On the sidelines?

On the sidelines?

Recently I went to the dedication of the child of some friends of mine. It was in south London on a Sunday afternoon, meaning that I needed to make the trip down to the capital using Sunday trains – always an ‘experience’. Now, I travel to London quite regularly, but for some reason, on this journey I kept getting everything wrong. First, I walked all the way to the station before realising I’d forgotten my railcard. I was quite early (I’m always early, I spend most of my time waiting for other people to turn up), so I decided to go back and get it. When I eventually arrived at Euston station, I was still early, so I went to take some photographs around the city. ‘I’ve got loads of time,’ I thought, ‘no need to hurry.’

Wrong. I ended up being 20 minutes late.

I stumbled into the church just as my friends were going to the front for the dedication part of the service. Still, I’d arrived for the part I had gone to see and I even got to take part in the church’s after-service tea (there were some lovely egg sandwiches).

Now I’m not telling you this to show how incompetent I am (although I can be an idiot at times). Despite the rather wonky journey, it was amazing to be there at a landmark in the life of my friends’ family, to celebrate and to thank God for this cheeky little 1-year-old. These times of family celebration – birthday parties, baptisms and more – are such joyous events and important in the development of the life of a family.

I can’t say what it’s like for single women, but as a single man, I don’t often get invited to children’s birthday parties and the like. Friends who are parents are often asked to come along and bring their children, but it can sometimes feel like I’m on the sidelines. Perhaps parents don’t think I’d be interested in spending three hours in a soft-play area or playing musical bumps with a group of over-excited toddlers. But the thing is, I actually would.

Now, the lifestyle of parents and that of those who are child-free are very different, and sometimes misunderstandings can arise about others’ priorities and ways of living. It’s true that being long-term single and child-free does make you a little bit selfish – more often than not, you don’t have to consider other people before you make a decision. You can decide to go out without having to arrange a babysitter or spend an hour trying to convince a 3-year-old to put their shoes and coat on.

And when you don’t have children, spending time with them can be an experience you’re not fully prepared for. I always forget how the need for attention and entertainment is constant (some might say relentless, I couldn’t possibly comment). Added to that, children are loud, so very loud. And children’s toys are some of the most annoying things in the world. If anyone wanted to interrogate me, all they would have to do is lock me in a room with a plastic musical dog and I’d tell them anything they wanted to know.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to play a part in the lives of the families of my friends. As I said in my previous post, there aren’t many points of celebration in the life of a single man, so it’s fantastic to be able to share in those landmarks with those I care about. Children are joyous, fun and can change your perspective on life. They are frustrating, amazing, exhausting and loveable. Helping celebrate the special times in their lives is life-affirming and a treat for me.

Moreover, parents have access to a wealth of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ that can be drawn from their circle of friends. These almost-relatives can add to the richness of the life – and faith – of families. In the US, an organisation called the Fuller Youth Institute did a substantial piece of research called Sticky Faith, looking into what helps children’s faith to last into adulthood. They identified several key factors, one of which being that children and young people need relationships with adults who are not their parents in order to enrich their social, emotional and spiritual development.

Organising this takes effort. I am godfather to four lively and energetic children, and I’m not very good at keeping up with them. My life takes over (remember I said being long-term single can make you a bit selfish?) and suddenly months have passed without me seeing them or even contacting them. If you have a family, time can play the same tricks, with the endless churn of school, clubs, church, shopping etc meaning that families can go for long periods without seeing people outside these circles.

So, to parents, I’d say that you shouldn’t assume that your single friends don’t want to come to events in your family’s life. They probably would love to be invited and would prove significant and important features of your children’s upbringing. To single people (particularly single men like me), I’d say that you shouldn’t let time slip away from you – keep in contact with friends with children. Make a note in a diary or set a reminder on a phone to send a card or make a call. Just don’t forget.

This article was first seen in Mothers’ Union’s outreach magazine Families First www.familiesfirstmagazine.com

A singularity of one

A singularity of one

My name’s Alex Taylor. I’m 40 years old. And I’m a man.

