(The UCU Standard – Thursday, February 27, 2014)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ Last time in this space we were talking about marriage, how good things come to those who wait, and about falling in love with our Creator, really, the One who knows us better than we know ourselves.
I shared that I was 35 before I met my wife and how there was something to this, something mysterious and with joy, the sort that you can’t contrive because it comes from a deeper place inside but also somehow outside of you too.
Even so, some days I wonder what in the world life would be like if I was single again, not because I don’t love and enjoy my wife and children – I do very much – but simply because any of us have an imagination and I suppose mine is as good as any.
This is when I chafe and bristle, because the hard truth is that to live as a single in a religious community is not easy. In fact, it can be a harrowing experience, especially for older singles, people often misunderstood or tolerated at best, pitied or even despised at worst.
Yes, as a long-time single you might get sideway glances. You must be a saint, so holy as to walk in mid-air. Or no, you must be the opposite, a sinner so carnal that you must secretly jump bed-to-bed.
Or maybe you’re more a personal project that needs help. “Just wait a bit longer,” you’ll be told by well-meaning Christian friends. “God is still preparing you for that special someone.” Of course, I heard this myself, and, in more thoughtless moments, have probably said it to others.
Thoughtless because the patronizing and hurtful, if not subtle, message is that singleness is a condition to be solved. You’re a second-class believer, still maturing, still being prepared for God’s ultimate plan, which must be, of course, marriage.
But these days, worldwide, there are more singles, and singles-again, than ever. And what if singleness, that is the joy of singleness, is meant for you? Jesus, after all, elevated singleness to a perfectly respectable way to journey through your days.
In various ways, Jesus made this point, that while we’re made for beautiful things like sex and family and all the giving and receiving family can entail, we can also have our deeper needs met – sex notwithstanding – through non-marital relationships that can be just as beautiful and worthwhile.
Which is another way of saying that if you want to marry just for the sex, or if you think the grass is always greener on the married side of the fence, you’ll be disappointed. Marriage entails much more.
In fact, looking at the rate of broken marriages – which is the same within the church as outside – you can make the case that singles stand a better chance of developing nurturing and lasting relationships than plenty of married people.
It’s true. Family can be our greatest joy or our greatest pain.
“Who is my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” Jesus asked the crowds one day when his own family showed up to rope him in. Matthew shares the story. Jesus’ family believed that he was that unstable and deluded and hopelessly embarrassing, so it wanted to get him home for everyone’s good.
Instead, Jesus set them straight by pointing out that one’s real family, blood or not, are those people who care enough to know us, who don’t try to put us into their little boxes of preconceived notions, boxes which Jesus, we see, loved to burst out of.
He said, at its best, this is what the Church is: our surrogate family. Not a building or institution or creation of any heavy yokes, but a body of relationships, of spiritual blood and connective tissue, one that gives support and joy.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find enough of both out there. And you’ll want to leave one for the other.