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Archive for Christianity

An Awkward Spinster Has All the Thoughts as Summer Ends

With one week left of summer vacation, I think my mind is trying to process all the things it’s been pondering this summer. Things like women’s roles in the church, how best to help those suffering through grief and loss, the effects of institutionalized racism on my bookshelves, the awesomeness of graphic novels that work for kids and adults, the joy of supporting art, and how to be both firm yet gracious. I can ponder forever, but coming to conclusions is another thing. So now that I’m down to just a few more days before my mind is filled almost entirely with the business of getting the library up and running for the school year, I’m trying to actually make some decisions based on the things on which I’ve ruminated for the past couple of months. 

On the role of women in the church, this video by N. T. Wright has had me thinking for days. It was suggested by female Anglican priest Tish Warren in an interview on Preston Sprinkle’s podcast “Theology in the Raw.” As this issue has been a concern of mine for literally my entire life, and as it is an issue that directly affects me as a woman in ministry, any conclusions I come to will probably take more time and study. If this is a topic of interest to you, please check out the video and let me know what you think. Comment below if you’d like to get a conversation going. It’s a complex issue, and one that is often considered “not a priority” (a direct quote from a pastor with whom I discussed this) by many churches as men are solely in leadership, thus think they are not directly affected by this (they are), think it’s clear (it’s not), or think it’s not that important (it is to the other 50% of the church).

Last night, I showed my mum the Anderson Cooper interview with Stephen Colbert, and we both cried a little. Colbert’s compassionate and authentic response to Cooper’s vulnerable questions on loss and grief was insightful, beautiful, and pointed to Christ. As I am gearing up to, once again, co-lead a grief group at my church, this interview will stay in my mind. Check it out. Discuss below.

This January, as I thought of what New Year’s Resolution I could make, I looked around my bookshelves and realized that the ratio of white authors to authors of color was not great. Though many of my favorite authors are men and women of color, I’m still not hearing their voices as often as white voices. And since I’m actually pretty angry with many of the white voices that can seem to screech the loudest in our culture, I thought I’d like to hear some perspectives that differ. At this moment, I’m in the middle of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” If the late, great, Toni Morrison said it’s “required reading,” I’m there. It’s beautiful, difficult, thought-provoking, and important. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts below. If not, perhaps you can join me in reading it and we can discuss together when we’re done. Which will probably be tonight, because I can’t put it down.

Another way I gear up for the school year is by reading some of the kid lit I’ll be introducing to my library this fall. I had heard great things about the graphic novel series by Ben Hatke, “Zita: the Spacegirl,” but never got around to reading them. I know this shocks most people, that an English major and librarian hasn’t read Every Single Book in Existence, but hey, there are A LOT of books out there, so we can’t read them all! Anyway, I stumbled across the Zita trilogy for a great price at one of my favorite Southern California used bookstores, BookMonster in Santa Monica, and snatched them up for my kiddos. I just read all 3 in 3 days because they are fun, amazing, and lovely. I can’t wait to get them into the hands of my students as soon as the school library is open for business this fall! I’ve also been told that “Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl” is even better, so I can’t wait to read it. Someday soon. When I have time and money again. (I don’t get paid during the summer, and yet somehow I still bought 3 bags full of stuff for my library, sigh.) Are there any other graphic novels I should stock in my TK-5th grade library? Let me know.

Something that reminded me of how much I love to support others’ art was the successful Kickstarter campaign of illustrator Seth T. Hahne. His American Lit series is brilliant, and I’ve now got both the Salinger and Fitzgerald pieces framed and hanging on my living room gallery wall and mailed off a bunch of the others to some literary geek friends. Check his work out, and buy some. You can also support my two favorite artists-who-are-related-to-me, my brother Joshua Kemble, and his wife Mai S. Kemble. Their work is incredible, objectively, with no bias on my part. Check them out and support your local artists! Are there other artists I should know about? Link to them in the comments.

Another idea that’s permeated my summer is how to stop seeing people as one big group with whom I’m upset (cough *evangelical Trump supporters* cough) and instead get back to seeing individuals. And, as silly as it may seem, I’ve been convicted by the depiction of G. K. Chesterton’s gracious, kind, clever, and firm Father Brown. Mum and I happily discovered that Season 7 is now streaming on Amazon Prime’s Britbox (yes, of course we have Britbox), with a new episode offered each week on Thursdays, I think. If I could be more like Father Brown, I think I’d be doing well. His ability to both treat people with respect and grace, yet hold people accountable for their sinful actions and desires, all while calling them to repentance and reminding them of Christ’s ever-present offer of forgiveness is astounding. Are you a Father Brownian? Let me know in the comments. 

I realize I’m ending this post with very few conclusions, and possibly may be giving you more questions, but I’m an educator so questions are my favorite tool! Let’s ponder these things, and more, together. After all, a single lady needs her community to share ideas, debate, and discuss. Have at it.

