Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Problem with Singles Ministry

Formerly titled, "Single People are Pathetic." Yes, I know. I am adorable. Due to popular demand (2 e-mails), I have reworked, clarified, and re-posted the essay. I do think these are important points for those with ears to hear. And yes, "single people" are still pathetic (just read the comments on the original post), but that's incidental to my real point.

I don't think a specialized "singles" ministry ought to exist. I have been in the company of many concerned Christians who disagree, but this is my reasoning:

I think church people make a bigger deal out of having separate "single" or "attached" catagories for humans more than non-church people do. It seems to me that the people who get excited about "singles ministry" reveal in their language an assumption that being "single" is somehow a lesser personhood.

Whenever I've been present for singles ministry meetings, things have gotten around to "recognition of singles" by "the church." The apparently problem? The generation before mine wants some ethereal entity called "the church" to bless their way of living. As if not being married were unusual are bad, and they need to be told it's not bad. In my context, I never concern myself with whether "the church" or "lots of people" think that not being married at age 14, 22, 30, or never, is weird. That's a bit of a misdirected search for validation I think. The important questions are, "What think the people who love me?" "What kind of man or woman, and in what manner of life, am I called to live?

I am not married, and I won't be soon. I am attempting to cultivate a holy celibacy, belonging to God and to my community, a local grouping of the Body of Christ. I do not need some prancing prelate priestling pontificating from a pulpit to inform me that this is an acceptable way of life. I would be insulted by the attempt. My friends and I do quite well discerning my vocation. Christianity, Inc. and associates can keep their opinions to themselves.

I have a problem with the language of "singleness," "singularity," or whatever one wants to say.

I am not single, or alone. Lots of people, including Christians, would say that I'm single, and not in a relationship. How sad it would be if that were true! What's with this "in a relationship" language? No wonder so many unmarried people feel worthless and unloved: they speak in a language that gives explicit value only to those relationships that are in some way sexual (or at least romantic) and offers implicit devaluation to those that are not. "No, I'm not in a relationship." Of any kind? With anyone?

If that's the way I saw it, I would certainly feel pathetic. But I am in lots of relationships, with lots of people. They love me, and I love them, and that's important. We learn to love well. We are committed to one other through our baptism and unity in the truth, empowered to love and remain by the Holy Spirit. Sexual relations would obviously not improve those friendships (for many, many reasons), but that's what's implied by the language of "in a relationship" and "just friends." Non-sexual relationships are second-best. Everyone knows that, apparently.

Christians are picking up the world's false views on healthy intimacy and happiness, and once again failing to teach a redemptive and healthy sexuality as a consequence. I think these false views of what it means to be with others and to be alone foundational to the idea of a "singles ministry," and why I don't share the enthusiasm of some of my colleagues.

While I am not in a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone, I am not "single" in any way that is meaningful to me, and I am certainly not "alone." For that reason, I could not in good conscience do "singles" ministry. I've not met any peers at this point in my life who see the need for such a thing, because for most of us it would unnecessarily separate us from our friends in the life of the Church.

At its worst, I think it becomes a lonely persons ministry or a matchmaker gathering, meant to offer "another chance" at dating or assuage the woundedness of those who experience continual relational disintegration. It can't ultimately heal those conditions because the premise is faulty: that unmarried (celibate) people are a different class of human, and need to be treated as such. In attempting to overcome the felt alienation of singles, these ministries increase it by buying into the assumptions of the cultural and ecclesial assumptions they hope to challenge.

As a side note, it is also disingenuous to say "singles ministry," when what is meant is "divorce recovery."

And that's what I think about that.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

a few less impurities to burn away

Not much to write about at the moment. I've been doing thinking, and resting. Which means less talking. Perhaps the creative output will pick up again soon.

I'm "free church" again. "Again?" you ask. I'll tell a story about that soon.

Last week I got to rejoin the mothership (ahem) to worship and spend time together. I had only joked about it before, but surely enough we talked about Purgatory for quite some time.

