Palestine Trip – Day Three

Again I woke up early, around 5 am, though not as early as yesterday. I find that I really appreciate this time in the morning to sit by myself to read and pray. I have a poor habit back home of slowly waking up in the morning and not having such a good schedule. I think the discipline of this working in community has been healthy for me.

We packed our bags and had a brief meeting to brief for the day’s agenda. Our plan is to attend a session at Sabeel, the Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, then take a bus out to Hebron.

We took a light rail train to Sabeel, where we joined a session with a delegation from Europe connected with the Friends church. Several folks were from Scandinavian countries and a few from Spain and Belgium. There was a presentation by Cedar, one of the founders of Sabeel, which is an ecumenical theology center, focused on Liberation Theology, the study of how theology can speak specifically to the oppressed and the need for liberation and hope here on Earth, not simply waiting for it to be given in Heaven.

Cedar told us the story of her childhood in Haifa, and how originally the different groups of Palestinians lived there in peace. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all living in community until the Israeli government pushed them out in some of the early ethnic cleansing, forcing them out of their homes with violence. They then moved to Nazareth as refugees, but were again harassed by the military. She told us about how the “Naqba,” (which again means “Catastrophe” or “Calamity”) affected them not only with the loss of life and the assault on their psyche, but also how it was an assault on their theology. Cedar and her family were Palestinian Christians, and they struggled with being told that the Old Testament called for their punishment as the just result of God choosing Jews to live in Israel and that they as Palestinians had no right to live there. Part of the mission of Sabeel, which she helped found, was to correct this misunderstanding of the Scriptures.

After Cedar’s presentation, we shared Communion. Communion has always been special to me, I think because it has been so de emphasized in the religious community I grew up in. Typically we celebrated Communion once a month, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to be skipped. This has continued to be the practice at the church I’m at currently. When we do. celebrate communion, it’s a highly individual affair. You take the cup and the bread, usually from a table set up off to the side while music is playing, then you return to your seat and take it silently by yourself. Instead, at Sabeel, it was shared as the cup was passed between each of us, one person serving and blessing the person next to them. I sat between two people from some of the other groups, one from Sweden and one from Belgium, and while it was incredibly awkward to work out a religious ceremony I had so little familiarity with the format of while also having a language barrier, it was also incredibly touching. The communion was part of a larger liturgy service led by Naim Ateek, a Palestinian theologian I’d heard about, but hadn’t been able to get ahold of any of his books previously. The service was powerful itself as he led the prayers in Arabic and they were recited back by all of us in our own language. I stopped praying at various times to just simply listen as the gathered voices responded. I couldn’t help but think of the story of Acts chapter two, when the followers of Jesus were gathered in an upper room to pray and began to speak in a variety of languages. The blessing of God was demonstrated not by how solidified they were as a group, but by splitting them off and showing they were supposed to be reaching out to the rest of the world.

After the service, we shared a meal together, and had some general time of conversation. When finished, we took the train back to our hostel in the old city. As I’m writing a few days later, I’m trying to remember if the next bit happened on this trip or if it was while we were traveling through Jerusalem the day before.

As we were crossing the street, an Israeli guard post was situated next to the crosswalk. An Israeli soldier was sitting there with an assault rifle pointed directly at the crosswalk, so anyone crossing the street would have the barrel pointed either at their back or their chest as they walked. This was as women, children, and elderly people walked by. I couldn’t decide what was worse, walking knowing it was pointed at your back or walking towards the post, staring down the barrel the entire time. This was the first time I had a gun pointed at me while here, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

We finally got back to the hostel to pack up and catch a bus out to Hebron. Because of the travel restrictions, we first took the bus to Bethlehem, then caught a Palestinian shared taxi from there to Hebron. There are other busses that will take a more direct route, but they will not allow Palestinians to ride, and as part of the solidarity mission, we do not make use of any service that is refused to them. Hebron is where we will be working for the next week, in the old city. Arriving at night was an experience in itself. Hebron itself is a large sprawling city, complete with skyscrapers and gigantic neon signs. But when we cross into the old city district, we find buildings that are over a thousand years old, looking very much like something from a movie set in the Roman Empire. Also known as Al Khalil, this is one of the hotspots of strife, with Israeli settlements built literally on top of Palestinian neighborhoods. Multiple checkpoints are required to be passed just to walk around the old city, and we’ll see plenty of tension in the coming week

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Palestine Trip – Day Two

I woke up early this morning. I don’t know if it’s because it’s an unfamiliar place or because I went to bed unusually early (for me) last night. I spent some time in the sitting area reading and uploading photos from last night.

