work, and expected to do so. And all the while I was growing more and more broken inside – constantly sick, frequently injured, always exhausted, emotionally drained, depressed, and forever worried I’d disappoint everyone.

I know I developed these expectations myself, that I am responsible for living my life this way for so long. But the thoughts that this is how a Christian single woman should live her life were planted and watered somewhere.

When you grow up in the evangelical conservative church, there is often an emphasis placed on one side of Christianity or the other: grace or righteousness, faith or works. If asked, the pastors and teachers I had would have said that the Bible teaches the importance of both; however, the culture of these institutions, and often the sermons and lessons, tended to highlight righteousness and works over grace and faith. My Christian school’s motto was “Excellence in everything,” and, little straight A student that I was, I took this to heart probably a bit more than I was meant to. In my head, the idea that I needed to sacrificially serve everyone in my life, do everything in my power to help those around me, even to or especially to my own detriment, was ground in.

I remember last year Googling “do all things with excellence” when I was looking for the verse that’s found in, since my church and school taught it so fiercely, and was shocked to find there is no verse that says this. The closest one, Colossians 3:23 actually says “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not men.” Some translations say “work at it with all your heart,” “do it enthusiastically,” or “work from the soul.” This has a very different connotation than doing all things with excellence. You can work heartily, or do things with all your heart, and still suck at it. It’s freeing, actually! I can work from my soul, doing my job and ministry for the Lord, and still not be the best one at it, and that’s ok! It’s actually God-glorifying! I can’t even find the word “excellence” as my school defined it as necessary for us. We are told to excel still more in many of the epistles, but the vast majority of them tell us to “excel” at love for one another and for God (Philippians 1:9-10, 2 Corinthians 8:7, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 4:1, 4:10). Nowhere does it say we have to excel academically, at sports, as missionaries, as wives and husbands, and in all other aspects of life. We don’t have to be superior in these areas, we just have to work heartily at them. We can and will fail, and it’s not the end of our faith. There is a big difference there, this is beautiful and freeing.

My mum tells a similar story, how growing up in the charismatic church as she did made her feel like she was never doing enough for the Gospel. Missionaries were held up as the gold standard for Christian living, and since she was merely a mother of 5 and a teacher, she didn’t quite make the grade. The motto at her parents’ churches was “burn out rather than rust out.” When I look at her life, I see nothing but service to her family and students, to her friends at church and her coworkers, but for her she still fights an inward battle of feeling like it’s never enough.

This weekend, I had the great joy of having afternoon tea with one of the young women I met in my term at English L’Abri last winter. During our reminiscing, we touched on this topic, remarking that many of the students ended up at the Manor House with similar questions: Is it okay to rest? What does that even mean? What is the balance between living a godly life of obedience and grace?

James 2:14-17 teaches about obedience:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Ephesians 2:9-89 says this about grace:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The Scriptures are filled with verses about both of these sides to our relationship with Christ. I’m not saying I have the perfect answer to the questions listed above, but I do know it’s important to remember both the incredibly loving unending grace of God as well as showing our gratefulness to Him for his sacrifice by worshipping Him through trust and obedience, not just one or the other. While I do know there are some churches that emphasize the grace part without the works, I’ve always gone to ones that have done the opposite, telling us to glorify God without reminding us of the second half to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “and enjoy him forever.”

So here I am at 39 taking the time out of life to try to sort through what is actually expected of me, not by myself or what I think other Christians expect, but by God. And I’m realizing that the one thing God seems to want more than anything else is my love; for me to love him and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). And, as counter-cultural as this is for many in the conservative evangelical church to believe, I’m learning that one of the best ways for me to love God and love others is to be a bit less broken. This means that I am allowed to, even encouraged to, take care of myself.

