Why I write about relationships, and why I hesitate

good-relationshipsTwo years ago I started this blog with a series of four posts one day after the next on relationships in the church. For better or worse it established the foundations of what I would write a lot about, and more to the point, what I would be known to write about. I go through phases of leaving the subject to one side, letting it have a breather, but the issues do not go away and my opinions don’t always want to keep to themselves.

One of those four posts, “Why guys don’t ask girls out” gets hits every single day, and a few weeks ago I read it and winced not only at typos that continue to be read but what I said and the way I said it.

Many of the things I wrote on four consecutive days stand the test of time. There are some concepts and ideas that I articulated for the first time which had been percolating through my mind for many years, others that slipped off the fingers onto the keyboard without sufficient thought.

There are ideas I have rethought as I have written and reflected on a topic that is tender to many people. I have had to change what I do because of what I wrote, but what I write should also be affected by what I do – and too often I have written in a vacuum. Continue reading

Viral Vicar: relevancy, participation and leadership

Once upon a time a vicar threw her hands up in the air. She danced like she did not care. And everyone loved it. That is accept a few dullards unable to see the fun and brilliance of celebrating a wedding through dance, who thought expressions of joy were out of place in the house of God.

The Rev Kate Bottley declared the couple man and wife and then began to dance, the couple joined in, then the wedding party, then people dotted around the congregation. The celebration was orchestrated, but it was contagious, more and more people joined in. (Aside from a couple of elderly ladies who clearly decided this was a bit too much.)

It was a stunt. It was an incredible stunt and it worked so well because this was not a hip trendy church in Camden, but a rural Church of England parish. The wonder was in the surprise and authenticity at the same time (I don’t think the fact it was almost certainly planned and practised makes it any less authentic). And it’s had nearly 300 000 views on YouTube. Continue reading

Why do Christians always dance in circles?

Roxy & Koffi's Wedding Today I want to talk about Christian dancing. I’m not talking about the flag waving activity prone to take place in the aisles at more charismatic conferences, but the way that Christians dance.

I’ve heard that using Christian as an adjective is a dangerous business, the confusion of what constitutes Christian music, what is a Christian banker, how can you tag something as Christian and something else as not? Is it the people engaging the activity, or the nature of that activity?

When it comes to the type of dancing I’ve got in mind, no confusion should endure. A similar phenomenon can be witnessed by those without a firm theistic world view but it only ever an imitation of the masterful art form. This is dancing in a circle.

Dante missed a circle out of his literary masterpiece: the Christian dancing circle.

Last night I was at a wedding, and I had a dance. I should confess to my enthusiasm for dancing far exceeding my ability to keep time or coordinate the various parts of my body that might move with speed, and across and over the dance floor. I can be quite the hazard on the dance floor. But I love it. Continue reading

A portrait of pain: words from before the blog

This morning I remembered something I wrote about two years ago about friendships, relationships, and isolation. It was before I started writing in this space. The style is different, it’s really a journal entry, not something written for publication. It is also rather maudlin in places. For that I don’t apologise but ask that you understand it is a portrait of a moment in time. Is it true? No, in that it contains a lot of lies I told myself. Yes, in that it is how I felt. I was interested in a girl and she was not in me, I had had some struggles with my friends. And I was alone for a day in Spain. I have not edited it apart from grammar and spelling, it is what it is, it is a portrait of pain.

The words that would soothe this troubled mind, The ones I hunt for, search for, long for. The words I think will take away the pain, all the hurt. The words that will bring clarity out of confusion. The form of letters brought together in phrases and fragments and rarely, carefully, composed sentences that stop short of extended prose but lacks the beauty and grace to be poetry.

But it’s not the words that require attention. But the troubled mind. Torn between dreams of grandeur and doubts of inconsequence. A mind that won’t stand still. Not for a moment. That will not settle, that refuses to be stilled. A torment of thoughts and emotions meshed together. Thoughts that refuse to leave and emotions that I am not sure are there.

Dangling in my mind. Taunting my solitude. Tempering my calm, peaceful, afternoon. Beneath the trees in Girona’s historic quarter. As I ponder why do I need both isolation from people and affirmation from them of my worth? If, in fact, it is their approval I want. Because I am not certain that I am able to receive it. I am not sure that I have the capacity to believe that anyone would recognise anything of worth in me at all.

Continue reading

Do nice guys finish last? Is pleasant unpalatable?

Sometimes I wish I was someone else.

