Alone

According to Wikipedia St. Valentine’s Day was first associated with romantic love around the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, in the early fourteenth century. I was planning on making some cynical comments about what it’s become since then, but that’s not the purpose of this message. If you have a partner, and if you want to share romantic moments with your loved one today, go for it, and God bless you.

But my thoughts today are for people like me, who are alone, and who don’t like it. I’m alone. Often it gets me down. Sometimes it’s hard to bear.

Some people, and I’m thinking particularly of Christians, will tell you it’s all right to be alone. They might even say that it’s good, because you don’t have to dedicate time to your partner and your family, so you can dedicate even more time to God. For some, that’s true, I’m sure.

And some people will extend that argument and tell you how great it is that without the shackles of a relationship you are free to do good works for God and for people. You can devote yourself to mission work and great Kingdom causes. For some, that’s true too.

Some people will tell you not to obsess over finding ‘the one’, not to turn that search into your mission, and not to turn the object of your search into an idol. Wise words, certainly.

You will often be told that ‘relationship’ is not just about the romance that leads to marriage, that you should treasure your family and friends, your church family and wider community. You will be told that these relationships are where you can offer, and experience, real love. Yes, yes, we know that love has many forms of expression, and yes, we want to love our neighbours, and our enemies, of course we do.

And then comes the killer blow: “Isn’t Jesus enough for you?”

Wow. Just wow.

Don’t get me wrong, singleness is right for some people. And there will most likely be seasons of life when it’s right for each of us. Paul, a single man, has a lot to say about singleness (and marriage) in 1 Corinthians 7, and he touches on several of the arguments I’ve just listed. But he isn’t entirely dogmatic about it. Indeed he says in verse 7, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

If, like me, you don’t believe your singleness is a gift from God, then it can be difficult to hear some of the (usually) well-meaning platitudes like those mentioned above. I want to reassure you that you’re not the only one who feels like this. And I have responses to those statements.

First, is it good to be alone? God doesn’t think so.

The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ (Genesis 2:18)

It’s the first time in the story of creation that something is not good. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘helper’ and think that somehow God just wants people to help each other out, to be friends, and somehow this will make things good. No, Genesis continues to describe the union between Adam and Eve, the first marriage, referred to by Jesus in Matthew 19, and thus held up as an example by church leaders ever since. If singleness suits you, good for you, but if it doesn’t then know that God understands your pain.

What about the work you can do for God as a single person? Yes, you can do much, but consider Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. He talks about the qualifications and character of those who lead the church, and a faithful marriage is mentioned several times, not as an instruction that elders and deacons must be married, but certainly confirming that marriage is no bar to such a position. And there is no pattern anywhere in the Bible to suggest that God’s work was done better, or more often, by single men and women. Couples can certainly do mission together, and the support they can offer each other will be invaluable. If they are blessed with children, then their priorities will change, but raising children is precious work in itself.

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. (Proverbs 1:8-9)

To make an idol of anything, including the search for a partner, is clearly a big mistake. I would never argue otherwise. I would just say this – to honestly desire something that is good is not to idolise it. So don’t unquestioningly accept such an assertion from others, especially others who have that one thing that you lack, and who don’t necessarily understand, or remember, what that lack feels like. Instead, guard your heart (Proverbs 4), bringing your needs to God and trusting Him through the hard times. You can find a helpful article about guarding your heart here

Your life will be richer if you can enjoy all kinds of relationships. That’s undeniable. Friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, fellow believers, they all have something great to offer, and you have something great to offer them too. But equally undeniable is that there is another kind of relationship, one that Paul describes as a kind of reflection of that between Christ and His church in Ephesians 5. Think about it. What would the church be without Christ? Doesn’t that tell you something about the power and the value of this most intimate of relationships?

But isn’t Jesus enough? Isn’t that actually a God-shaped hole that you’re trying to fill?

Go back again to Genesis, when the man was alone. This was the time when, as described in Genesis 3, the Lord would walk in the Garden in the cool of the day. Whether or not you take Genesis literally, it’s clear that in God’s eyes, even His own immediate presence is not enough to satisfy our desires in this world. Complete intimacy with another human being, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” is a basic human need, like food and shelter. If you are without food or shelter do you just ignore that want? Do you tell yourself that your cold and hunger aren’t important because Jesus is enough? No! You trust in the Lord to provide, but you also do your part to make it happen.

Some people might say there’s a difference, that human intimacy doesn’t have the same immediate priority as protecting your physical well-being. But we are starting to understand the weakness of that argument. We are starting to see that emotional well-being is just as important, and its deprivation can be just as deadly as physical damage.

And if you have any doubt about how important the church considers intimate relationships, just think of the amount of time and energy it spends arguing with society and within itself about the rights and wrongs of all aspects of marriage and sexuality.

So this is my message to you, if you’re alone, and like me, you’re not ok with that. My message is that it’s ok to not be ok with that. I pray that you’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that you will be able to patiently endure the loneliness while you trust for God’s provision.