Closer to six am, the Muslim guests at the hostel came out and began to gather before the sound of the morning call to prayer began. I took the reminder to say an Our Father, but I couldn’t decide if it was rude or intrusive to basically hang around while they were praying,  particularly since the group in this room was all women, the men having gone outside. So I went back to my room. Laying in the dark, I listened to the call. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but there was something so beautiful about it I could not quite describe. I have struggled over the last year with my own faith, feeling less of the clarity

Later I returned to the sitting area to read again and a gentleman who was also staying at the hostel struck up a conversation about what I was reading (Solus Jesus by Emily Swann and Ken Wilson) and that led into a fascinating conversation about what the Quran says about Jesus which from his telling included far more detail than I previously understood. The conversation then turned to  the United States and how it treats Muslims. He shared with me experiences of harassment and suspicion he’d had both in the United States as well as in Arabic countries, feeling like he was not accepted anywhere. He was from Manchester, England, so I found his perspective particularly interesting since he had such a wider experience in both the west and the Middle East.

Breakfast was served at the hostel and it was amazing. There were stacks of fresh flat bread served up with different sauces I didn’t recognize, as well as some fresh vegetables and jam. The rest of the team wasn’t up yet, so I when I sat down, I was joined by an Arabic man who was there from France. He said he was here visiting his sister and her family. They sat at the table next to us, and carried on what seemed like a wide ranging conversation that seemed to shift between Arabic and French. Again, I found myself fascinated following conversation I couldn’t understand, watching the facial reactions and gestures and tones. One woman stopped to ask if I spoke French, and I had to admit I didn’t but was still watching. (I realized I probably seemed a little creepy, but I couldn’t think of what else to do!)

The rest of the team woke up and we started with morning reflection and reviewed the plan for the day. Today is essentially our training and orientation, setting a foundation for the rest of our time here. We’ll be taking a tour of Jerusalem with a group called Grassroots Jerusalem, and then meeting with a representative from Military Court Watch.

The Grassroots Jerusalem tour is not your standard sight seeing tour. Instead, they describe themselves as a political tour. We went through the city of Jerusalem while the guide explained the history and context of the Palestinian oppression in the region. We visited the Palestinian neighborhoods that were stolen from them in the initial push, then traveled to see where segregation was affecting their current neighborhoods, saw several Israeli settlements and the security that was being established there, and finally we visited the Mount of Olives to look out over an area where Bedouins are being pushed out to make room for further expansion and Israeli settlements

The history of how the Palestinians have been oppressed has been a particularly jarring lesson for me. During some of the initial push to establish Israel many of them were forced out of their homes while others were killed in mass. Called by the Palestinians the “Naqba” which roughly translates to the calamity or the catastrophe, Entire villages were wiped out. I found the book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe particularly helpful here. He is an Israeli historian who argues that this push to remove the Palestinians was ethnic cleansing by the Israeli forces. On the tour, we were told how many of the Palestinian families that were pushed out locked their doors and have held onto their keys as a reminder of the hope that they will one day return home. When we drove through their former neighborhoods, I noticed several of the houses were covered in Israeli flags. I cannot imagine the hurt and anger that would come from having your family home stolen, somewhere that you, your parents, and your grandparents had lived, that you would have expected to pass on to your children. Instead, not only was it stolen, but it’s now covered with “Patriotic” symbols of those who stole it from you.

On our tour, we saw several times the Wall of Exclusion that was built by the government in 2000. Ostensibly, the wall is meant as a security measure, but it didn’t actually separate the communities, and Israeli settlements continue to push past the wall with little risk to themselves. What the wall has accomplished is to shut down traffic and trade through some of the Palestinian neighborhoods and restrict jobs. At one point, we traveled on the Jericho Road, mentioned in the Gospels and one of the oldest trade routes that had been still in use in the modern age. Unfortunately, that road is now blocked at one point by this wall.

We stopped at a convenience store by the wall and encountered one of the most emotional moments so far for me. The owner was originally from the Palestinian village of En Garem which was ethnically cleansed during the Naqba. As our guide was telling us about some of the villages, he reached up and took down a map from the wall of his shop. It was the map of his family’s village. I couldn’t help but be struck by this notion of a man coming into work every day and looking at the map and remembering his home. He told us that the key to the mosque had been saved by his family, but the mosque itself had been shut down by the government.

I can’t help but think of my own hometown, Marion. Imagine if it had been attacked in the middle of the night, our families killed or forced to escape. There’s a church there my parents and grandparents attended that sits empty now. I imagine us thinking about that church and a night that we’d been chased or shot.