The Danger of Treating Singleness Like It’s a Practice Round

Today I listened to a brief podcast about singleness and read a couple articles targeting singles. They were all biblically accurate, all well-meaning, and all left me with the same concern: there was a subtle but pervasive insinuation that the point of singleness is to help us practice for a godly married life.

I don’t think that was the goal of either message, in fact, I think the people involved in creating these pieces would firmly say that is not the point of singleness. And yet, there it is, woven into phrases like “when a single woman learns to submit to and honor authorities God has placed in her life, earthly marriage will simply be an easier transition that had she not.” It takes the good message of singleness not being a “holding station for marriage” and turns it into just that by using words like “this season” or phrases like viewing “these unique single years as “super years” to serve God.”

To many, these words and phrases may seem helpful or at least neutral, but they reveal the deep down belief that singleness is a temporary phase of life before marriage. And, in fact, all of the women who wrote the articles I read and spoke on the podcast I listened to are now married. They may commiserate with singles because they were single until the ripe old age of 29, but for them, singleness truly was just a season. 

Since many Christian men and women who struggle with their singleness will end up married, what’s the big deal about teaching like this? For many, it is a season that passes, it is a unique stage of life that can be seen as a special, separate moment. My concern is that all of these lessons are particularly targeting singles, especially ones who would like to be married someday. And unless you truly believe that God has promised a spouse for each and every reader and listener (he hasn’t) then we need to be a bit more careful in our use of language when discussing singleness. 

This might seem overly critical or nit-picky, but as a kid who grew up in the purity movement of evangelical churches, words like these, subtle, pervasive words, are what stay in our heads as we grow older. Words reveal what we really believe. It’s easy for a now-married man or woman to look back on singleness and remember their own struggles with it. But looking back on it from the lens of a currently married person might make you forget one thing: some of us will never marry. Even some of us who passionately wish to. It’s easy to look back and say hang in there, use your time well, serve hard in this special season, etc. But what about when that season is your entire life? What about when it is no longer “unique” but it is everything?

Be careful about the words you use to describe singleness because if you give off the feeling that it’s merely a practice round for real life, that will affect both how the singles around you view their lives and how you see them. Do you look at your own single life like it’s just a phase to get through before things get better? Do you look at your single friends like they aren’t quite there yet? Like they’re still not totally grown up? 

I appreciate when married pastors and speakers include singles in their sermons, podcasts, and blogs. It’s nice to be seen, included, and appreciated because we so often are overlooked. I don’t want to seem ungrateful about these messages, which do hold good truths, because of a word here and a phrase there. But these words and phrases reveal a bigger issue in the church, that we still view singleness as something to be got through and moved on from. And for many of us, this is just rubbing salt into an open wound.

For me, singleness is not a season; there is nothing unique about this part of my life. It just IS my life. It might not be what I would have chosen, but it is the life God has chosen for me, and many others like me. It is the life God chose for many of his disciples and for himself on earth. It is a good life, a full one, and not just practice for marriage. Stop seeing singles at the caterpillar, and start to see the butterfly already there.

I’m Dreaming of Expanded Ministry Opportunities for Celibate Single Christians

The singles ministry is led by a male pastor in his early 30’s who happily married quite young, had three little kids, and thinks everyone else should follow his example. The women’s retreat speaker has been married for 20 years and all of her illustrations refer to being a wife and mother. The high school youth group is run by a still-in-seminary early-20-something man who just got married two years ago, and his newly pregnant wife who helps out. The Women’s and Children’s Ministry Directors are married women with children who home schooled their kids and never had careers outside of the home. The break-out session at the parenting conference for single parents is facilitated by a middle aged married couple who blended their families from previous marriages. The entire paid counseling staff of the large church is made up of married men (a couple of women are available for an hour here or there as unpaid counselors who voluntarily counsel in the little spare time they can offer up). In fact, the entire pastoral staff is made up of married men.

When a single person does appear in paid ministry in these churches, it is usually an annoyingly energetic young man, currently in or freshly out of seminary, being groomed for future leadership in the church with the very strong expectation that they will soon get married and have kids,just like every other man on staff. A single young woman in a similar situation is never even a consideration.

This is the status quo of the churches in which I grew up and continue to be a part of. Every. Single. One of them. There may be an exception here or there in some more open minded churches, but for the vast majority of evangelicals, this is our experience.

In some denominations, most, if not all ministry is performed by single members of the clergy. Monks, priests, and nuns who took vows of service and celibacy led (and still lead) parishes and churches worldwide. They were and are respected, useful members of society and leaders in ministry. Yes, there are some who abused and continue to abuse this position (horribly and with lasting effect on those abused and the church itself), but this isn’t because they are single (married pastors are capable of just as much abuse as unmarried priests). The ability for ministers to marry is allowed in Scripture and has benefits of its own, so I get why the Protestant church pushed for that change in leadership policy. But instead of building a church body that allows married AND single men and women to minister in varied ways that utilize their skills and encourage spiritual growth across the board, the conservative evangelical church has relegated single Christians to the corners of ministry, especially single women.

