“Are you gonna be okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, of course,” I said, confident in my answer. This was not my first bridal shower. I’ve been to a decade of them. And I’ve been to weddings. Last year, I went to eight of them. Eight weddings in one year. (Remember weddings? Before COVID?)
“I know these things can be hard,” my friend said, measuring my expression for sincerity.
“Yeah, they used to be,” I admitted. “But it’s been a good year and God has been so faithful to me in everything, and I’m okay – really. I am so at peace with this rich, full life God has given me.”
It wasn’t a lie, although I have had to explain the truth of it so many times recently I sometimes wonder. I can go to a wedding and dance my heart out and feel nothing but joy. I can look forward to bridal showers and baby showers and not feel that painful sting of disappointment that someone else has received a blessing I so dearly wanted. Do I occasionally loiter around the cake and coffee for a little extra emotional support? Absolutely.
But mostly I’m fine.
“Alright then, can you carry in the Jelly Beans?” she asked.
Michelle and I had parked a few blocks away from the house that, in an hour or so, would be Grand Central Station for bridal buzz. I carried the box of candies and we hurried down the sidewalk in our nice dresses and pretty shoes, excited for what the afternoon would hold.
I wasn’t officially part of the set-up committee, but I had spent the night at Michelle’s house and had therefore been drafted into the pre-party team. I didn’t know either of the ladies already at the house, plumping cushions and rearranging tables for the expected guests. Both women were sweet and earthy and incredibly welcoming. I love people like that. And they were both good huggers, which – even in those pre-COVID days – was a quality I appreciated.
“Mary, if you’ll just strip these branches down and then place them around the tables for decoration, that would be so helpful,” said the hostess.
Decorative branch placement is, I’ll admit, not something I feel qualified to do. Some women know how to put a room together – I am not one of them.
“This is not my gifting,” I whispered to Michelle as I awkwardly tucked the branches around the salad bowls she was placing on a white tablecloth.
My gifting, I think, is to keep the pot stirred enough that the comfort levels of my friends and family never quite settle. You know what they say: if you can’t be sanctified, you sanctify.
Okay, I made that one up. But it feels true.
The bride’s sister waltzed into the room in a confectionarily sweet rush of positivity and smiles. Rachel is a cheerful saint.
“I still have stuff in the car if anyone can help!” she said, her tone nearly as bright as her smile. I jumped on the chance to let someone else fix the boughs of whatever plant this was and followed her outside.
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” Rachel said. It’s hard not to feel warm and loved when Rachel talks – she makes you feel like you’re the person she’s been waiting to see all day. She gave me a snug little squeeze. “I’m so glad you can help! How have you been?”
In snippets, we tried to catch up, but eventually we both got pulled into the whirlwind of party set-up. The Jelly Beans found themselves in tiny bowls around the house, which was a gorgeous home that felt like a cross between a day spa and a log cabin. Someone had fixed my branches and the salad bowls were now accompanied by sandwich plates and platters for dips and dressings. Things had been elegantly draped, labeled and touched with a grace of forethought I most assuredly do not possess.
And then we waited.
With little left to do in the house, we found ourselves headed back outside to enjoy the sunshine of early March. I took a seat on the steps and Michelle and Rachel joined me on the beautiful brick stairway.
“Have you gotten any feedback for your article?” Rachel asked.
Ah, the article. That small work which has led me down a year-long quest to better understand and further engage the Christian community on the issue of singleness. At that time, I had only just posted the blog a few weeks before, and in it I laid out the case for greater introspection on the issue of singleness in the church. It was a strongly worded letter, as far as blogs go, and I had definitely received feedback.
If you can’t be sanctified…
Writing it hadn’t been hard (though it came from some hard-earned experiential wisdom). It was the bevy of conversations which followed that had been difficult.
“I think people who are happily married felt a little attacked,” I said slowly, choosing my words delicately in the presence of these dear married friends of mine. “People who haven’t had to walk a long season of singleness or haven’t had to live through the effects of growing up in a community where marriage is valued the way it is don’t fully understand it when I say, ‘Marriage is not the source of joy’ because, for many of them, marriage certainly has been the primary channel from which God has poured joy into their lives. When I say, ‘marriage is being overvalued and it’s hurting our congregations,’ they don’t want to believe me.”
