Busy doing nothing

Busy doing nothing

For our summer holidays in 2015, my friends and I hired a cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District. There were some spectacular views, some spectacular food and a lot of spectacular rainfall. Thankfully, it only rained early in the morning and in the evening, so we were able to walk, go for a trip on Windermere and visit a lot of cake shops (you’ve got to love a fruity scone).

We spent a lot of time just relaxing in the cottage. Halfway through the week, I realised that we didn’t speak much when we spent time together in the lounge. We weren’t sitting awkwardly in silence or staring into space (well, I did a bit of that, but I think that was just me), we were reading, playing some solo games or doing a crossword.

I started to stress about this a bit. Why weren’t we laughing hilariously all the time, like people seem to in adverts? Why weren’t we taking selfies? Why weren’t we putting the world to rights or discussing deep, philosophical matters? I grew a little disappointed in myself. I began to wonder if I wasn’t very good company. I’m not a huge fan of ‘banter’ (and even less of a fan when it’s shortened to ‘bants’), but I had thought myself to be more of a raconteur than seemed to be the case.

I am an inveterate worrier, so this thought played on my mind. If I wasn’t very good company, then these friends might not want to carry on spending time with me. If we didn’t come home with tales of the times we spent talking late into the night or of when we did amazing things, then perhaps I was a bit of a friend failure.

In the 21st century, we’re assaulted on all side by images of what our lives should be like: adverts feature ideal lifestyles, people’s Facebook feeds are crammed with photos of them living life to the full, TV programmes and websites feature lists of 50 things to do before you die (‘Come on! Swim with dolphins!’). If we judge ourselves by these standards, as I had started to, sitting in that cottage in Grasmere, we will always come up short. Because these are idealised, carefully edited pictures of the perfect life. They’re not real life.

And after a bit of fretting, I realised that we weren’t failing to have an amazing time, we were enjoying doing nothing together. And once I’d worked this out, I enjoyed myself all the more – reading a book, watching the birds feeding in the garden, playing patience. If you’re single and live on your own, you don’t get much opportunity to share this ‘doing nothing’ time with anyone else. And so, this time doing very little as the rain cascaded down outside became very precious.

The journalist Felicity Green once said, ‘I have plenty of people to do things with, but I just have no one to do nothing with.’ She made this comment after she had been widowed, having spent years together with her husband. Esther Rantzen and the actor Sheila Hancock have both said similar things after losing their husbands. Getting used to being alone after sharing life with someone for so long must be heart-rending, but this idea of having no one to do nothing with applies to all single people.

So much of life is constructed around doing ‘things’. We arrange to meet for dinner, we go to the football, we go out for a walk. We never invite people round to our house to spend an afternoon binge-watching a box set or to sit with us as we do the ironing.

It’s the same with church – small groups, prayer evenings, services and other regular meetings are complemented by special events around festivals or the local calendar. It’s all do, do, do and there’s little time to be. We have the idea that if we do something that isn’t structured or doesn’t involve anything explicitly spiritual, we’re wasting everyone’s time. Even during times of retreat, when we’re meant to stop being busy, the expectation is there that you’ll spend the time in prayer and meditation. I’ve never heard of a retreat time when a group of people are told just to sit about together and do nothing in particular…

I wonder what ‘doing nothing’ looks like in church. How can we connect people together and help facilitate this important, but woefully underrated part of our lives? There’s no doubt that providing a space to do nothing, or a network of people who would be happy to pop round and do nothing with each other would be of great help to many people of all ages. And as churches, we are uniquely placed to provide something like this. So why don’t we?

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

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