Being Single, Part 3: Not a Terminal Disease

[Adapted from this past Sunday’s message at The District Church, “Being Single.”]

Public Service Announcement: Singleness is not a terminal disease.

It can be real hard; it can be real lonely; it has its challenges. And the church has too often elevated marriage and romantic relationships far above where they were meant to be, and this has usually been unintentional but no less damaging. I remember early in seminary when I wrote a paper and in it, I concluded that, for some reason that I couldn’t quite place, there was a sense in which I wouldn’t consider myself a grown-up until I was married and had kids. I’d never been told that, but that was the reality I observed in church culture: when folks who were single would get asked if they’d met anybody yet, and if they said no, you’d get this really thinly-veiled reaction of pity and maybe a “Well, I’ll be praying for you!”

In Jesus’ day and culture, marriage was the norm too. In fact, people in Jesus’ day were getting married at least ten years earlier—the average age for the American woman to marry is around 27 and for American men, it’s almost 29, but in first century Palestine, it was usually just around or just after puberty. Tim Keller writes:

Nearly all ancient religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or legacy without leaving heirs. Without children, you essentially vanished—you had no future. The main hope for the future, then, was to have children. In ancient cultures, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized.

It was in this culture and in this environment that Jesus remained single his entire life. And if Jesus was the most human of us all, the truest human being to ever live, and if he was single, then singleness cannot be looked at as a terminal disease or as some kind of half-life.

But I do wonder what people thought about this man, still unmarried long after he’s supposed to be, hanging out with kids and adulterous women and other folks who were not highly regarded in society—and trying to teach about Scripture and God and how to live. Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? Yet Jesus never addressed this. Could it be that his personal relationship status wasn’t the main thing that defined him?

The Apostle Paul—who was also single—did address it; he had to respond to a church where people were asking about it. In 1 Corinthians 7, he writes about single people and married people and about each person having a “gift”—and this is where we find the root of that phrase, “the gift of singleness.” That’s right: singleness is not a terminal disease; singleness is a gift! Now, if you’re single, you may be rolling your eyes like I’ve done countless times in the past because you’ve heard talks about how singleness is a gift and you’re like, “This is not a gift I want! Can I return this even if I don’t have the receipt?”

But this passage has often been misunderstood, because Paul says that marriage is also a gift; and the fact that something is a gift doesn’t make it any easier to navigate—ask a married person!

The gift is the present.

(See what I did there?) The gift is where you are right now. We always spend our time dwelling in some other state: the perfect relationship, the perfect house, the perfect job; the next promotion, the next raise, the next vacation. And yet a life of contentment is possible: as Paul writes in Philippians 4:11, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” The secret? He reveals this two verses later: “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” Every moment is a gift, every situation can be a gift, God is working all things for the good of those who love him, even those places that are not very comfortable or are downright difficult.

If you’re single right now, you have the gift of singleness—congratulations! Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you won’t face fear: fear of commitment, fear of being hurt, fear of limiting your options, fear of missing out, fear of making a bad choice, because every human being faces those things.

For most of my life, my greatest fear was that I would be alone, and that drove me to desperately want to be in a relationship. My first relationship didn’t happen until I was 19 and in college, and while in many respects it was a healthy relationship, it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I’d been looking to women for the soul affirmation that only God can give. Even now, at 30, in a dating relationship, even though my relationship with God is as tight as it’s ever been, and even though God has dealt with a lot of the insecurities and uncertainties that drove me in my teenage years and into my twenties, I still occasionally see that old fear of being alone rear its ugly head and make me want to try to control this relationship, try to make it look the way I want it to.

And in those moments, I’m reminded that Jesus tells his followers that we would never be alone, that “As you do as I command, as you do life with me, as you seek first the kingdom of God, I am with you always through my Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). And I’m reminded that Jesus intended his people to be community for one another. World-renowned and widely-respected pastor and theologian John Stott, who died last year aged 92, was single his whole life, and he said this:

God created us as social beings. Love is the greatest thing in the world. For God is love, and when he made us in his own image, he gave us the capacity to love and to be loved. So we need each other. Yet marriage and family are not the only antidotes to loneliness.

Being single does not need to be the same thing as being lonely. We are the body of Christ together, intended to complement and support and uphold each other. And so in that context, among friends and by the grace of God, I’m reminded that I can let go of my need for control, and I can trust God.

Singleness is not a terminal disease. (Thanks be to God.)

Lent

In case you weren’t aware (or aren’t liturgically-inclined), the season of Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday (which means today is Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday). While Lent has become, in pop culture, a time for simply giving up unhealthy habits, the tradition is to take this time to humbly and thoughtfully prepare our hearts and lives to commemorate Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter Sunday; it’s supposed to be a focused time of self-denial, just like Christmas is a focused time of celebrating the birth of Christ–not that we don’t do these things every day, but that we take seasons during the year to elevate and examine particular aspects of our faith.

