Wednesday, February 11, 2009

omega talk: being single

Tonight’s joke seems appropriate given tonight’s topic. What is every Amish woman’s secret fantasy?

Two Mennonite.

Last semester I polled this group to see what topics you wanted to discuss in the spring. And “being single” was across the board the most popular answer. Personally, I was hoping it didn’t make the cut. And whether it’s perfect timing or horrible timing, I have to say that it’s honestly a coincidence that this talk comes the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day. And so sorry – but, alas, you the people have spoken and so tonight we’re looking at what it means to follow Jesus and to be single. Now that being said, we can’t look at being single and not touch on relationships, and we can’t talk about relationships and not talk about friendships. And so if it makes you feel better, tonight’s talk is much more broad than previously advertised.

And I have to say, this was a very difficult talk for me to write. I didn’t really know where to get started. As a rule of thumb, it’s always easier and less vulnerable to talk about being single when you’re actually in a relationship. And second, as much as I love the apostle Paul – well, he’s not tons of help in this area. Because Paul’s situation in Corinth doesn’t mirror our situation in Austin as closely as the other issues we’ll be discussing. For example, “dating” – as you and I know understand it - is a concept that would have been lost on Paul and the Corinthians. But, we’ll get to all of that soon enough. And so without further ado, we’re going to begin tonight’s talk – since we are all adults – by talking about ----- porcupines.

The porcupine is a member of the rodent family and has roughly 30,000 quills attached to its body. And each quill can be driven into an enemy. And because of that, the porcupine isn’t generally regarded as a loveable animal. Think about it, books and movies celebrate just about every animal you can think of – cats, dogs, horses, pigs, spiders, dolphins, fish, geckos, lions. Free Willy is about a killer whale. Ratatouille is about a rat. Charlotte’s Web is about a spider. But Hollywood never made any porcupine famous. And I never met a child who just “had to have one” for a pet.

Because porcupines, as a general rule, have two methods for handling relationships: withdrawal and attack. Porcupines either run for a tree or they stick out their quills. And because of that, they’re generally solitary animals. Porcupines spend a lot of time alone. But here’s the thing – porcupines don’t always want to be alone. And from time to time, a young porcupine’s thoughts will turn to love. But love turns out to be risky business when you’re a porcupine. Female porcupines are open to dinner and movie only once a year, and the female porcupine’s “no” is respected by all in the animal kingdom. And so this is the “porcupine’s dilemma.” How do you get close without getting hurt? In other words, what does it mean to be a solitary animal and yet at the same time long to connect?

Now, on the one hand – this is our dilemma too. Because we too have thousands of quills of our own that we use to keep others at a safe distance. But our barbs have names like arrogance, selfishness, insecurity, resentment, fear, and contempt. And like the porcupine, we too have learned to survive through a combination of withdrawal and attack. We hurt and find ourselves hurt by the very people we long to be closest to. And of course, this doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. This applies to all human relationships. We all have a porcupine in our life. But here’s the thing - the problem isn’t just them. Because I’m also someone’s porcupine. And whether you realize it or not, so are you.

But here’s where the analogy falls short. We’re not porcupines. We’re humans. We bear the image of a Trinitarian God. And because of that, we were made for communion, for intimacy – with God and with other people. Our need to not be alone, unlike the porcupine, isn’t just biological – our need is spiritual. The yearning to attach and connect, to love and to be loved is the fiercest longing in the human soul. And as hard as connecting with other people can be, it’s pretty hard to find a good substitute.

Think about how the Bible opens - Genesis chapter 1. There’s this little refrain that keeps occurring. God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was – fill in the blank. Good. God created the light – good. God created the ocean – good. God created the birds and the porcupines – good. But all that’s just the precursor to the final act when God creates humans in his image. Because in Genesis 2, we’re told that God created man in his own image. And God looks at this man, who bears his likeness, and God says – “not good.” To quote Genesis directly, “it is not good that the man should be alone.”

Now, what’s striking is that the Fall has not yet occurred. There is no sin, no disobedience, there’s nothing to mar the relationship between God and man. The solitary human is in a state of perfect intimacy with God. Adam is known and loved to the core of his being by his competent and loving Creator. And yet the word God uses to describe him is “alone.” And God says that his aloneness is “not good.”

The church is famous for telling lonely people not to expect too much from human relationships. By a show of hands, how many of you have heard the following statement before: “inside every human being is a God-shaped void that no other person can fill.” Well, that’s true. But tonight we’re talking about “being single,” and according to the writer of Genesis, God created inside of us a “human shaped void” that God himself will not fill. Now, I’m not saying that this void has to be filled romantically – it doesn’t. But, if it’s true that we all have a God-shaped void that humans can’t fill, it’s also true that we all have a human-shaped void that God chooses not to fill. And no substitute will fill our need for authentic human relationship.

Not money. Not busyness. Not business. Not casual sex. Not casual conversation. Not looks. Not books. Not brains. Not achievement. Not drugs. Not alcohol. Not even your daily private time with Jesus. Even though Adam was in a state of sinless perfection, Genesis tells us that he was “alone.” And God said, “not good.” And that’s why as hard as connecting with other people can be, it’s pretty hard to find a good substitute. And that’s where I’d like to begin our conversation on what it means to follow Jesus and to be single.

Now with that in mind, listen to a portion of what Paul has to say to the Corinthians.