I am better able to love God and others, to spend time in his word and prayer, to reach out and help my friends and family, if I am well rested, alert, and in as little pain as I can be. Getting rid of pain isn’t the goal of my life, but if I can rest my ankle by saying no to a few things the first couple weeks after I sprain it, then I will be able to say yes to more things later because it might actually heal for once. If I get more sleep, I can actually focus on conversations with my friends who are hurting or need encouragement, and I’ll be more patient with my students and more loving. My enjoyment of this incredible world around me helps me start to overcome my cynical views, and enjoy God even more.

Our culture in America today, especially in the cities where being overworked and tired is worn like a badge of honor, pushes us past what we were created to do. We were created with limitations and yet we think we can overcome them by working more. We work hard and play hard – even our free time is “hard.” The church seems to take this one step further with its obsession with the Puritan work ethic and martyr worship. And for singles, we get caught up in this without a partner to help us try to balance it all out.

Single people may die younger because of it – with no one to urge us to see a doctor, care for us after procedures, or give us companionship as we age, some studies have shown that singles, on the whole, die a bit earlier than our married counterparts. As much as married people struggle with this too – wanting to sacrifice everything for their kids or work more hours to provide for their families, they often have their husband to tell them to rest so they can be a better mother tomorrow, or to come home right away after work so they can spend time with their kids as a better father. It’s incredibly rare to hear Christians telling single men and women that they need to go home to take care of, well, themselves, that they should probably say no to this new ministry opportunity because they already need a break to just be alone. Yet, this might be even more necessary since the single person doesn’t have a spouse to pressure them into necessary rest.

Though I was taught that loving our neighbors as ourselves means we already love ourselves too much, so we need to work hard to get our love of others on par with that, I’m learning this might be the wrong view of Mark 12:31. I agree that we should not be selfish and make self-care more important than everything else in life to the point we stop caring about others; however, I do now think self-care is necessary and can actually be a beautiful part of our walk with God. It is humbling to admit we are broken and can’t do everything, to ask others for help, and admit we can’t be quite as active in ministry and work as we used to be. It takes a lot of reliance on God to follow doctor’s orders and sit on a couch, ankle on ice, instead of working overtime when finances are tight. It opens up a new kind of vulnerability in friendship when I, the counselor, tell my friends I need their help instead of the other way around.

I’m learning that I was not created to be Wonder Woman, as much as I yearn to be; instead, I am just me, a 39 year old single lady with foot problems and insomnia, a cynic who has struggled with depression, prone to sinus infections and back pain, whom God loves and cherishes and created for a community of believers in which we mutually love and help one another. In this weakness, there is beauty and true grace.

2 Corinthians 12:8-10 states:

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

So, my dear single readers, take care of yourselves, not the point of being unloving to others but to help you be able to love and enjoy God and others all the more. And my dear married readers, do the same, and try to encourage your single friends to go to the doctor when they need to, or go home to rest, or say no to some activities when they’re stressed, or just carve out time to be alone without some task to do. Remember, they might not have anyone else counteracting all the voices in their lives that tell them they have to do more and be more. Be that voice for them.

A Season of Joyful Lament

When I was little, this was the month school started, the nights became colder, and we celebrated my oldest brother’s and my mum’s birthdays. Now, school’s been in full swing since August, our cool nights compete with unseasonably hot days and wildfires, my brother and mum share their birth month with my precious nephew Benji, and all of this is tinged with the slightly nostalgic melancholy memory of those weeks 15 years ago as my dad lay dying. September.  

Perhaps I was always meant to be in education since shopping for school supplies was the highlight of my fall. Browsing through the aisles of not-yet-used pens, pencils, and notebooks filled me with a sense of euphoria. Nothing called to me quite like the neon designs of Trapper Keepers or Lisa Frank folders. We’d place new school clothes on layaway back when department stores were still a thing and there were no Targets or Walmarts, teaching us patience and the joy of delayed gratification as we had to wait a few weeks to wear our fresh duds.

This September found me frantically browsing Pinterest for bulletin board ideas and rejoicing in the small box of supplies the front office ordered for me – various types of special tape created just for books, post it notes, fall themed bookmarks, and other library necessities. Mum and I dug out our autumnal decorations from various boxes in the garage to fill the house with the semblance of fall even when it was still 109° outside.