That seems a bit of strange thing to say as an opening line, but my name is unisex and there is the potential for confusion.

And I’m single.

Not divorced, separated or widowed, but long-term, never-been-married single.

I realise that this seems quite unusual – not really in the UK in general, where 28% of all households only have one person – but certainly in the Church. And let’s face it, the Church isn’t great with single people. We just don’t ‘fit’.

Let me take you back a few years. I’m sitting in a prayer meeting. There are clusters of people in small groups (we’re all close together, it’s quite a small room). We’re running through the list of prayer requests, which someone has just presented on a PowerPoint (yes, it was one of those ‘shopping list’ prayer meetings – don’t you just love them?). In fact, they’ve spent so long explaining everything that we’ve very little time to actually pray. At the end of the meeting, a woman turns round and says excitedly, ‘While we were praying, I knew you were behind me and I prayed that you’d find someone, because you’d be so dynamic if you had a wife!’

Really.

I spluttered some surprised and incoherent response and watched her walk out of the door, wondering what had just happened.

And I can’t shake the feeling that this is how lots of people in the Christian world view me and other single people like me. I have lots of stories where my singleness has been unintentionally belittled (while talking about joining the youth ministry team, someone asked me if I had a ‘Godly Christian woman’ as if it were a prerequisite to serving.) Whenever you go to a conference and you read the speakers’ profiles, male contributors are almost always married to a beautiful and supportive wife, with at least two lovely children. You never see a biography like this:

‘Alex Taylor is an enthusiastic baker, singer and fan of Bolton Wanderers. He is single and has no children.’

A single male friend of mine always found himself being volunteered to do things in the church – be on the PCC, do youth work, help with setting chairs out… It turned out that people thought he should get involved because he was a single and child-free man and so had lots of time to volunteer. His church obviously had the idea that he was sitting around, waiting for things to crop up to spend his masses of free time on, all because he didn’t have a wife and/or children.

And that’s just not true. Being single and child-free isn’t an empty existence. However, the Church and the Christian world works in couples and families, and never seems to understand singleness, male singleness in particular. It celebrates (quite rightly) the landmarks in life associated with getting married and having children: engagements, weddings, baptisms and christenings. But there are no such landmarks in the life of a single man. So you end up being volunteered for everything while nothing in your life is celebrated.

And to make it worse, some churches tend to lump all single people together into one group and treat them all the same, like some kind of ‘single’ ghetto. But single people are all different, with different life stories, different experiences of being single. There used to be an over-30s group at my church. I went a few times, but found it an unsatisfying experience because of the different needs of those in the group: there were those who were content in their singleness, but some had had singleness forced upon them, while others desperately wanted a partner and it had never happened.

These different standpoints can be as alien to each other as that of a married person. Those who are happily single and those who have to cope with singleness as an unwanted reality can have widely varying emotions towards romantic relationships. I stopped going because of this, and I’m not sure it’s still running.

I don’t want to be part of a ghetto – grouping all the single people together says to me that you don’t understand me, you don’t know what to do with me and hope that this is a solution to the ‘problem’. But my marital status is not a problem to be solved. As a single man, I don’t feel incomplete, but sometimes the church and the Christians within have treated me as if I were so, waiting for the time when I might meet a woman, get married and see all my issues resolved.

I love my single life and I love being part of a church. I want to be part of a church which values everyone regardless of their family status. I want to be part of a church which celebrates the achievements of all. I want to be part of a church where people from all backgrounds and family situations can mix and be support each other. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

 

This article was first seen in Mothers’ Union’s outreach magazine Families First www.familiesfirstmagazine.com
Photograph taken by Will Commercial Photography

Everyone’s a winner baby

Everyone’s a winner baby

I’m a winner! I know, me! Well, not just me. The game that I write, Guardians of Ancora, produced by Scripture Union, won two gongs at the recent Premier Digital Awards. I wasn’t there, so I missed out on the leek and potato soup and the glamorous ceremony. In my head, the opening was like the start of the Tony Awards, but I’m not sure the stage was big enough for that.