I didn’t grow up in a church that was particularly liturgical, and so didn’t really mark Lent at all (beyond gorging myself on pre-Lenten pancakes) until I moved to the UK. And in recent years, I’ve begun not only giving something up, but taking something on. Not simply for the purpose of ditching unhealthy habits and collecting healthy ones, but because these are beneficial for me–mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The journey that we are all on as Christians is to be more like Christ, more of who God made us to be, both in our own lives (bodies, relationships, habits, practices) and in the ways that we relate to God and others. (I talked about some of this in a Lenten post from two years ago, too.)

So my plan this Lent is twofold:

  1. To give up my time first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve already begun implementing the practice of spending time with God before I start my day (even before checking email!) and before I go to bed, but I want to double down on this.
  2. To pick up working out every day. Since last summer, when I got injured playing soccer, I’ve been recuperating. And then recuperating turned into relaxing. And relaxing turned into indolence. And that’s just not a good feeling for someone who’s naturally inclined toward activity! So this in itself serves the dual purpose of being a physical manifestation of what I’m hoping is going on spiritually (training!) and getting me ready for the next season of soccer as well!

And as we think about what it means to deny ourselves, I hope this word from John Stott is as challenging and encouraging to you as it was for me this morning:

We need to rescue this vocabulary [of self-denial] from being debased. We should not suppose that self-denial is giving up luxuries during Lent or that “my cross” is some personal and painful trial. We are always in danger of trivializing Christian discipleship, as if it were no more than adding a thin veneer of piety to an otherwise secular life. Then prick the veneer, and there is the same old pagan underneath. No, becoming and being a Christian involves a change so radical that no imagery can do it justice except death and resurrection—dying to the old life of self-centeredness and rising to a new life of holiness and love.

(Through the Bible Through the Year, 210)

P.S. If you’re in the DC area, please join The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church as we hold a joint Ash Wednesday service tomorrow evening at 7pm at NBMC (on the corner of 15th St and Columbia).

Praying the Lord’s Prayer

John Stott:

To pray [the Lord’s Prayer] with sincerity … has revolutionary implications. Our priority becomes no longer the advancement of our own little name, kingdom, and will, but of God’s. Whether we can pray these petitions with integrity is a searching test of the reality and depth of our Christian profession.

(Through the Bible Through the Year)

My Valentine’s Day History, a.k.a. A Few Thoughts on Love

For some, Valentine’s Day is a day to treasure, a day to celebrate, a day to spend time and money on a loved one.

For others, Valentine’s Day is a day to forget, a day to despise, “Singles Awareness Day.”

For me, how I reacted to Valentine’s Day used to depend on my relationship status: if I was dating someone, I couldn’t wait for it; if I wasn’t, I’d much rather we jumped from February 13 to 15 and skip the day altogether. One year a long time ago, I actually broke up with someone on Valentine’s Day, which was not only extremely poor form but also combined the two reactions in one.

Since then, Valentine’s Days have included (in no particular order):

  • Going snowboarding for the first time with a bunch of friends.
  • Being sick in bed all day.
  • Babysitting my friends’ adorable kids so my friends could go out for dinner.
  • Going on a phenomenal date.
  • Being in an evening class for grad school.
  • Staying in and watching the primary election results.

Some have been spent with a girl, some have been spent with friends, and some have been spent alone. Some have been awesome; some have been decent; being sick just made the day a non-event.

And over the years, I’ve come to see the day as … well, any other day. What began the shift in my perspective was the realization that my relationship status was not the definitive characteristic of my life. It was then that I was able to let go of the idea that I just needed the right person to come along and make everything better and be the perfect date, and was subsequently able to better embrace life, to take hold of opportunities to love more boldly and more fully. And, I suppose, also to begin to understand the concept of love a little better.

Growing up, my dad used to say that people don’t just “fall in love,” as if they have no choice in the matter; and when I was young, I had no idea what that meant. “But I feel this way about this person; I’m crazy about her; whenever I see her I get goosebumps, and my heart skips a beat, and … and …,” I’d protest. Our culture tells us that love is only a feeling, an emotion, a chemical reaction. As C.S. Lewis writes:

Another notion we get from novels and plays is that “falling in love” is something quite irresistible; something that just happens to one, like measles. And because they believe this, some married people throw up the sponge and give in when they find themselves attracted by a new acquaintance. … But is it not very largely in our own choice whether this love shall, or shall not, turn into what we call “being in love”? No doubt, if our minds are full of novels and plays and sentimental songs, and our bodies full of alcohol, we shall turn any love we feel into that kind of love: just as if you have a rut in your path, all the rainwater will run into that run, and if you wear blue spectacles, everything you see will turn blue. But that will be our own fault. (Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 6.)

