Archive for God’s Gifts

Not Everything is Terrible

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

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

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

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

Recognize the Excellent Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linger in the Sweet Moments

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

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

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

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

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

Be Grateful for all Good Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the Not-Terrible Things

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

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

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

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

Not everything was terrible today, after all.

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

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.

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 Awkward Spinster’s Best of 2017

Oh, 2017, I can’t believe you’re almost over! It’s New Year’s Eve, and my mind can’t help but look back on the past few months. For a non-MAGA woman like myself, 2017 was pretty rough, but it also held so much of God’s grace that I still can’t hate it. My little recovering-cynic-self is filled with thankfulness today.

One thing I’m most thankful for this year is finding my voice as the Awkward Spinster. These past 9 months of posting on this blog have been exciting, challenging, and rewarding. Yes, I know many women grow actual human babies in 9 months, but for some of us, starting a blog is enough of a big deal for a year. Thank you, my readers, both single and married, for all of your feedback thus far, and for supporting a slightly snarky singleton like myself! 

For those of you who missed or would like to revisit them, here’s a look back at the 5 most popular Awkward Spinster blog posts of 2017:

5. The fifth most popular blog post of this year delves into something I’m naturally terrible at, The One About Dating.

4. A topic near and dear to my heart, and something that’s been on my mind a lot as I ponder what to write on my sign for the Women’s March in a few weeks, the fourth most popular post was Oops . . . My Feminist Is Showing!

3. The third most popular post was particularly fun to write, and gave me a little room to rant a bit about the Top 5 Things I Hate About Being Single.

2. Coming in second place is my guide giving non-singles tips on how not to frustrate, annoy, or harm their single friends and family in Talking to Singles for Dummies.

1. The most popular post this year explored something that is a big part of my spiritual worship, and something the church doesn’t always handle well with its singles, Committing to Celibacy.

And here’s my choice for the most underrated post that I wish more people had read because I love it: Saved by Beauty.

As I work to focus on the beautiful, inspiring, fun, and good things of 2017, here are a few more favorites of the year:

Best Song: “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Mixtape by K’naan featuring Residente, Riz MC & Snow Tha Product. This song is the anthem of the resistance!

Best TV Show: Season 2 of Stranger Things. I haven’t finished watching the second season of The Crown yet, so I’ll go with Chief Hopper, Eleven, Joyce, Steve and his boys. Incidentally, my favorite new Twitter feed of the year belongs to David Harbour (Chief Hopper himself).

Best Movie: Wonder Woman. Hands down. No question. If you’re wondering why, check out my sister Lavender Vroman’s blog, No Man’s Land, as she puts it into words perfectly.

Best Poem: “Daughter’s Lament” by Candice Kelsey. Any poem by Candice Kelsey is both beautiful and thought-provoking, but this is one of my all-time favorites.

Best Comic Book: DC’s “Doomsday Clock” by writer Geoff Johns, artist Gary Frank, and colorist Brad Anderson. Issues 1 & 2 are out now, and worth the read for serious comic book fans, but not appropriate for kids.

Best Book: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. One of my favorite authors, Green, gave us a gift this year with this book, an exploration of teenage life touched by mental illness, yet even more about growing up and friendship. It’s brilliant.

Well, my laptop unexpectedly shut down on me while I wrote this, so I’ll take that as a sign that I need to get off the computer and go start the Back to the Future marathon I have planned with my mum and brother for our wild and crazy New Year’s Eve celebration.

I wish you all a 2018 filled with compassion, joy, and beauty!

A Christmas Adam Ramble

Each vacation I have the goal of spending at least one day at home in my pajamas. Being sick in bed, as I was for the beginning of my time off this holiday season, does not count. So, today, Christmas Adam 2017, appears to be that day and I couldn’t be more excited. Let’s hope nothing comes up that will require me to put on clothes that do not involve elastic waistbands and cozy slippers.