Basic question: is the process of formation into the likeness of Christ, that process we're going about now, and that God is doing in us, a process that will continue in some sense after we die? Will there be an instantaneous completion of sanctification, or a process. JP put it well: "... like some kind of cosmic group therapy." Alan introduces a good article by an Asbury prof here if you want to read on the idea.

My take?
Purgatory makes sense to me. "Love's redeeming work" surely won't be finished like the final touches on an assembly line, but rather with the loving hands of a master artisan.

And frankly, I think I deserve the extra attention.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Pentecost: On Anger with God and Receiving the Holy Spirit

As I’ve been writing so much these past few months on spiritual development and living as God’s New Community, it’s been helpful to reflect on my own formative experiences. It’s Pentecost, so I will share a snapshot of my journey with the Holy Spirit.

Within the first two years of my apprenticeship to Jesus, I came to realize that if he really was Lord of all, any problems I might have with the world and my place in it were problems I had with him. I’ve been quite the angry young man, so this made things… awkward.

It seemed to me that there were two distinct sides to my religious life; on the one, I was learning to be with Jesus through corporate worship, prayer and the study of scripture. On the other, I found myself feeling deep resentment toward God, as he seemed to shirk many of the expectations I might reasonably place on a god. I didn’t see it being done at the time, but over a period of many months, the Holy Spirit integrated those parts of my personality. I learned to be hurt and bitter in the context of my prayer, study and worship. That meant being very honest in my prayers, choosing to rage against God while singing praises and reading Scripture.

I learned to be angry with Jesus while learning to love him. I learned that Jesus remains, long after my rage is exhausted. I learned it in the only way it can be learned: not by affirming the proposition, Sure, God can handle my anger,” but by remaining with Jesus while expressing anger and hurt to him, and watching him as he did remain.

However, I was possessed of a dark cynicism that ran deeper than mere anger. In the months before I left for Oxford in January 2002, I became more aware of deep-seated belief that, God indeed is not very good, and that God does not really love us - does not really love me - in any helpful way. I became aware of these thoughts as they began to surface in worship: whenever someone in the assembly spoke praises of God’s goodness and provision, “…my heart curses,” I wrote. “It curses because it knows better.” I began to realize just how much bitterness I held against God, but didn’t know of a thing I could do about it.

So I didn’t do anything. I didn’t suppress it. I didn’t deny it. I didn’t revel in it. I just let it be there. Nor (it must be said) did I dedicate myself to elaborate or rigorous spiritual exercises. I prayed and read scripture every few days, and joined in corporate worship. All of this was done with an attitude that could be summarized thus: “Stay away, Jesus, or I’ll kick you.” I avoided “emotional” engagement in worship and devotional practice, because I needed the control. I remained with Jesus – with him in concrete, practicable ways. No nonsense about “complete surrender,” or any kind of wishful thinking about the degree to which I was able to muster warm feelings about Jesus. I was just with him.

One evening, during Lent, I was worshipping in the assembly and had the strangest feeling. We sang a psalm of God’s goodness and faithfulness, but my normal commentary wasn’t running: my heart did not curse.

I had wanted to flee encounters with Jesus, and kept him at arm’s length for so very long, because I was afraid of him. I did not trust him.

And this was not a problem. Keeping Jesus at arm’s length is not the same as shutting him out of the room.

I learned that he’s quite pleased to love us from a distance, because that is how many of us will come to know and trust his love and care. He does not force his way in. He does not violate.

I learned that “letting God in” couldn’t remain some pious cliché, but needs to be specific in practice. So take courage if you are angry, and bitter against God. Take courage especially, if you are afraid to admit it. It’s alright to keep him at arms length; just consider ways that you might hang out in the same room from time to time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Diognetus: Dropping Our Idols

Here's an excerpt from the schola reflection I prepared for last month, on Mathetes' Epistle to Diognetus, a second century defense of the faith written by a Gentile believer for a Roman audience.

