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.

Responding to Marrieds for Dummies

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

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

Get Annoyed, Offended, or Hurt

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

Ignore the Statement

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

Model How You’d Like them to Talk to You

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

Gently Remind the Speaker of God’s Truths

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

Privately and Lovingly Rebuke a Repeat Offender

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

Embrace Teaching Opportunities in your Church

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

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

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

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

Talking to Singles for Dummies

“Never say never!”
“You’re still young.”
“Don’t give up hope!”
“Don’t be so negative.”
“There’s someone for everyone.”
“Don’t worry, you still have time.”
“You should put yourself out there!”
“When the timing’s right, it’ll happen.”
“Must be nice to do whatever you want.”
“Are you praying for your future spouse?”
“You should open yourself up to the idea!”
“I have a friend who got married when she was in her 50’s!”
“Enjoy this season of your life, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.”
“When you’re married, you won’t be able to do this anymore.”
“When you get married (and have kids), then you’ll understand.”
“The moment you’re content being single, God will send someone.”
“Just trust God’s plan for you, he’ll send a spouse when you’re ready.”

Each Sunday, I brace myself for these words to be poured over my head like a blessing from well-meaning churchgoers. Each time I meet someone new at work or in social settings, I grit my teeth, knowing one of these phrases will probably follow the inevitable question of “Are you married?” and its frequent partner “Do you have kids?” My response of “No” seems to be an invitation for all sorts of fake encouragements, unfulfillable promises, empty hopes, exposed judgments, and subtle insults. Or there’s the awkward silence as their brains scramble to figure out what to say next.

I understand this, I don’t fit the usual script for a 39 year old Christian woman. They can’t easily move on to “how long have you been married? What does your husband do? How many kids? How old are they? Where do they go to school? etc.”  I require more thought, some creativity even. Married men and women without children go through this, as well as anyone else who doesn’t fit whatever mold is seen by their community as A Typical Christian/American/Grown Man or Woman. Words matter.

What’s happening with these stilted conversations, filled with phrases like those listed above, is a revelation of your heart, your values, and your biases, not mine. Rather than getting to know me before discussing how I might actually feel and think about my singleness, you’re assuming you already know. I might be incredibly happy about being single, or devastated. Your words in this moment could make me doubt my happiness or increase my grief. Wouldn’t you rather speak words to me that will encourage, bring joy, and invite a deeper relationship?

Words matter; they can lift up or crush, encourage or dismay, offer true hope or false promises, offer helpful insight or reinforce bad beliefs. God chose to speak to future generations through the written word of man, the act of divine creation occurs when God speaks it in words, and in John 1 Christ is referred to as the Word. Proverbs is filled with the importance of choosing our words carefully, of taming our tongues. Luke 6:45 states “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Words reveal what is in our hearts; words matter.

I realize this means the stereotypical small talk won’t cut it, and you’ll have to work a bit harder to actually converse. But shouldn’t we be trying to do that with everyone anyway?

Here are some tips on how to talk to a single person you’ve just met:

Read the Tone

Sarcasm is my love language. I like to joke and laugh. Sometimes I joke about my singleness, hilarious jokes in my mind. But more times than not I have been almost rebuked in these moments. When I’m trying to lighten the mood and make it less awkward for all of us, I’m often met with sincere concern, as if I just said I was dying or a drug addict. Please, read my tone. If I’m happy and laughing about my singleness, don’t turn it into a moment to remind me to trust God or not give up hope or some other shallow theological phrase that doesn’t belong. Saying I’m single is just a factual statement, not an invitation for a sermon. If the single person in question is joking, maybe the best bet is to laugh with them. On the other hand, just because I am currently happy being single, this doesn’t mean I always have been or that everyone else is, so keep the tone in mind and respond accordingly.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Until you get to know me,  you have no idea what singleness in my life is like. You don’t know if it’s by choice or by accident, through tragedy or just regular life occurrences, if it’s the best thing that ever happened to me or the worst, if I love it or hate it. Like most things with humans, it’s probably a very complex combination of some the above and more. Please do not heap all singles into one big box, thinking you know what we’re going through because you were single until the ripe old age of 27. Your experiences are not mine, and mine are not yours. Take the time to get to know me before you start talking about my singleness.

Check your Theology

Telling someone not to lose hope because they’re single is just bad theology. First, you’re assuming they are hopeless, which you can’t know at this point. Second, you’re telling them their hope should be found in another person which is just theologically wrong. Our hope is in Christ, nothing more or less; not that Christ will magically grant us all of our desires, but in Christ himself. By reaffirming the false promise that “God has someone for everyone,” you can only harm a single person. Soulmates aren’t promised in the Bible, guys. If you want to find terrible theology, Just run a Google Image search on “God has someone for you” and you’ll encounter platitude after platitude like the one above, ascribed to God, which are not biblical. You can either help singles continue to place their focus, dreams, and hearts on something that may or may not come true, stir up discontentment, confuse them about what promises are actually in the Bible, or just piss them off. If you tell a single person that they “just need to grow more mature, and more content in God, and then when they’re ready God will send a spouse,” you are lying to them. This is not a biblical statement, not a promise God makes, nor is it reality. There are a heck of a lot of messed up, discontent, immature married people, and many incredible single ones.  Nothing good comes from preaching bad theology, false promises, and incorrect priorities through easy, quick, thoughtless small talk.