After the tour, we returned to the hostel and had lunch. Our afternoon session was a presentation by a British lawyer from the group Military Court Watch. They work to monitor the military courts in the occupied Palestinian regions. Historically, these regions were captured by the Israeli government in the war of 1967. Per international law, they established martial law and military courts in the region. He explained that while this initial step was legal, per the same International Law that Israel had referenced in the establishment of these courts, this is supposed to be a temporary solution and comes with several restrictions, the biggest of which is that you cannot move to settle the area or take it as part of your own country. This was established by the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure nations would not have the motivation to go to war to expand their territory. Instead, the Israeli government has begun building Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territory. This has led to the arrest of thousands Palestinian children in an effort to protect those settlements. Military Court Watch was organized to monitor how those children are treated in the legal system. He described that they’ve found the military courts have been violating the rights of Palestinian children by refusing them legal counsel or the right to silence. The children are generally arrested in the middle of the night, with military police breaking into their homes to get them out of bed. They’re then bound by zip ties and generally blind folded and kept in the vehicle for a few hours before interrogation, where they won’t be given a right to a lawyer or speak with their parents.He stated that the systematic treatment of the Palestinian children they study constitutes an ongoing war crime.

It’s important to note here that this has been recognized by the international community. More than two dozen UN binding resolutions have been passed acknowledging that the treatment of the occupied Palestine region by the Israeli government is a war crime and should cease. Unfortunately, no action has been taken to offer sanctions or any concrete consequences for this continued violation of international law. The lawyer from Military Court Watch then pointed out that this has led added problems because the Russian invasion of Crimea or the Chinese attempts to expand into the South China Sea are in violation of the same law as Israel is violating, but because Israel has not been held accountable, it becomes difficult to hold Russia and China accountable, putting the US at increasing risk.

After the session was over, we returned to the hostel then got dinner. In our debrief we shared our reactions from the day, and I think all of us were feeling a little overwhelmed. I told them how I’d been feeling more and more frustrated with a situation that seems so completely broken. Despite the fact that I know I’ll go home in two weeks and I have no real risk to me because of this, I still feel deeply angry just thinking about this. I cannot imagine how a Palestinian living in this situation every day would feel. The fact that so many are taking that anger and working towards a constructive end, either with a group like Grassroots Jerusalem or through non violent resistance like the BDS movement gives me some hope.

Tomorrow we’ll finish up in Jerusalem and head out for Hebron. We’ve been told that Hebron is “the occupation on steroids” and represents one of the more tension filled hot points we will visit, so I’m both nervous and curious about what we’ll find there.

To learn more about Grassroots Jerusalem, visit their website here https://www.grassrootsalquds.net

To learn more about Military Court Watch, visit their website here www.militarycourtwatch.org

Palestine 2018 Trip – Day One

Arrived in the evening exhausted from the flight. I got no sleep on the plane and I’ve been awake for almost 24 hours I think depending on what the time difference does, besides occasionally dozing off randomly. I was struck immediately on the way in how similar everything is. The highway signs look almost identical to what I see in Kentucky, most people spoke English, and it just generally felt like another city. But occasionally people on the shuttle from the airport would start a conversation in Hebrew, or we’d pass large groups of men and women dressed in Orthodox garb and I’d remember I was in a different country for the first time in my life. The buildings initially looked all the same as back home, but as we got deeper into Jerusalem, the buildings took on a different mood. Large gates, wrought iron fences, barbed wire and bars over the windows. There was a crowded and oppressive feeling I couldn’t shake.

 

I’d met two of the team members, Anice and Angela, in Newark where we’d boarded for the flight to Tel Aviv. We met another team member, Chihchun, by coincidence on the shuttle ride here. Once we got to the hostel, we met our team leader, Cory, and one other member, Quinn. We left our things in the hostel and went out to grab dinner from the market. I noticed several spots where armed border guards were stationed, which seemed odd since we weren’t anywhere near the border yet. We get an orientation tomorrow, so I’ll get a better idea of what to expect then.

 

We went to a shawarma shop, which was a learning experience itself. There wasn’t a line, just everyone jammed into the counter and shouting their orders. It seemed like most of the customers were locals, the people behind the counters recognizing them and getting their by what looked like a “ah, here’s your regular” type of routine. It took a while to get my food because I kept sitting back and watching them all, it was fascinating. One of our team members had push through to get the orders placed.

 

Eating dinner we began with some ice breaker conversation. The “two truths and a lie” game is usually a favorite for me, but I was so tired I couldn’t think of anything. We headed back to the hostel and took an early night to bed. I feel like I should be in more shock given that I’ve never left the country before, but I’m genuinely excited about what’s to come

Monotony

On my way to work this morning, I passed by some open green farm fields. It’s going to be a gorgeous day, temperature should get up to around 85 degrees, sunny, and not a dark cloud in sight. I imagine in the mountains, it’ll be perfect hiking weather, just a little cooler, so you can get a good hike on and not overheat. Every time you stop, you’ll feel a slight chill to make you want to move again, but not uncomfortable. Get to a rock ledge for lunch, and you can lay out on some warm stone in the sun and munch away on your trail mix or a tortilla filled with cheese and jerky. I, on the other hand, just sat down to my desk at work. I’m about twenty feet from the closest window, and the natural sunlight is just a small square glimmer, and I can only just see the cars in the parking lot and a green hint of trees behind. No open sky can be seen.

