Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wrapped in Community

I spent a good part of this afternoon sorting out prayer shawls to send to the youth from the church I serve who will be starting college this fall. I wrote liturgy and double-checked names because this is an important ministry. Women from the church have spent months making prayer shawls with these particular students in mind. Smooth hands and gnarled hands and able hands and arthritic hands have passed over the yarn and knotted it into patterns, into rectangles that will wrap around the shoulders of our students. We hope that, as they wrap the shawls around them, they'll remember the people from our church who are praying for them, and remember that God is with them even when those people, and all the dear, familiar things they're used to, are not.

Congregation members occasionally inform me that I need a prayer shawl from this church. They say this, not because I appear to be in need of consolation, but because I'm usually wrapped in a blanket when I'm at work. I tend to be cold most of the time and my air conditioned office feels like an icebox to me, so I often throw a blanket around my shoulders while I'm sitting at my computer or going to meetings. But I'm particular about the blanket I use. A prayer shawl from this church would be fine, too, but it doesn't have the same meaning.

The blanket that I keep in my office, that I wear when I'm cold, is one that bears the name of my hometown and the names and pictures of many of its churches. I choose to keep it in my office to remind me that, on the tough days when I'm tired and frustrated and feeling alone, not only is God with me but there are people far away who are wrapping me and my ministry in prayer. The blanket has pictures of the many churches where I attended Vacation Bible School, where I learned memory verses and did crafts and saw the dedication of lay people in helping form the faith of children. It has the names of the churches with whom I went on mission trips, whose volunteers climbed under houses and into ditches alongside me to be examples of servant leadership.

Most of all, the blanket has the name and picture of my home church, the place where I was most formed in the faith. It's the place where I learned hymns and creeds, prayers and theology. It's the place where I discovered the joy of being in mission and experienced what the love in the body of Christ should be like. It wasn't, and isn't, a perfect church. But the people of that congregation did a great job of teaching and shaping me as a person of faith. And though the blanket didn't come from their hands, it reminds me of all the gifts they've given me. That simple blanket provides not only physical warmth, but spiritual reassurance.

I got a Facebook friend request yesterday from one of my childhood Sunday School teachers. I hadn't heard from her in probably a decade, but I was jubilant about the contact. This gives me the opportunity to tell her that all of those Sunday mornings putting up with my know-it-all talking and encouraging me to put characters on the felt board and telling Bible stories really made a difference to me. It's my chance to tell her that she's one of the examples I draw upon when I work with children in my ministry. I doubt that she knew, when she listened to that seven year old girl with dimples talking, that her work would inspire and shape ministry almost twenty years later. But it has.

I wish I could find a way to impress that message upon the people in the church I now serve. But how can I tell them that the way they greet and teach and love the congregation's children today could affect Christ's mission in the world several decades later? How do I help people to see that their work doesn't just enable ministry today and this year, but has an impact for years to come? If that message came through clearly, I think churches might not have quite the problems with recruiting volunteers and leaders that we often face.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mawaige is What Bwings Us Twogevah Twoday

"Are you happy? Do you have what you want, have you achieved all the goals you had for yourself at 25?"
Bear, one of my male friends from college asked me this question the other day. I paused for a few moments, then said, "For the most part, yes. I have a job that I love. I'm in a place that I like. I have a dog to keep me company. I've got great friends, though I wish some of them lived much closer to me. I've been to lots of interesting places, I've been privileged to go to some great schools. Yes, I'm where I hoped I'd be at this point. There are really only two more things I would like before I turn 30. I want to go to Australia and I want to get married." Then he asked what is perhaps a more interesting question: "Is getting married a goal for you?"

I couldn't really articulate an answer to that question immediately on the phone, and our conversation soon moved to other topics, but it left me pondering. I don't thin of marriage as a goal, exactly, since a goal is often an achievement toward which one works. Marriage isn't an achievement, really, and it's also not something you can really work toward. It's a relationship, carefully built between two people, a covenant and a lifelong commitment, not just a title to attain.

The idea of marriage as a goal is fascinating to me because popular culture often frames marriage as some sort of achievement for women. It's not framed that way for men, really. For men it's a desirable state when you get tired of dating, or perhaps for sex or companionship, but it isn't presented, I don't think, as a social achievement. But for women it's a different game. People speak about "getting your Mrs. degree" as though it's an achievement one acquires through dedication, work, strategy, and a little luck. There are books and magazine articles about how to catch a man, how to "get him to propose", as though if you have the right moves and work hard enough, you can force a relationship, and as though attaining a couple of rings and the privilege of checking "married" boxes on forms is a prize to be won. (Take, for example, the lassoing scenes in The Bachelor... YIKES!)