I love fall. As someone who is constantly overheated, I embrace the time of year when our excessive Southern Californian heat gives way to cool breezes and crisp weather. Honestly, I should live in Seattle, London, or Edinburgh – somewhere the sun is not quite as prevalent as the middle of a desert in one of the sunniest states. Halloween is my favorite holiday, cinnamon apples my favorite scent, and hot toddies a favorite drink.

Yet this is the season in which my father died. Even now, 15 years later, those weeks in the hospital form some of my most vivid memories. Though I will never stop missing him, his absence has been assimilated into my existence, a normal part of who I am. As a woman who never married, he still remains the most influential man in my life.

So what to do with September? Two things: be okay with being a bit more sad this month and also celebrate as much as possible, giving thanks to God for both the joy and losses.

Grief is like a muscle memory, it often hits without thought, somehow present in the body before the brain and heart catch up. There are days I’ll wake up feeling wistful – melancholy, yearning for something but not knowing what, and then I’ll remember suddenly that it is September. My body remembers this month. So instead of fighting it, feeling confused or bad about still getting sad all these years later, I have learned to accept grief, to trust my body. There is a huge difference between wallowing and experiencing. I don’t allow myself to sit in my pain all day every day, dwelling on the hard memories or what I’ve lost – but I do allow myself to cry if I feel like crying, to remember him, to talk about him or just quietly acknowledge to myself that I have felt true loss.

I pray about this too, thanking God for giving us a good dad for as long as we had him. My family is well aware how rare and special he was. It’s an oddly beautiful thing to be able to pray with joy and deep grief at the same time, to thank God while tears slip down my face.

One of my favorite hymns expresses this dichotomy better than I can:

It Is Well with my Soul by Horatio G. Spafford

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Refrain:
It is well with my soul,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul.
(Refrain)

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
(Refrain)

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
if Jordan above me shall roll,
no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
(Refrain)

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
the sky, not the grave, is our goal;
oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
(Refrain)

And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
even so, it is well with my soul.
(Refrain)

As Christians, we often focus on how we’re supposed to be filled with joy, as if smiling all the time will somehow bring those around us to fall in love with our God. The older I get, the more I appreciate the Christian’s call to lament. I can think of sermon after sermon that paint Christians as needing to have a positive attitude all the time, but can’t think of many I’ve heard on how we should also lament – mourn with God, cry out to him, let him see our pain and grief, let him be part of that.

There is deep beauty in simultaneously being grateful to God for what has happened in our lives while grieving what has happened, to be able to be sad,yet fine. Just as our country marks days to remember great men who helped form our ideals like George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr., just as we build memorials and lower the flag to half mast on 9/11 and other such days of loss, it is important for us to allow these moments, days, even months of remembrance.

I know those who fear grief, who push it back and try to ignore or forget it with the mantra of moving on. I know others who cannot escape grief, who let it drown them, unable to function. There is this third option – that of trusting God in the midst of acknowledging our grief. To thank him while crying out to him. To turn our eyes to those God has placed in our path, loving and serving them, while still recognizing we are a little extra broken right now and we might need some space or more hugs or greater patience or a cup of tea. Or perhaps a trip to Disneyland to see the fall decorations.

And somehow after a couple particularly difficult years, September regained its seat as one of our favorite months. Autumn reigns once more as the best season. My family relearned how to celebrate the birthdays, the weather, the flavors and scents, the holidays, the changing leaves. Perhaps experiencing loss in this season is a bit easier, as fall represents the beautiful merging of life and death – harvest and the coming winter, leaves changing color to bright reds and yellows, then falling away for the year. Halloween and Dia de los Muertos bring the dead together with the living. Warm days merge with colder nights. It is the perfect time to be filled with joy and melancholy simultaneously. We don’t need to choose one or the other, we can dwell in both.

