Invisible or Indivisible (An Awkward Aside)

Yesterday I made some headway in articulating some thoughts about church and community through the lens of Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep (and that the culmination of some sporadic posts over the last month or so).  At the root is something about connection and community and what that looks like in our contemporary context, particularly for a single guy.

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A Fellowship of DifferentsEvery now and then, leaders at my church like to bring out Scot McKnight’s A Fellowship of Differents, particularly McKnight’s definition of love as a rugged commitment to be with and for another person unto godliness.  Like any good parishioner, I bought a digital copy of the book so I could get a better sense of what McKnight was trying to say.  What I found, at the beginning of the book, was something else equally interesting: the question of what category of person might be “invisible” members of the church.  That, of course, could be parsed in multiple ways along multiple metrics and identity lines.  On a political level, this is at the root of what has come to be known as identity politics.  In most churches today, definitely those on the larger end, few if any “traditional” groups are invisible: infants, children, youth, young adults, singles, married couples, the divorced, the widowed, empty nesters, senior adults all seem to get their niche.  I have, in times past, been a beneficiary of these distinctions and understand why many churches find them beneficial at best and necessary at worst.  If nothing else, the basic spine of these groupings lines up with the “arc of life” articulated by Radner in A Time to Keep.  Surely, at least in an “arc of life” sense, there are no “invisibles.”

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Radner rightly asserts that for most people throughout history, traversing the “arc of life” involves family.  We are born into one.  With marriage we bear others into a new one.  Much is found and lost and found again during the traversal, but the journey-with-family is something common to most people.  With the “Great Transition,” that journey has gotten somewhat scrambled (look for any number of statistics concerning marriage, children, and singleness).  And whether they realize it or not, most Christian churches have made the task of restoring and maintaining the vehicle of marriage and family for traversing the arc of life primary (and rightly so, on some level).  The life of the family, or the life of families, by default becomes the point of “parish life.” What that does, though, is put unmarried people in a particularly interesting (and often difficult) place.  On some deep level, any single not part of a “singles ministry” could be “the invisible” in any given church culture, only visible when someone is needed to complete a task or fill a necessary-but-empty slot in the program.  Some classic Caedmon’s lyrics come to mind:

I fear maybe this is all just a game
And our friends and our families all play
To harness the young
And give some comfort to the old

And so we throw our lots in for those who don’t know how to throw theirs in for us.  We struggle to refrain from becoming a version of the older brother in the parable, trying to maintain a sense of delight when all we sense is duty.    We submit to the authority of leaders who do not know how to walk with us, all the while believing that the proclamation and implications of the Gospel are for all people, even if we only get what feels like the scraps.  Or we walk away with the unspoken understanding that the indivisibility of the church relies too much on the invisibility of some.

The dark comedy of all this for me is that I really don’t want my singleness to be the most important thing about me.  It is a significant lens, but it isn’t everything.  “You can always ‘fit in the church’ in other ways,” someone might say.  But at some point it can and should be addressed.  Language and time have to be either found or made to talk about it so that it can, then, be put in its proper place.

It is an act of grace, then, that Radner dedicates one chapter of A Time to Keep to the question of “the vocation of singleness.”  And what he has to say is both simple and profound (and quite honestly, life-giving).  But, as with the book in general (and this post specifically), it takes Radner some time to get to the good stuff.

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