Sunday, December 16, 2012

Developing a Theology of Singleness in Relation to a Theology of Church

My dad expected to spend our first Christmas in Nepal as he always had: sleep in late, have a Christmas brunch, open presents, stay at home, relax with family. That expectation was shattered at 6AM when two of the deacons in our Nepali church knocked on our front door. They had come to collect our family and go to the annual bhan bhoj—forest feast, also commonly called a “picnic” by Nepalis. My family spent our first Christmas in Nepal on the top of some hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley with our Nepali church family of about 60 or 70 people at the time. We cooked two meals (pilau—rice cooked with ghee, or clarified butter, and sprinkle with whole spices and dried fruit—as well as curried meat and vegetables), sang Nepali Christmas carols to the beat of a madal (a two-headed folk drum) and tambourine, prayed, and explored the forest, chatted, ate lots of food, and fellowshipped. We piled back into the rented bus (and I mean piled—with people on the roof) only when it began to get dark around 5 or 6 PM.

After my family moved back to the States, Christmas fell on a Sunday one year (I don’t remember which year). Our Alabama church decided not to have a service on that day—rather, people were expected to celebrate with their own families. I was devastated. Not only would the day be boring (who stayed at home on Christmas?), but even more baffling to me, why would anyone not want to celebrate Christ’s birth with their church family? 

These are memories that came to mind as I listened recently to John Piper’s sermon “Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters” (there is also a chapter by that name is his book “This Momentary Marriage”). Slowly, I’m coming to understand why my understanding of single people and the church, and single people in the church, seems to be at such odds with Western Christian assumptions (and lack of sound teaching) I’ve encountered on these subjects. So much of my perception of the church and singleness is wrapped up in my experience of the church as I grew up in Nepal—and my experience differed from what most people understand and experience as “church” in the United States.  

Here’s the complication: many people look at me—white American—and assume a certain cultural identity. Once people begin to interact with me though, the boundaries between cultures become apparently mixed up. I’ve found that nowhere is this more upsetting than within the Christian Church. My parents joke how I’m not of their same culture—rather, I’m a TCK (Third Culture Kid), or now an ATCK (Adult Third Culture Kid), thus have different cultural understandings or expectations. For example: for our first Christmas back in the US in 2001, my mother was planning a “traditional” Christmas dinner with all the fixings—turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, you name it. When she relayed this plan to me, I—then fifteen years old—stood with mouth open, aghast, and reacted with “that is NOT Christmas dinner!” and insisted that we have pilau and curried meat and vegetables instead. To her credit, she obliged. But I’ve come to realize that my understandings, and expectations, concerning the church and singleness are also wrapped up in my experience of being raised abroad. John Piper’s sermon nicely brings these two concepts together

The Church: Where Christ’s Blood is Thicker Than Biological Blood

When people become Christians in Nepal, their family, if not Christian, will often disown or reject them. The church then, in many literal ways, becomes a new believer’s family. Life as a church is life as a family. This is evident in celebrations like Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and Nepali national and religious holidays, which are observed together by breaking bread, prayer, fasting, fellowship, and teaching. It is also evident in meeting each other’s needs and sometimes financially helping one another. As I’ve come back to Nepal, my own Nepali church family has continued to act as my family—making sure I’m well fed, getting upset with me when I don’t tell them I’m sick/going out of town, and entirely flexible with letting me tag along to events, or hang out at their house when I’m bored.

My experience of my Nepali church as family led easily to a theological understanding of the church as a family, where Christ’s blood binds us together. I think this understanding was strengthened as I grew up with a lack of interactions with extended blood family—my grandparents were geographically distant people who called on Christmas or my birthday; I was not present for the birth or early years of any of my cousins, and I grew up just seeing my extended family maybe every three years. When my family moved back to the States, I was often at a loss as to why my mother insisted on visiting various extended family every year (didn’t we see them last year?), or several times a year (but we just saw grandma three months ago…) As a result, I’ve grown up with a different concept of who is family—and who I have responsibility toward.

Singleness as a viable, exchangable, and mature state

My family was a part of an international expat community in Nepal, where there were a significant number of single men and women who played integral roles in INGO administration of providing services to people in Nepal. Some eventually got married, many never married, and many became single again when their spouse died unexpectedly. I do not remember any married people complaining that these single people were extending adolescence, not seeking to mature in their relationship with Christ, or shirking responsibilities to the community. Many of them were in leadership positions and well respected within the community—some were newly out of university or medical school; others were middle-aged, or coming close to retirement.