Sometimes I wish I had a little more bravado. Sometimes I wish I laughed at things other people found funny. I wish I was more spontaneous. I wish I was unpredictable. Surprising. I wish I had that edge. Whatever that edge maybe.

That edge that makes guys attractive to girls. And makes dates more than pleasant.

Because sometimes I think I am dull. Just dull. Barely making the mark of mediocrity known as pleasant.

Sometimes I wish I was someone else.

Someone better, scrap that, not better necessarily. Better is a bit too much like nice which is a bit too much like pleasant which sounds rather like code for dull. Different, I want to be different.

nice-guy-emotionsYesterday Threads’ anonymous Girl About Town wrote about her date with pleasant Christian guy. And it provoked quite a reaction. Guys split down the middle between trying to demonstrate their ‘fun’ credentials, and those like myself who sneered at the somewhat faux virility and opted instead for self-deprecation. An elaborate double bluff showcasing introversion and nerd like pursuits as a masquerade to shield insecurities.

It’s a cliché that good guys finish last, but sometimes that is what it feels like. It feels as though to achieve success in one part of life I have to screw up a little more. I could swear here to make my point with added weight but I don’t want to. I prefer not to swear.

We turn finding someone to build a relationship with into a game, where there is success and failure, and we are tempted to try and stack our hand. We weigh percentages and hunches and work out what would give us an advantage. Wondering whether if we were someone else the road might be easier. Wondering if a new identity might help. Thinking the grass is always greener through our rose tinted glasses.

We want everything to be okay, we want to be without blemish so we erect structures and façades to shelter our fragile self. We are told there are ways to behave, things to do and not to do, and knowing that we don’t always live up to that we sometimes try to present an image that we do.

I think that if I wear the costume enough it might become a second skin. It is never quite home, but close enough that I lose sight of the ways it betrays me.

Sara Kewly Hyde commented: “I think sometimes rather than discovering the fabulous and unique individual God’s made them to be, some men (people) are trying to be what impresses others and that in turn can lead to… Well a whole host of insecurities, the fruit of which is sometimes blandness… I think as Christians we also struggle to assimilate our dark or shadow side so at times repress it rather than asking God to glorify himself through it. Repression can also = pleasant but nowt else. If we allowed our imperfections to be as visible as our good bits then it’s unlikely ‘pleasant’ would be the adjective de jour here. Pleasant is great if accompanied by other adjectives.”

Another friend simply said: “pleasant might also mean stifled”.

When guys hear they are too pleasant, the immediate reaction can be to add another layer of characteristics they think might help. So as well as being the good Christian guy they also need to be the Alpha male chopping down trees, skinning rabbits and rescuing the damsel in distress. I mock to make a point.

Christian guys are told to pursue, protect, provide and pastor, and that becomes another list of things they ought to do to make the mark. If they are being rejected as dull, dismissed as pleasant, then they are not doing enough to woo the women. Emily Maynard commented on cultural norms that so heavily circumscribe Christian dating, which create a culture imbued with such deep, existential morals and genderised stereotypes. And the fear of slipping into sin or causing someone else to sin.

We are afraid of doing it wrong. Asking the wrong girl out, acting improperly, not being sufficiently chivalrous, not picking up on signals, showing too much affection, or more likely not enough. And under the weight of it, all that emerges is a bland pleasantness that might not be offensive but betrays its insincerity. It can also freeze us into inactivity.

The layers of personhood expected to be worn to fulfil the role of the right Christian guy become so deep personhood is lost. In trying to be something we stop being ourselves.

Here’s the challenge, I get the thrill of the different, the exciting, the edgy, but telling Christian guys they are too pleasant puts them on the defensive. It knocks their security and only encourages more layers covering over who they are.

Truly pleasant

Being nice is not bad. Being pleasant is not just about being polite. And good guys do not need to finish last. But if the pleasantries are a charade or a forced manicure they leave an emptiness where you or I should be.

Dave Shearn put it like this: “I think lots of us are non-committal and non-confrontational in the name of being ‘loving’ and that is lame. Passive aggression and people not agreeing with God that he made them awesome also doesn’t help.”

I also wonder if there’s a false dichotomy that’s being set up between atheist-guy and pleasant-guy, is the very fact atheist-guy is such what gives him that edge? Pseudo-rebellious was the way someone put it. It’s not that Christians are necessarily more dull than anyone else, but they are known and to some degree safe, and sometimes an element of danger is alluring.

The unknown can be attractive but it is also dangerous. Because I hope one day to be fully known and to know someone fully. I want safety to be a good thing. In the long run maybe pleasantness is a valuable attribute.