This is the first year I am going an entire summer without a long distance hiking trip in almost three years. I’m out of vacation time for the rest of the year due to my planned trip to Palestine in October, so the best I can hope for is a brief overnight camping trip. I keep telling myself this is the responsible life I had to choose. I need a regular paycheck and most importantly health insurance. A set of tumors, which turned out benign, were found in my thyroid a few months ago. My hospital bills are currently sitting at just above $6,000 and I can only imagine how that situation would have gone if I were still an unemployed hiker who found growths slowly expanding on my neck and had no way to take care of it. But even with that reminder in place, I still cannot break from an almost unbearable sadness that comes from feeling trapped in this responsible life. Every morning I spend at least a few minutes talking myself out of playing hooky and running away to the woods instead of going to work. If I went into the Daniel Boone National Forest (just a short drive south of me) I’d be out of cell phone range by the time my boss realized I wasn’t showing up for work. I wouldn’t have to be responsible for answering a phone call asking if I was okay.

This is adult life. It is responsibility. It is not fun and it is not exciting. But it is life as I have to live it for now because adventures and good health unfortunately cost money, and I can say from experience that no one is willing to pay to read me writing about them as of yet. So I take it one day at a time for now. Maybe, if I’m fortunate enough, I can save up enough to pay off the hospital bills and go on some more adventures soon, but I can’t hold my breath for that. In the meantime, I have to watch my coping mechanisms. I normally can socially drink without much problem, but lately I’ve had to stop drinking, especially my favorite whiskey, because I almost constantly find myself wanting to just drink a bottle to turn my brain off for a while, and I know it’s easier to not drink at all than it is to drink in moderation when I feel this way. I’ve been taking walks on my lunch break at work and when I clock out at the end of the day to go home. Getting a mile or two in every day walking on a concrete sidewalk is by no means a sufficient replacement for miles and hours on a dirt path, but it’s the best I can do for now. I avoid reading anyone’s trail journals because I know it would just depress me more, but I occasionally follow the news on Facebook from various ATC chapters, or postings from hostel owners and operators talking about the hikers they’r seeing this year. A manageable taste of the thing I crave, trying to keep it controlled so I don’t overdo it. I’ve been reading like a madman. I thought I’d be lucky to finish fifty books this year since I’m not hiking and I’m working full time, but I’ve finished 30 so far only four months in. I can’t get away from the monotony of my life, so I’ll cram my thoughts full of everything else I can.

Trying to write has been a struggle, this post is an indulgence to me because I know I want to get some words down, but honestly I haven’t been able to think about how much I miss escape, and honestly no one wants to read that multiple times a week. I don’t think it would be healthy for me to write about it that often either. I was getting a chance to write regularly when I was posting the recipes, but my weight has spiraled out of control since I started back to work. Sitting for 8 hours a day just isn’t healthy as it turns out. So I’ve had to put some severe controls on my diet. I cut out variety because I found that it was making it too hard to resist the temptation to go overboard, so I stick to a basic diet of mostly vegetables with some salmon or chicken breast thrown in. Again, it’s sustenance and it’s responsible, but it isn’t very exciting to either write about or experience.

I’m trying. I’m taking one day at a time. And honestly, I’m surviving in part because of lessons I learned on the trail. When I’d find myself at the foot of a mountain I never thought I’d be able to climb, pushing up a long snaking trail that I felt like would never end, I’d stop thinking about the end. Take my find off of the entire journey at all and just think about the steps in front of me. Put my left foot down. My right foot down. Stop when I need a break and lean forward on my trekking poles to release some weight from my shoulders and my back. Breath. It’s hard and it’s often miserable, but it’s worth it if you can just continue. You don’t have to worry about if you’re going to get there or if you’re going fast enough. You just have to wake up each day and decide you are going to try, then take the little steps you need. When hiking in Georgia or Tennessee, you’ll go mad if you think only about Katahdin every morning. But you can wake up and think about taking your tent down, making breakfast, or packing up. Don’t get taken away by the end goal, try to focus on the next small thing you need to do. It’s monotonous, it’s boring, but it is life.

Sitting in the Rain

 

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It’s hard sometimes to remember the bad moments.

Looking back on my hike two years later, I find that rose colored glasses quickly set in. Remembering warm nights at a hostel, gathering with new friends, or a quiet night sitting up at a campsite watching the fire slowly settle in and listening to the distant symphony of crickets sing me to my dreams. There were certainly some magical nights to remember.

