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Being single, being Christian

A sermon by Rod Benson

Twelve days ago, I stepped off a subway train at 15th Street in central Philadelphia, in search of the Clothespin, a large public sculpture created by Claes Oldenburg in 1976. I ascended the subway stairs to street level, and emerged in the sunlight, facing the magnificent City Hall, and looked around.

Nothing.

I consulted my friend Emma, examined a map, confirmed our location.

Nothing.

We walked a block, turned a corner, and then another corner. Starbucks. But no Clothespin.

Only later did we discover that the famous artwork had been installed directly above those subway stairs! If we had looked up, we would have seen it above us. Yet to us it seemed invisible.

People can be like that. Single people especially. Churches are often structured, and constructed, and programmed, and promoted as family-focused, meaning mum and dad and two kids.

In one sense, this way of thinking is sensible and practical. A church that appears to have “nuclear families” with parents of school-age children is likely to attract other similar families, with all the benefits (and challenges) that brings. But most churches include many people who are single – either by choice, or by accident. Some adults are single because they have never married; others because they are widows or widowers, or because they are separated or divorced.

Jesus was a single man. Paul was single, although he may have been previously married. Mary Magdalene was a single woman. At the time of his death, Jesus’ mother was a widow. The Bible is filled with characters who were single, despite the strong cultural and biological pressure to marry.

And yet… And yet we often struggle to accept and recognise and affirm single people, and a single lifestyle. Invisibility isn’t a quality reserved only for quantum physics, Harry Potter cloaks, and market forces.

Sometimes we fail to see things because they are hiding in plain sight. We become accustomed to their benign presence, or we simply don’t notice them since our focus is on other things. It can be the same with the people around us. But for singles, it can be a painful experience.

Due to social and demographic change, more and more single adults find themselves in church on any given Sunday: unmarried women and men, others previously married and now single by choice, or death, or some other tragedy; those attracted to people of the same sex, who love God and love God’s people, but who make the difficult choice to live a single life.

What does it mean to be Christian, and single? Sometimes it can feel lonely. Sometimes it feels good. Sometimes it feels like a disease.

Couples chat with couples after church. Couples tend to invite other couples to Sunday lunch, or to a movie, or a party, or a restaurant. Married men often prefer to invite their married mates to the footy. Married women usually prefer to spend quality time with other married women, over coffee or lunch, or a walk in the park with the kids, or a shopping expedition.

When not invisible, single people can unwittingly become a perceived threat to married couples. For example, a single man in church might be seen simply as someone fishing for a partner; a single woman in church may be seen by a married woman as a threat to a shaky or dysfunctional marriage.

Single female (and male!) pastors are especially at risk of facing inappropriate judgments and behaviour by members of the congregation.

But over time, single people mostly just become invisible. I know. I am one of them. I see what churches do. I see how people react, and judge, and presuppose, and fail to empathise and understand.

Single people need to know they are deeply loved, valued and respected, and welcome. Single adults need to know that they are as much a part of the fabric of the church community as any other person.

Singles have much to offer – they will often have more discretionary time than marrieds; more time to pray; more time for reflection; more time for leadership; more time for ministry; a wider and more diverse network of friends and acquaintances.

In contrast, on the basis on a narrow interpretation of Genesis 2-3, many Christians today see marriage as God’s calling for everyone, and therefore see singleness as a negative and problematic concept.

Yet when the kingdom of God arrives in its fullness, there will be no more marrying (Mt 22:30). Celibacy and singleness will be the norm then, if we take the teaching of Jesus at its face value, and are natural and normal possibilities for Christians today in a way that they were not before the time of Christ.

For singles, it can also be instructive to consider the example of Jesus as a model of balanced, fulfilled, godly celibacy.

“As in Adam, the first man of creation, we discover the perfection of marriage, so in Christ, the second Adam and the first man of the kingdom, we are confronted with the perfection of singleness.”[1]

I do not believe it is God’s will for every adult man and woman to marry, or to be married now. There are good practical reasons to remain single and celibate (Mt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7:32-34).

There are, of course, the conflicted Bridget Joneses of this world, as well as the blissful and supremely self-sufficient Robinson Crusoes. But most of us are not like that, most of the time.

On the other hand, if Adolf Hitler, David Bowie, Christopher Pyne and Gina Rinehart all succeeded in being married, surely there is hope for me! There are, of course, many advantages in being married to someone you love and respect, and who loves and respects you in return.

We all need good emotional care. We all need looking after. Singleness is a vocation, whether discovered by accident or purpose. Married people need to take care to embrace and enfold singles in church life, in social life, in family life.

Everyone should respect the moral boundaries of friendship and married relationships. If you know you will be in a situation that might be misread, or tempting, or where someone might take advantage of you, decide in advance what you will do and say when faced with the possibility of crossing that boundary. And here I am speaking especially of both emotional and physical intimacy.

There are negatives that single people should take care to avoid: an unhealthy preoccupation with oneself; resentment of others’ happiness and blessings; obsessive friendships; self-pity and despair. Don’t replace relationships with work, or TV, radio, music, movies, and social media. Do the hard work that is required for good healthy relationships with others. Be vulnerable; take risks; expand your horizons; dare to like and love others.

British apologist and author C.S. Lewis once made this remarkable and insightful statement:

If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one … 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 … We shall draw near to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to him; throwing away all defensive armour.[2]

Dutch Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen said:

The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared.  In this solitude we can strengthen each other by mutual respect, by careful consideration of each other’s individuality, by an obedient distance from each other’s privacy and by a reverent understanding of the sacredness of the human heart … In this solitude we can slowly become aware of a presence of him who embraces friends and lovers and offers us the freedom to love each other, because he loved us first.[3]

Wise, beautiful words. If you are single, like me, take time to enjoy your life. Savour the freedom, movement, solitude, time to yourself. Take pleasure in making choices about spending and budgeting, travel, food, interior design, clothing, cars, entertainment. Be conscious of the freedom you have to make decisions about education, work, cultural experiences, ministry.

If you are single, look for ways to encourage other singles, assist families with pre-school or school-aged children, strengthen community, support mission, foster better discipleship, deepen Christian spirituality, and develop your gifts.

If you are not single, be positively aware of the presence, value and needs of single people. Don’t assume that because someone is single, and has been for some time, that they are gay or lesbian. They may be, they may not be – it’s none of your business.

Resist the temptation to sexism and stereotype – “the poor single man, he needs looking after.” And other unfortunate turns of phrase.

When someone transitions from married to single, for whatever reason, do your best to include and enfold them in the social life of the church, and in networks of friends.

Like me, as I ascended those subway stairs in Philadelphia earlier this month, take care to look up, to observe with perception and compassion, to see with others’ eyes.

Each of us is here for a reason. Each of us needs one another. You are loved. You are accepted. You are part of this diverse, flawed, amazing family. Let’s be family together and see where God leads us!


Sermon 652 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 17 January 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] David Gillett, Anne Long & Ruth Fowke, A Place in the Family: Being a Single Person in the Local Church (Nottingham, UK: Grove Books, 1981), p. 9.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Fontana, 1963), pp. 138-139.

[3] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (London: Collins, 1976), p. 44.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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