Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How do we Actually See Singleness in the Church?

As I was standing in my local Christian bookstore recently, I was struck by what I saw on the shelf. When I scanned my eyes across the shelves looking at the names of the sections for books. I was struck by the space was divided.

There was a startling contrast in the amount of space give to different topics. Some of the sections were quite large and general to most people who would be looking for a book - Christian living, devotionals, various types of fiction, etc. But that wasn't the part that caught my eye.

As I continued to look at the shelves, I saw sections labelled men's issue, women's issues, parenting, marriage, singles, and possibly a few others I've forgotten. Some had much space on the shelves, some had little. The section on marriage had more than a shelf, while the section for singles had only a few books - the label took up more space than the books. Half the books in that section were actually on dating and preparing for marriage while you're single. A closer look at the section on women's issues revealed that at least two-thirds of the books there were on being a wife or a mother.

That disparity struck me as picture of how it can feel to be a single person in the church. There are times when there is so much focus on marriage and being a good spouse and/or parent, that if you're single and have no kids, it can be easy to feel left out.

Before you say my example from the Christian bookstore is not a great picture because that's just what has been written, but let me tell you that is simply not true. A look at what I have on my bookshelf at home would tell you that. But, I've had to look long and hard for those books that aren't about dating or preparing for marriage. Often purchasing them with little more information about them than the title and the topic. And they're mostly good books, that need to be better available to the entire church - whether single or married.

When I look around at who is gathered at the service I attend at my church on any given weekend, I see a much larger number of single adults past college-age than I think many people realize. Some are single by choice, while others would rather be married and have families of their own. Some have been married and aren't anymore, while others have never been married.

Yes, we live in a society where marriage and family are under attack and we absolutely need to support marriages and families in our churches. We should want them to thrive. We should be providing resources and support there.

But, I also think the way we approach singleness needs to be changed. There is a problem when the only time we talk about singleness is in regards to preparing for marriage.At this point in my life, although I still very much desire to be married, I want to live a full and God-honouring life while I'm single. I can't just focus all my time on preparing for a marriage that may or may not happen for me.

God doesn't promise any of us marriage in Scripture. But when everything (or, at least most things) we offer for singles is about preparing for marriage, it implies that we believe everyone will get married one day. This is harmful for individuals and the church as a whole.

As I've tried to figure out how to end this post and sum up what I've been trying to say, I've been drawn back to a book on this topic I just finished reading. As with most books I read, there are parts of this book I agree with and parts I don't. But, when it comes to the topic of this post, I feel like the author sum it up well.

The book is called Party of One: Truth. Longing, and the Subtle Art of Singleness by Joy Beth Smith.

"The problem with viewing singleness as a season is that we relegate our time here to something to be endured, not celebrate. . . . singleness is not a season with a guaranteed end in this life. And we can't spend our days trying to wait it out, constantly looking for what we have next."

"Only in acknowledging the value of each unique path that God is mapping out, can we come to understand what it means to embrace life and live it well."

If singleness isn't just a season or a place to prepare for what we generally see as coming next, then our thinking has to change. We have to learn to celebrate life wherever we're at - and value this in the church.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What Does it Look Like to be the Family of God?

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about a challenge that comes with the change of schedule in summer. As I reread it recently I still resonated with the every word I wrote then.

It is hard when the arrival of the May long weekend typically means a transition to sitting at home alone most evenings and a greater challenge in getting people to commit to making any kind of a plan with you. I understand that it is often a very necessary change of pace. I understand the desire to take advantage of the different activities that come with warmer weather.

But, that doesn't change the fact that, for me and many others like me, summer can be a very lonely and isolating time. It's often very difficult to add anything to a calendar that has nothing more than work and going home to my house where there's no family waiting for me, every day for a week or more at a time. This is really nice for a few days and then it becomes suffocating and isolating.

All of this leaves me asking me one question.

Before I share it, this is my preface: This isn't an easy question. It gets in our business. It challenges every single one of us who call themselves Christians.

If we, as Christians, as the church, are the family of God, then why are content to leave a large portion of our family lonely and isolated for one quarter of the year?

Now, before you take issue with me asking this question, realize that I'm not asking to any one part of the church; I'm asking it to all of us. No matter whether we are single or married, with kids or without kids, are a young adult or a senior, if we're part of the church this question is one for all of us.I ask this question as much of myself as I do you - those who are reading this.