Now, concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. But, I do wish that all were as I myself am. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.

Last week we talked about Corinth being the intellectual capital of the world and about how traveling teachers – called sophists – would pass through the town and teach the Corinthians. Well, now these sophists are teaching the Corinthians that “it is well for a man not to touch a woman.” In other words, these sophists weren’t just saying that celibacy was more noble than married life, but they went as far as to tell married people that they couldn’t have sex within their marriage. In other words, these teachers were advocating celibacy as the only path to spiritual maturity and personal holiness. And this isn’t Paul’s position at all. And if you read the entire letter, Paul basically goes back and forth. On the one hand, Paul has chosen to remain single and celibate, and part of him wants the other Corinthians to remain single and celibate too. And so unlike many in our world, Paul doesn’t think that a life of singlehood is inferior or deficient. But on the other hand, Paul knows that marriage is a gift from God – and that when God gives us a gift, we should honor and cherish it. And so the root of Paul’s message, in my opinion, is that the Christian is free. The Christian is free to enter into a sacramental, life-giving romantic relationship. And the Christian, for personal reasons or because of life circumstances, is free to abstain from those relationships. And so for me, Paul’s words to the Corinthians are helpful in two key areas. First, the Christian is free. Second, when it comes to being single or being married, both are equal in the eyes of God.

But unfortunately, that’s about as far as Paul’s words to the Corinthians will take us this week. And so for the rest of this talk, I rely on wisdom gained from the rest of scripture, common sense, and life experience. And so back to our question – what does it mean to be single and to follow Jesus?

First, following Jesus and being single means avoiding false substitutes. Like I said earlier, our yearning to attach and connect, to love and to be loved is the fiercest longing in our soul. And it can be hard to connect with other people – both romantically and platonically. But as hard as connecting with other people can be, don’t be fooled into thinking that anything but a human can fill our human shaped void. And so avoid false substitutes. And some of these false substitutes are obvious. The average American watches five hours of TV a day. Assuming these same people never miss church, that means that the average American has a TV to church ratio of 35 to 1. But some of the things we substitute for life-giving relationships are more subtle – and one of them can be excessive dating – bouncing around from relationship to relationship, or friendship to friendship – but never really connecting to another person. And so first and foremost, avoid false substitutes.

Second, following Jesus and being single means that we don’t become a porcupine – in our friendships or in other relationships. Now, obviously there’s a time to put up our quills or to run away in order to survive a situation. But the problem comes when we make a pattern of attack or withdrawal – when “fight or flight” becomes our standard way of relating to other people. Because if we’re always attacking or withdrawing from other people, then my guess is that we’re not really connecting. And so be vulnerable. Take risks. Be honest. Because if we’re not really connecting, then we’re probably traveling alone. Interestingly, a recent study found that people with poor health habits but strong social ties lived significantly longer than people with great health habits but who happened to be isolated. In other words, it’s better to eat Twinkies with friends then Brussels sprouts alone. And so don’t be a porcupine.

Finally, if you are single, learn to see this as a precious time in your life. And here’s what I mean. A relationship is life-giving and healthy to the extent that both people are secure in who they are, have confidence in who they are, and because of that are willing to offer themselves freely in love and mutuality to the other person. In my own opinion, relationships struggle and go bad when we start depending on someone else to make us feel valuable, loved, and secure – or when we depend on someone else to define our identity. Now this is tricky, because life-giving relationships should make us feel valuable, loved, and secure. But the key word is depend. Who or what do we depend on to make us feel valuable, loved, and secured? God? Another person? Our achievements and accomplishments? In other words, if we know that we have value because we’re created, loved, and saved by a God that has invested everything in us, then we’ll have the courage and the foresight to avoid false substitutes. And if we know that we’re loved not because of who we are but because of who God is, we’re not going to feel the need to run away or to put up our quills as much. And so being single, for many, is a real time of discovery. Because when you’re single, you have a lot of time to discover who you are – not decide who you are – but discover who you are – to discover the person God says you are. And to the extent that we discover our true identity as a child of God, we’ll feel more confident and secure in offering what we discover to someone else.

And so to wrap this thing up, let’s go back to the porcupines. Believe it or not, porcupines will get together from time to time. In fact, it’s been observed that porcupines will often spend days together. And what they’ll do – and I promise this is true – is pull in their quills, stand on their hind feet, touch paws, and walk around together. It’s called the “dance of the porcupines” by porcupine experts. I know it’s hard to believe, but somewhere out there two porcupines are doing the foxtrot as we speak.

But I find it miraculous that porcupines – the most solitary animal you can imagine – have learned to dance with one another. Because you and I – we’re not porcupines. We’re humans that bear the image of a Trinitarian God. And because of that we have a human-shaped void that God chooses not to fill. And so the question I leave us with, whether in our friendships or in our romantic relationships, is this: what would it look like for us to pull in our quills and start dancing?


Anonymous said...

Great and wise words. We will stay away from porcupines. Max and Heidi

Anonymous said...

This started with a great joke and just kept getting better. You are a wise one Mr Newton; I'm so happy to count you as a friend!

Anonymous said...

Is this a book review of "Everybody's normal till you get to know them"? Couldn't find any reference to the author John Ortberg though..?

Anonymous said...

I am blown away, wow wow. Wise words indeed