Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Art of Singleness 2: Made for Another World

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world."  (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.)

I didn't really intend for this to be a two-parter.  But the reason I'm writing a "sequel" is that a question has come up that has been a burr under my saddle: Okay, you whiner, so you're single; you say you're basically at peace with it...but is that the same thing as being satisfied?  Well, I'm not sure I have a tidy answer, but I'll try and discuss this a little more, for what it's worth, in my current context.

In my last post, I shared some struggles of middle-aged dealing with a sense of failure to live up to the sociological and biological prime directive of humanity to pair up and procreate.  Seriously, how negligent of me.  I have done nothing to contribute my genetic diversity or perpetuate the family name.  But truth be told, my species will probably do just fine without my spawn.  And one look at the phone book will assure you that the Johnson family name will probably survive well enough after I'm gone.

Society as a whole views singleness as a deficiency, a half-lifestyle, a problem to be solved.  Then again, society is asking for a sharp smack upside the head.  It's rubbish of course, but try tuning out that station when the society you live in is Utah.  For us singles-without-prospects, Utah makes the sulfurous, smoldering wastelands of Mordor look like Mayberry in springtime.

Allow me for a moment to pick on Utah's predominant cultural influence.  In Mormonism, marriage is not just a desirable social convention, it is the key to obtaining the highest kingdom in the afterlife. Make no mistake--you are a second-class citizen if you are unmarried--not just here, but in eternity.  And they're unapologetic about it; it has all the subtlety of a runaway truck on fire smashing into in a fireworks factory.  Single Mormon adults in Utah usually attend what's known as a singles' ward, a congregation comprised entirely of singles, mostly looking for a cure for their disease.  (And once you hit 30, they segregate you in the hopelessly singles' ward).

So they congregate with all the other lepers, in hopes that at least some of this wretched blight might somehow be eradicated, one temple marriage at a time.  And heaven help the recently-returned missionary; he shows up on the scene with a conservative haircut and a brand-new set of keys to the Celestial Kingdom, and the young women shamble toward him like zombies catching the scent of fresh viscera.  They know full well that those who are not married in the afterlife will be the servants of those who are.  I'm not making this up.  So talk about pressure.

When you meet people for the first time, the first ice-breaker question that comes up is usually, "So, how many kids do you have?"  (They presume I'm married, or at least I have been, because I'm showing my face in public.  They don't ask if I have any kids, because, well, I'm past 40, so I should be whipping out my phone and showing photos of my grandkids.)  The pause that follows when I say I have no wife or kids is just long enough for me to come up a number of acerbic comments that I usually swallow.  They sometimes awkwardly mumble something about freedom, but by the look on their face, you know they're mentally slapping the "loser" label on me.  An unmarried, childless middle-aged person in Utah is an object of pity and even suspicion--at best.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I'm not exaggerating.

But I digress.  To go back to the original question about satisfaction, I'll put it bluntly: there is really no natural source of satisfaction for me here.  So what am I supposed to do?  In my last posting, I appealed to a biblical principle.  After all, isn't that what we as Christians are supposed to do?  Find some pithy way of spiritualizing the minutiae of our human drama?  Well, perhaps there were some who might think it a bit trite.  And truth be told, there was a time when I would have read my last post and accused that simpering author of failing to "keep it real."  Dude, you're just hiding behind the Bible to make yourself feel better.

Nowadays, I say, yup, and I will run and hide there every time.  The Bible's either relevant to my human drama, or it's not. It's either a collection of fairy tales and warm thoughts to take the chill off our discomfort...or it's the living, breathing Word of God, with a strong arm and sharp teeth, that in the same moment can overpower you with joy, and tear you to shreds.

I think there's a lot of stuff in the Bible we Christians basically believe is true, but we have yet to really test it.  Stuff that's more decorative than practical.  It's a life preserver gathering dust on a nautical-themed wall in a seafood chain restaurant.  Then one day we find ourselves careening toward a major shipwreck.  And we finally have to grab hold of the life preserver and use it for what it was actually intended for.

A few years ago, as I was staring into the gaping maw of my 40th birthday, I had basically resigned myself, with more than a hint of resentment, to the fact that if marriage hadn't happened by now, it just wasn't going to happen.  I mean, I could count on one hand--with four fingers cut off--the number of people I knew who'd married for the first time and started a family after 40 (and barely at that).  By now, I'd observed enough to lose most of my unrealistic expectations of marriage and family, but that did nothing to quell the longing for it.  Apparently God didn't consider me fit for that particular blessing.  Those youthful insecurities that I'd thought I had put to rest, began to surface, but this time with a dose of jaded, old-man cantankerousness thrown in.  That ship had sailed, and that was that.  So I might as well get used to the idea that I'll be spending the last half of my life single and alone.  Hunker down, suck it up, and the faster I can thrust a dagger into that dream and put it out of its misery, the better.

