Archive for Church

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.”

It Takes a Village

Some think it takes a village to raise a child, but I think it takes a village to raise a contented, cared for single. This week, Holly Stallcup, one of the many fabulous single Christian women I follow in the Twittersphere, posted a thread about being offered a free couch, but not having anyone to help her actually get said couch. See, as a single woman she didn’t have a truck, the ability to carry it on her own, or the garage/spare room in which to store it until she could get it. Going a bit viral, woman after woman responded with their own stories about tears shed over some of the little things in life that are just a bit more difficult without having an assigned partner and the resulting combined circle of friends to help with these tasks.

While many women and men can just turn and ask their spouse for rides to the airport, doctor’s appointments, or the mechanic, singles often have to text several people before they find a friend who is both willing and able. Or urban singles will just Uber to the ER to save their friends the trouble, which is often not advisable. Some of us are lucky enough to live within a couple hours of family who might be able to step in from time to time for bigger things like helping us move, but many singles are far away from any relative. One woman brought up how nice it would be to have someone scrape her window during those icy mornings, or shovel her driveway. I know my mother dreamed of someone helping her take the trashcans out, or carry the groceries in.

We know having a spouse doesn’t guarantee such small acts of service as some are away on business, unable to assist, or don’t feel like it; however, having a partner in life often does mean there are now two people instead of one to tackle the little things together.

Another woman mentioned how the purity culture in the church can often lead to the discouragement of male/female friendships unless one is headed toward marriage. This can lead single women to have a dearth of men in their lives. If a woman marries, she adopts not only her husband’s family into hers, but his circle of friends as well, giving a whole new network of people to call on when she needs help. After all, it is more likely to be one of his guy friends who can offer the pickup truck to get the couch than her female friends (though I have known some kick-ass truck-owning women in my lifetime). So, by trying so hard to not tempt anyone we’re not interested in, or be tempted, we may end up without the benefit of guy friends. I have three brothers and some of my best friendships are male/female ones, so I challenge every single man and woman to learn how to just be friends with some awesome members of the opposite sex. Your life will be better for it.

Picture from my 32nd birthday, years ago. Most of these guys have helped me move apartments many times with minimal complaining.

Another idea that came up was how much we feel like a burden to our friends because we have to keep asking for help. After all, life is full of moments where being entirely independent just isn’t possible, no matter how much many of us would like it to be. My married friends don’t seem to mind asking their spouses for rides when their cars are in the shop, even though they just picked them up from the airport last month, and took them to an outpatient procedure the month before that. But when we ask our friends, we can feel ashamed and guilty for being such a burden on them. We know we are an inconvenience, and we feel terrible about it.

Over the years I’ve built some amazing friendships, and have had friends who have helped me move time and time again without any (well, mostly) complaints. Yet with this incredible group of friends and family who show up when I need them, I still feel horrible having to ask. It’s humbling, which isn’t bad, and it makes us realize that we are still dependent, no matter how long we’ve been living on our own, paying our own bills, and taking care of our own business.

I’ve been that person laying on the floor at 3 am weeping in pain but trying to do so quietly so as not to wake up my roommate only to then have to crawl to her room, wake her up, and ask her to take me to the ER. She did so happily, as I knew she would because she is the most lovely human being, but for some reason I still felt bad about waking her.

I’ve cried tears of frustration when I realize I’m going to have to ask the same group of people to help me carry my furniture down and up stairs yet again. Statistically, singles tend to move a lot more than married couples and families, so, yes, you’re going to have to carry our furniture a lot. We’re sorry about that. Blame the landlords in LA for raising the rents endlessly, roommates for getting married, and life. I know I, by myself, own more books than most families do put together and that those are the heaviest boxes in the universe, but that’s what you get for becoming friends with an English major. Besides, I always provide lunch and drinks and music and good company.

My friends in LA developed a network of airport/hospital/mechanic/any other thing rides when we were all single, people we could rely upon to get us where we needed to go without fear of rejection or complaint. And, in exchange, we did our best to never book flights around rush hour because no one’s love is that deep. But now those friends are mostly married, some have kids, and schedules got a lot more complicated. And yet, the last time I moved, my big move out of my beloved city, they were there, helping me pick up and load the ridiculously over-sized truck, to give me hugs, to cry a little with me, to say goodbye.

In my new city, I have yet to form a circle of friends like this. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible. I’m almost 40 now. I don’t have years of singleness together before they got married to establish these kinds of dependent relationships. I do have my family, stuck with me forever, so that’s nice. But I ache a bit for the men and women who taught me that it was okay to reach out, even at 3 am, if I needed them.