But I’m glad I took photos of the other nights. Like my first one. Really, this is of the first morning, but it serves as an excellent reminder of what that night was like. What I thought was a powerful rainstorm I soon came to find out was normal weather for northern Georgia in the mountains. My tent, an MSR Fast Stash was not set up properly, I wouldn’t get the hang of it for another month, and the tent collapsed on me in the middle of the night with the slight wind, pouring accumulated water all over myself and my sleeping bag. This meant the morning chill set in even harder than usual as I desperately tried to bail out my flooded tent bed. Finally, exhausted, I laid down and decided to just embrace the suck for the first of many many times. The tent canopy laid over me like a wet sticky sheet, and the cold settled in like a constant numb noise. I took this selfie in a deep “woe as me” moment.

Even with all of that, there’s times I wish I could go back there to that moment, and just enjoy sitting in the rain.

The Gift of Singleness

I was recently invited to speak at my local church, Encounter Vineyard in Newport, Kentucky. I thought I’d share my notes here because I haven’t been able to write much else for the last week or so. I’ll be honest, I was more than a little stressed as this approached. I haven’t spoken in front of people for a while, and haven’t spoken in front of people for this length of time at any point in my life. The notes are slightly different than what I actually said, if you want to listen to the message, you can check it out here.


Hello! My name is James. For those of you who don’t know me, I usually sit in the back. Cliff asked me to share this morning about singleness in the family of God. I guess I’m uniquely qualified as I’m 37 years old and never married, so I can pretty much cover this and maybe a message on gluttony if needed.

I first moved to this area almost twenty years ago to attend Bible college. College is a rough time generally speaking, but among the many struggles I found that the single life in Bible college was especially fraught with worry.

I grew up in the church, attending a Vineyard in north central Ohio, and I can attest from a fair number of youth gatherings, Bible studies, and FCA morning huddles, that the church spends a lot of time talking to young people about dating. This does not change if you go to a Christian college. In fact, I think I’m safe in saying that a significant portion of Bible college culture was focused on what dating was supposed to look like for Christians. Young men and women in attendance there often felt pressure to be actively looking for their marriage partner, and engagements and weddings were a common occurrence among the student body. Sadly, divorces after leaving Bible college also became a common occurrence as these young marriages that were made in the desperation of youth failed to last.

I’ve actually been engaged twice in my life, but never married. I can freely attest to you that in both cases, I felt an urgency to get married because I believed, thanks to society and the church around me at the time, that marriage was the essential next step for every young person. That God “has someone out there for everyone.” Looking back today, I actually find myself thankful that neither of these relationships culminated in marriage, because I believe the heart of that pursuit of marriage for marriage’s sake is unhealthy. That is what we are going to be unpacking today.

When the Israelite were crossing the desert after leaving Egypt, there’s a fascinating story about when they stop for God to deliver the Law to Moses. While Moses was on the climb up Mt Sinai, the rest of the people waited at the foot of the mountain. They waited for Moses for forty days and forty nights, and after they became afraid, they pushed Moses’s brother Aaron, the high priest into making an idol for them. You may have seen this in movies, as the Israelites make the golden calf, and Moses shows up at just the right time to see it, and throws down the stone tablets God had given them in anger.

The Israelites were afraid, and couldn’t trust God, so they made an idol. An idol is anything that takes the place for us of worshipping God, something we turn to when we’re afraid or lose our trust that God will provide.

When I was chasing after marriage, what I was doing wasn’t so different than those Israelites building a golden calf in the wilderness. Marriage becomes an idol just like that golden calf because we are afraid of what life would look like if we don’t have someone. We’re told by too many messages around us that we alone are not enough. We forget that the same God that loves married couples, loves those of us who are single, and that God does not see one as more worthy of love than another.

It is absolutely true that marriage is lifted up in the Bible as a good thing, but singleness is lifted up just as much, if not more. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7:7 Paul writes “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” and again in verses 25-27 “Now about the unmarried: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife.”

Even Jesus points out that marriage is only a temporary state, when questioned by the Sadducees about life after death he answers ““You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

Today we’re going to take some time to dig into what benefits we see when marriage and singleness are both given their appropriate places in our thoughts and lives. But first let’s pray.

God, I ask that you join with us today as we talk about what for some might be a painful topic. I ask that you help us see the gifts you have for us regardless of where we are in our lives. Open our hearts to your word, and allow us to sense what you have for us today. Amen.

I want to state at the beginning, marriage and dating are very different now in our culture than they were in the cultures of the original writers of scripture. Marriage did not have as its primary starting point romantic love, but often was driven more as a business agreement, often made as part of merging different family businesses together, or seen primarily through a lens of preparation for the future, a necessary part of your retirement plan, like we would a 401k. By getting married you were helping to ensure someone would take care of you if you needed it. Love was a secondary concern if at all.

Further, dating in these societies simply did not exist, certainly not in the format we see it now. A young couple might be engaged to be married or promised to each other, but these relationships looked very different than what we would expect to see with an engaged couple in our society today. Because of all of this, I’ll interchangeably refer to either marriage or romantic relationships, because from a biblical perspective the two often share the same place of idolatry in our lives. I should also note that over the years, I’ve gotten to know some brothers and sisters who are in the LGBTQ community, and they often come across some of these same struggles. Divorced singles also should know that what the Bible has to say to you is no different than for someone who’s never been married. You are just as loved and respected by God, and your present state still holds the same blessings for you.