If you feel blessed to be single, then you are, and that’s wonderful. But if you don’t, then don’t feel guilty for desiring, and seeking, a partner. And take comfort in the knowledge that, in one respect at least, you are not alone.

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Private Lives

I was browsing through some notes I’d written over the years, looking for some inspiration for a post, and I came across a document titled “Private Lives”. It turned out to be a complete article which I thought I must have posted here previously, but then I noticed that it had been written on 22 May 2011, predating my blog by nearly a year. So I thought I’d share it with you now. I haven’t edited it. There are a couple of lines I would probably change if I was writing it now, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of rewriting history, so what follows is what flowed from my mind on that day…

Private Lives

I’m troubled by the Twitter/super-injunction drama being played out before our eyes.

It seems that some Twitter users feel that they have a right to total anonymity (privacy) at the same time that they are denying celebrities that same privilege.

Let’s look first at the legal side of this. Rightly or wrongly a court has ordered that the real identity of “CTB” should not be published. Contempt of court is a serious matter.

Twitter’s terms of service clearly state “We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request…”

So the seeming uproar among the Twitter community at the news that CTB is seeking – through the courts – the name of the individual who has broken the injunction, is unjustified.

But there are even more important issues at stake here than privacy or freedom of speech. Read this well-known passage from John’s gospel.

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Behind the headlines there is a broken family. There are hurting people. A sin has been committed, and sin has consequences. That is God’s way, and it is right. But the world’s way is to hound, ridicule, judge and condemn the sinner more than they would any ordinary person, because he is a celebrity. I don’t condone the adultery, of course not, but I don’t blame him for wanting to try and keep the details between the parties involved. All of us have sinned many times in our lives, and whether those sins were greater or lesser than CTB’s, who of us would want the details broadcast around the world? And what benefit has this pantomime been to any of us? A few cheap jokes, a few more newspaper sales or website hits. That’s all. Is it worth trying to destroy a family for that?

No, we should be praying for healing, and for restoration. We should hope and pray that CTB repents for what he has done, and that he can restore good, loving relationships with his wife and children. We should remember that in all likelihood it was for their sake as much as, or more than his, that he took out the super-injunction in the first place.

As I said, CTB has to face the consequences of his actions, but remember before you speak, write or act, there are consequences to everything you do too.

Shipwrecked?

As I compose this post I’m sitting on a bench overlooking St. Thomas Bay, Malta. Traditionally, St. Paul’s Bay, where I’m staying tonight, at the north of the island, is the location of Paul’s shipwreck, described in Acts 27-28. But researchers carefully comparing the text with the geography of Malta, have concluded that St. Thomas Bay is actually the most likely place for the events to have occurred.

Looking across the calm sea in the early afternoon it’s hard to imagine a deadly storm could bring such danger and destruction here. But these waters, like so many of our lives, are only tranquil for a season.

How many of us, at times, have felt metaphorically shipwrecked? I’ve been feeling that way for quite a while. The ships that break, and in doing so can break us, are relationships. It’s not hard to see that people can live rich, meaningful and joyful lives when they are in the poorest circumstances, if they are nurtured by rich, meaningful relationships. On the other hand, someone with all the status, wealth and good health they could wish for, can be emotionally crippled and utterly miserable without the love of family and true friends.

Most of us live somewhere between those extremes. But we can find ourselves adrift in a stormy sea when a key relationship is broken for any reason. What can we do then?

Many books have been written in response to that question. I don’t have all the answers, but in reading about Paul’s shipwreck I find helpful pointers.

First, have faith.

“But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.” (Acts 27:22-26)

And let faith give you courage. God may not have spoken to you as clearly as He did to Paul, but He is surely with you nevertheless. He is at your side as you fall from the ship. He swims alongside you to the shore. He is your Rock of salvation. He loves you even when it feels like no one could.

Second, stay strong.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. (Acts 27:33-36)

Just as Paul urged his shipmates to eat, you must eat, sleep, wash, work – do all that you need to do to sustain yourself through the storm. God has good things in store for you, and you need to be fit and ready when they come.

Third, hold on.

He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely. (Acts 27:43b-44)

If you can swim then swim to safety, but if you can’t, find something to hold onto – somebody, some hope, whatever can continue to give your life meaning until you reach solid ground.

Fourth, reach out.

The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold… There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. (Acts 28:2,7)

There is someone who can help you recover from your trauma. There is someone who can understand, who can put things in perspective, who can ready you for the next stage of your journey. It might be a family member, or a friend, or a pastor or a counsellor. Maybe like Paul you will find help in the kindness of strangers. God places people in position for you at times like these, but you won’t see them unless you look.

Fifth, take your time.

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island… (Acts 28:11a)

Paul spent three months in Malta. Some of that time was spent recovering, and some was spent being useful to the islanders – healing the sick. However long it takes until you are ready to set sail again, don’t neglect your new circumstance, and the opportunities it may give you to help yourself or others.