This is also incredibly difficult for men and women experiencing a second singleness. Widows and widowers and those who have experienced divorce now have to reach out for help outside of their own homes. It can feel humiliating after years of independence, can be awkward at best and scary at worst. But we need to humble ourselves and reach out, allow others to serve us.

Christians, the church is meant to be a place for these kinds of relationships. We’re meant to love on another with the self-sacrificial love of Christ for his church (John 13:34). Christ died for us, that’s how much he loved us, so we can at least pick someone up from the repair shop or help carry a couch.

In this way, singles are a bit more high maintenance than married couples. We have to ask you for help, not our spouses. We rely on the body of Christ for even the little things. Please don’t forget us, or see us as burdens. Every long-suffering sigh, every grimace, every rolled eye when help is requested is registered in our hearts, stored away for the next time we have to request assistance. Believe me, we know we can be work, we don’t need anyone to remind us of that. What we do need are men and women, couples, families to adopt us into their lives like family. To tell us we can call them for anything, and mean it. To assure us that we are beloved brothers and sisters and not burdens. To help.

In return, we singles tend to love our friends like family, with an unending loyalty. Adopt us, and we might just pay you back with babysitting and silly gif texts, with gratefulness, and maybe even tears of joy. You cannot know how much it means to have people we can rely on for life.

The Value of Representation

Sitting in the dimly lit theater waiting for the movie to start, my mum and I watched as group after group of excited friends and families poured into their seats. Many were dressed all in black, some in beautiful and ornate African designs, a few in Black Panther t-shirts. Everyone was smiling, from the oldest grandma to the littlest child. And while I was thrilled for this movie, I could only imagine the soul-deep fulfillment for the people of color in the audience finally seeing such empowering representation on the big screen from Marvel. I felt this as a woman when I saw DC’s “Wonder Woman.” Representation matters. Not just for kids, who need to see people who look and are like them to show them who they can grow up to be, but for adults too. To know we are seen, we are valued, we are home.

This Sunday, I got to sit in a room full of Biblical Counselors or those training to be, both men and women. We were asked to go around an introduce ourselves, sharing how we got into counseling. We were seen. We were valued. Though I was entirely freaked out as I walked into the room, a relative newbie to this church, only recognizing a couple of faces and having no true friends yet, I left feeling enthusiastic about the ministry and looking forward to the next meeting. You see, there were men and women of all stages of life there, and we were all given a voice. Singles, marrieds, retirees, professionals, students, parents, different ages and races, we were a good representation of the church as a whole.

As a single adult in the church, representation is an issue. The assumption that all good Christians will get married and have kids is embedded into the very fabric of the church, and reveals itself in every sermon and Sunday school class.

In my Sunday school class this week, this back and forth occurred:
“What does it take for someone to become an elder?”
“He has to live up the standards in scripture.”
“We should ask his wife about him, then, because she’d know best!”
General snickers from the many married couples in the room followed.

It was a tiny quip, didn’t mean much, but it revealed the underlying belief that, of course, all the elders would have wives to ask. And, at almost every church I’ve ever gone to, though marriage was not an elder requirement, every elder was, indeed, a married man. While 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter give a pretty detailed look at how elders should be chosen, the “husband of one wife” parts are generally considered not to be a command of marriage, but a call to sexual purity, thus marriage is not considered to be a requirement by most church elder boards. Instead, it has become a cultural one, based on the subtle belief that a mature godly man means a married man, usually a father.

Since it is the elder board which makes the big decisions regarding how many churches operate, there rarely is representation at this level for single men, and none for women, married or single. The idea is that these mature, godly, married male elders will keep the best interests of their entire congregation in mind when applying biblical principles to running the church. This is good – I’m a fan of that idea, and have deeply respected most of the elders of my churches, trusting them. My concern is that they might not even know when they are not representing the whole church, but are basing judgments on their own limited experiences and perspectives, because there is no other voice on the board to question or give a differing viewpoint. No women. No singles. And usually very few minorities.

To think that a group of mostly white, all married men, no matter how wise and kind, will be able to understand how certain verses will affect a single woman when preached a certain way, how an event might alienate those of another race, how the use of only sports and macho metaphors for men’s conferences might influence young boys, how the constant mentioning of young marriage could hit a high school girl, is naive. No one can see through the eyes of everyone, no matter how much they might try. We are all limited. We’re created that way, so we must rely on others to help us flesh out a whole view. We are meant to lean on communities built up of different races, ages, and life stages but in church leadership, this doesn’t always happen. This then trickles down to the entire congregation as a little comment here or a sermon there gets taken as the norm for Christian society.