That don’t impress me much

I want to marry someone who loves me, and not love who I might pretend to be. Someone who knows me with my frailties and my failings, who sees my longings and my hopes and dreams. But I also want to be a better man. And I think it is a noble thing to want to be with someone who prompts you to be your better self. Not some act to be more edgy or less pleasant. But to find the ways I can glorify God more fully. To see the ways I can live a more holy life. To bear witness to the image of God that gives me dignity and humanity. To echo in a quiet whisper the love that has been given me.

And be all of it. No one is just one thing. No one is just pleasant. No one is just dull. No one is just boring. And no one is just exciting, edgy or different. We are whole people with a breadth of characteristics and being pleasant is a good one to own. But if that’s all you see yourself as no wonder that don’t impress her.

And I think trying to impress a girl who takes your fancy is a good thing. As long as the impression you’re making is yours to give.

PS while writing this a friend tweeted a link to an interesting sermon on ‘new rules for love, sex and dating’ so I thought I’d share it.

Is finding a wife like shopping for shoes?

Are you looking for a wife? Or, are you happy being single?

That wasn’t quite the question put to me but it sums up the sentiment. That it is a choice. And that either I am happy being single or I should start shopping.

Because that seems to be the mentality. Looking for a spouse attracting the same approach as I might take to hunting down a new pair of shoes, or maybe to give it a little more seriousness, similar to buying a flat.

Maybe I should confess that I’m not very good at buying shoes. I don’t find the process difficult, it is not a particularly complex task to complete. I just don’t do it. I have a smart pair and a casual pair and wear them until their resemblance to footwear is solely a historic recollection. I also have sandals for the summer, slippers for the winter and climbing shoes for, well, climbing.

But last year I bought a flat and that was a big decision, it was a task I gave myself to. There were things to do, some time consuming but mundane, others swift but significant. Putting in an offer, signing for a mortgage, collecting keys. There were words spoken and written, the handover of a set of metallic objects. Yet it was much more than that, the simple acts were imbued with significance, they meant something because of what linked them together, where they came from and what that signalled.

So I wonder, is finding someone to spend the rest of your life with like buying a house, and stripping the complexities away to push the point, is it like shopping for any other item?

When I go shoe shopping it’s not for a luxury, but for something I urgently need. Therefore I refuse to let myself come home empty handed. And when I bought my flat I had decided I was going to do so, I took some time but eventually made a decision. It was a big decision but it was not an irrevocable one. I can sell, I can let. It is a material possession.

When we buy something we choose to get something over nothing. We decide that while there are better or worse options, having something is better than having nothing at all.

I don’t believe that getting married is more important than getting married to the right person.

I don’t think getting married is like buying shoes, or a flat. Finding someone to spend your life with is not a consumer experience. It is a dance of emotions and expectations and hopes and dreams. It is prospect that absence may take the place of something.

Maybe it is like Schrödinger’s cat. Until you open the box you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive, so by some ridiculous chain of logic which I cannot begin to fathom, the cat is both dead and alive. Maybe you can be both living life to the full as a single person and want to get married. And until something happens you are both.

If I’m in a relationship it’s not much good living life to the full in my singleness, I don’t think that relationship would last very long. But until that point I am living in a contested reality, there are alternative routes that my life can take and I need to be open to pursuing either while acknowledge one would close off the other.

And that can sometimes stop you from opening the box. Not wanting to close down options can prevent you from making a choice. Sometimes I can be paralysed by indecision, and the multitude of options, and potential future options can cast me in formaldehyde and root me to the spot. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t a choice.

But the choice is what gives it meaning. The choice to take a risk and do something you don’t essentially have to do. Doing something you could live without, doing something that will limit your further choices, doing something that will stop you from always thinking that something better could come along.

Because getting married isn’t a step in life improvement, it isn’t a way of becoming more complete. It isn’t an accessory to make you more glamorous, or an investment to make you more secure.

And it is neither mail order nor magic. It is not a formulaic process or the result of an abracadabra. Relationships do not just happen and we cannot script them.

But we live them and we love them, and in them we find life and we find love. And if that’s how you think about your shoes I recommend some therapy.

What do single Christians want their church leaders to do?

SinglenessTonight I went along to a Christian Connection event reporting back on a survey of 3000 people, mostly users of their dating site, about singleness and the church. David Pullinger analysed the data and presented results focusing on what single Christians appreciated about church, and what they found difficult.