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus begins by debunking the worship of both the pagans and unconverted Jews. The former worship that which are not gods, and the latter offer a worship that is unneeded and silly. Wishing to cooperate with my new nineteen hundred year old friend “Mathetes,” I started considering what my own idols might be. Nope, don’t worship money. I don’t build figures to adore as higher beings. I looked back at his introduction:
The first thing, then, is to clear away all the prejudices that clutter your mind and to divest yourself of any habit of through that is leading you into error. You must begin by being, as it were, a new man, ready, as you yourself put it, to give ear to a new story. You must take a look not only with your eyes, but with your mind, at what you call and consider gods, and ask: What substance or form can they really have?
One of my favorite idols is The Right Way. There is a Right Way, of course, to do everything. There’s a Right Way to be together and foster spiritual growth. There’s a Right Way to pray, and study the Scriptures. Is that Right Way mine? Do I deify myself and my proclivities? Not blatantly. See, I don’t often think that I have found The Right Way, but I’m always looking for it. I have lived as if the formation of Christ in me, and the formation of Christ in us together, was somehow contingent upon me getting things right.

I honor the works of my own hands when I expect my own actions and the effectiveness of my spiritual strategies to do the work of forming me into Christlikeness. I muster the right effort, follow the right steps to guarantee growth, and nurture particular feelings and behaviors, hoping that the right information, and the right incantation will somehow do the work of transformation. These presumptions, that I am the guide of my own path in Christ, that I must figure out the right things to do, that God for whatever reason will not teach me these things, is very silly and sad. In making those presumptions, I would make a god of my own understanding, and fashion on idol out of my own accumulated knowledge. The Lord should accept my counsel, for I may yet figure out how to form Christians.

How can I honor the God who cannot be controlled? I can create an empty space sufficient for him to do his redeeming work, a space in which I can listen and hear: “give ear to a new story.” The Father is well versed in our brokenness and he knows how to heal it. What he would do is not necessarily what we should chose for ourselves, but that can surely be trusted, right? I will not accept any more savvy inventions, or hear any more promises of a quick fix. I will be quiet and do the right things for a long time. I will read, listen, work, pray and eat with my friends. I will learn the new story of God’s redemption of the world through Christ, and learn to speak it in everything I do.

Discussion? If you're interested in further reflections on the document (mine or someone else's), you can find the rest for download here.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Meet Me on This Road

In the beginning, YHWH made heaven and earth

The Man and the Woman lived with promise,
clothed in their trust of his heart

And then they Fell


In the beginning, YHWH created Israel

Israel lived by his promise,
as he had brought Jacob to freedom through the Red Sea

And then they turned

and YHWH called
and they turned

and YHWH called
and they turned

and YHWH smote
and after that, our exile

YHWH promised a new beginning

he promised them a new heart, beating with covenant faithfulness

And soon their return


In the hours before the dawn of chastened Israel's vindication

the promise comes to bear

the Son of Man confronts the rod of YHWH's arrogant instrument


the righteous and anointed one is slain


They had promised their lives to him. They trusted YHWH's promise to redeem them. "How long will you hide your face from us, O YHWH?" they must have asked. "We are a disobedient people, and our god has finally forsaken us.

Their hope has died.

They walked along the road, arguing. Perhaps they argued about it, this shattered hope. Was he a false prophet? Had they disappointed YHWH? Had he finally proved as faithless as they had?

Or perhaps they argued about where to stop for the night.

They didn't know what the others did. They had not seen. They had not touched and felt. They offered their story and their broken hearts to a stranger on the road. They offered him bread and drink.

"He was our hope," they explained.

The stranger told them God's story anew. He told them of Moses and the Prophets, and of the Suffering Servant: the Son of Man who must suffer for Israel and be vindicated by God before his enthronement as his viceroy.

The Risen Lord told them the story anew, and their suffering was transformed. In the breaking of bread he bore the sorrows of their long and dark Holy Saturday into the joy and illumination of Eastertide.

Many of us have missed the promise of Easter, and suffer under the long shadow of our crucified hopes. We share our stories of pain with one another and with the stranger. We tell of the God who failed to show up. We offer him this bread.

We learn silence here that we might hear the new tale, the bigger story that weaves every tattered thread of our lives into the tapestry of YHWH's redemptive work.

We eat the bread, offering our brokenness for his healing.

We recognize him in this word and this sacrament, and he disappears from our sight.

And our cold hearts begin to burn

Encounter on the Road to Emmaus