Saved by Beauty

Today, I am feeling the melancholy beauty that comes creeping in on a Saturday in Autumn, when the light coming in through my window is a bit dimmer, the air a bit cooler and bourbon butterscotch candle scented, and I can pretend I live somewhere with an actual fall.

Today, I am going through the two journals filled with scribbles and ramblings from my time at English L’Abri last year, looking for that one particular entry on truth, goodness, and beauty. Flipping through these pages brings out tears as I remember the magical Autumn-winter I got to spend in that manor house in the English countryside, trying to piece together my slightly broken life with the help of Christians from all over the world walking alongside me, debating, cooking, cleaning, praying, singing, arguing, discussing, and experiencing. Still broken, but learning to accept that, I look back at my notes from lectures, recordings, books, and sermons and feel such deep joy that it makes me cry. Beauty can do that, you know, make you cry.

You see, though I know my life has been a rather easy one by universal standards, I know what depression feels like. There have been two periods of time in my life when my depression was so deep and seemed so insurmountable that I wanted to end my life. High school was the first period, and a few years ago, another such period began. I am awestruck that God brought me through these times, that for the past few months I have awakened in the morning wanting to live, able to experience real joy again.

As someone who grew up in the church, was a leader in InterVarsity at university, got her Masters in Biblical Counseling, and who counsels others, I’ve studied truth and goodness my whole life. Yet knowing what is true and what is good isn’t always enough. My head is so full of facts, laws, right and wrong, justice, and the righteousness of God and yet somehow I lose sight of him still.

One of my favorite lectures from the listening library at L’Abri was entitled “Recovering Goodness, Beauty and Truth” by Andrew Fellows. This most important, most ancient of triads is the basis for most philosophy. Fellows’ final conclusion echoed that of Dostoyevsky who, in “The Idiot,” claimed “Beauty will save the world.” In a world that has twisted truth, goodness, and our perception of beauty into the unrecognizable, we must ask what is left. Fellows quotes Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s bold response:

“And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.”

As much as my head knows what the Bible teaches, and my mind has been trained in the ways of goodness, this means nothing until my heart is able to comprehend it all. Beauty calls me to look more deeply at things, to search for the truth and good because I see its worth. Beauty awakens my soul and points to things beyond myself, beyond comprehension.

Sometimes when we grow up in the church we can forget just how beautiful God is, how lovely his creation which surrounds us, how magnificent each word spoken to us from heaven through his scriptures, how delightful each unique person, plant, and animal is. I spend lots of time thinking of what I should be doing, saying, or thinking that sometimes I forget to look up and see what he has done and what he has made us capable of.

Right now, in our broken world, suffering surrounds us. From hurricanes to earthquakes, racial hatred to vicious politics, floods to famine, poverty to greed I can get caught up in the truth that our world can be horrific and cruel. And yet there is still beauty; there are still people who sacrifice their own lives to rescue their neighbors, there is still music and art that reflects us and yet still lifts us up, there is the friend who texts when they think of you, there are two little boys of different races laughing loudly as they ride their bikes together on my street, and there is Autumn.

As I continue to seek truth and goodness, I must remember to also search out beauty. Instead of always trying to find the right answer, an impossible task, I must remember that there is beauty in the mystery of life, adventure in the ever-pondered and possibly never-answered questions. As Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” And as flawed as we are, I need to embrace the beauty which innately lives inside each person as people who bear the very image of God.

So this week I will light more fall scented candles, read wondrous books to my students, hug my family, eat delicious food, enjoy good art, and try to dwell on the beauty of my Lord and his everlasting love for me – something that just is, that I didn’t earn, and that I don’t have to work to keep.

Perhaps, after everything, beauty will indeed save the world. Or maybe it’ll just help save me today, which is enough.

*To find lectures by L’Abri such as the one mentioned above, you can go to the L’Abri Ideas Library or subscribe to the podcast English L’Abri by L’Abri Fellowship on iTunes.

Responding to Marrieds for Dummies

Welcome to Part 2 of my “for Dummies” series. This is a response to last week’s blog post Talking to Singles for Dummies. Go on, read that first, I’ll wait.