As we’ve already referenced, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul takes the time to highlight the importance of the single life for the Christian. In verses 25-35 he expands his thinking:

 

We reflect here that Paul is not saying that absolutely everyone should be unmarried, nor is he saying absolutely everyone should be married. He states that some people will be one, and some people will be another. We may struggle with this, thinking that we should expect one or the other to be preferable, but we can return to verse 7, where Paul says “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

When Paul says “gift” the greek word here is
, which can also be translated as “grace.” This is one of the words used in the New Testament to refer to the Spiritual Gifts, that is, those gifts given by the grace of God for Christians in the life of the church. When we hear about spiritual gifts, we might think more commonly of things like healing, speaking in tongues, or prophecy, but Paul here is saying that the life of being single and the life of being married are also spiritual gifts.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can say at several times in my life, I have certainly not felt like being single was a spiritual gift! And I certainly would not have felt like it was an equal gift to marriage.

But Paul goes at great pains later in the book of Corinthians to explain that no spiritual gift is more or less important than another. Rather, he explains that each serves an important part of the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 he writes:
So we can say that Paul describes both married and single members of the church as necessary parts of the body of the church. But again, how do you know which gift you have?

The simple answer would seem to be – if you are single, you have the gift of being single, and should continue to pursue that gift. If you are married, you should pursue the spiritual gift of being married. At some point, you may change from one state to another, in which case you will pursue that gift. Paul mentions that widows who’s husband have passed away should then be able to take the place of single women in the church, serving and caring for others, but that they can remarry if the gift is given. This idea of the spiritual gift is not in and of itself something that should push you from one state to another. If you are single, you should not find yourself saying “I have the spiritual gift of being married” and then rush as quickly as possible into getting married. Rather, as someone who is single, we should press into the discernment and work of the spirit to find how God has equipped us for our present state. I love the way the CottonPatch translation gives verse 7, “Yet each has his own assignment from God, one this, another that.” Singleness or marriage can be viewed as the assignment we currently have from God. It may be long term or even lifetime assignment for some, and for others, it will be a short term assignment. After all, what sets singleness apart from some other spiritual gifts then is that EVERYONE in the church will the gift of singleness at some point in their lives. You may be married now, but at some point you were unmarried. Not everyone will be married, but everyone at some point is single. This cannot be said of many other spiritual gifts we find in the Bible.

But we sometimes can struggle with giving singleness this kind of consideration. If you look back through church history, there’s been a varied struggle on the topic. For a long time in the early period of the church, we had a special respect for those who were unmarried, often taking a celibate life, but failed to create places in the church for those who were married to participate in ministry. After the Protestant Reformation, we began to balance this, but over the past few generations, there’s been an overcorrection in the Western church, where we have begun to focus almost exclusively on marriage, tied up in the same mistaken beliefs of larger society. Presenting marriage as an expected end for everyone to achieve, rather than seeing it as the giftings or assignments that Paul teaches.

There are a number of benefits we can receive when we correct for a more balanced view of singleness. First, when we appropriately honor singleness we can more fully be blessed by other relationships in our lives. 1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the “love chapter” and is read frequently at weddings. But it’s worth remembering in the original text, Paul did not address this exclusively to married individuals. Rather, in context, Paul was describing how a love that is patient and kind, does not envy and does not boast, is the love all Christians should have for each other. But when we look at the single life, it’s often hard for single men and women in particular to socialize without the ulterior motive of dating to enter the picture. But when we place singleness and marriage in their appropriate places in our thoughts, Christian brothers and sisters can truly be brothers and sisters to each other. We can love and help each other, listen when it’s needed, and just generally be a part of each other’s lives.

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to call out a dangerous and harmful meme that we see in our society. How many have heard the term “the friend zone”? If you aren’t familiar, this is a complaint you may occasionally hear from someone who feels like they’ve been mistreated by a potential romantic partner. They are friends with a person, who may hang out with them, share conversation with them, and just generally socialize. But when the idea of a romantic relationship is proposed, that person declines. Maybe the idea of “we’re too good of friends, I wouldn’t want to risk losing that.” The rebuffed person may then say, “ah, they friend zoned me.” As if being friends is somehow a second place? Or a punishment?

In my life, this has often been a struggle. When I was younger, I too often failed to find the joy in simply being friends with someone. This all consuming pressure of trying to find a partner, which only became worse as I got older, made it hard to simply stop and take joy in friendship. When we see our relationships in life as having a hierarchy, with Christian friendship rated as less desirable than dating, we may feel that we are disregarded when someone does not return the same interest. But if we can cling to the gift of singleness, we can hold these romantic intentions loosely, and respect and celebrate in friendships that do not carry a romantic component. The Spirit of God would tell us to see the other person is a brother or sister first, a potential romantic partner second if at all.