The results are still being finalised, and more formalised reporting will come in due course, and some of the results have already been reported. But a couple of comments immediately stood out.

  • Only 1/3 of single men aged 30-44 socialise with their friends at least once a week. This is a significant drop from those younger than this and is not matched by a similar decline among women.
  • Single women often find married couples reticent to offer hospitality, and this seems to be related to a perceived threat to their marriage. Single women often work, don’t care for children and as a result often find they have more in common with the husband than the wife. I’m fascinated to look into this more and eagerly await seeing the data.
  • And there was a list of twelve things single Christians would like their church leaders to do, in order of importance…
  1. Give talks about singleness
  2. Organise or enable social and fun activities
  3. Hospitality
  4. Provide models of singleness
  5. Pray personally or in the church
  6. Be inclusive in all church activities
  7. Organise or enable single groups
  8. Be in contact, through phone, email or text
  9. Provide or facilitate practical help
  10. Provide practical help in finding a partner
  11. Knowing and recommending singles events
  12. Seeking the single person’s viewpoint

It’s an interesting list, and some I certainly agree with. But in all of this I had a recurring question, is there a danger of entrenching an identity of singleness, and possibly as a result seeing identity defined by the absence of a partner, rather than the many other things which make up the individual’s character.

Is singleness something which should be seen as an identity? If you’re single is it a label you use or appreciate? Or do you think it can do more damage than good?

We need to talk about singleness

singleFirst up, a confession: I was once a junior chess champion. I even got a medal for it. So there’s nothing wrong with joining a chess club to find a date.

I don’t think we talk too much about relationships. But I do think we’re not very good at talking about relationships.

The conversation might vary depending on who it is with, it is different with married friend to those who are also single. But there are some people who I know I will pretty much have the same conversation with whenever I see them, especially if I don’t see them very often. Miriam Skinner’s comments about ‘Martin in the blue jumper’ hit a little close to home. I’ll mention someone in a slightly off-the-cuff but almost obligatory response who I have taken a fancy to, who will then be brought up when I next see someone even if it’s a year later.

Miriam’s article is amusing and clever and filled with plenty of wisdom. But I think I disagree with its core message – that we talk about relationships too much. I don’t think we do, I think we easily slip into stale formulaic conversations that you could record in advance and hit play when the questions arise, and that needs to change. I also think we need to match our words with action, so that frustration is not left to fester.

We waste a lot of breathe and emotional agony on shooting the breeze, feigning sincerity when we speak barely masked gossip. Discussing the relative merits of courting over dating, contemplating whether to use an internet dating site, analysing the minutia of the actions of the opposite sex. Looking for clues about where romance lies and where it leads. Asking each other for advice which more often simply serves as affirmation for our intransigence.

I have a rule that I’ve developed over the past few years: most people who are single would rather not be. Rocket science, I know. Some people are happy – or content, to use the phrase de jour – in their present singleness, and a few think that is how things will always be. But for most people I know, even if they don’t see a relationship as important at the moment envisage themselves at some point with someone, or might like that to happen. I can say I am content being single and would yet might not want that to be the end of the story.

And I do not think that is a problem.

The Church should value and affirm singleness. And not just as a stage of life to exercise patience in. The Church should be aware of the ways its structures, processes and events can sometimes become hard to access for those without families or a husband or wife. I’ve heard of dinner parties that suddenly open up when the first ring goes on the finger: ‘my fiancé and I’ is the password to a new social circle.

Being in a relationship does not remove our need for God, it does not lessen out dependence on him, but I don’t think it needs to be a trade off. I think you can want a lot from romance and get even more from God. In some way the closeness of our human relationships with someone else reflect the way God makes himself known to us, and wants to know us more. We get to have both.

Here’s a hunch I have no way of verifying: if you get married the conversations don’t go away. The same sort of inquisition the Spanish would be proud of probes into new areas, and probably the banality of formulaic conversations won’t go away either. It might be a children, or buying a house. It might be about your sex life, or lack thereof. It might be about lust. Because that doesn’t go away either.

How do we talk about relationships in a way that is not formulaic and does not suggest that the shift from single to married is somehow answering a problem? I don’t know. It is hard.

But not talking about it won’t make the longing many people have go away. But it might, and I absolutely do not consider this to be what Miriam was saying, make people less willing to say words that are hard to say. To admit frailty in knowing who they like and whether they do. To say the person who caught their fancy last week is not in the picture any more. To speak of fears and hopes. To verbalise feelings and emotions that might get lost in a vacuum of solitude.