“But marriage is valuable,” said Michelle with a tender firmness. She and I had spent a lot of the previous night and this morning’s breakfast talking about singleness, marriage and women in the church. It had been productive and insightful. But that’s just Michelle all over: productive and insightful.
“It is,” I agreed, feeling tired already.
The more I have dug into this issue, the more I have realized how many people in the Christian community don’t understand that our words and actions can sometimes create a culture where marriage looks like the fulfillment of things that can only truly be found in a relationship with God, things like identity and purpose and worth. And things that are implicitly taught can be so hard to identify and uproot. At first, these conversations had been riveting – it is such a privilege to be able to engage hearts and minds – but I was beginning to feel small beneath them.
“Marriage is such a blessing,” I said carefully, trying to measure my words again. “But it shouldn’t be valued above singleness – both are equally important callings of God to serve his kingdom, just in different ways.”
Our hostess joined us on the steps and listened with a thoughtful expression right as I launched into my “life of purpose” spiel. It’s the one where I drag out Jeremiah 29:11 where God says “I know the plans that I have for you… Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for a future and a hope.” And then I mention the verse in Ephesians where we are told God has prepared good works for us to do. This isn’t conditional, we aren’t promised a future and a hope and a purposeful life only if we find a spouse. No, this is a promise for all of God’s children, wherever they are on the road he has placed before their feet.
And what a promise.
I believe these words with my whole being but by that point, “the marriage idol” and the question of the identity and fullness of the single Christian felt like a worn out topic in my mouth. Some days I’m ready for a battle, and some days I just want to sit on the steps and eat Jelly Beans. For once, I wasn’t really feeling like being a pot-stirrer.
I let Michelle take the reins of the conversation and Rachel gave me a look that gently seemed to ask, are you okay?
Of course I’m okay. I have all these promises of God to keep me company.
The bride arrived with another wave of cheer. Like her sister, she is a calming fount – but where Rachel bubbles, her sister gently streams.
Hugs were given, pictures were taken, conversation was had. Like most parties, the guests began to arrive slowly at first and then all at once. The quiet, beautiful home turned into a space bustling with laughter, smiles and the gentle hum of joy.
If I learned anything from the eight weddings I attended last year, it’s to treasure the fellowship afforded at celebrations like this (and to always clock the cake table). Women from at least five different churches embraced and encouraged one another, enjoying each other’s company. Some I knew well, others I have simply seen as a constant backdrop to the church gatherings and events I have been to over the years.
Trying to say hello to everyone was impossible. A few people were already tucked deep into conversations or were too far across the sea of faces to easily reach – like the girl I had recently met at a fellowship meeting, or the golden-haired mother of one of my friends, or the silver-crowned saint from a neighboring church… Life is too short to spend enough time with all the people in it.
After the obligatory consumption of sandwiches and salad (and Jelly Beans), we played bridal shower games.
I am good at these.
My competitive nature, combined with the number of showers I have attended in the last eighteen months, has made me a force to be reckoned with. Give me the toilet paper and I will make you a bridal masterpiece that could walk itself down a runway. (I’m also pretty good with gift bingo, but that wasn’t on the agenda at this particular gathering).
“Time for the bridal quiz!” Rachel declared, her voice tinkling across the room like a chorus of little bells. With the bride snuggly in a rocker and a slew of girls gathered around her feet like packages about a Christmas tree, I found a corner in the back of the room by the hallway occupied only by a young woman and a bowl of candy.
“Hey, how are you?” I whispered to her as I maneuvered closer to the bowl of sweets (the cake had not yet appeared, so I was making do with what was available and Jelly Beans are an eternal joy).
She smiled at me with buttery blue eyes that made me feel warm to my soul and responded back in a whisper as someone tried to edge around me to get to the hallway bathroom. I never quite know where to stand for these things.
“I liked your blog post, by the way,” she whispered as the bridal quiz began in the living room. “I’d love to talk more about it.”
