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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Let's Be Honest

Yesterday after church I headed to a local coffee shop that I visit once a week to do some reading and writing.  The guy working knew me because of my frequent visits, and yesterday as we were talking he asked me my age.  I answered somewhat reluctantly and was delighted when he expressed genuine shock and said he would have guessed I was [12 years young than my actual age].

One might wonder why it matters to me, but I can point to at least two reasons without giving it a second thought.  First, I always expected I'd be married long before now, and being reminded of the age I've now reached without seeing that dream realized is usually painful.  Second, it would take at least two (and in some cases three) hands to count the years between my age and that of pretty much all my single male friends, and while age difference isn't a big deal to me, I fear it may be to them, and I am therefore not eager to draw attention to its existence.

Now my life has, for as long as I can remember, been filled with wonderful experiences and far more than my fair share of amazing friends.  If I'd married before now, I almost undoubtedly would have missed out on at least some percentage of these blessings, and honestly I wouldn't trade the latter for the former.  But that in no way diminishes the desire I have or the ache its deferment often produces in my heart.

Here's something that's not helpful for people like me (and perhaps this is why I so rarely broach this subject except with the closest of friends):  offering cliched statements intended to be encouraging.
"The right person is out there, just be patient and trust God's timing."
"Enjoy your singleness!  You have so much freedom!"
"When you stop looking, that's when it happens."
"Focus on God and He'll bring that person into your life."
"God is preparing you so you'll be ready at the right time."
Now there is definitely some truth within these statements.  There is also just enough misguided advice and lack of empathy to make me feel like I've been slapped in the face (albeit unintentionally) each time I'm on the receiving end.  While I truly believe people who say such things do so with the best of intentions, such statements unfortunately ignore a few basic truths that can produce unwarranted burden in the life of the hearer.

1.  A spouse is not a guaranteed part of God's story for everyone.

2.  While marriage does bring responsibilities that can limit opportunities, I would hope that those of us who follow Christ do not view marriage as a closed door on freedom but rather a new context through which to experience various facets of life.  I do realize many people are facing trying marriages, and I do not want to minimize such difficult situations.  But I don't believe God intended for us to view marriage as limiting, or else He probably would have said something in Genesis more along the lines of, "It will be perfectly fine for Adam to function as a singular unit," than, "It is not good for man to be alone."

3.  God's story for each person is different.  Some people find their mate when they're not looking.  Some find that person in the midst of the hunt.  Some are focused on God when the relationship begins.  Some are not.  God does not hold every person to some standard set of requirements before entering into marriage.

4.  No one is ever fully "ready."  Granted, some are better prepared than others, but I imagine even the best marriages must involve a good deal of trial and error.

I'm currently reading Rick McKinley's book, This Beautiful Mess, and in it he describes a time when his son was admitted to the hospital with an undiagnosed illness.  He explains with candor his and his wife's pain and fear during the episode as well as the responses of people around them and their effects on his family.
During those weeks, some well-meaning people gave us the right answers.  "God knows what's happening," they said.  Or, "Josh will be fine because we're praying."  The right answers seem right to say, of course, and seem right when you hear them, but they don't help much.  To be honest, the right answers began to make us angry.  Somehow Christians have a hard time saying things like, "I don't know why the hell this is happening or how this will end.  You guys must be scared to death."  I guess we all need to be able to explain life down to every last detail even when the answers don't mean anything to us.  We just can't stand the questions.  But in the kingdom of God, I have come to believe, it is all right not to have all the answers, and I think Jesus likes it even more when we don't make up ones that are safe and easy but hollow. 
Just because people prayed did not mean that Josh would be okay. 
Just because God knew what was happening didn't mean I did.  Or that I knew how God would intervene for our family.   
Just because I knew a Bible verse that says God will answer when I pray didn't mean I wouldn't lose my kid to some stupid killer infection.  His answers are not always my answers.
Here are the two most meaningful things that have ever been said to me in regard to my struggle with singleness:
"I look at you, and I just think, 'God...what the heck?'" 
"I don't know what things I'd be thinking about myself if I were your age and not care deeply, feel deeply, relate with passion, you give yourself to people and causes that are important to may be unmarried but this is not because you are lacking in ANY way."
No trying to resolve my situation.  No trying to explain it.  Simply acknowledging my pain, giving me permission to feel it, and suggesting that my situation is not the result of some failure on my part.