The next benefit we get from properly honoring the single life is that we get the opportunity to open our lives out to others more readily. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:32 and 34, the unmarried can be concerned first with the Lord’s affairs, devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. A family will have any number of other distractions placed on it. Sharing time devoted to each other, pursuing varied interests, and just generally getting about the business of life. But the single person has more flexibility. There is certainly a time and place to reserve in our lives for self care, but also opening ourselves up to taking some of the additional time we have as singles for serving others. Volunteering at community centers, helping out in church ministries, and looking for ways to share our lives with others in the community who may not have social bonds readily available to them.

This runs counter to our normal impuls. We might normally expect that singleness can equal selfishness. That not having a spouse or kids means we can be free to live the fun life, staying out late and going to fun parties. But scripture reminds us that the Christian life, whether married or single is meant to be a life of sacrifice. Our money, our possessions, and perhaps most importantly our time are not ours to spend as we please, but are a stewardship given to us by God for the service of other people. I have been guilty of failing to do this. In my life, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve filled my grocery cart with items I didn’t need, looked at my bank balance and decided it was an excuse to go shopping, or looked at every single minute of my time as something that was mine to spend, and I was angry at anyone who took that time away from me, even for the best of reasons.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this is that for the past two summers, I have spent my time out on the Appalachian Trail. I initially left on this trip, I believe, at the direction of God. It was one of the clearest directions I’ve received in quite some time when I left in March of 2016. I had a six month journey, hiked a thousand miles from Georgia to West Virginia, and had some amazing God experiences. However, I returned home that winter, then decided to go out again the following summer. This second trip was not directed by God, but was taken purely because I could. I was unmarried, had no kids, and had simplified my life enough that I could drop everything and go away for a while.

But after a few months, I became deeply convicted that there was a better plan I needed to follow from God. Instead of selfishly disappearing into the woods, I felt a clear direction to come home instead. I left that life, and while I miss it every day, I know that God has more things to do with me here, interacting with people and working every day than if I were alone in the woods, checking in with everyone occasionally online. As singles, we have this responsibility to take the open time and resources God has granted us, that aren’t directed to a spouse or in some cases children, and use those for the service instead of the church and community around us.

I want to also stop and acknowledge here the responsibility of the larger church itself to singles as well. The single life for the Christian should not equal a lonely life. As members of the church body, a single person should readily expect opportunities to be welcomed into our homes, sharing meals, social outings, and deep friendships, not just with other singles in the church but with married folks in the church as well. When you plan a night out with friends, do you remember to invite singles along, or is it always couples nights? Certainly, there is a place for married couples to help hold each other up and share time, but this should not be the exclusive company we keep. I also will beg you, when you do invite singles into your life, don’t let it automatically include the mission of “setting them up with someone.” If you are going to play matchmaker, that needs to a separate conversation that has as its starting place a respect for the individual’s identity, and not simply seeing them as a single in need of a date.

I have been blessed at various points in my life to be welcomed by married friends from the church to share their life. I currently live with a family I met through church, sharing in chores, paying rent, but also sharing in life. As a single man, it’s been wonderful to have dinner together in the evenings, share chats about our day, and watching their daughter grow up. These blessings have made a tremendous difference in my life, and opened the door for significant spiritual growth I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There should also be a special place for single parents in the church. Those who are raising children by themselves should be able to expect the church to help them in this endeavor. Consider the divided workload that married couples may have, then remember that single parents are doing that work by themselves. Some churches have had ministries such as offering a single mother’s free oil change, but I’d encourage us to not be locked into viewing this primarily through gender roles. I’ve known many single moms who are quite capable of changing their own oil thank you very much, but could use help with getting the kids from school to soccer practice, getting dinner together, or simply needing someone to vent to after a rough week. Let’s also not forget single dads in our midst, who may feel just as alone and need help with the daily stresses of life just as much.

The need for both positive male and female role models in a child’s life should also not be something that is a struggle for single parents in the church. A single mom or dad should be able to trust that men and women in the church are just as ready to be a loving part of their child’s life, willing to offer a hand when needed, and a safe person to reach out to. There should not be a pressure on single parents to remarry to have these roles filled, as the church as a loving community can and must help lift these burdens.

These certainly can be places where other singles in the church, either with or without children can step in to serve, (remembering to do so without an ulterior motive of seeking to date) but married couples in the church can be equipped to help as well. The church is meant to be a family, not merely a once a week social gathering, and we absolutely can do our part to lift these individuals up in more than simply prayer, but also offering active help in their lives in a loving way.