We probably need to cut out a lot of the crap from our conversations. The flip side is that we do just need to get on with stuff. Relationships, and I don’t just mean the romantic sort, are best built when we do something. As much as I like a relaxing evening in the pub there is something productive about activity, even if it’s playing games or cooking food. Much more if it is some sort of quest, some daring adventure, overcoming foes and reaching for the prize. Sorry, got carried away there.

I don’t mean just guys man-ing up and asking girls out, I mean helping each other, being the go between like we did at school discos when we were twelve. We could even set up our own dating service, I’m thinking ‘Church’ would be a great name for a place to meet and introduce people.

And when talking about relationships…

  • Accept that Sarah, the short brunette mentioned last week might not be someone’s eternal destiny
  • Talk about specifics, don’t let conversations become generic and repetitive, ‘oh there’s someone I like but I’m not sure whether they like me, or if I like them enough’.
  • Talk about beauty and attraction more than lust. Attraction is a good thing.
  • Talk about faith and where our identity and security is coming from (see I agree with Miriam there too).

Christian Connection has carried out research into the views of single Christians in the UK and are presenting the findings at an event in London next Tuesday (23rd April). I’ll be there and having seen a sneak peek of a few of the findings I can assure you it will be fascinating.

Virginity and Christian expectation

Last week I nearly didn’t go to church, I was bored of all the same words spoken. I was frustrated with the expectations and event management. I had had enough of having enough. I got annoyed with the words that people spoke, and found objections to the smallest of things. There was something deeply out of step, and going to church only made that worse.

Tomorrow I will walk through the doors again, partly out of habit, and partly out of a determination not to let my disenchantment beat me, partly because I still believe the church to be a good thing. But also out of pride.

Out of pride that I don’t want to let my guard down, I don’t want people to know that everything is not quite a-okay. Slightly defeated by writing this post.

I feel as though I have an image to protect. That of the sorted Christian. The one who doesn’t have doubts or struggles, the one who knows which verses to quote at which point, who knows the right point in songs to raise their arms in worship. The one who knows just how much sarcasm and cynicism about church culture is acceptable.

This is probably the most vulnerable thing I have ever written, I can write about relationships and keep that at arms length, I can write about being single, even in deeply personal terms and manage that. I can throw a dose of humour into posts about dating, I try and find the seems of compassion when addressing controversial topics. But on this I have no guard, I am deeply exposed.

Zoe Sanderson has written this week that: “God is big enough to handle our questions, but in my experience churches often aren’t”. When we have questions and doubts church should be a place where they can be wrestled with in all their raw, uncertain, honesty. They shouldn’t be made into abstraction, and they shouldn’t be shunned out of fear they may cause others to question or undermine the values and beliefs of the church. When the church is afraid to listen to questions it loses the right to try and answer them.

Shame is different to acknowledging that something is other than the way it should be. I do not think my attitude towards church is a particularly healthy one, and I would prefer it to be otherwise. However, fearing speaking out about those doubts and problems because shame may be the result is a far worse situation. I worry that promoting too perfect a vision for how something should be creates a culture that silences uncertainty. And this can make the church the last place people turn with their doubts. Continue reading

Affection, ambiguity and Anna Karenina

I had planned to read much of Anna Karenina over Christmas. That didn’t happen: between being ill, cooking food, playing with my nieces and defending the ending to Downton Abbey’s Christmas special, I managed a scant 60 pages. However in those early pages of this Russian masterpiece I came across a line that struck me with considerable force.

“But Levin was in love, and therefore Kitty seemed to him so perfect in every respect, so transcending everything earthly, and he seemed to himself so very earthly and insignificant a creature, that the possibility of his being considered worthy of her by others or by herself was to him unimaginable.”

Anna-Karenina-Poster-–-Pure-Love-460x650Two things immediately strike me from this passage, firstly, the early throws of affection limit our ability to think clearly. And secondly, sometimes when we like someone so much we find it hard to conceive that they might feel the same way.

It’s that moment when you meet someone and suddenly they become everything that matters. All else fades away. Except it doesn’t, it just retreats into a corner of your self which you allow to go untended for a while. They capture your imagination with an unreal sense of importance, you are for a short period of time infatuated. You see only their positives, only the things about them you want to be true. As Levin did with Kitty you see them as perfect. If you know the story of Anna Karenina you’ll know it’s not quite as simple as this, in fact, if you know anything about the interaction between any two people you will know it is never as simple as this. Continue reading