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Archive for Theology

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.

Sudden Sad Thoughts and What to Do About Them

There was a moment this week as I sat in my car after work, about to pull out of the school parking lot and head to the comic book store to pick up the new Captain Marvel, a moment in which a fleeting thought flitted through my brain. It was unprovoked and, for me, unusual. The thought was this: “I will never have children.” Attached to this thought was an emotion: a simple, melancholy sadness. Just a statement of fact in my brain and one emotion which then led to other thoughts such as: “I wonder why God didn’t have it in his plan for me to marry and have kids?” and “I wonder why, in this brief moment, I feel sad about this when I thought I was okay with it now?” and “I don’t think I would’ve been a bad mom” and “did I do something wrong?”

Thoughts and emotions like these seem strange to me. Where do they come from? I’d had a good day at work, had actually spent the day with about 150 children in the school library, and was feeling tired and content. I’ve wrestled with the no kid thing for a couple of years now, ever since my body started going into perimenopause early and I was told by the doctor it’s a good thing I wasn’t planning on having children because it would quickly become more and more difficult to do so anyway. Other than the sheer weirdness of being a woman and being told my body can’t do what most other women do at some point in their lives, I was (mostly) okay with this.

I never really had a biological clock tick. Even when I was in my 20s and thought I’d one day be a wife and mother, adoption was my preferred route. I mean, my career right out of college was working with a Family Preservation organization, with foster children and kids at risk of removal from their parents for neglect or abuse. I had already met too many children living in group homes, or shuffled from one temporary foster home to the next, so the desire to adopt grew quickly and powerfully.

As I got into my 30s, I considered trying to adopt as a single woman since a husband didn’t seem to be on the table, but as a typical Californian I could not afford a house or apartment on my own, lived with a roommate, and worked way too many hours to raise a child alone. I deeply respect single women who foster or adopt, but it was just not an option for me with my limited funds and time.

Most of the time, even in those younger years, this didn’t bother me. I was a teacher, a godmother, an auntie, and had tons of kids, from babies through high schoolers, to help raise. I was living the life God led me to live, and was busy and fulfilled. I struggled more with the lack of a date, boyfriend, or husband than I did a child.

Now, in my (very early) 40s, I spend a lot of time being thankful that I don’t have children, that God has allowed me the freedom of singleness and childlessness to pursue a dream job (librarian), to have traveled so much, to be involved in counseling ministries, and to love so widely. Also, I’m exhausted. I don’t know how parents my age do it.

Yet there goes my brain having THOUGHTS, and my heart feeling EMOTIONS, both of which are unexpected and confusing. In the GriefShare sessions I help facilitate at my church, we talk a lot about how grief can come seemingly out of nowhere, how you might think you have it all under control and then, WHAM, it hits you all over again. I’m realizing my grief over the loss of a lifelong dream, expectation, and thing most people do indeed get in their lifetime (but some of us don’t), can still hit me in the midst of contentment and joy.

There are usually triggers for such thoughts and emotions: for me perhaps it was sitting in the car and seeing all of the moms and dads picking up their kids from after school activities. It may have been the fact that no fewer than 5 babies were born to dear friends of mine over Christmas break, which brought me great joy (even now, as I type this, I’m catching myself smiling at the thought of those 5 little scrunchy baby faces and their awesome parents). Another mother I know just suffered a tragic miscarriage, so that is on my heart as well. Perhaps it was purely hormonal (dude, you guys, menopause sucks, and hormones are for real!!!). Maybe the gloomy weather drew out the melancholic in me.

Most likely, there was more than one trigger, as we humans are complex, and there are usually multiple causes for everything we experience. Honestly, getting to the bottom of the trigger doesn’t really concern me. I’m sure this exact same thought and attached emotion will hit me again as it has before. Instead, I’d rather focus on what to do when such thoughts and emotions wage a sneak attack on us.