Okay, so now that you’ve read about how married people should talk to singles, let’s look at how singles should respond to the mostly well-meaning married people in our lives who just don’t know how to talk to us about our singleness. We have a few options:

Get Annoyed, Offended, or Hurt

Although this is not the best option, sometimes it just happens. For the fifth time today, someone tells you to “buck up because it’s not too late, you may still find a husband or wife” and you can no longer contain your eye roll or exaggerated sigh. I get it. We deal with this constantly and, as flawed human beings, we can’t always respond with patience and grace as much as we may like to. In these moments, I think it is important to ask ourselves if the person talking to us is trying to hurt us, or trying to help us. I guess there are probably some vindictive people out there who would say such things in order to rub in the fact that we’re single or to make themselves look better, but honestly I can’t think of anyone in my life who most likely had that motivation. Everyone I know who awkwardly stumbles through platitudes and cliche phrases about my singleness is doing so because they are trying to encourage me, make me feel better. They may do it very badly indeed, and actually make me feel worse in the process, but that was not their original intent. Remembering this can help, remembering they are saying these things out of love. I might still be annoyed, but hopefully will be able to stave off being offended or hurt.

Ignore the Statement

One way to respond to these unfortunate statements about our singleness is not to respond at all. Sometimes it’s best to just move on to a different topic and act like the person said nothing rather than delve into the issue. This is part of picking your battles. The older I get, the more I realize that many battles are just not worth fighting. I used to struggle with the meaning of 1 Peter 4:8 which says “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” As someone who thinks honesty and forgiveness are key to reconciliation, I used to think most sins needed to be aired. But when offense is given accidentally, and even more so out of a motivation of love, just smiling and moving on can be an incredibly gracious act, and can be freeing to us as singles as well. It’s not always our job to educate every person we come across about how best to talk to singles.

Model How You’d Like them to Talk to You

Often, one of the best responses is to reply to them with a statement you’d love to hear them say to you about your singleness. So if, on finding out you’re single, someone says “don’t worry, my friend just got married at 45, so there’s still time!” you can reply with, “Actually, I have an amazing life as a single person, for instance this week I got to visit my friends in LA…” This both gently changes the subject but also shows them there is a lot more to talk about with you than your relationship status. You can remind people that singleness has its positives, not just negatives, and they can rejoice with you in those aspects instead of merely pitying you for be unattached.

Gently Remind the Speaker of God’s Truths

When bad theology creeps its way into these conversations, this may be a battle worth gently pursuing. Some questions to ask yourself before doing this are: Is this the right time and place to address this? If we’re in a group, can I do this in a way that won’t mortify them? Am I angry, so should bite my tongue until I calm down, or can I do this lovingly? How can I make sure my words and tone are gentle, yet true? When your mature Christian friend who got married in her twenties says, “You just need to have faith that God will bring a man into your life at the right time!” you may gently remind her, that “Actually, I have faith that God is working in my life in the best way for me, and that he will complete his good work in me whether single or married” (Philippians 1:6). We can gently remind them that a spouse is not promised for everyone, but God has many other amazing promises for each of us which we can all rely on, married or single.  We can remind them of the benefits Paul sees in singleness and how Christ and most of the disciples were single. This approach is important, especially for people we know believe in the God of the Bible, because it will remind them to look to the Bible for their truth instead of the romantic ideologies of modern America which have seeped into church culture. This needn’t be a lecture, but a sentence or two to bring their encouragement back to the actual life-giving, perfect, beautiful promises of God can build up all who hear.