She would be a good person, I thought – the epitome of a servant-hearted woman who has walked through the season of singleness with purpose and grace. I added her to a mental list of women interested in sharing their experiences, but I didn’t push the topic there – I was feeling a bit talked out on singleness and my hand was a little more emotionally attached to the Jelly Beans than I had expected it to be.
“We asked the groom some questions about the bride and she has to guess what his answers are,” Rachel was explaining to the enraptured room that was bursting with giggles. Leadership is one of Rachel’s giftings – she executes the role with the same grace some might use to place a decorative bough on a salad table.
“How are you doing?” the young woman in the corner asked me as Rachel continued the instructions, and I could see the same kind of concern in her eyes that had been in Michelle’s and Rachel’s earlier. It was that ‘are you okay?’ look I was beginning to know so well. I shrugged.
“Just waiting for the cake,” I smiled.
We both turned our attention to the game and laughed as our friend tried to figure out what her betrothed thought his best gift to her had been. What an interesting thing, I thought, to be known by someone. What must it be like to have someone who can read your mood at a glance or know just how you like your coffee or share the same favorite moments with you?
And just then, unexpectedly and out of nowhere, a painful throb I thought I had long-conquered found its way into my chest. It’s an empty ache, the kind that longs to be filled by something. For all my talk of a purposeful life and my unresting march toward changing our perspective on singleness and marriage, I sometimes forget about the very real desire to be known by someone.
Are you gonna be okay? I asked myself as the ache spread from my chest toward my finger tips.
Unsure of my own answer, I left my friend in the corner and meandered into the kitchen, out of the line of sight of the quizzers, and found the coffee spread.
“Hiding?” asked a voice behind me and I turned to see my friend’s golden-haired mother, a woman with a sweeping blonde mane and the world’s softest smile. I tried not to blush at getting caught avoiding the festivities, but I suppose some women just understand these things.
“It’s quieter in here,” I said, pouring myself coffee.
The hostess came over with a plate of lemon bars – the cake! – and she showered me with the gentlest look I have received in 2020. Gentle looks and good hugs must be among her giftings, for they certainly blessed me many times that day.
“Thank you,” I whispered before she disappeared to distribute the lemon bars to the other guests, leaving me and my friend’s mom alone in the kitchen.
“I wanted to talk to you about your blog,” my friend’s mom said in a low voice. I sighed.
Her son is one of my dearest and oldest friends, thoughtful and kind and unusually intuitive – I suspect he gets a lot of that from the woman who was standing before me. I was talked out on singleness, and a lump in my throat had developed since the quiz game, but I wanted to hear what she had to say. I leaned in.
To my surprise, she didn’t say anything about singleness or marriage. She wanted to talk about what it meant to be a woman – that was it, just being a woman in the eyes of God. Who did God want us to be? What were we to him? How should that affect how we live our lives?
It was a refreshing take on an old topic, and honestly, the real root of the conversation I’ve been trying to have with people. What does it mean to carry out man’s chief end? How do we glorify God and enjoy him forever?
I felt somehow the answers there had a lot less to do with marriage and singleness than we typically ascribe.
“It’s good to hear your perspective on it,” I told her as we sipped our coffee quietly in the kitchen. “I feel like I made a lot of people feel uncomfortable with my initial article and I’m trying to understand where everyone is coming from.”
In truth, this crusade I have found myself on to get the church community talking about our treatment of marriage and singleness is proving more complicated than I had anticipated. Not the least of reasons why is that I have begun to find people inspecting my own life to see if it matches the sentiments I espouse – if being single is such a good and godly calling, why are you still making spinster jokes and stuffing your face with Jelly Beans at bridal showers? It’s hard to convince people that I am content on the path of singleness when my heart still occasionally lurches at a hope unmet. It’s hard to explain that disappointment and joy can indwell the same moment, and that the promises of God provide a scaffolding for building ourselves up beneath the gravity of pain but they do not take the pain away.
Convincing the church that God has a plan in calling his children to walk seasons or lifetimes of singleness is hard, but it’s not as hard as it can be trying to persuade my own heart. And that – that, dear friends – is why I wrote the blog in the first place, because I need help reminding my sinful heart that this life is not my own and God’s plans for me are good, even when I find myself lonely and hurting at a bridal shower.