Ask Thoughtful Questions

Since I’ve inadvertently removed the next few inane comments you usually say when meeting someone, what should you do once the “are you married?” receives a glaring “no”? Rather than following it with one of the above problematic comments or standing awkwardly silent, may I suggest asking some thoughtful questions? Let’s rule out asking why someone is single, because most of us don’t know. If you’re just meeting me, some better questions to ask are “what do you spend a lot of your time doing? What are some of your interests? Can you tell me a bit about your job? What have you been up to this week? Are you reading any good books or watching any great shows lately?” There are literally hundreds if not thousands of other questions to ask that don’t have anything to do with the lack of a spouse or children. This doesn’t mean singleness should be completely off the table, as it is a big part of our lives. However, maybe hold off on this topic until you’ve invested a little bit more time in getting to know me. As a friendship forms, if you’d like to be able to actually help me in regards to this aspect of my life, feel free to ask questions like “How do you feel about being single?” and “How can I be an encouragement in this area in your life?” I’d rather get a well meaning question about my singleness than a comment, even if it’s an awkward one. A question reveals an interest in the other person’s experience rather than a patronizing assumption. Questions can lead to actually getting to know each other.

Treat Us Like Adults

One of the most frustrating things about meeting new people as a singleton is being patronized by people younger than us. I realize I look a bit young for my age, but when you add singleness on top of it, I am constantly being patronized by men and women 10-20 years younger than me. This is annoying. My telling you I’m single is not opening up the door for you to school me on dating, married life, or parenthood. Maybe wait a bit to see if I actually want advice in any of these areas. Instead, why not treat me like the grown woman I am and have an adult conversation with me about topics of importance to our society today?

Switch out “When” for “If”

Growing up in the church, I heard “when you’re a wife” or “when you’re a mother” over and over again. Teenage girls are taught to pray and prepare for their future husbands. (Again, if you’d like a vomit-inducing picture of terrible theology, Google search “Praying for your future husband.”) Godly character traits were taught with the caveat “you’ll need this when you’re married” or “this will make you a better mom someday.” Little boys are taught they must be good, godly men so they can become good, godly husbands and fathers. There is some truth here, but not all truth. Yes, having godly character traits is important in being excellent husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers. But I’d argue they’re pretty important in just being great humans in general, helping us glorify God in the workplace, at church, with roommates and friends, with our parents and siblings, in our art and ministry, and in our communities. Can we stop raising our kids with the final goal of wife/mother or husband/father but with a goal of glorifying God in all we do? Can we switch out the inevitable “when” for “if”? Let’s tell our girls and boys things like, “if you get married someday…” and “if you have kids…” instead of “when” so that when they grow up, if they don’t actually marry or have kids but are living awesome, God-glorifying lives, they won’t feel like they’re still doing something wrong. And when you meet singles, just leave off any statement that starts with “when you get married…” 

Don’t Underestimate the Depth of our Love

One assumption I’m constantly battling is that I somehow can’t understand love because I’m single. Seemingly benign statements like “I didn’t really know how selfish I was until I got married,” “The main thing God uses to sanctify us is our spouse,” or “I didn’t know real love until I had kids” and are actually quite insulting to those of us who aren’t married and don’t have children. The flip side says to us “you must be a very selfish, unsanctified person because you live with roommates or on your own, not with a spouse” and “because you don’t have kids, you can’t possibly know a love this deep or real.” In one phrase, you have just called me self-centered and relegated any love I have to second class. You cannot know how much God has used my roommates or times alone to help sanctify me, nor know the deep, beautiful, and sacrificial love I have for my family and my friends. You also assume all spouses are no longer childish, and all parents are just automatically imbued with a supernatural, deep, selfless love. I worked in social work and counseling for years so I know this is not the case. Some of the worst relationships I’ve seen have been marriages, and some of the most selfish people I have met were parents with more love for themselves than their children. Some of the most mature selfless people I know are single men and women who pour out their lives for their friends, families, and communities. There are also a lot of us out there who have “fallen in love” but are still single for one reason or another. Don’t underestimate us. Singleness can actually mature us and increase our capacity to love others, as we don’t have children and a spouse to take up our affections and can therefore look outward to our parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, friends, fellow Christians, and communities. Our hearts are often full to the brim with true, deep, beautiful love.

There are many other things to say on this topic, but I think this is enough for now. Please, just think before you speak. Words matter, affecting those who hear them. And for those of us who feel like we’re often seen as outside the normal expectations of what a Good Christian should be at this point in our lives, your words can help us feel like we’re part of the community instead of in the waiting room.

  • Singles, what are some more pet peeves about singleness that come up in small talk?
  • Marrieds, what are some of the questions/concerns you have about conversing with singles?

Check back next Monday for “Responding to Marrieds for Dummies” to see how we singletons can better respond to these awkward small talk moments with the marrieds we meet.

*If you are reading this via e-mail and are unable to see the gifs, please click through to the webpage, there are a lot in this one! 🙂