Then not long after my 40th birthday, all hell broke loose in life, work, and ministry.  My lack of marital status suddenly dropped to the bottom of the list of concerns.  You don't have the luxury of worrying about such things when you're taking on water and drowning.  The Shipwreck, as we survivors refer to it now when looking back, produced an astonishing amount of collateral damage.  Things I had always believed were solid, evaporated before my eyes.  Harbors I had always presumed would be safe and welcoming turned out to be full of sharp, hull-ripping rocks just below the surface.  I went through one of the hardest years I've yet to experience.  It shook to the foundation my ability to trust anything or anyone.

Yet, in the aftermath of the Shipwreck, I gained a little wisdom and maturity (not to mention some gray hair).  I found some amazing things, sifting through the flotsam and jetsam.  There was gold that came out of that crucible.  Through some mysterious, counter-intuitive process that still puzzles me, my trust in God grew.  In the midst of that hardship--hardship that God could have spared me, but didn't.  How does that happen? An awareness of His love and nearness increased.  His faithfulness went from the theoretical to the practical.  The decorative life preserver came down off the ship's railing, where it had been little more than a comforting reminder--and suddenly my arms were through it, and it became the thing that kept my nose above water.  His provision and sustaining power became tangible, undeniable.  I would never choose to go through that ever again, not in a million years.  But I wouldn't trade what has come out of it. 

Okay, so why this little detour?  Because the Shipwreck also had the effect of indirectly, but fundamentally changing my perspective concerning marriage and family.  It gave me some perspective.  I found that it didn't matter nearly as much.  My well-being didn't depend upon it.  Throwing myself into the care of Jesus was really, truly, enough--I mean, not just theoretically enough (because after all, isn't that what we're supposed to say?), but genuinely, practically enough.  That His grace was still sufficient, no matter what.  And even the word sufficient sounds kind of anemic.

So, am I satisfied? 

The answer is absolutely yes.  And absolutely no.  Jesus Christ is an anchor tried and true, and is the very author of my satisfaction.  Of that there is no question.  However, I'm increasingly dissatisfied with my life--at least, the me part of my life. The stuff I do in order to try to satisfy my needs and wants.  And it is a true, ongoing, acute dissatisfaction, make no mistake.  And it inevitably comes up short. I have, literally, no where else to go.

So if the 7th chapter of 1st Corinthians makes you squirm a little, to me it's fresh air.  Singleness...not only acceptable, but even preferred.  Paul seems to suggest that if you're a wimp who can't handle the rigors of the single life, sure, go ahead and cave in to marriage, you libidinous weakling; but otherwise, you should take the higher road and stay single.  So maybe it is a lifestyle I'm specifically called to...not one that I merely languish in because of bad luck, bad timing, or the fact that I'm basically an unappealing prospect.

Suppose by some unlikely fluke I wind up married some day.  Even if I had a family life so idyllic that I could annoy everybody on Facebook with how wonderful life still will never come close to filling the real yearning.  And the more I embrace that knowledge, the more freedom it brings.

There's a particular spot on Crab Avenue where I have often stood.  A curve on a bluff overlooking an ocean bay.  I'll slowly trace the miles of lonely beach that stretch out beneath my feet and disappear in the mists of Cape Lookout.  A transcendentally beautiful scene if ever there was one.

And something would always disturb me after a few minutes of beach-gazing.  Even as a child, just learning to appreciate natural beauty, I was conscious of a poignant yearning, akin, almost, to sadness, every time I would look on this scene.

And I remember once specifically--I was probably a teen-ager by then--standing there and asking myself, what is it that I am longing for?  I started going through a checklist.  Was it just that I was sad about having to leave?  Well, that wasn't quite it.  Okay, well, what if I could build a house, right here, and live the rest of my life with that view!  Would that do it for me?  Well, sure, I'd love to do that, but still...even that thought didn't really satisfy.  So what was it?  Did I want to possess this view?  To own this landscape?  Even as the thought entered my mind, it was repulsive to me, sacrilegious even.  I finally decided that the closest thing I could come up with to describe the yearning was that I wanted to be possessed by it.  I wanted it to own me.  Ridiculous as it sounded.