I haven’t blogged for a couple weeks due to the aforementioned illness, still having to work both at the library and my tutoring job, and my usual battle with feeling pressure about what to write. But today I feel like blogging just for the fun of it, and I have given myself permission to do so. You see, in the past, I have always written a well-thought-out formal blog post each week and, to be honest, sometimes I just don’t have it in me. So I’ve decided to allow myself some more casual, off-the-cuff blogging from time to time. Feel free to let me know how you feel about this, dear awkward reader.

I do have a couple things on my mind about which to ramble.

First is how much I have been enjoying trying to observe Advent with my mum this year. As a single person, I honestly hadn’t seriously considered doing a nightly or even weekly Advent. Most churches I’ve gone to offer lessons you can do with your children, or other such family-oriented things, so I guess I sort of thought it didn’t really apply to me. But this year, mum and I decided to give it a go just the two of us. To be honest, since I got sick and then she got sick as I was starting to get better, we’ve missed more nights than we’ve done it. Still, when we’ve had the chance, we’ve truly enjoyed following along with “The Advent Project” by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts.  It combines art, poetry, music, scripture, and a devotional for each day of the Advent season, and it’s beautiful. We’re also enjoying lighting the candles in our Advent wreath and opening the windows in our traditional German Advent Calendar we picked up in Solvang earlier this year, like we did when I was little. Any other singles out there trying to observe Advent as well this year? How about families? What’s working for you?

Next, I’d like to talk about one iteration of my ongoing struggle with hope. Each and every day for several months, I’ve been entering the Hamilton Lottery hoping that this will be the day I’ll win the opportunity to buy two $10 tickets to see a show I’ve been obsessed with since it opened on Broadway. Instead, each day I am told “Sorry you did not win this lottery.” Sigh. I must admit, it’s wearing me down a bit. And in my mind this has become a metaphor for my cynical little self. I started out a very optimistic child, and then was worn down over the years into the current version of Fawn who finds the idea of hope a daily battle of the heart and mind. Yet I keep entering the lottery, knowing I won’t win, and, by the grace of God alone, I’ll keep hoping in Him. This year was better on that front than last year, and I actually have hope that next year I’ll continue my slow crawl away from total pessimism.

Should I make that my New Year’s Resolution? To continue working on hope? I think that might be setting myself up for too high a fall. I’m not one to pretend serious, deep, life-changing New Year’s Resolutions like improving myself spiritually, or even dieting or exercising daily are practical as most studies suggest they fail by February. I mean, I’ve had some incredibly successful years, but those years my resolutions were to Watch More Television (after I graduated from college and finally had time to catch up on shows) or Drink More Wine (when I was in my last 20’s and trying to develop a more mature palette instead of just enjoying dark ales) or Learn About Whisky (in my early 30’s when I developed said palette even further) or Read More Books (many a year has happily met this challenge). I feel like Learn How to Hope is a much more elusive goal. Your thoughts? Any New Year’s Resolutions for you?

And the other thing I wanted to mention is that I liked “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I realize this might make some of you no longer want to read my blog, as it is a divisive issue among the geek world. Many a friendship is in the midst of violent feuding over this very explosive issue. However, I am still willing to be friends with those of differing opinions. After all, not everyone can have taste as impeccable as mine. If you’d like to comment back about this, please leave all comments spoiler-free for those poor souls who haven’t yet had a chance to see the latest star war.

Right, how do you feel about my less formal, more stream-of-consciousness, blog? Is this something you’d be ok with now and then in the future of the Awkward Spinster, or should it just be a one-off we can chalk up to my still-slightly-stuffy head?

If you’re interesting in reading more serious blogs about the holiday season, you can check out a couple I wrote for my beloved former church, Cornerstone West LA, when I was on their writing team: “Holidays Help Us Number Our Days” and “Not So Happy Holidays“.

Happy Christmas to all of my dear readers, even the ones who didn’t like TLJ.

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?

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.