There is a large segment of our church community who don't work around the school calendar - there's no Christmas break, or spring break, or extended summer break. Yet, often in the church it seems as if there's an assumption that everyone's lives work according to the school calendar. There's a large number of people - single and married of all different ages - for whom the school calendar has no impact.

Obviously, there are many facets of the answer to this question. And my own experiences and life situation are going to be at play in how I deal with this. Just as it will have an impact on how you would answer this question. Because of that, I don't think I have the final solution for how we deal with this. But, I do believe it's a conversation that absolutely has to be had and every one of us needs to have a voice.

So, back to my question:

If we, as Christians, as the church, are the family of God, then why are content to leave a large portion of our family lonely and isolated for one quarter of the year?

The time frame I'm talking about is the 3 - 1/2 months book-ended by the May and September long weekends. In much of the church (and to some degree our society in general), those weekends often signal the beginning and end of the "ministry year." But, even beyond formal ministry in the church, they also seem to signal the beginning and end of a time period when people will schedule anything other than a camping trip or a vacation.

All of this presents a challenge. A challenge that leaves some people feeling lonely an isolated.

When I think of a family, I think of a group of people of all ages and walks of life who love and care for each other. We often talk of church as the family of God. Most of the time family does things together, supports each other, loves each other. Of course, in our fallen world, this doesn't always happen, but I think we all have some idea what it should be. The thing about a healthy family is that they included everyone regardless of their circumstances or life situation.

I've tried to figure out how to say this part without being really blunt, and I can't do it, so I'm going to say it and then hopefully explain what I mean.

When the family of God stops everything, "because it's summer," "because school's out," "because it's nice outside," "because people are away," it makes some of us feel like we're being left out of the family - whether it's intentional or not.

Since, I'm in the habit these last few posts of being brutally honest about things here. The thoughts that run through my mind when I'm told there won't be anything scheduled, whether church ministry or social events for 3 - 1/2 months aren't great. I can think of all sorts of ways to refute those reasons. If I'm not careful, it's really easy to begin to feel like I'm not really considered part of the family of God (or, at least I'm not from mid-May to the beginning of September).

For a long time, I didn't communicate any of this to anyone. I kept it all inside. And that makes me just as much a part of the problem as anyone else may be.

But, it also means I have as much an opportunity as anyone else to be a part of the solution. But, there's no chance of anything being different if we don't say anything, if we're not willing to have some potentially uncomfortable conversations.

So, what do we do?

I don't know that we have to change everything all at once, but there are small things we all can do to better be the family of God for each other. We need to have those uncomfortable conversations. Everyone needs to be able to explain what they are looking for and what they need from the family of God. And we need to seriously consider what those who have a different view than us are saying.

As we talk, we need to show grace and love to each other. And figure out how we can better love and include all members of the family of God. It doesn't have to be hard. It starts small. After I first had this conversation with some friends a couple years ago, those friends listened and cared. Realizing what I was looking for when I asked for more scheduled things over summer and that I also wanted to respect their time for additional family time, meant that we were better able to be the family of God for each other.

Really, it starts with things as simple as invitations to each other's places for dinner, or to join in an activity of some kind. Or a plan for a camping trip together. All things, that put more on the calendar for some who find the summer lonely and isolating - making it just a little less so.

Maybe that is all that's needed. And maybe at some point, we need to have a bigger conversation about how we do things. That is something that remains an unknown, but we'll never know for sure until we start somewhere.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Talking About It Despite The Fear

I guess this is becoming part in a bit of a series about anxiety (you can read part 1 and part 2 here) on here about this. When I wrote that first post, I never really intended to write more on it, but here we go.

One of the questions I've been asked recently is:
If it's so scary to out it out there for others to read, why do I do it?
If it's so easily misunderstood by people, why do I take the risk?

I guess my answer is that, while it's scary, it's also liberating. There's no longer a feeling of pretending in my life. There's no longer an added fear of being "found out" when something happens.

For the first 8 years after I was told I had social anxiety disorder I didn't tell anyone. I kept it to myself and just did my best to structure my life in a way that (at least I thought) wasn't overly obvious to people. But, about 3 years ago a series of events rendered that impossible to do anymore. Everything became too much for me to manage on my own. As it impacted more and more areas of my carefully structured life, I couldn't keep it to myself anymore.