The final benefit I want to consider that we get from properly honoring singleness is we get healthier marriages this way. Remembering that being single is a complete and worthwhile life by itself removes the temptation to seek and run after a romantic relationship, perhaps before we’re ready or maybe with the wrong person. There’s been a great deal of discussion about the high divorce rate in our culture, and it affects Christians just as much if not more than non Christians. I would argue this is due in some small part to the fact that we exert pressure on people to get married, often too young, and often when they may otherwise be far more prepared for being single. I’ve been fascinated too to read about the unique experiences of asexual individuals in our society, that is people who would prefer to not have a sexual experience, but still pursue social relationships. These places of strife, I believe, exist at least in part because we’ve forgotten the lesson of scripture to respect and honor the place of being single.

Waiting for a relationship rather than charging in can be a struggle. We have so many sources in our lives that tell us the appropriate goal we should have is to end up with someone. Look even at children’s stories that often include the theme of a hero and a princess happily ever after with each other. If we remember that God loves us without needing a romantic partner, we can be far more willing to hold out, rather than simply accepting someone just because they are interested in us and we’re afraid to end up alone.

The Christian teacher Gwen Elliott refers to this as “Waiting for David.” The Old Testament tells us how the people of Israel initially decided they wanted a king, because they looked around and saw the nations neighboring them who also had kings. They went to the prophet Samuel and demanded a king be found. God gave Samuel permission to anoint the king, and in time Saul was found. God blessed him and raised him up, but Saul was a failure as a king. He gave himself more importance and eventually disobeyed the direction of God. The next king found was David. David was a “man after God’s own heart” who started out in the fields protecting sheep, and lived his life based on faith in God first rather than trust in himself. It’s echoing those stories that Mz Elliott writes:

“I refuse to beg, plead, and whine over my singleness and thus set myself up to be willing to settle for Saul
When he is not truly who was intended
Time after time Settling for Saul creates rather than solves problems… for nations, for individuals, …
Therefore while Waiting for David, my eyes are focused on the True King whether or not an earthly one appears.
I refuse to be told that I must marry to be complete
I refuse to buy into the lie that you should never settle unless you are running out of time
I refuse the lies that are told by unhappy people who believed the same lies
Instead, I actually observe and think and learn from others. I see the breakdowns. I see the identity loss. I see the consequences.
And so then I seek scripture, surely this is not what God intended for us.
And sure enough, it’s not.
So I continue to wait for David.”

The gifts that God has in store for us, whether that gift is a life as a single who is whole and blessed by God or if it is to be married to a partner who will spur us on and aide us in the mission we have, will always be greater than the life we might chase after ourselves.

In closing, I’d like to remember another Old Testament story. Abraham was once called by God to take his son Isaac to the summit of Mt Moriah and sacrifice him. But at the final moment, Abraham was stopped and God said he would be blessed because he did not hold back his son.

I think for many of us, our idea of what marriage is, or our hope for finding a partner, has become an idol in our lives. God asks us to sacrifice those idols. We have to recognize that the promise of God, the gifts we can find in the Holy Spirit, are more than anything we may find on our own initiative. We can find a richness and fullness of life that isn’t dependant on another person, but a wholeness we can and must find in ourselves. For others here, you may be in a place where you continue to feel alone, and the fear of having no one is still a regular pain for you. We’re going to pray together now, but I’d like to invite you to come to the back during worship to receive further prayer as well.

 

The Traveler Sets Forth

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I was absolutely not ready to hike the Appalachian Trail.

At over 320 lbs, standing at 5’6″ tall, I was out of shape. Having never successfully camped outside overnight in my entire adult life, ( I slept in my car on my shakedown after I discovered at the time I could not fit into my sleeping bag because I was too overweight) I was supremely unqualified. Having spent most of the last ten years working in some form of tech support, and my principle hobby being cooking, I was absolutely not ready to spend days or even weeks away from civilization.

But for some reason, at the time I didn’t feel nervous. I didn’t second guess myself. I honestly didn’t feel that excited either. It just felt like the next thing to do. One day I was clocking in and sitting down at a desk with three computer monitors, a mere three days later I was disembarking a Greyhound bus and setting out for the great unknown.

Most of my gear wouldn’t survive the week. That fly fishing vest was a Walmart purchase and was left at the Top of Georgia hostel in Hiawassee. The wide brimmed blue hat was a $5 impulse buy from Amazon and turned out to be sweaty itchy cotton and was dumped in the first week at a hostel in Suches. The boots were a pro deal I was endlessly proud of and wound up getting dropped in Frankly, after only a hundred miles because it turned out they no longer fit my swelling feet. The pants were a cotton pair from Meijer, and had to be used because I simply couldn’t fit into anything else. (Quick dry hiker pants simply didn’t come in a 70 inch waist size)

I’m not sure even now why I truly wanted to do it.  It was something I’d dreamed of for years, but I don’t think I could really pinpoint for you what set that year apart from the others. But it was the beginning of one of most magnificent experiences of my life.