It took me a few years more to realize that while I was gazing longingly at the creation, what I was really doing was yearning for its Creator.

I've since grown convinced that every desire, every craving, hunger or thirst, every passion, every longing ache we feel in this life--whether it be a base appetite or transcendent is fundamentally God-instilled, and can really only be God-filled.  Pascal said that there's a God-shaped vacuum inside each of us.  I believe that's true, but I think he was understating things.  We are the vacuum.  We are the things that are naught.  The valley of dry bones, waiting for life to be spoken.

How it happens...I don't know.  I'm tempted to say it's the tiniest act our will that God then engages, but honestly, that gives us entirely too much credit.  Dry bones have remarkably little say in the matter of whether they live or not.

I think it happens as God, by his irresistible and unfathomable grace, pries one sticky, reluctant finger at a time off of the stuff of this world...even the good and noble things that bring tears to the eyes and about which beautiful songs are written...and places our hands upon something of infinitely greater value--Himself.

And if that doesn't satisfy, then nothing will.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Art of Singleness at a Certain Age

Okay, here's what's next on my list of stuff I really don't want to write about.

A few weeks ago, one of the local churches in town hosted a weekend event called The Art of Marriage.  It is by all accounts an excellent series on developing a godly marriage in the midst of real life.  I've heard nothing but glowing reports about it.  And I'm genuinely glad for it.  When it was announced in church, they made it clear that it was open to anyone--seasoned marriage veterans, newlyweds, engaged couples, or...(with a sideways glance over at me)...anyone who thinks they might ever be married.

The inclusiveness of the invitation was kind and heartfelt; nevertheless, I found myself otherwise occupied that weekend.

I'm gonna warn you up front.  At some point you're probably going to think that this is just descending into a self-indulgent pity party, but please withhold your judgment and bear with me; I really am aiming at something redemptive.  And yes, I know that there are worse things than being alone.  This is not about whipping out our list of life grievances and comparing lengths.  But this is my story, my struggles, my points of vulnerability.

You may have heard of the term "WASP"--an affectionately disparaging acronym for White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  I'm going to introduce you to a new one--a "MASP"--Middle-Aged Single Person.  And you qualify as a MASP if you're over 35, have never been married, have no kids, and the likelihood of either of those things ever happening is discouragingly remote.  That's a MASP.

The older I get, the more bizarre and awkward it is to be single.  It's a completely different experience from being single in my 20s or even my 30s.  It's not that I spend my days languishing in self-pity.  But even against the backdrop of the Apostle Paul's beloved Sonnet to the Singles, First Corinthians Seven, there are some really tough days.  Paul admonishes us that singlehood is not only an acceptable lifestyle, but can actually be a preferable one; but there are still times when being alone is deeply troubling.  When you feel completely out of step--not just with society, but even with your faith community, and those closest to you.  When it seems like your singleness is the modern equivalent of leprosy.  (Hey, here's an idea...let's gather them all together and isolate them into colonies!  Problem solved!)

You probably think I'm overstating things, or that I need to stop looking at the world through MASP-colored lenses.  I realize that it's a tendency for those who fall into a minority demographic (whatever that may be) to see all of society in terms of discrimination, persecution, and bigotry.  But it's equally true that when we're in the majority demographic, it's easy to be blind to the struggles of our minority counterparts.

I am very grateful for the grace-filled "non-MASP" people in my life who don't treat my singlehood as a disease, a problem to be solved, a cause for pity or suspicion, a sign of weakness or selfishness, a symptom of some deep-seated psychological problem, or a mark of second-class citizenship.  Indeed, I'm very grateful for these people, because they are a rarity.

But then there is everyone know, those who open the newspaper and read "unmarried man in his mid-40s" and expect, somewhere in the same article, to also read the phrase, "bodies of prostitutes buried in the crawlspace."

Someone I know--and mind you, this is someone who cares about me--recently said to me, "I just cannot for the life of me understand why you're not married."  To quote Miracle Max, "Why don't you just give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice in it?"  The irony is, it was both the sting of my own acute sense of marital deficiency...and the indignation that people presume my singleness is a deficiency in the first place.

Twenty years ago, the thought of being in my 40s and unmarried was unthinkable.  Even so, it was a still a complicated matter even back then.  I was living abroad, and having to navigate some treacherous cultural waters.  I had my heart broken, sort of--not so much by rejection, but by something far worse--the hollow embrace of false affection.  Not to put too fine a point on it...but the pretty young women who paid attention to me didn't see stars when they looked at me.  They did, however, see the stars that adorned the seal on my U.S. passport.

