Thursday, February 26, 2009

Party of One--Being a Christian Single

I remember clearly the tone the waitress used when she took in my solitary self at the hostess stand at Ruby Tuesday's. "Party of One?" So dismissive. So accusatory. As if I was somehow less because I hadn't managed to attract any others onto this dinner date. At least to me it seemed that way. (Not that I was sensitive or anything!)

I was a Christian single, living in a "family values" world. A community of smiling, happy family units, sitting neatly in their pews, while Mom shushed the kids and handed them gum to keep them quiet. I didn't fit beside MY mom anymore, felt too grown up for that. But I didn't have my own family to value either. I was stuck in that awkward, in-between stage. Not quite a pimply, overly-hairy adolescent; but neither was I a real adult either.

Yesterday, I listened to my colleague Dr. Antipas Harris speak on the subject of Christian singleness. He made a powerful case that Christian singles should have their focus on the Lord "until then." That is, until the time when "the one" arrives (always thought that moment would be accompanied by angels singing and harps playing, it had been built up so much in my mind) a Christian single should be "focused on the things of the Lord." I Cor. 7:32 It sparked my memories of those single days when I thought St. Paul hopelessly pious and out of touch with my reality.

The feelings of isolation from that "awkward, in between stage" came flooding back to me. I was consumed with the frog's fear that no beautiful young woman would transform me with a kiss into her Prince Charming. Every wedding invitation that arrived in the mail was another subpoena to "solitary confinement." I'm smiling now, after fifteen years of marriage to a wonderful Princess, to remember my all-consuming fears.

I smile, not because those fears and insecurities were not real. Rather, because marriage brings its own troubles and challenges. Even the best marriage demonstrates the truth of Paul's words "a married man is concerned about—how he can please his wife..." (I Cor. 7:33) The overriding message Paul is giving in this chapter of the Bible can be found earlier...
"17Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him
and to which God has called him."
We each find ourselves in a "place in life" or a segment of our journey, that has challenges, problems and difficulties. When I was a "party of one" I got certain uncomfortable stares in restaurants. But now that I am a "Party of Five" the looks I get are Death Stares when my toddler destroys a booth in record time. We all need the grace of God to deal with the place in life the Lord has assigned to us. "Marriage is no land of perfection," I would tell me frightened, single self. Don't worry about tomorrow, because today has enough worries of it's own.
And in this place in life which the Lord has assigned to me, I too wait "until then" when "The One" will come. (for whom the angels will sing the hallelujah chorus!) For as Paul reminds us, "the time is short" and our bridegroom will come for us soon. Until then, we will love with single-minded devotion, remember to care for each other in whatever stage of our journey we find ourselves, and remember, the grass is rarely greener on the other side of the fence...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why I am in a Group called "Young, Gifted and Black"

I am the Director of Campus Ministry at Regent University. As any member of the academic community can attest, each year brings various celebrations of diversity to our campus. One is tempted to take the professional approach to each of these "days" or "months;" which is to try to give each one the same attention and honor, like distributing M&M's to a large family of kids!

I have to believe, however, that there should be more to this. I have found myself this year placed on the Hispanic Heritage Celebration team, and now the Black Heritage Month Committee. Those are impressive sounding names--great resume stuffers for the cynical post-modern academic. But I got involved in those groups out of genuine interest. so I ask myself, why am I interested? Why are these events more than an academic exercise for me?

Because the twin truths that I see in my heart are, that I AM interested. And I am white. Painfully, stereotypically caucasian. There I've said it. Just like the person who posted on my Facebook page said when the "News item" stated that I had joined the Campus Black Heritage Celebration group, "Young, Gifted and Black." "Psst, Richard, you're not black." In fact, in those categories, I am "0 for 3" So what gives?

It all goes back to MY heritage. I grew up in the American South, and as such was the product of racial stereotypes and attitudes of which I am not proud. But the truth was, I didn't even KNOW that I had these attitudes, until I made friends--mostly in college--who happened to be different races. Only when I began to talk about my experiences did the "water" around this fish suddenly become clear. I had grown up assuming that I could not trust others of another race, that I shouldn't live near them, that I could know certain things about "them" (as in, "hey did you see that one of THEM moved in our neighborhood") without even bothering to have personal experience with actual individuals. That was the most painful thing for me as my prejudices became more obvious...I had an opinion about people I had never met.

So one of my favorite Facebook stories just happened recently. I got back in touch with a childhood friend of mine, named Barrett, who is of a different race than I. I have never forgotten Barrett though we weren't especially close, because in 5th grade we ran the three-legged race on Field Day. We practiced and practiced over the weeks, learning to match speeds, shift our weight together, take every step in the race not as individuals but as one person. I have never forgotten that day, but assumed a REAL athlete like Barrett wouldn't even have a glimmer of my slim moment of athletic triumph. (We won) But to my surprise, Barrett posted on my page "Bet you don't remember the Three-legged race." He had been telling the same story for years.

I think this story is meaningful to me, not just because I am slow and white and rarely have won athletic events, but also because in my young world it was the first time I was close up with a person of another race...learning his mannerisms, understanding his strengths, coping for his weaknesses (although that was mostly me!) As I entered college, I took this image and tried to "bind" myself in friendship to others of different backgrounds, because I came to see my own shortcomings so much more clearly as we ran together.

So the reason I am in a group called "Young Gifted and Black" even though I am painfully white, old, and not so gifted, is that I need to bind myself to others in my community and run with them. Match speeds with them. See life from their vantage point. Because what I learned with Barrett is that we are in the SAME race after all.
I had the amazing fortune of speaking personally some years ago with James Meredith--the trail blazing Civil Rights pioneer who first integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and asked me, "Would you like to know the secret of race relations in America?" Well, I'm not about to turn that down, so I say, "Sure." And he pulls two pictures out of a tattered manilla folder. One was of a white woman, the other of a black man. "I'm related to both of these people," he said with a sardonic grin. And then said nothing. I pushed a little..." so what are you saying?" Finally, he gave the poor clueless white kid a break. "We're all really the same race here in America. The same race. But we won't quit fighting each other long enough to realize it."
So that's why I am young, gifted and black...we're all in the same race.