When I moved to the US, I encountered the conception of singleness in US church culture as an extension of adolescence. There was an emphasis that young people need to get married, have children—be adults. While in many ways I understood these accusations as well founded when I saw my peers extending their adolescence and not seeking maturity, I was not expecting personal attacks as I moved through college and then past college to begin a graduate career as a single person. While I see myself as walking, though imperfectly, through the doors that God opened for me (and not always doors that I would have chosen to open, much less walk through!), I have been accused of being a lesbian (on more than one occasion!) not being in God’s will or immature because I’m not married with two-and-a-half kids, and when I do not visibly serve in three ministries at my local church, accused of selfishness with my time!

Developing a Theology of Singleness and the Church

Christians in Nepal currently face a cultural dilemma: they have been taught to bury their dead instead of cremate the deceased. Hindus cremate their dead, and have a philosophy concerning cremation that is central to the philosophy of Hinduism. Christians burying their dead has become a cultural marker of difference. However, this tradition has created untold division within “split” (Hindu and Christian) families, and tension within the wider Nepali community (where land is often denied for burial; if burial happens, the community will often exhume the body and cremate it, for fear that the deceased person’s ghost will linger). As a result, several church leaders in Nepal are calling for the Nepali Church to develop a theology of cremation that is appropriate and relevant to their cultural context—one that will serve the purpose of not unduly offending the wider culture (that’s the Gospel’s job), that will lead the Christian family through the grieving process, and be a witness to the wider culture (and where Christians will not assume that cremating their dead is a non-Christian act).

Likewise, developing a theology if singleness I think is imperative for the US Church—not just for those who have not yet been married. Inevitably, many people who are married will be single again—through divorce, or the death of a spouse. Yet, whether single, married, or single again, we remain part of Christ’s Bride and have integral roles to play. As John Piper points out, teaching on singleness also keeps married people from idolizing marriage. And as part of the church body, a theology of singleness will better serve the wider church body.

While imperfect, and certainly not a completely theology as I’m still thinking through many of these things, here is the gist of answers I have given people within the church who ask about my singleness:
·      As a Christian, I am a full inheritor of God’s grace and part of Christ’s Bride. I often have to remind myself that God has not withheld good from me by withholding marriage—he gave all of himself for me on the cross, and the untold riches of my inheritance in Christ are mine as a single person (Ephesians 1 to 3).  
·      As a single woman, I am fully feminine. First, my primary identity lies in Christ (Galatians 2:20), not in my gender. Yet gender is still an important aspect of my identity, and it can still be expressed as a single person. The book that has most transformed my thinking on this has been Carolyn McCulley’s book Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with Hope Deferred, which is structured around Proverbs 31.
·      As a Christian single, I too reflect aspects of God’s character and the nature of His Church. The following points are taken from John Piper’s book “This Momentary Marriage” (pg. 106):
o   The truth that the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ
o   The truth that relationships in Christ are more permanent, and more precious, than relationships in families (and, of course, it is wonderful when relationships in families are also relationships in Christ; but we know that is often not the case)
o   The truth that marriage is temporary and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church—the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face- to-face
o   The truth that faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is
·      While I am a single person, I have limited time and resources. In other words, I don’t have to feel guilty about saying “no.” When I worked on my master’s degree, I took time to be on the nursery rotation, be a regular part of the sound team at church, and occasionally play piano preludes before services. However, during the year I worked toward ABD (all-but-dissertation) status for my PhD, I had to suspend this church ministry as I took some of the most grueling coursework I’ve ever encountered and juggled three part-time jobs. I did this with the understanding that this was only for a season; once I reached ABD (which some of my colleagues aptly dubbed “all-but-dead”) status, I could resume more regular ministry work. During this time of suspending ministry however, I made it a priority to stay involved with my care group. Here, I also discovered that small acts of praying with people, being honest about my own struggles or sharing what God was teaching me at the time, were also acts of “ministry.”
·      I am single for your benefit. Each of us has different gifts that are part of the collective inheritance of the saints. While I may not be single all my life, I am single today, and that is for your benefit as my brother or sister in Christ (Romans 12:3-8). While this may sound like a coy reply (which in several ways, it is), there is much truth in it.