Throughout it all, pray, give thanks, and remember – you are not alone.

When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.

The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.

Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement. So Paul warned them, “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.

When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. (Acts 27, 28:1-16)

The Mystery of Matchmaking

I want to share with you the transcript of BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” from 4 January, presented by Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer:

The Advertising Standards Authority, the ASA, has just banned an online dating agency from claiming it has a scientifically proven matchmaking system. In an advert headlined “Step aside, fate, it’s time science had a go at love,” the dating service claimed to be able to decode the mystery of compatibility and chemistry, so that you don’t have to. The ASA said that there’s no proof that those who use the service were more likely to find lasting love than those who didn’t, and ruled that the advert was misleading.

Matchmaking is a tough business. The Talmud relates how a Roman matron once asked a rabbi how God occupies His time. “He’s busy pairing couples,” answered the rabbi. “Seriously?” scoffed the matron. “Anyone can pair couples. I’ve got a thousand male slaves and a thousand female slaves and I’ll show you how easy it is to pair them up.” “It might seem easy to you,” replied the rabbi, “but I can assure you it is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” The matron paired up her slaves, but the following morning she was inundated with complaints from the misaligned and unhappy couples. “You’re right,” she confessed to the rabbi, “I had no idea how difficult matchmaking could be.”

That even God should find matchmaking taxing indicates that when it comes to matters of the heart there is no simple algorithm. Sometimes all the externals match up, and yet that elusive element we call chemistry, is absent. Other times we can’t figure out how an apparently grossly misaligned couple find themselves deeply in love. No algorithm can account for that.

Furthermore, traditional matchmakers recognise that achieving a compatible match is only the first step towards an enduring relationship, requiring much effort on the part of the couple to achieve love. The Bible, in describing Isaac’s courtship with Rebekah, states that he “brought her home, took her as a wife, and loved her.” The sequence makes it clear that in the Bible, love is not the prerequisite for marriage, but rather, it’s successful outcome.

Love is not static. You don’t fall in love with someone, and remain perpetually in that state. As anyone in a long term relationship knows, love is hard work. The root of the Hebrew word for love, ahava, is hav which means “to give.” Falling in love is something that happens to us, but being in love is the result of an active process in which we continually give of ourselves to our beloved. And it is in giving and sharing that we discover just how deep our capacity for love can really be.

Choose Love

Would it make any sense for me to command you to do something that is out of your control? What if I commanded you to be pulled to the earth by gravity? What if I commanded you to breathe? What if I commanded you to stop breathing? That’s something you could manage for a short while, but your body would soon protest and override your efforts.

‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:34-35)

Jesus is commanding His disciples – including us – to love one another. He knows that this is a choice we have to make. Sometimes, when you think about some of your fellow Christians, it’s a difficult decision. When we start looking at people the way God does, it becomes easier.

He made that statement near the end of his life. Earlier He made an even more challenging one.

‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:43-45)

It’s a very basic fact that everything we do that counts for anything is down to our choices. Even in circumstances that are beyond our control we choose how to respond.

However much anger we feel about what someone has done to another human being – or to ourselves – we can choose to respond with love. Let the legal system do its part in determining guilt and punishment. Our response is above the law.

However helpless we feel about the state of the world and the desperate plight that people find themselves in, we can choose to respond with love. Insignificant as it may seem in our own eyes or the eyes of the world, our response is hugely significant in the eyes of God.

So love is beyond feelings, and not to be confused or affected by them. This is true in marriage too. Feelings and physical attraction can be strong, and an emotional bond feels powerful, but feelings can be fickle and emotions can turn like the wind. We all hope that our feelings will at least remain strong, and perhaps grow even stronger over the course of a marriage. But our feelings are out of our control. That includes our feelings for others as well as our spouse. This is why Paul commands:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)

Love is a choice that in marriage becomes a commitment. It is deeper and more satisfying than any emotion, and as much as warm emotions can sweeten the relationship, love does not depend on them.

I am divorced. I married based solely on feelings, and negative self-centered feelings at that. I didn’t know Christ at that time, and I didn’t know love. I’ve learned a lot since then, and I hope that one day I will be able to make that choice and commitment to someone capable of making the same commitment to me. I thank God for teaching me, through Jesus Christ, what it means to choose love.

My husband is not my soul mate.

I’ve been slow to pick up on this post, which apparently took the Internet by storm last year, but having just read it, and finding it so in tune with the way I believe God views us and our choices, I felt compelled to ‘reblog’…

http://theartinlife.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/my-husband-is-not-my-soul-mate/

A Thought on the Subject of Sex and Marriage

Sex outside marriage is like dessert without a main course. It can be delicious and sweet and oh so tempting, but the satisfaction it gives won’t last, because you’re missing all the essential nourishment that the main meal provides.

Overindulge in pudding and it will make you sick. Do so without thought for a balanced diet and it might even kill you.

And isn’t the dining experience so much more rewarding when the dishes are served in the correct order?