One of the most important things to me in the church is having men in leadership who try their best to lift up the voices of those around them, who try to build up each person in their care so they can grow and minister to others. I’ve been blessed in my life by past mentors who, though I was a single woman, reached out to me to try to help me grow and learn to help others grow. If our churches are going to have 100% married male leadership, then we need one of their biggest goals to be pouring into those in their care who are not like them and finding ways to help them help others. We need them to see us! We need them to open up opportunities for women, for minorities, for singles to actively minister.

This Sunday, every person on the stage and standing up with an active role in the congregation at my church was male. The worship leader at the piano, the children’s pastor who did announcements, the guy running the soundboard, the pastor giving the sermon, the men passing around the offering plates, heck even the greeters at each door were men. Mostly older, married men. Fathers. I’m a fan of fathers – mine was the best of men and I loved him entirely. Still, it would be nice to have some women involved somewhere, some singles. How much effort would it take to allow women to be part of the team that pass around the offering plates or help with communion? How about letting a single woman do the announcements for once? How about having a mix of male and female greeters? Why not have the singles ministry actually be led by a happily single adult??? It honestly shouldn’t be this hard to get representation in the church for more than just married white men, even in the most conservative ones. I’ve been part of churches that have worked hard to do this, why can’t they all?

I’m not asking for revolution, for all churches to have female head pastors and elders, but I do ask for deaconesses, for roles in ministry, for every other option available to be opened to women and single men. I’m asking for the church to stop limiting its view of maturity to male marriage and parenthood.

Representation matters. Why are single people leaving the church? Why don’t we stay? A better question might be, why should we stay when we don’t feel like we’re really a part of it? Why should we keep attending once we age out of the “singles group” led by a married pastor who has stated out loud that his goal is to get everyone married off? Why should we stay when we are often depicted by church leadership as held in a perpetual state of immaturity, never quite allowed to grow up with our married counterparts?

I don’t think church leadership does this on purpose, but that it’s just something they’ve not thought much about. After all, they’re married men with kids so that’s the only perspective they know. So, let’s branch out, guys. As much as is biblically possible. If you can’t represent the singles in your midst, work to find someone who can. And please, can every sermon illustration stop being about macho men, fatherhood, parenthood, and marriage? Try one about roommates, friends, work, taxes, heck – standing in line at the grocery store, anything that might have a more universal appeal. Try it one Sunday – an entire Sunday without references specifically targeting married men. An entire day trying to represent the rest of us. How sad that this would be a novelty.

Representation matters. The church needs to stop pretending it doesn’t.

The Church’s Silencing of Single Women

This morning, as I grabbed a seat in my Sunday school class, a man stopped as he walked by to read the button on my purse. With a quizzical look, he read, “Hear Our Voice” and looked up to me for explanation. I happily stated, “it’s from the women’s march a couple weeks ago.” His eyes grew wide, and he literally started to back away from me saying, “have a nice day” as he turned and walked away. Like a big alarm had gone off for him, blaring “Do Not Engage!!!”

Many thoughts went through my head as I watched him flee in fear of me. Deep sadness at knowing I was, yet again, judged for being a “liberal” in this conservative town. Amusement at his discomfort. Grief that the conversation hadn’t continued because it could have been an awesome one. And the resigned exasperation of yet another woman who rarely gets a chance to be heard in the church, to explain herself, to be taken seriously. I thought, if I’d had a husband standing by my side, the conversation probably would have gone on much longer and perhaps could have even led to greater mutual understanding.

As a woman in the evangelical church, my role is limited already. I cannot be in leadership positions over men, can’t be a pastor or elder, apparently can’t even serve communion at most churches. Many churches who allow for women to be deacons will only have a couple, and they’re usually the heads of children’s ministries. Female representation is rare as these churches are usually led by all-male elder boards and sermons are taught by all-male pastors. A female perspective isn’t included in this picture. Yeah, they might run some things by their wives from time to time, but the vast majority of day to day decision making and sermonizing is from an entirely male perspective. It’s not that they’re trying to preach from a male-oriented view, it’s that they don’t even realize a different view could exist in the church. Their way of teaching, their way of reading, their way of applying the Bible is the right way. The idea that women might see things differently, yet still be biblically accurate, would seem heretical.

I’m not going to get into a complementarian vs egalitarian debate in this post, as that’s not the point. Whether you believe female leadership is biblically okay or biblically forbidden is another matter entirely. I’m just stating that much of the evangelical church has this hierarchy in leadership, and women’s voices are pretty low down the ladder. Here’s my added argument: that the voices of single women are even lower still.