I no longer had a choice about telling people. Those first conversations terrified me (even more than the first post I wrote a couple of weeks on this), but afterwards I felt a sort of freedom I hadn't expected. There's something powerful about letting other people into your biggest struggles. I was no longer alone in it. And I found incredible love and support in those people I told.

As I moved slowly beyond that time and was able to manage better again, I realized my biggest help had come from being open about my struggle with this. That inviting and allowing other people in was important. I also realized how many others may be struggling with the same things we are, but staying quiet because we thing no one else will understand.

I was also painfully aware of the stigma that still often comes with any kind of mental health struggle - both inside and outside of the church. And I knew the only way this would change would be for people to keep talking about it, so we can one day change the conversation about it.

All of that is why I choose to continue to talk about this. Keeping it to myself didn't help me, it doesn't help others, and it will never change the conversations we have about it. The changes when we talk about it, despite the fear and misunderstanding. Our silence leaves everything the same.

So I choose to keep talking about this, despite the fear. I will talk about this despite the comments that all it would take to be "cured" is more faith in God and more prayer (believe me, I pray and I believe God can heal me of this, but it hasn't happened yet). I will talk about this despite the times other misunderstand what I'm trying to say.

But, mostly, I will talk about this because it brings freedom - for me and for others. Keeping silent about our struggles binds us up. When we talk about them, freedom can come.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Why it's Scary to Admit to Anxiety?

I've been thinking a lot about the post I wrote last week and why it was really so terrifying to hit publish. What makes it so hard to let people know that I deal with this on a daily basis? Why was I hesitant to share in that way?

The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that it really does come down to the way it is seen by some people . . . and, unfortunately, especially the way it's seen by some people in the church. We talk often about the stigma associated with mental illness in our society, and our need to remove it. We've made great strides in this - both inside and outside of the church.

But, there have definitely been times when it has been easier to let the stranger in the grocery store or the coffee shop know what was going on when I'm struggling with anxiety when I'm out, then it has been to let someone at church know. This reality saddens me. The place where it should be easiest to admit my struggle is often actually the most difficult.

So, why is this the case? What is going on here?

I'm going to say that most of the challenge comes from the multiple meanings of the word anxiety. It's a word that is used to mean anything from the worries of everyday life to crippling fear and worry that interferes with the ability to live a "normal life." Most of the people I've talked to about this in the church understand the first definition, but they miss the other possible definition.

When someone is talking about the worries of everyday life, then it is perfectly reasonable to talk to them about praying and giving them over to God - about how Scripture tells us not to worry about tomorrow - and leave it at that. Scripture's prescription for this kind of anxiety is abundantly clear.

But, when it's a life-altering level of anxiety? When it's anxiety that interferes with the ability to live and do the things everyone else does?

Absolutely, the truth of Scripture still applies. But, when we stop there, we leave those who live with this type of anxiety feeling less than, or like their problem isn't seen as being real. It can make you feel like less of a Christian because the "solution" that people are giving doesn't work for you.

I don't want to discount the truth of Scripture, or the role that doing what Philippians 4:6-7 says plays in my ability to manage my anxiety. The truth of Scripture is powerful to change thinking and I don't want to minimize it.

But, when I'm struggling with my anxiety in the moment, I don't need Scripture basically just thrown at me as the solution to my problem. It's not actually going to help. 

I also don't want to make it sound like the church always gets this wrong. Many in the church handle this well. They truly care and support and try to understand. I get that it's hard to understand what it's like and I might not always be able to explain it well. But, I'm appreciative of those who try.

So, how do we fix this?

1) Don't assume you know what someone means when they say they're struggling with anxiety. Ask questions to get a better understanding of what they mean.

2) Don't rush to offer you solution to their problem. Even when you feel like you have a suggestion that might help, offering it right away will actually be counter-productive.

3) Listen to what they're saying and care about what's going on. A listening ear makes a big difference. Often just being there makes all the difference.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

No Idea What to Call This

As I stood to the side and looked out over the busy room - the church gym transformed into a place for a women's conference - I was reminded of a conversation I had a little less than 15 years ago. A conversation where I was told that I likely wouldn't be able to do what I was doing that weekend. Attending a women's conference with more than 170 women at it was not supposed to be something I could manage, let alone also helping to put the event on.