Privately and Lovingly Rebuke a Repeat Offender

For those who repeatedly bring up your singleness in a way that increases your pain, discourages you, or gives you false hope it might be time to have a private conversation. If you’ve already tried the above and someone just can’t seem to stop, then Matthew 18:15 is very helpful. It says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Honestly, I’ve never had to go beyond this point, because this one is very powerful. It can even develop a closer relationship between you and your married friend. In a one-on-one conversation, let them know how their words affect you and how they can help lift you up instead. Again, do this with love and grace instead of blame and anger and it can be an incredibly beautiful bonding time in your relationship. Being open and honest about your struggles and how their words increase them instead of alleviate them will mostly likely open their eyes to things they didn’t realize they were doing. Telling them what they can say/do to actually help you can be empowering for them as a friend, because they now won’t have to search for words or actions in, what to them might be, an uncomfortable situation with which they are unfamiliar.

Embrace Teaching Opportunities in your Church

The last thing which I’ve found very helpful is for more single people to embrace leadership and teaching opportunities in the Christian community. Sadly, many churches don’t offer many to singles, so you might have to approach your pastors or elder board yourself with suggestions. Earlier this year, my Los Angeles church held an evening conference on singleness and we marketed it for both singles and marrieds. This was important, as I believe married people are actually the key to changing the way the modern evangelical church views singleness by how they raise their children. I was able to speak at the conference to both audiences at once, to singles, and marrieds, and this was a breakthrough moment for some of my married friends. Many of them had no idea how the words they used without much thought could affect the singles in their lives, or how saying “when you get married” instead of “if you get married” to their kids added an unbiblical expectation and pressure on them. In fact, some of the best feedback I got after that session was from married men and women. Churches need to give more opportunities for single adult men and women to have voices in the church so that it becomes normal – not something to be pitied or looked down upon. So, my encouragement to you is to seek these out, and if they don’t exist, talk to your church leadership teams about creating opportunities for singles to teach other adults.

I’m sure there are other ideas on how to best respond to our married friends when they address our singleness in unhelpful ways.

Singles, let me know what has worked for you in the past.

Marrieds, what do you think would be the most helpful way for us to respond?

When the World Expects Too Much

I decided to take last week off blogging since it was the first week of school. Always a hectic time, it was particularly insane this year as I was opening a school library for my first time ever, getting out consumables (workbooks) for every kid in the school (4-7 books per kid for over 1,100 students), and I had to do it all on my own as my partner had transferred to a different school and they haven’t replaced her yet. I’m trying to give myself permission to say no to things more often, but it’s still a struggle.

The thing is that I care . . . a lot . . . about a lot of things. I care about my students and teachers. I care about my family. I care about my friends. I care about my community, especially the poor and underrepresented, the voiceless and the weak. I care about my fellow Christians. I care about my country and my world.

But it’s just not enough.

As much as I tried, I didn’t have time for a kind word to each and every one of my students, many who really needed to be seen and appreciated in the first week of school. Even though I worked for hours and hours on the schedule, I still made a mistake and was unable to accommodate a couple of the teachers right away. Even though I prayed for energy, endurance, and patience I still complained more than I should have, still struggled not to cry at the end of a rough Friday. Even though I wanted to spend time with my brother and his son, I sat out their zoo trip on Saturday and stayed home instead because I felt like a giant walking bruise. Even though I followed the news all weekend and posted condemnation of the racist violence of the alt-right and the equivocating weak rhetoric of our president, I couldn’t actually make anything better. Even though I wanted to try hard to get to know people at my old/new church, I felt closed off and defensive Sunday morning at a church which seemed to act like nothing had happened, like America hadn’t just experienced horrible sin and violence.

It’s just not enough. I’m just not enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much our modern world demands of us and how much we demand of ourselves because of these expectations. As work got more and more stressful this week, I thought of every single person I know and realized not one of them has a job which is not frequently stressful. This brought up the question, are all jobs stressful? Is it a requirement to our survival (financial, physical) to be constantly stressed out?

Since Genesis 3 promises post-Fall humanity pain, sweat, and toil just for us to be able to eat, I suppose the answer to this is a resounding “Yes!” Which I find utterly depressing. I get that we can find rest in the Lord and all that, I even wrote a previous blog entry about that sort of thing, but some days I just can’t figure out how to practically do that in this difficult world of ours.

