Single-minded: A letter to the church

My friend Hannah Montgomery invited me to write something for her blog back in 2017. I’ve had a few requests from people who wanted to re-read it or share it with others, so I’m reposting it here. So, it’s not new, but it’s also still worth a read I think! I’ve had thoughts about writing a follow-up post in response to some comments and having had further thoughts, so keep your eyes peeled for that in the next few weeks!

Life Goals: Single-minded

Dear church family

First of all, I want to thank you for asking me to write to you about this issue. 

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we refer to the “issue” of singleness? We don’t talk about the “issue” of marriage. I suppose, without really meaning to, we file singleness under one of those topics that we find a bit troubling, and are all quite glad we don’t have to deal with in our own lives. 

Unless we do have to deal with it in our own lives.

In any case, I’d like ask the question with a different meaning. “What is the issue of singleness?” What does this state of being in which all of us will find ourselves at some point in our lives, offer to the body of Christ? What is its fruit? And how can those of us who are not currently single behave towards those of us who are in ways that are helpful and inclusive rather than damaging and exclusive?

Let me give you a bit of background to my situation so that you can weigh my words carefully against scripture and ignore what is unhelpfully written out of my own experience. I am in my 40s. I am heterosexual. I am female. I have never been married or been in a serious long-term relationship, although I have had my heart broken a number of times when relationships have not gone the distance. I have never experienced any sense that not being in a relationship is somehow a gift given to me by God. I guess I just haven’t met the right guy. 

If there is a right guy. There’s a topic for another discussion.

So, having no sense that my single status is something God has specifically chosen for me, I have an interesting relationship with its reality. At times I have felt lonely, bitter, hurt, frustrated, left out, self-doubting, insecure, unloved. At other times I have been glad of my freedom, my independence and my capacity to empathise with those who are single, gay, bisexual, divorced, widowed etc. I have amazing relationships with friends and my family, and my relationship with Jesus, on my best days, is unconditional and unclouded by divided loyalties. 

In any circumstance, we have a choice about how to respond. And I have found that when I choose thankfulness, contentment and joy, often they make their way from the outside in, and become my experience rather than just my posture. And when I choose to focus on Jesus rather than my circumstances, life is much better. But it’s a choice I make every day. 

So, I thought I’d make some lists…hope they help you, they’ve helped me already. Some of them are for the single people, and some of them for the non-single, but all of them might help all of us.

Here are some myths we need to stop telling ourselves:

Life will start properly when you meet the right man/woman. That’s nonsense, but it’s amazing how easily we buy into that lie. I let it hinder me for a number of years before I realised that I had to seek God for the here and now, and trust him for tomorrow. It freed me to pursue God wholeheartedly and take some risks for Him. 

Singleness is second best – something has gone wrong in the cosmos for me to be on my own. Maybe it has, but my life is not God’s second best life for me. I’m not living Plan B.

Nuclear family is God’s norm and you can only be truly fulfilled when you’re married with children (er…so, was Jesus normal? He was the most normal a human being can be!). We know that, but we often subtly reinforce in our church structures – all age services where the emphasis is really on the families, the metaphor of oikos being lazily applied to one or two nuclear families etc.

Sex is essential to a fulfilled life – that’s a message that absorb from our culture where sex is everywhere and sexual satisfaction is the ultimate goal (it’s not, but it does sell a lot of stuff to lonely people). And I’m sure it’s great – it’s a gift from God after all, so it would be good. 

I can’t talk about this stuff because I’ll sound needy or vulnerable. We’re all needy and vulnerable – let’s help each other (see below re culture of grace and trust).

It gets easier as you get older. It really doesn’t! If anything, unless you watch out, you start feeling more out of kilter with your peer group. We need to find ways to honour and include older single people (and the separated, the divorced, the bereaved).

Here’s a list of the top dangers I need to notice and avoid:

Envy

It’s always easy to look at how life is for other people and assume that their lawn is much greener. For me, this can be about having a very romantic notion of how fantastic married life is, or about very basic things like the fact that a two-income household costs about the same but has double the income that mine does. I’m not saying that these generalisations are true, I’m saying that they are the assumptions of an envious heart. 

Loneliness 

I actually like living alone. I am very extrovert, but I like that I can choose to close the door and have time on my own to recharge. But, I don’t like the fact that there’s not one person that I am every truly ‘at home’ with. And I harbour a deep-seated longing to be the treasured other in someone else’s life. Loneliness is different from aloneness, and its positive side is that it pushes you towards God. Its negative side is that it pushes you towards…

Self-pity

If I’ve had a bad day, or I’m feeling as though the world doesn’t understand me, my default response is towards self-pity and blame of others. And when I feel a bit sorry for myself, there’s noone to call me out or to agree that I’m right to feel aggrieved. So, like anyone caught in that circle of self-pity and bitterness, it’s easy to find comfort in unhelpful places, usually in unhealthy patterns of eating, drinking and watching, and those things always lead me to a place of bitterness and regret.

Self-reliance

A number of times in my life people have told me how much they admire my independent spirit or my practicality. I don’t really want to be remembered as the woman who was so fiercely independent that she let her heart become untrusting and brittle, nor do I want people to thing the fact that I can change a tyre or a lightbulb without batting an eyelash is a personal life goal…Sometimes you’ve just got to get on with life, otherwise you’d be sitting in the dark or in a car that won’t go anywhere. I love that my life has enabled me to travel and study and move for work, but I suppose it’s important to remember that the grass isn’t always as green as it looks over on the independent side of the fence either. I can choose to rely on others, but sometimes that’s hard. 