You see, I was told I had Social Anxiety Disorder in that conversation. As I've chosen to talk about this more in the last few years, I've discovered that many people don't know what this is, don't understand what I mean when I say that.

There's a lot of good information out there about it, but it doesn't seem to be very widely understood. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I'm going to share the definition of it from the Social Anxiety Association:
"Social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interactions with other people. You could say social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. It is a pervasive disorder and causes anxiety and fear in most all areas of a person's life." 
It is the third most common mental health issue in the world today. And 7% of the population (including in the church) is dealing with it at any moment, and 13% will at some point in their lives.

Now that we've established some basic facts, on to my purpose in writing this post . . .

I'm incredibly appreciative of the friends I have who have learned what this looks like for me and how they can support when I'm in settings like this women's conference. They're a large part of what makes it possible for me to be a part of them. Even though these types of events are exhausting for me, I'm grateful I can be a part of them.

As I speak up more about this battle in my life, I frequently realize how little about it is understood by so many in the church. Despite the facts about its prevalence that I share above anxiety disorders often seem to be misunderstood in Christian circles.

I think a lot of the misunderstanding comes from the word anxiety having multiple meanings in how we use it and we're not always clear on the differences. Everyone has moments when they feel anxiety over something. The difference is that, for most people most of the time, it doesn't interfere with their ability to do things. They're not so paralyzed by it they can't move on from it.

I can't even begin to count the number of times well-meaning people have quoted Philippians 4:6-7 or 1 Peter 5:7, or any other myriad of Scriptures when they find out I struggle with anxiety. Don't get me wrong, those verses contain great truth. Truth I cling to when my mind is going crazy. Truth that does help me to calm my mind sometimes. They remind me of what I need to be doing, and they're a part of how I function everyday.

There is a spiritual aspect to all of this and it absolutely must be dealt with if I'm going to be able to live a full life. But, for me, and for others who also live with this, it goes beyond that. The physical and mental part of this is just as important to deal with as the spiritual part. Whether it be medication or counselling or some combination of that, we cannot ignore that this is a part of dealing with this in our lives.

I guess I'm writing this to try to explain some realities, but as I put this out there, I'm also realizing that it doesn't do much good if I don't get to something practical.

So, what can or should you do when someone you know is battling an anxiety disorder?

1) Ask them what they need from you in social settings that make their battle more difficult. 

They likely know what others can do that helps, but they're not going to ask, because that opens them up to being negatively judged, which is part of their anxiety. When you offer, you're letting them know you're not negatively judging them.

2) Be patient - even when it's awkward.

Maybe, especially when it's awkward.

Sometimes I'll be managing okay in a situation, until I'm not. I can't predict when that will happen and I often can't see it coming until I'm at the point where I can't manage anymore. I know it's awkward when that happens. It's why I go through seasons where I just avoid everything. But, avoiding everything doesn't help, it makes it worse. When I have people around me who are patient when my anxiety makes things awkward, it makes it easier for me to manage the next thing.

So, be patient. Stay with them. Let them know, that's not enough to make you leave.

3) Don't be afraid to lovingly, gently speak the truth.

When my anxiety gets going, I know my thought patterns are ridiculous and full of lies, but I often can't stop them myself. That's when I need people in my life who will gently and lovingly remind me of the truth.

Don't yell it. Don't try to argue me into believing it. But keep speaking it. And remind me that I need to speak it out loud too. Eventually it will get through and help.

4) Don't decide that this struggle means they can't be there for you.

Just because we have a struggle in this area of our lives doesn't mean we're not capable of supporting you in whatever you're going through. We all need friendships where the love and support goes both ways. Let us be there for you when you have a need, the same way you're there for us when we have a need.

Obviously, every person is different, so every person's battle with anxiety is different, but I think these suggestions are general enough for everyone. That's why I started with asking the person what would help them.

I know these things make a difference, because I have friends who do these things all the time. Ultimately, it's God Who makes it possible for me to be part of a team to put on a women's conference. But, He often chooses to use those around me to be the way He does that. I'm incredibly grateful for the community I have.