Love–biblically understood–is something different, something much more. If the two greatest commandments in Scripture are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” and “Love your neighbor,” then Tim Keller makes a good point when he observes, “Emotions can’t be commanded, only actions” (The Meaning of Marriage, 103). If God is love, then we know that love involves sacrifice, it involves rescue, it involves putting everything on the line for the good and well-being of the object of your love: “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) and “There is no greater love than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Love is more than just emotions, more than just chemistry, more than just buying chocolates and flowers, more than just making dinner for a loved one–though it may involve all of those things in the context of a romantic relationship.

For many of us, though, we need to relearn what love is, as defined by God–what love really means, what love really looks like, what love really feels like. Loving God may mean having to let go of something very dear to you that stands between you and God. Loving your neighbor may mean putting their good before your own in a way that is not the culture-prescribed method of doing things. But in doing these things, we learn a better way–maybe not better in the eyes of the world, but better in the eyes of God and better in the way that we were created to be. In doing these things, we behave–and more importantly, become–more like Jesus.

It’s risky and it’s dangerous–in the context of romantic relationships in particular, we all know how hard it is to be vulnerable or to commit to something or to let someone in or to be hurt by someone–but the alternative of not loving is far worse.

Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 123.)

Keeping healthy

It’s been awhile since I’ve made time for things that give me life, that aren’t necessarily ‘productive’ but are highly conducive to my spiritual, mental and emotional health–things as simple as reading a book, or going to see a movie, or discovering new music. I realized that I needed to build a little more of that into my schedule, and with the extra time afforded me by my sports injuries (from which I’m recovering), I’ve been able to indulge a little.

Books

Between Two Worlds, John W. Stott. A great and classic resource on preaching; insightful and wise. Stott’s been a spiritual mentor of mine and a favorite theologian, and when I read books of his like this one, I feel his passing all the more keenly.

Kissing Outside the Lines, Diane Farr. A funny, touching and insightful look at inter-racial relationships, sparked by an encounter between a Korean-American named Seung and Farr (a well-known actress). I guess it sort of validated a lot of the thoughts and feelings I’d had about inter-racial relationships, including ones that I’d been in.

LeadershipNext, Eddie Gibbs. Examining what leadership–particularly in the church–looks like as we launch into the 21st century. Gibbs is a professor at Fuller Seminary, and has been involved with a number of emerging church movements. In reading this, I was glad to see that we at The District Church are already living out a lot of the things he said would be needed to thrive.

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin. I’m re-reading this fantastic work of fiction in light of the HBO series whose first season just finished, and also the latest installment, “A Dance with Dragons,” that just came out. When I first read this, years ago, I couldn’t handle it. The bad guys weren’t clear; the good guys weren’t clear; I didn’t know who I was supposed to root for. But reading it again last year, having the benefit of a few years of age, wisdom and maybe a dose of realism, I was able to appreciate that there aren’t easy answers, it isn’t a black-and-white world, and that not everyone you care about lives to see the happy ending. A fantasy-fiction series for a post-modern world.

Movies

Captain America: The First Avenger.

A riproaring adventure, a fun comic book adaptation, an enjoyable ride. Definitely, definitely, definitely had its cheesy, “ra-ra America” moments (a.k.a. Team America moments), but on the whole, I had fun. Chris Evans did a great job as Cap, Tommy Lee Jones was hilarious–as usual when he’s trying to be, e.g. Men in Black–and it set the scene well for next summer’s blockbuster adventure, The Avengers, which you get a preview of at the end of the credits–so exciting!!

Cowboys & Aliens.

Cowboys? Cool. Aliens? Cool. Combined? A boy’s dream. Lots of shooting and explosions, two generations of leading men (Harrison Ford–sorry, dude–and Daniel Craig), and Olivia Wilde? Entertainment. I’m not going to dissect this, or talk about postcolonialism, or even how it could’ve been a better movie. It was a good and fun and entertaining enough for me! Thanks to Jon Favreau, who’s really showing his directing chops–with this, the Iron Man movies, and Elf, the guy’s got some talent.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Definitely one of my favorite movies of the year. In the story of a middle-aged man whose life falls apart around him, Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone light up a fantastic script–at turns heartwarming, gut-wrenching, painful, hilarious, sad, frustrating, and laugh-out-loud funny. Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei provide some stellar support, and welcome to the big screen, Analeigh Tipton! I went on the basis of my friends’ recommendations, and I’m telling you now: go see it.

Music

Zonoscope, Cut Copy. Fun indie, electronic music. Thanks to JY for the recommendation.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver. All my friends (hipster and otherwise) had been raving about this. And it’s warranted. My first taste of Bon Iver’s music, and it’s a good one.

10,000 Reasons, Matt Redman. The latest offering from a Christian music stalwart, Matt continues to write songs that speak for a new generation. Love the guy’s heart.

Strip Me, Natasha Bedingfield. This actually came out last year, but I only got it this summer. Natasha’s always got a way of making me smile with her music. So much love for her.