Single women are encouraged to work in the nursery, or maybe the church office. Single men are encouraged to help out in youth group with the sporty stuff and help pass out the communion trays. Both are encouraged even more strongly to find Christian spouses and start “a family” as their main focus of ministry. And, for almost everything else, married men and maybe women will fill ministry roles.

So why is this? If I offered to speak at the next marriage conference, to married couples, about marriage, I’d be considered a bit nuts. So why is it that married people get to lead everything, even ministries specifically to singles? Why has marriage become a seminal part of the conscious or unconscious criteria for what it means to be a ministry-ready mature Christian? Christ was unmarried, as were Paul and Timothy and many other saints of the early church. It’s time to remember that.

Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • I’d love to see middle aged single men and women encouraged to lead the singles ministry, even hired (gasp!) to do so. If the main goal of the singles pastor is to get his parishioners married off, and to teach them how to be good future husbands and wives, then you’ve hired the wrong person for this job. If they view singleness as a temporary state to be raced through as quickly as possible, then assign them to a different ministry. We do not have singles leading married ministries, so why do we have married pastors leading singles?
  • I’d love to see youth groups invite dedicated, celibate, older-than-20-or-30-something single speakers when they discuss “purity culture” so there can be a balance to the whole “save sex until marriage” and “your virginity is for your husband/wife” message. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our teenagers realized that not everyone is actually going to get married? And that marriage isn’t actually the only way to honor God? And that celibacy is not punishment, but a form of worship? Only a single speaker can convincingly make this argument, not a married one.
  • I’d love for the next women’s retreat or conference to headline a single woman speaker rather than just have one break-out session (if any) for the singles that focuses on not wasting this valuable time until marriage (with eventual marriage assumed, of course). Let’s have sermons by women where being a wife and mother fills 10% of the illustrations instead of 100%, just every once in awhile to remind the other women that probably over 50% of adults in church actually aren’t married. Let’s have single male speakers at men’s conferences too, who can shift the focus from godly man=husband/father to godly man=godly man.
  • I’d love for every church that has a counseling program to hire a full time female counselor on staff, and why not some single ones while we’re at it? See, most of the people who turn to churches for counsel are women. And by most, it’s like 80%. Sadly, due to our culture’s weird view of masculinity, men don’t tend to ask for counseling. It’s tragic, really. But this does mean that more women are coming to churches for counseling, and most churches only have male pastors on staff to help them. They may have a few women who volunteer to counsel in between their jobs and kids and everything else, but our time is always limited, and we rarely get paid for it meaning we can’t offer as much. And, when women are not on staff at churches, the elder board will actually have zero clue what needs the women of the church actually have because they have no voice at the table. Single counselors would be awesome too, as we have a lot to offer!
  • I’d love for the next parenting conference to host a break-out session by a single teacher who can help them speak to their kids about the possibility that Prince Charming or their Disney Princess may not exist. Parents need to know that God may have chosen a path of singleness for their children, that they may not get grandkids, and that this, if it is God’s will, is truly beautiful and fine and good. Parents need to be told that putting undue pressure on their kids to find a spouse and “settle down” (as if all singles are unsettled???) is not showing trust in God. They need to know that it’s okay for them to pray for their kids’ future spouses, as long as they’re also praying for God’s will which may actually not include a spouse at all.
  • I’d love for Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries to hire single male and female professors to teach and mentor and for churches to hire full-time single Christians on staff. The next generation of Christians needs to see there are valuable places in the Christian community for singles. They need mentors who can minister differently. They need a variety of voices and perspectives pointing to the same God, using the same Scripture, loving the same body of Christ. They need to see that singleness can be used for the glory of God, that committed celibate singleness is respected, and that life is not over if you can’t find a spouse.

Inclusion of mature, dedicated, celibate single Christians is even more important in a time when we demand that same-sex attracted Christians remain celibate for life, closing themselves off to the possibility of any kind of traditional family, or marry someone they are not attracted to. We expect a woman who has never been sought after as a wife to remain faithful to God alone and find her fulfillment in Him instead of being a wife and mother, even when we preach that a woman’s highest calling is to be just that. We look at older single men in the church with suspicion. We demand a difficult commitment to purity and service, yet relegate singles to second-class status with few opportunities for Christian vocation, little respect, no possibility of paid ministry, no voice in church leadership, and ultimately a life on the fringes of the community that is meant to be our family.

The church is meant to be made up of all image bearers of God; this includes both men and women, people of every tongue and race, all socioeconomic backgrounds,  and it should also include singles as well as married Christians. If any of these are lacking, then the church is bound to not even realize the gaps in who they are not able to serve. The blind spots will be insurmountable because they won’t even know they exist. It’s time for singles to be involved in every aspect of church life, including leadership.

Advent, Waiting, and Singleness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper Cuts, Singleness, and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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