Easter is my favorite holiday. Going to church on Easter is one of my least favorite activities. This may sound as if I only love Easter for the chocolate bunnies, but that’s not true. I love the religious significance – the empty tomb, the angels, the appearances of the risen Christ – all of it.
What I do not love is sitting alone in church on Easter morning. For some reason, this has happened several times now. I carefully extricate myself from nursery duty to make sure I can take part in the most joyous service of the year, only to be abruptly brought down to earth as I find that the friends I usually sit with couldn’t make it. Holidays do tend to cause extra work, stress, and chaos, and it’s not really so surprising that many end up needing to stay home to take care of it. It is painful, however. I’ve even had serious thoughts of going back to the nursery in future years, to at least make myself useful.
My Easter experiences encapsulate what so many singles go through at church, not just on holidays but Sunday after Sunday. There are ways around it, of course. We can keep texting friends beforehand until we find one who will be there and can sit with us. We can come into church and ask a family to let us join them.
The hard part of it, the little ache in the heart that never quite goes away, is that we have to work constantly for the most basic companionship. Rather than facing Sunday with the knowledge that a spouse or child will be there beside us, we have to be intentional in our quest for such a presence in our lives, again and again and again.
“Intentional” is one of those terms Christian speakers and writers have overused to the point of making it a cliché. However, clichés become clichés for a reason. Intentionality is a concept we Christians really do need to apply in everyday life. As the body of Christ, it is our task to forge connections that go beyond our own family and even beyond our own community – to make brothers and sisters out of people completely unrelated to us and often very different from us. That takes all the intentionality we can muster. It does not happen naturally or quickly; it requires one deliberate act after another, for an indefinite stretch of time.
Single Christians in particular know the importance of this work, from sheer necessity. Aside from our families of origin, from whom we are often distanced, we lack the natural connections shared by the spouses and their children in the pews around us. Intentionality, for us, is a way of life.
We must make brothers and sisters out of people completely unrelated to us and often very different from us.
This was brought home to me recently when I updated my will. When one has no spouse or children to whom one can leave everything, this takes a whole new level of intentionality. I spent weeks pondering the fate of my most prized possessions. This was not, I hope, out of an excess of materialism. It was because the things that mean the most to me will not become family heirlooms, as I wish they could. There is no passing them down the generations, at least not to direct descendants. There are my parents and sister, but that is more a passing up or sideways. I could have bequeathed everything to charity, but something in me could not face the thought of my things going to people who would not remember me when they wore or read or looked at them. A self-centered feeling, most likely, but I could not shake it.
I mention this because it illustrates the extra work and creative thought that have to go into so many of the normal rituals of life for those of us without spouses or children. To create and sustain familial bonds, for us, takes an extra level of effort and an almost infinite amount of flexibility. It means learning to gracefully step back when our friends get married or have children and start to let us drift out of their day-to-day lives, while still keeping ourselves available for the times when we might be called back in. It means, in our interactions with them, orienting ourselves around their lives and interests as an acknowledgment of the many nonnegotiable demands on their time and energy, and knowing that ours, for now, must take second place.
This is our part of the bonding process. It is not easy, but it is necessary. Also, I will admit, it is good training in the selflessness that every Christian is supposed to pursue.
The part of our married friends is to find a way to continue making space for us in their hectic lives, and that is not easy either. “She who is married cares about the things of the world – how she may please her husband,” as Paul reminds us. And how she may please her children, he might have added. Spouses and parents are constantly practicing their own very necessary forms of selflessness, often with little to spare outside the bounds of their family.
On both sides – singles and married couples – we’re doing the difficult task of creating a family relationship based not just on the natural needs, demands, and connections of actual family, but on the call of Christ to be mutually helpful and mutually dependent members of his body.
New Testament scholars have noted how frequently Paul portrays the relationship between Christians as one between brothers and sisters. At a time when life expectancy was short and many children lost their parents early, siblingship was deeply important. In that world, siblings were expected to care for each other, advocate for each other, respect each other, and provide for each other.
This is the kind of relationship Paul had in mind when he referred to men in the church as brothers and women as sisters. It was no light or casual reference; instead, it was one of the strongest he could have used. This tightest of bonds, he was saying, is the kind of bond that should hold Christians together. This is the relationship to which Christ calls us.
I’m sure Jesus knew this task would not be easy when he gave it to us, but he gave it anyway. He gave it because he wanted to give the world a picture of what true community looks like, to show that in him our natural bonds are transcended and new bonds are created, bonds that are capable of including and holding the lonely, the needy, the outsiders. In him there is a family that is more than family.
But to get there, to show this picture to the world, we have to do the work.
This is where intentionality comes in. To keep others in our lives, to keep doing the hard work of friendship – or more, of creating the family of God – it is necessary to keep pushing past the dozens of barriers life keeps throwing in our way. It is necessary to make the decision every day to reach out, to send the text or make the phone call, to extend the invitation to lunch, to ask if there are any needs, to pray, to consider, to remember, to care.
We need the spiritual siblings that God made provision for when he established his church.
Christians who are single and childless, in my experience, are more inclined to do this work simply because we are so much more dependent on the church to be our family. Except for cases when our family of origin is nearby and available, we cannot fall back on the natural family bonds that sustain others. We must be forever busy building, strengthening, reinforcing the bonds with those outside our family – and most importantly, with fellow members of the church. We may be tempted to form our strongest friendships at work, forgetting how easily those bonds can break when other employees leave the company or when we leave ourselves, confusing the professional with the personal in ways that may not always be healthy. We need the spiritual siblings that God made provision for when he established his church. But the church – in particular, the married majority of the church – has not always stepped up for us.
“Being a single woman (especially without children) puts you out of sync with your peers in a way that’s particularly hard on friendship,” says my friend Ruth Buchanan, author of The Proper Care and Feeding of Singles. “All friendships require sacrifice, attention, and intentionality… But this dynamic persists.” Her plea to married people: “Invite singles into your family’s rhythms. In God’s plan, we all need one another.”
This is truer than many married people realize. The number of married people who have told me that they feel lonely even within their marriages demonstrates that the married need friends too. They need people around them who can listen to their struggles and offer an objective point of view, who can be the cool “aunt” or “uncle” in their children’s lives, who can talk with them about things outside the family and help them take a broader perspective. They also need to learn to prepare themselves for the day when the family unit is no longer the family unit it was – when the children leave the nest, when only one spouse is left, or even when one spouse decides to stop coming to church, leaving the other to sit alone in a pew week after week. They need friends who know such experiences well and can sympathize and help. For all these reasons, the married need the single.
The good thing is that the single already know how to be there for them. Through the lessons we’ve learned from this difficult and intentional work, we can lead the way in this area. It only requires a willingness on the part of others to acknowledge our presence and our value, to make space for us in their lives – and to keep a seat for us in the pew.