Lack of accountability 

Footloose and fancy-free. It’s not always a good state of being, and in our highly individualised culture, the church can offer a community that is full of grace but also challenge, and that is a good thing for those of us who could easily be drawn towards selfish habits and uncommitted relationships. But accountability works both ways, and it only works in a culture of trust and grace. 

Here’s a list of things that really help me as a single person within the church:

Invite me over with people of my own age. Often I have found that I’ve been invited to events with other single people, many of them students or people in their 20s. I love mixing with people of all ages (that’s one of the things that makes church so counter-cultural and magnificent) but sometimes it’s nice to hang out with people who get your cultural references and understand your pressures. And the students would probably prefer not to have that slightly weird middle-aged person getting down with the kidz.  It’s hard work for everyone.

Think about inviting me along with you to events we’re all going to. One of the times I find singleness hardest is when I have to turn up at a church or social event on my own (and the Plus One isn’t the answer!) There is a couple in Central who once told me that if we ever all going to something I should always feel able to call up and arrange for us to go together. It’s not a big thing – it’s a huge thing –  and I love that we had that conversation. It’s as simple as keeping an eye out for anyone who is one their own and making them feel welcome in our friendship groups. Come to think of it, that’s not about singleness, it’s about being Christ-like.

Affirm me when I want to take some time off or tell you I’m not available. Often it’s tempting to assume that single people have more time on their hands. Sometimes that’s true, and I stand in awe of my married friends who juggle work, family and church responsibilities, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes that’s my fault for filling my life with activity in order to alleviate my loneliness, but sometimes it’s because I give into the demands of other people and there’s nobody there to help me guard my yes with a thousand nos. Encourage me to rest well.

Remember I’m just a girl the same as any other.  We’ve got a funny attitude to sexuality within the church. We feel uncomfortable about it and disguise our discomfort under a veil of pseudo-holiness. Single people are sexual beings too. I’m not going to get into a big thing about gender and sex here, but suffice to say that, in my humble opinion, femininity and  masculinity are not just about attracting a mate. So I don’t mind it when people tell me I’m looking good, and I’d rather not just give up, let the hairs grow on my chin and start wearing polo shirts (not that there’s anything wrong with polo shirts – that’s a choice). If I’m wearing lipstick it’s probably not because I’m looking for a boyfriend, I just like wearing lipstick. Treat me like an adult with dignity. 

Hold me accountable. Ask me about my prayer life, my physical life, my emotional life – we are whole beings, and one thing affects the other. When my relationships are healthy, I’m exercising, eating and resting well and I’m feeling my brain with good things that’s generally a sign that I’m doing OK. If I’m not, it would be good to ask me how I’m doing. I’ll ask you too, if you like. 

Here are a few questions for those of us who are single to ponder:

Is this what God wants for me? Should I stop looking around for a partner? Should I be more intentional about looking for a partner? 

Do I have to make a choice between following after God whole-heartedly and having a relationship?

What do I do about my human need to find intimacy? Physical? Emotional? Spiritual? Sexual?  How do I stay open to intimacy with God and others when I don’t have it with that one other person?

Where are the companions I’m walking alongside? What might God have for me to do that I  couldn’t do if I was married?

What safeguards am I prepared to put in place to stop me growing a shell of self-reliance and competency around my life? Do I need to repent of some of this? Do I need to get some prayer ministry? 

Who can I call when I lock myself out? That’s a real question. Am I prepared to trust someone else with my house keys? And who has offered to take them?

And finally

Well, that was all a bit of a rant, wasn’t it? But you did ask…and people often don’t. Thanks for that.

A Fellow Human Being (who happens to be single) x

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Deal or no deal, accept or reject

With the country waiting to see what would emerge from the Brexit talks, everyone is hoping that good decisions will be made in the next few hours. That made me start wondering about how we make the right choice when crunch time comes. Here’s the resulting thought. Listen again on BBC Sounds at around 7.20am or read the transcript below:

Good morning. 

Tea or coffee? Take the bus or take the car? Deal or no deal? Accept or reject? 

According to a cursory search of the internet, human beings make around 35 000 decisions every day. Obviously, not all choices carry the weight of those being discussed by parliamentarians at present, but there’s an argument that small decisions shape who we become, and equip us for the really big moments.   

‘Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you,’ wrote leadership guru John C Maxwell, and, while the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates opt to eliminate ‘decision fatigue’, by only ever wearing the same outfit, our character is formed in the everyday choices that we make and the manner in which we make them.

There’s a verse from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah that talks about the importance of strengthening ourselves for when hard decisions have to be made. 

If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?

If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?     

We all know the importance of diet and training in building physical strength, but I wonder how much thought we give to building our emotional resilience and spiritual wisdom as we make our 35 000 daily decisions.

Qualities like perseverance, patience and an ability to negotiate well with those who hold an opposing view don’t magically appear when we’re faced with life altering circumstances. Rather, they are grown over time, the fruit of choosing to live selflessly. The theologian Eugene Peterson who died recently, quotes the verse from Jeremiah when talking about the long walk of obedience as a follower of Christ. If we want to live bold, decisive lives, says Peterson, we need to cultivate habits of wisdom and reflection. There’s merit in preparing ourselves in our daily choices, so when the moment comes wisdom and reflection will guide our big decisions.