We talked in hushed tones in the kitchen as the bride opened up her gifts and I watched from over a countertop with a longing eye – not for the gifts nor for the implied groom, but for the sisters at her feet. They knew her, too, perhaps better than her intended did – for now at least.
Oh, to be known! To be loved! To be full!
Like most parties, it ended slowly and then all at once. Michelle was tugging on my arm, ready to get home to continue her busy day as a wife and mother. I grabbed a couple of Jelly Beans for the road and followed her out the door.
We drove back to her house where my car was parked and she gave me a squeeze.
“You’re always welcome,” she said, and I know she means it. Hospitality must be one of her giftings, like some people are with decorative branches or gentle glances or cheerfully leading a group in organized fun.
I pulled out of her drive to begin my two-hour trek home as the sky erupted in a magmatic flow of color. The confidence and peace with which I had walked into this bridal shower had withered into doubt and disappointment.
“Am I gonna be okay?” I asked God, speaking out loud.
No answer, obviously.
For all my talk about the value of singleness and its place in the body of Christ, there was no denying that it can be a lonely road from time to time.
“Is it too much to want to be known?” I asked God again. My words were lost in the blarrings of the radio I had cranked up to drown out the ringing in my chest. The sky melted further into burning reds and oranges, and I melted with it into my own burning worries and wants.
My mind searched desperately for the promises I know God gives for comfort and hope in times like these. I knew they were there. Hadn’t I just this afternoon heralded the truth of God’s Word, all those pages of Scripture filled with the promise of purpose, redemption, peace, hope and joy?
All these things I know. They are etched onto my aching heart. But as much as I long for a life filled with purpose, I long to be known, too.
I let the road absorb my tears for a little while and then I turned down the radio.
I thought of the girls at the foot of the bride. We can be known by anyone. How many of the women today had proven that to me – understanding when I might need a hug or a lemon bar or to hide in the kitchen – and how many of my friends would ace that bridal quiz? I am known.
Something in my mind clicked.
Isn’t that a promise, too? Doesn’t the God who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, who hems us in behind in before, who knows each word on our tongues before it is spoken, who tests our anxious thoughts and leads us in the Way Everlasting – doesn’t he know us? Doesn’t he know us perfectly?
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12)
Brushing tears from my face, I blinked up at a sky now green and gold with dusk. For all the fuss I make about people looking for things in marriage that only God can perfectly give, I had certainly called this one wrong today. The desire to be known in relationships and in marriage is natural, but it is only a glimpse of what it is like to be known by God.
God knows who I am – he made me. He made someone who will latch onto a controversial issue and boil it down to its bones and then spoon-feed it to people until it is fully consumed. He also made me someone who cannot place a decorative branch to save my life.
And God knows what he made me for. He has paved my road with his own plans. It is cobbled with blessings, even if marriage has not yet been one of them, even if it never is.
What a great God we have. And he did not do all these things because he knows me fully (though he does), but rather because these things are meant to help me better know him, that he might be glorified. And one day, I will know him fully, and I will enjoy him forever.
I smiled in the dark as tail lights from traffic turned my dashboard red.
With a sigh, I realized I might need to keep stirring this pot a little longer. It may be an annoying gifting, but it’s the one I’ve got. I know I’m not the only Christian struggling on the road God has ordained. This Christian walk is a constant practice in trust and patience and faith. Rediscovering God in our low and lonely moments is a life-long process and all too often we look in the wrong places. But what better desire than to seek to understand who we are before him and what he expects of us, man or woman, married or single?
And if we seek him with all our hearts, he will be found – that’s his promise. That’s the second part of the verse from Jeremiah, so often overlooked. After God tells us he has plans for us, he promises that if we seek him he will be found by us. The real hope is not of plans and future blessings in this life, not the hope of marriage or of joy in singleness or of purpose in service. The hope is Christ, and we have him already.
I popped the last stolen Jelly Bean into my mouth and thought with a smile, just a few weeks till the wedding! I bet they’ll have cake and dancing. (There wasn’t because of COVID, but that was part of God’s sovereign plan, too.)
Evening stars blinked above my windshield and my pretty shoes lay on the passenger seat next to me.
What a rich, full life God has given us to live, and what a comfort to be known.