Serving the Singles in Your Church

In most sermons I’ve encountered on singleness, the pastor usually ends with a list of ways singles can serve families in church. This makes it seem like a one-way relationship, where couples or families cannot bless singles. How often I have wished that the pastor had also included ways that families and couples can be a blessing to singles! I have been grateful to the families who have served me. Following is a list—not inexhaustible—of ways that I have been blessed by families in churches I have been a part of:
·      Treat us like men and women: I think this is especially important in discipleship—single people are not a lump of ungendered people; rather, we have specific challenges as men and women that we need to be held accountable for and walked through. There are several women that I am privileged to call “mothers” who have shared coffee with me, prayed with me, or taken the time to wake up early and skype with me when I was half way around the world in need of an listening ear!
·      Treat us like adults: in other words, encourage and allow for leadership opportunities and give responsibilities as appropriate within the church body. Do not assume that because we’re still single, we’re not mature enough or prepared enough for responsibilities. We each have our own gifts, personalities, and talents and resources to offer--we have much more to offer (and learn!) than just babysitting services (and I don’t mean to belittle serving in the nursery either)! Being the only woman on the sound team at my US church has allowed me to learn new skills that have complemented the skills I have as a performing musician and ethnomusicologist, and suited my personality as a behind-the-scenes and detail-and-task-oriented person. I have also enjoyed getting to know men and their families in church who I otherwise would not have known. I often wonder what roles people like Jesus Christ, or the Apostle Paul, would be relegated to within the church today on account of their singleness...
·      Include us in the greater church body: one of the things I am grateful for in my current US church family is the presence of intergenerational care groups. On a weekly basis, I have the opportunity to bless and be blessed by other singles, young families, “empty-nesters,” those who are single again, and those who are in retirement. Which leads to another point:
·      Understand that there are seasons of singleness: some of us have been married and are now single again—with or without children. Some of us have never been married, and are in the middle of a blossoming career. Some of us are fresh out of college and in an entry-level job. There is no one-size-fits-all-singleness. Be sensitive to this aspect of singleness, and seek to serve appropriately.
·      Pray for us: we know you’re praying for our spouse, but also pray that we will bring God glory in all areas of life, for struggles with temptation and sin we encounter today, and that we will enjoy continued fellowship with our Savior.
·      Allow for rest: as singles, we often have “the challenge of endless opportunity,” which can mean that we are often physically “eta-uta” (Nepali for “here-and-there”), which can be physically and emotionally draining. There is a couple in Virginia who I try and visit for a few days every time I’m on the East Coast. While they are off at work during the day, I sleep-in at their place (usually I see them when I’ve just come back from overseas, so battling jet-lag while in the middle of a busy travel schedule to see family and friends), and when I’m awake, enjoy the company of their dogs and the setting of their rural home. In the evenings, we cook together, go on a walk, and catch up. Opening their home as a place of rest has been one the best gifts!
·      Have a single person live with your family: this is something that needs to be prayed about and not entered into lightly, but allowing a single person who is between jobs, in graduate school, or in some stage of transition live with your family for a time can be a huge blessing to the single person—and to you. I’ve lived with several families for periods of two months to a year. In my own experience, this has provided not only immediate resources (like a bed to sleep in each night and at least one hot meal a day—things I can’t exactly pack into a suitcase!), but has also allowed me to observe marriage and family relationships (other than those within my own biological family) and see how different families manage roles as husband, wife, father, mother, son and daughter, and how God has used them to build His church and further His kingdom. It has kept me in community and accountable for my actions toward others. I have been able to serve the family by house sitting while they are away, preparing meals or cleaning when the wife/mother has had a hectic day, or my presence has helped in other transitions within the family (like when an older sister goes off to college, having me as an older-sister figure in the house has helped younger siblings).

End Note

This blog is much longer than I originally intended; a little more helter-skelter, and perhaps opened up more questions than it gave answers. Thanks for reading to the end!

Resource list:

  • “How to Serve “the Singles”—Ministry to Unmarried Adults in Your Local Church”
  • McCulley, Carolyn. Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with Hope Deferred
  • Piper, John. This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence