It’s not very often that I hear a sermon and mentally scream, “IS THIS REAL LIFE?” but my good friend Mike Stroh preached on singleness at my Dallas church, and it IS real life. I remember very specifically one Father’s Day sermon years ago that exalted marriage and parenthood, and I sat there biting back tears thinking, “this is not for me, this is not for me, this is not for me.” I felt so incredibly alone in my church pew. THIS SERMON, however, made me want to dance around screaming, “this is for me! this is for me!”
Mike opens the sermon assuring listeners that this is not a token sermon to make singles feel better, it is instead a theology of singleness for everyone, from which everyone should learn. Thus begins Mike’s habit of using incredibly specific terms that my single friends and I have complained about the church not using. I’ve had many lunches where my single friends lamented the lack of a theology of singleness – we talk about the biblical basis of marriage ALL THE TIME and so it is valued. Why don’t we talk about the biblical basis for singleness? (For the record, Mike is married to the amazing Libby Stroh, which makes me love his sermon even more. Being married is, in our Christian culture, the privileged position, and it is mostly from the mouths of the privileged that change can occur.)
And then Mike sneaks in this great line:
“We’re going to learn from two fairly influential singles: Jesus and Paul.”
The main premise of the sermon is that we (as a culture and as a church) have viewed celibacy and singleness as a negative, as shutting off our sexuality. But no, Mike assures the congregation that we don’t actually become men and women when we get married – we’re born as sexual beings, and that doesn’t change. Instead, chastity is a virtue that says no to lust and a massive YES to true love. Both Jesus (in Matthew 19) and Paul (in 1 Corinthians 7) have high views of celibacy while also teaching a high view of marriage. How can we do both?
Marriage, Mike says, is a sign that points to our ultimate union with God. It’s like seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon and packing up the car to go there and see it in person. You take the picture with you, looking at it to remind yourself where you’re going. The celibate person, on the other hand, says, “I’m going to jump over the sign and get the real thing!” They set up camp on the edge of the Grand Canyon, basking in its beauty. The single person pursues an undivided intimate relationship with God.
In fact, the celibate person’s life is a statement of faith. Being single is a way of stepping outside of history and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is here!
About this time in the sermon, my excitement was devolving into a complaint. This was all very love-positive, and hypothetically, it SOUNDS good. But what about sex? What about lifelong companionship? Single people want those things, and how are we supposed to live without them!? Almost immediately after my mental complaint, Mike said:
Embracing singleness DOES involve real sacrifice: companionship, sexual union, parenting children. It means living in the ache all the time.
THANK YOU. It felt so good to have my pain and frustration acknowledged without condescension or a false hope that marriage would solve my problem. With that pain at the forefront, Mike repeated himself. Being celibate means letting your life be a statement that heaven is real – and it is worth sacrificing everything to experience. A relationship with God is greater than anything we could experience here and now, and rejoicing in singleness is an act of faith.
Then Mike got practical. “Let me pick on the married people,” he said, and I fist pumped the air (I was listening to the podcast in an empty room, so it was not weird). I mean, SO OFTEN I feel like being in a church involves being picked on as a single person, although no one actually calls it that. Still, I was delighted to see married people in the hot spot.
Mike urged married couples to have regular fellowship with singles, to consider the little things of life that you take for granted because you have a life partner. When a single person gets sick, he suggested, make them a meal or offer to pick up their medication. Most poignantly, he mentioned that while married people might get tired of the daily mundanity of asking your spouse, “How was your day?” a single person might never hear that thoughtful question, so ask them. In fact, he said, “even worship services can be very lonely for singles, so be mindful of that.” And further, stop thinking that marriage is a higher calling! Don’t encourage singles with the statement that they will be married someday, as though God is holding out on blessing them. While you’re at it, don’t lead conversations with “Are you married?” or “How many children do you have?”
At this point my hands were clutched under my chin, eyes filling with tears at the UNDERSTANDING, empathy, and thoughtfulness.
Then Mike made it even better. He spoke to singles, reminding us that married couples and parents need us! No matter what kind of single you are (young, desiring marriage, not desiring marriage, divorced, widowed, voluntarily celibate because of same-sex attraction), you can dive into undivided devotion to God, showing marrieds what a life fully oriented around God looks like.
This section was all the more poignant to me because I feel like I got to live out this mutual edification with Mike and LIbby. They always let me stay at their house, eat homecooked meals, and play with their kids. We talked explicitly about how I often crave the solidity and comfort of a family atmosphere, so they gave that to me. And on the flip side, I used my freedom as a single person to babysit and to help them move. I decided to move to Greece, and Mike and Libby were two of my greatest champions, talking and praying me toward that decision. They gave me their marriage experiences, and I gave them my single experiences. It was really beautiful, and I never once felt like either of us felt “better” or “superior” than the other for our different life stages.
He ended the sermon by once more acknowledging that the ache of solitude and loneliness might be a constant reality for single people. The ache is a daily surrender, and an opportunity to orient ourselves to God. And remember, he said, being married will not complete you. You are already complete in Christ, right now. God has to be enough, and if He’s not, then dive into prayer, into Scripture, into ministry and into community. Then you can celebrate the season of singleness, for however long it lasts.
After all, Jesus – the perfect human being – was single. He lived in joy and anticipation of the promise of the wedding supper that was to come when he would be fully united to the church for eternity. As single women and men, we have the best example of how to live.
I summarized a lot of Mike’s sermon, but I urge you to listen to it for yourself!
I enjoyed reading this post and I may have to listen to the message. :).
I am blessed to be part of a church family who embraces the singles of the church, but sometimes the simple things like being asked, “how was your day?” are the stuff that gets missed. I liked that part of this post and it made me realize how often I ask my close friends that, and maybe it is because I long to have it asked of me?
As we head into the holiday season I am also discouraged because so often church activities seem to get put on hold because families are often celebrating together and attending holiday events, school concerts, etc. I hate that churches often stop some of the ministries during the holidays, sometimes even during summer, because when the church community *is* the family of the single, it is one way we sometimes get neglected spiritually. I have invitations to dinners and all sorts of things, so I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about how many spiritually enriching activities vet pushed aside, which unintentionally isolates singles sometimes.
Anyway, great post and that’s for the link to the pastor’s message.
Thank you for this comment, Susan! I hadn’t thought about holidays, but you’re totally right. Cancelled events send a subtle message that the church community’s schedule revolves around the needs of families, not singles.
I just spent some time talking about this with the married couple I’m staying with, and we came to the conclusion that one possible solution is for families to “adopt” singles – inviting them to be so much a part of their family that singles will want to go to kids’ concerts, etc.
Of course, this would very much depend upon individual singles and families.
Thanks for helping me think through this even further!
Yes, and I am often adopted. In fact, it is rare I have less than 3-4 Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner invitations. It’s the spiritual famine through the holidays, though, that often leavem wanting.
I was at a Bible study the other evening and the leader started running down the schedule from now until the end of the year and after Thanksgiving, no meetings are scheduled until the end of January. Another woman spoke up and said, “I’m single. Please don’t forget about me.”
The group prayed for her and the loneliness, I offered to hang sometime, but I was disappointed in a way that nobody seemed to take the issue to heart, or offer a practical help. The pryer was nice, but it is an opportunity to offer more in the way of community.
I am extremely blessed to have friends who make sure I’m good. 🙂
Ah, I wasn’t quite focusing on your need for spiritual nourishment, was I? That’s still a really great point, and I don’t know what the church ought to do! Have you ever thought of possibilities to offer to church leadership? If love to hear them.