When I think about what the world expects of me and what I expect of myself, the only logical response seems to be feeling overwhelmed. Let’s break this down.

Expectations of the Awkward Spinster:

As a 39 year old, educated, Master’s degree carrying single adult woman

  • I should be doing quite well in my career by now.
  • I should be earning a decent wage with a retirement fund, savings account, and health insurance.
  • I should be either finished or almost finished with paying off my school loans and car.
  • I should be a leader or mentor at work at this point, helping newer younger coworkers find their way.
  • I shouldn’t just be writing a blog, but should be also working on my book and speaking career to go along with it.
  • I should have close relationships with the women in my church and be a vital part of a weekly Bible Study as well as my biweekly global prayer group.
  • I should be an involved aunt, a role model to my little loves, a reliable help to their parents.
  • I should be a helpful daughter to my mother financially, physically, and emotionally.
  • I should be a mature Christian woman who reads her Bible and has a significant time of prayer every day, memorizes scripture, journals, and processes it all.
  • I should somehow be both strong and meek, quiet and confident, submissive and yet a teacher.
  • I should be a dedicated biblical counselor, helping my church to set up a counseling training program, mentoring newer counselors, while counseling as many people as I can for free.
  • I should be active in my community, helping those in need with donations, volunteering, etc.
  • I should be an involved friend to those who’ve poured into me throughout my life, keeping up with them by writing e-mails, letters, text messages, social media comments, inviting them over, and talking to them on the phone.
  • I should be an involved member of the human race by keeping up with the news, being aware of what’s going on, and finding ways to help.
  • I should continue to be a passionate advocate for my former students and clients, encouraging them as they go off to college and careers and families, letting them know they are still loved and supported.
  • I should be an expert in my fields, keeping up with the latest in literature, writing, education, and biblical counseling.
  • I should be creative, writing poetry and journaling, blogging, and creating.
  • I should be a student of the world by traveling each year.
  • I should be a patron of the arts and news, things that matter to me and the world.
  • I should help around the house with cooking, cleaning, & maintenance. 
  • I should support my friends in the mission field through letters, prayer, and finances.
  • I should visit my friends and family out of state at least once a year.
  • I should spend time with my friends in LA by visiting once a month at least, and yet still be able to make new friends in my current town and invest in them too.
  • I should be a good doggy mamma and take him for walks and to the park.
  • I should keep up my geek cred by watching the latest Marvel or DC movies, reading the latest comic books, and going to a convention or two.
  • I should try online dating again and be open to possibilities.
  • I should lose weight, eat healthy, go to my doctor, and exercise daily.
  • I should march against white supremacy, protest the cruel regime shaping America today, stand up for the little guy.
  • I should, I should, I should . . .

This list never ends. I’m sure if you make a list for yourself, it will be just as long and overwhelming. Now, many of these expectations come from the world around me, what people expect of me, while some of them are what I expect of myself. It’s hard to parse through this list and separate them as many are intrinsically linked; I expect things of myself because I think others expect them of me.

It’s too much.

Wonder Woman #15 art by Terry & Rachel Dodson, story by Gail Simone

After a weekend like this one, when I wish I could just chuck everything else and go be a freedom fighter for a few months, I don’t even know where to start.

Which things are the most important of all? I am a finite human and cannot do everything. So where do I begin? In Mark 12:28-31, a scribe approaches Jesus and asks him,

“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Since many, if not most, of the things on my list of “shoulds” are related to trying to love God and love others, I’m still struggling my way through these top two commandments. The practical application of theology is rarely straightforward. This is not one of those blogs where I post a question and then answer it at the end. I’m still scratching my way to the surface on this one, still overwhelmed, still confused. Just thought I’d put this out there because I’m pretty sure there are a lot of us in this predicament.

So, if you’ve got any answers for me, please comment away. In the meantime, I’ll be looking through this list of mine trying to figure out where these expectations come from, which ones really matter, and which ones take priority. Prayers, encouragement, British chocolate, and scotch are appreciated along the way!