Anyway, it’s not often you get recognition for the work that you do, and it’s certainly not every day that someone gives a project you’re involved in an award, so you’ll excuse me if I bang on about it. Sometimes, you work and you work and you work and it still feels like you haven’t achieved anything. The pressure and pace of workflow often means that you move on to the next thing before the previous task is even complete.

This constant momentum can be strangely dissatisfying. It can feel like you haven’t achieved anything. Nothing is celebrated and you don’t give yourself any time to reflect. You might think that this is a by-product of being a freelancer – there’s no one with whom you can mark achievements and rewarding yourself with something seems a bit daft (and it’s quite hard to hi-five yourself). But while I was working for Scripture Union, I had the same nagging feeling that my efforts hadn’t resulted in much.

This career treadmill causes us to forget much of what we’ve achieved. We push on with the nagging fear that we’re not getting any younger. I’m pushing 40 and there’s a sight panic that I haven’t done enough. Quick! Swim with dolphins! See the Grand Canyon! Write a novel! Lunge wildly at the Pope! We see the achievements of other people, younger people, and we compare ourselves with them.

But, it’s all a lie. It’s simply not true. And it’s not true because:

• You’re not someone else. You’re you.
• You’re not your job.
• You’ve changed the world just by living in it.

Simply by saying hello to your neighbour, by opening a door for someone, by being generous when you could have been angry, you’ve achieved something amazing. So, look at your work life, your family life, your friends, what you do in your spare time, and celebrate all your victories. And cut yourself some slack too – not everything you do needs to be a landmark event. You might not get an award, but you can give yourself a pat on the back. And maybe a cake. Actually, definitely a cake.

 

Picture by James Burden.

Lane rage

Lane rage

I go swimming three times a week, though I am a functional swimmer at best. My front crawl is never going to win any prizes, but I can manage over 1,000 metres without drowning myself. I say this not to show off (anyone who’s actually seen me swim should realise that), but just to help you understand that I’m a middling swimmer.

My swimming pool, like many others I suppose, designates some lines slow, some medium and some fast, and usually I end up in a medium or fast lane. Unfortunately, when there’s a choice of two lanes – one slow and one medium – because there’s a school swimming lesson going on in the rest of the pool, I sometimes end up in a lane with someone going slower than I am. And herein lies my problem.

I get terrible lane rage. But it’s terrible British lane rage – I get annoyed, but don’t do anything about it. I huff and I puff when the slower swimmer doesn’t let me pass at the end of the lane. I mutter to myself in my head about how inconsiderate the slower swimmer is. But I do nothing.

In the rules, displayed clearly on the wall, it says that if you want to pass someone, you should tap their feet as you swim, so that they know you’re behind them – a water-based version of the blue flag in Formula 1. But I can’t bring myself to do it. It just seems too aggressive. So I go back to my British passive-aggressiveness.

But I shouldn’t. A couple of years ago, I posted about a bizarre and totally unnecessary confrontation on a train where a child was moving about in his seat and jogging the man behind, who was trying to watch something on his iPad. The man eventually exploded, made the boy cry and caused the boy’s mother and grandmother to start having a go at him. If the man had asked the boy early on to settle down a bit, all that yelling would never have happened. It’s the same in the pool. I should just get over myself, tap the feet of the slower swimmer, as I’m supposed to, and carry on swimming.

As I sit here, still smelling slightly of chlorine (no matter how much shower gel you use, there’s always a faint whiff left over), I’m wondering to myself how much I get lane rage at other times in my life, when I hide away from confrontation, rather than face up to things, resolve them and move on in peace. That initial conversation might be difficult and/or embarrassing, but the rewards far outweigh that one-off awkwardness.

So better the redeemed relationship than the festering wound. Better the real peace than the awkward truce. Better the tapping of the feet than the passive-aggressive front crawl.