"But what if I never get married?!"

I can't tell you how many times I've said this or heard friends say it. Ask any single woman over the age of 22 their fears, and this will be among them. It comes up after every friend's wedding, every breakup, every bad date, and every birthday. This flip side of the marriage pressure: the "terror" of singleness. Because, while even pop culture will let you be the happy single girl for a few years, there's a point after which, if you're not married, people assume that there's something wrong with you. Take, for example, Sex and the City. Even in this progressive, VERY sexually liberated plotline, three of the four main characters were married before age 41. Women who remain unmarried are cast as closeted lesbians, crazy cat ladies, or poor, pathetic, awkward spinster aunts. At a certain age (and this age varies based on geographical location), you go from Sex and the City to Nanny McPhee. Quick, try for sixty seconds to name every strong, well-adjusted, never-married female character in your favorite movies and TV shows. Did you come up with any?

I want to be married. Not really because society tells me so, and not really (though slightly, I'll admit) because if I don't get married I'm cast as the freak who escaped from the circus, but because I'm looking for companionship. I want a partner to share my life with, to catch up with at the end of the day, to share the joys and the worries with. It would be nice to come home at the end of a long day and have someone to talk to that doesn't drool on my forearm.

At the same time, I refuse to treat this as a goal. It's not something I can work toward, other than being open to the possibilities of relationships. It's a relationship I hope to share with someone one day, not an achievement to tell society that I'm kind, well-adjusted, and desirable enough to attract a mate. I don't need that validation. Because, while the media really gives me no models for how to live as a happy, normal single woman, I do actually know such women in the real world. I have friends and mentors who are strong, single, and NOT crazy stereotypes. And I thank God for them every single day.

I know that there aren't manners books on how to treat your single friends, and it's easy for folks who have been married for a while to remember what it was like to be single. It's especially hard for people who got married young to understand what it's like for people who are single and older. And the media isn't giving any helpful guidelines, either. So, I offer a few suggestions for how to make life easier for the single folks. (I'm not being sarcastic here, folks. These could actually help you.)

1) For God's sake, stop portraying single women only in stereotypes. There are all sorts of different well-rounded images of people in relationships, different kinds of relationships, etc. Get with the creativity already.

2) Please stop assuming that everything is about/for "families". This is less of an assumption in the wider world, but the church, on the whole, assumes that everyone is somehow part of a locally-centered nuclear family. For example, church meals and potlucks are often REALLY AWKWARD for people who are there by themselves, so please make an effort to be welcoming to the single folks.

3) Unless the person you're asking is a really good friend, don't ask us if we're seeing anyone. If we want to tell you about someone we're dating, we will. If we're not, or are and don't want to talk about it, we won't bring it up and you don't need to either. I've been asked this at work functions, family gatherings, and even job interviews, and it's almost always awkward. One of the worst conversations I've had in several years was on this very topic with someone I'd met the same night. It went like this:
Him: So, are you married?
Me: No.
Him: Engaged?
Me: No.
Him: Dating?
Me: No.
*Long Pause*
Him: Sad?
I wanted to simultaneously slap him on the back of the head and vanish from the spot. Please don't put your single friends in this position. You don't even need to bring it up. There are lots of topics of conversation beyond families: ask about our pets/jobs/hobbies/weekend plans/last vacation/upcoming vacation/book we're reading... You get the picture.

4) Getting married is not the threshold to adulthood. Single adults are not children. Try not to put your unmarried friends or family members at the kids' table or give them the couch because they don't have someone to share the bed with or, worst of all, send their invitations and Christmas cards and things to their parents' address. If the single person has a home of his or her own, he or she deserves an invitation/card of his or her own. We're not eight-year-olds living at home, we're adults with places of our own. It's common courtesy to acknowledge that fact.

5) There is much debate about assurance that someday we, too, will be married. This can be somewhat comforting, insofar as it is an assurance that you, our friend or loved one, don't believe that we are undesirable, unmarryable freaks. And that's important for combatting the accursed views of singleness. On the other hand, it simultaneously upholds those views of singleness as a terrible state from which you hope your friends will be rescued. And what if we don't get married? The vague promises of "someday" stop holding water at a certain point. So, while I don't think such assurances should be outlawed, it pays to think carefully before you use them.

There are, I'm sure, other guidelines and suggestions to consider. At the moment, these are the ones that come to my mind. If you have others, feel free to share them in the comments section.