My mom happened to call about 30 seconds after the follow-up questions had started to spiral in my brain. It would have been easy to ignore the moment, and just pretend like I hadn’t just been sad about not having kids. I would have forgotten about it until the next time it hit. Instead, I decided to tell my mom about it. I just mentioned that I’d had this thought, and it was weird, and I felt a little bit sad, and how odd that was for me. Just acknowledging that it was real, and indeed sad, and okay to feel that way was a relief. Taking 5 minutes to remember that I am in the process of losing a dream and that it’s okay to be a little sad about that every once in awhile was beautiful and freeing. Being able to speak this to my mother and have her listen without judgement, have her tell me it’s okay to feel this way, that it’s normal, that I can feel sad sometimes even though I’m very happy with my life, that was what I needed.

Philippians 4:4-9 says “rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

I think part of being able to rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS is being able to be sad and yet still rejoice. We live in a broken world, and the Lord does not command us to pretend otherwise. We are not meant to bury our heads in the sand and act like everything is always perfect and happy. Christ himself did no such thing in his time here on earth, instead he faced hard times head on. But rather than allowing these unwelcome sad thoughts and emotions to take over, to lead us into the downward spiral of depression (toward which I am already prone), we can have these thoughts and still be okay.

Because I have been praying about the no husband and kid thing for a couple decades now, I am no longer anxious or depressed about it. I feel a peace about my single status that certainly surpasses my understanding. Over the past few years, I’ve also practiced thinking on and practicing the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy things. And, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, it gets easier the more I practice.

So now, I can have a thought and emotion of grief and loss and sadness, like “I will never be able to have a child of my own (whether by birth or adoption), like all these other moms have.” And I can dwell in that sadness for a moment, acknowledge it is real and true, that it is a good and commendable desire, and then I can move on. The downward spiral into deeper sadness or depression is not required, nor is a false pretense that I never feel this way and am always fine with my single, non-mother status. I can feel sad. And I can still rejoice. And I can move on with my day and my life in a way that glorifies God, helps others, and brings me true joy and peace.

Whatever random (or probably not quite so random) thoughts and emotions you have that hit you from time to time, know that you don’t have to wallow in them nor ignore them. You can honor them and yet still find joy and peace in this life. The more you practice acknowledging these thoughts, praying about them with thanksgiving, and turning your minds to the praiseworthy things, the more you will experience the reality that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And having your little nephew make you an imaginary cup of tea won’t hurt either.

How to be Single, Celibate, and Happily Turn 40 – Trust God with your Future

One of the scariest parts about growing older when you are single and childless is all the fears attached to it. What will happen to me as I grow even older and more frail with no partner to help and no children to care for me? Where will I live since I can’t afford a home on my own? In those times when we live alone, we fear what will happen if we choke with no one there to save us.

Tip 5: Trust God with your Future

The financial stresses on singles are very real as singles tend to earn less money, have a higher per-person cost of living (from rents to cell phone plans), fewer options for retirement and health care plans, and on average pay more in taxes than joint filers. Single women, in particular, are literally at a loss when compared to others financially.

This fear about my future was one of the main things holding me back from being able to truly enjoy my single life for years. Even when I was happy in the moment, knowing I was right where God wanted me, the second I thought ahead anxiety would creep in. In the counseling room, I often heard “right now, I’m fine being single, but when I think about being single in 5-10 years I start to panic!”

To be honest, whether we are single or married, we never know what the future may bring. Marriages fall apart, people die, financial markets collapse, health declines, and unforeseen circumstances hit everyone. When I got down to it, I realized my struggle wasn’t just fearing being single in the future, it was fearing what could happen in the future at all.

The solution for this fear? Faith. Faith that God will continue to do a good work in me, just as he promised (Philippians 1:6). This does not mean I make horrendously foolish decisions. I still try my best to be responsible with what the Lord has entrusted to me, seek wise counsel, and plan ahead. But I don’t allow the fears regarding my future to take over my heart and mind. After all, “it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:20-21).

ProTip:

When you start to fear the future, turn these worried thoughts into prayers. Remember God’s faithfulness throughout your life so far, look back on all he’s brought you through. And remember his promises to never leave nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).

I hope that each year of your life brings you more confidence and contentment in God’s plan for you.

Do you have any tips that could help other singletons experience aging with greater peace and joy? Share them in the comments below.

If you missed any of this 5 part series, check out the first 4 tips below:
Tip 1: Celebrate with Friends and Family
Tip 2: Reassess Your Priorities
Tip 3: Recognize Celibacy as Worship
Tip 4: Embrace Having Nothing to Prove

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