As a woman without the headship of a husband, I can be seen as a threat. I don’t have a husband to reign me in, to filter my thoughts and speech. Adult single women in the church can even be seen as dangerous, like talking to us can be risky. Risky for the wives, because our independent ways might rub off on them. Risky for the husbands, because we single women must be on the hunt for a man so might try to seduce them away from their marriages. Risky for the church, because we might be upstarts and rebels.

While women in general often do not merit the level of respect in the church that men do, single women get even less. Married women can be respected because of their husbands, that association protects and lifts them up. After all, in many evangelical churches today, the highest calling for a woman is as wife and mother – so if you’re fulfilling this calling, you have earned honor. And while I agree that being a wife and mother can be an epically awesome way to glorify God, holding it up as the gold standard over the heads of those of us who just can’t quite seem to get married or have kids, who aren’t the perfect little homemakers, is a pretty horrible thing to do. Sorry, but we can’t all be the Joanna Gaineses of the world.

Single men can suffer voicelessness to a certain level as well, for they can be seen as irresponsible and immature. The mark of a Real Man in the church is often that you are husband and father, and if you don’t fit this mold by a certain age, you need to “be a man” and “settle down.” Though single men are much less likely to actually be hired by a church than their married counterparts, they are still more likely to have positions of influence than any woman, married or single, and single women are definitely the bottom of the barrel.

There are individual churches that work hard to hear women’s voices, even those of single women. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of churches like that. But this seems to be the exception more than the rule.

Two weeks ago, as I stood side by side with almost 600,000 other women in the streets of Downtown Los Angeles, I felt like my voice might actually be heard. Yes, I am different from many of the women there – I am a Christian feminist. But the response to my sign was 100% positive, with many people commenting on it, wanting pictures of it, and telling me they were just like me, were glad I was there, or were so excited to see that represented. Surrounded by women who often feel voiceless, and men and children who wanted to give us the chance to be heard, was a profound and beautiful experience. But no one in the church will discuss this with me. No one will even ask about it. No one from church commented on my social media pictures, no one asked questions, no one even tried to debate my going. Because what does it matter? I’m just one single woman. My thoughts and ideas don’t make a dent in the church.

I realize this post is a bit more emotionally charged than usual – it is not researched and backed up by Bible verses. But guys, I’ve got to tell you, it’s incredibly demoralizing to feel silenced over and over again. To feel like the very church I’ve grown up in, been educated in, have served and ministered in, and thrived in often sees me as someone to be silenced, or maybe just ignored.

I’ve considered, very seriously, just leaving the modern evangelical church altogether and seeking out more progressive pastures, as most of the single women bloggers and writers out there have done. I get the appeal. I’m drawn to it. But my heart, and my head still belong to the reformed church. This rebellious liberal is actually quite theologically conservative. Shocking, I know. So I can’t bring myself to jump ship. Besides, if everyone who is struggling with the post-Trump views subtly (or obviously) infusing the American evangelical church today leaves, what will become of it? If we all run away, will we not be partially complicit for allowing these poisonous views to grow and thrive?

Or maybe this feminist Christian will just chuck it all and move somewhere I can happily be a liberal Christian, drink wine with communion, and go to women’s marches with a whole truck load of my fellow church-goers. Who knows.

For now, I’ve decided to be a gently squeaking wheel in the machine I’ve so loved. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m at my new church a little longer, make more friends, get more involved in ministry, maybe, just maybe, my voice will be heard. Maybe, if enough of us speak up, if enough single women share our concerns with love and grace, the church will take us more seriously. Maybe, if we stick around trying to help the vulnerable, lift up the weak, and love the least loved in policy and practice, the church will follow our example. Yeah, we’re not supposed to be in leadership, but persistent examples of Godly love for others are hard to ignore.

To all the non-singles in the church, I challenge you to listen. Just listen. Ask your single brothers and sisters in Christ questions and listen to their answers without trying to “solve” their concerns. If you are in leadership in a church, ask yourself how you can give single women a platform, how you can help them grow and teach and speak and minister. Find ways to involve women in the decision making aspects of the church. Run sermon ideas by women to see how they’ll come across to the other half of the audience. Get creative. Consider that only getting input from those who represent 1/2 the congregation might not work. Consider that single people have as much to offer the church as married ones. Just ponder the possibility. Start there.

My challenge to all the single Christians out there is to make your voices heard. Become so involved in the ministries and day to day lives of your churches that they can’t help but listen. Help peel away the prejudiced views that have been built up over decades regarding the value of singleness in the church and in the world. Do not allow yourselves to be silenced, but with humility and grace, keep speaking.

I end this post somewhere between heartbreak and hope.