In retrospect, this may be an overly-simplistic and even unfair categorization of some of the girls that batted their eyelashes in my direction during those years.  But at that time, this sham just reinforced my old, deep-seated insecurities, which had convinced me that no woman of substance could ever truly fall for the likes of me.  Such a blessing wasn't in the cards for me; I didn't deserve it.  And any woman who would fall for me, well, she must either be desperate, have abysmal standards, or be gravely mistaken about what I had to offer.  I once read a quote by Abraham Lincoln that struck me between the eyes.  He had written, "I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason--I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be blockhead enough to have me."

Fast-forward a number of years. Life and growth, hard knocks, and above all, the grace of God, have done some of its seasoning work in my life.  A lot of my youthful insecurities have been tempered--maybe not eliminated entirely, but they don't plague me like they once did.  And I've learned vicariously that romantic notions of love and passion are fleeting and overrated.  Nevertheless, the unfulfilled longing for the simple intimacy of steady companionship can be deeply haunting--especially when hope has been deferred so long that it simply crumbles.

Being alone has its challenges when you're able-bodied and (humanly speaking) self-reliant.  But sometimes in darker moments, my mind foolishly wanders over to what it will be like when I'm infirm, weak, unable to care for myself.  While my married peers watch their children grow, hopefully into responsible and caring adults who will one day hold their frail hands, I imagine approaching my dimming days alone, and dying unnoticed.  It's a dark place to go.  I don't recommend it.

One careless thing I have heard, too many times to count, is "You never really understand God's love until you marry or become a parent."  Be warned now: I will high-five your face if I ever hear you say it.

I'm not kidding.  I will make you cry.

Aside from it being self-righteous claptrap, it's also a lie from the pit of hell that dogged me for many years.  I struggled with this notion that I was not only missing out on the temporal benefits of marriage and family, but also that my relationship with God was second-rate as a result of it.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm NOT for a moment suggesting that God's love has not deeply and profoundly revealed itself to you through the trials and joys of your marriage or your experience with parenthood.  And in ways that I will likely never comprehend.

But if you subscribe to the myth that the deepest understanding of God's love is reserved exclusively for those who have experienced marriage or parenthood, I'd urge you to reconsider.  (In previous edits of this post, those last five words were actually three words, and were a little bit sharper.)  All that to say, the path God has placed me on is definitely a road less traveled, but it is my path, and God is still my God.  And who's to say that such a path can't have profound and meaningful lessons of its own?

When I cast my eyes down a road that looks pretty lonely, I have learned to slip my hand into the hand of a God whose care for and promises to the alien, the orphan, and the outcast, point to the utter magnificence of His character and glory of His love.  It sometimes overwhelms me.  I have no where else to turn.  I have no where else I want to turn.  I have nothing else in life in which to place my hope.  I have no choice but to cling ferociously to the One who clings ferociously to me.  And I wonder just how well I would have learned those things, if my life's path had taken me the route of a satisfying, married-with-kids kind of life, where my temptation would be to derive that sense of immediate security from my temporal family instead of from my eternal Creator.

But because God is my hope and my refuge, my shield and my portion, I have no reason to be pitied or ashamed, and I am not deficient in my singleness.  I have all that I need, and infinitely more.  Not just for the next life, but for this one.  I don't doubt that there are some hard days ahead, where the loneliness will be even more excruciating than I have yet to experience.  But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.  (2 Timothy 1:12)  And if, in some way, the path that God has placed me on does something to declare His works and proclaim His glory, then I'll walk it willingly, trusting in His grace, both when the road rises up to meet my feet...and when the road rises up meet my face.  

So here's an idea I'd like to pitch.  A weekend event called The Art of Singleness.  It would NOT be all about solving the "problem" of singleness, or presenting life skills for coping with it as if it were a chronic disease; and it certainly wouldn't be a thinly-veiled, last-resort meat market for desperate Christian singles.  But instead it would celebrate the fact that God's promises, love, and faithfulness hold just as true to those of us called to a different type of journey.
"Those who were not my people
I will call 'my people,'
and her who was not beloved
I will call 'my beloved.'
And in the very place where it was said to them,
'You are not my people,'
they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" 
     --Romans 9:25-26 (Quoting Hosea 2:23 & 1:10)

A Post Script to readers in the former Soviet Republics, who, judging from my page-view statistics, make up the majority of my readers lately...this is NOT an invitation to send offers for mail-order brides.  Thank you.