Rick McKinley goes on to talk about how God's Kingdom showed up even in the midst of his frightening and painful experience while his son was suffering.
The kingdom of God is the kingdom of life, health, beauty, salvation, and freedom to name just a few of its qualities.  The enemy of the kingdom, whom the Bible refers to as Satan, is always attacking that life and health and beauty.  He attacks spiritual freedom; he wants us to be paralyzed.  His relentless attacks are why things are not the way they are supposed to be...yet. 
But there in the midst of the tension, the kingdom of God still comes crashing in.  It usually crashes in quietly though.  God showed up all through our situation with Josh: 
Nurses who were kind. 
Gut-busting laughter that he and I shared during our hours in the hospital room. 
A friend who arranged for the guitarist from one of Josh's favorite bands to come to the hospital.  That was really cool. 
People who prayed and watched our kids and loved us.  People who sat with us, cried with us, laughed with us.  
In those moments, the tension receded.  It had to wait while the love of God filled the room and flooded our hearts.  The kingdom of darkness and ugliness, for those hours, was pushed outside the door by grace. 
I realized that God didn't create or send Josh's sickness and that He was not distant or unaware of it either.  God's kingdom is present and real.  He knows if a sparrow falls to the ground, Jesus said.  But that doesn't mean God flicked the sparrow off the tree.  Rather He is present and aware and caring, even in the tension of death and sickness.  And in its own ways, Jesus' kingdom breaks in.
As I read McKinley's story, it resonated with me in light of my own recurring struggle with pain over my singleness.  I recently came face-to-face once again with the reality that nothing is even on the horizon in the way of my dream of being a wife, and suddenly I was compelled to find some life pursuit that would be fulfilling even if I never get married.  And so, long story short, tomorrow I begin my college career, pursuing my AA in Psychology with the hope of being able to offer people some form of counseling some day.

God has been insanely faithful in providing for this new pursuit.  I enrolled in school having no idea how I'd pay for it, but two weeks ago I received an unexpected check that covered my whole summer tuition with $6 to spare.  The next day I received another unexpected check from friends who wanted to enable me to buy a laptop.  While I was humbled and thrilled by God's provision, a nagging voice in the back of my head began urging me to notice how God's provision for my new educational pursuits compared to His seeming lack of provision for my long-time desire to be a wife.  It suggested that He found the former to be worthy of His blessing while the latter didn't matter to Him.  I had to repeatedly shift my thinking, telling God I did NOT, in fact, believe He was holding out on me but that I trusted He was blessing my new direction to confirm that I was on the right track and this did not mean my prior dream was off the table with Him.

In the midst of this inner struggle as I read Rick McKinley's account of encountering the Kingdom of God even in the midst of his pain, I immediately thought of all the beautiful friendships God has blessed me with.  I've been on a journey with many of these friends over the past year in which we've been discovering what the Gospel really means for our lives and what it looks like for us to pursue righteousness (in the context of right relationships) even in the midst of a broken world, and it has been incredible.  Just a few days after this recent bout of discouragement, I spent an evening with quite a few of these friends, eating, talking, and laughing, in what was for me an unmistakable glimpse of God's Kingdom "crashing in quietly" even in the midst of my own pain.

I could have involved myself in another church at any point over the past few years in an attempt to increase my odds of "finding someone."  But I've always believed God is big enough to provide for my dream, if that's part of His plan for me, even as I continue to invest in the only church family I've known in Reno, whether that's through someone He will bring to that church family in the future or someone I'll meet in another setting or someone who's already there but as of yet is "just" a friend.  And if this dream is not part of God's plan for me, well, I'll still keep walking through life surrounded by a community I love with all my heart.

I sit here typing this on my brand new laptop feeling genuinely excited about the new chapter of life I'll enter tomorrow as I begin my college career.  When I first decided to go back to school, I didn't feel like God was telling me I needed to replace my old dream with a new one but rather He had a bigger dream for me than I had for myself, one in which He would use me not only primarily in one person's life through marriage but also in many other lives through counseling.  Though I've wrestled to hold on to this belief, and to accept the possibility that it will not come to fruition, my trust in the story God is writing for me remains intact amidst the tension.

I know I'm not the only person in my circle of friends who shares the desire for someone with whom to walk through life.  I also know I'm not the only one who has struggled with having that dream deferred, or who has experienced frustration at being offered simplistic answers that do little to address the painful longing.  One of my prayers for my community is that we will foster an environment in which we can simply be real and honest with each other, acknowledging the tension between our dreams and desires and the disappointments and heartaches that come with living in a broken world.  And I pray we will sense God's Kingdom crashing quietly and beautifully into our lives through the simple knowledge that we are not alone in our struggles.

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