On the First Day of the Holiday Season

It’s the time of the year again when photos of children in costume and heavy wet autumn snow on not yet fallen leaves grace the pages of the Internet. Thanksgiving recipes begin to circulate and angry treastises on celebration dos and donts are pounded out on keyboards heard round the world. It’s the time of the year when families line their kids up around a fireplace or an Aspen tree or in a leaf pile or on grandparents day and snap the photo that will land in our mailbox in three, two, one weeks. I begin my yearly debate: should I find a photo of the two of us? Just a card with a message scrawled in it? A form letter, impersonal with the air of personality? One of those one page numbers with graphics and foil and a paperweight heft that says, “I spent money on this which is better than spending time on it.”

When I was still unmarried, every few years I would gather my gumption and send out a stack of cards to my dearest people scattered upon the earth. No photo, just a note. In our first year of marriage we sent a smiling image of us two and the tree we cut down with our own bare hacksaw. I can’t remember being so happy, or healthy, before or since. It was Thanksgiving weekend and seven friends were stuffed into our small house in Denver. A recipe for memories, some good and some bad. But it was before the second miscarriage (and the third and fourth and all the rest), before my birthday and the shooting I witnessed on it, before my car was broken into, and before the months of unemployment had rendered us weak. We had no idea the December and January and February yet to come. We sealed those envelopes and mailed them out and I still have that photo on our refrigerator.

Each year the Christmas cards come steadily in, smiling faces of families and babies and little ones growing. I am from a family of eight children and know those smiles don’t come without plenty of grimaces behind them, perhaps a hand on the back of a little one’s shirt to hold him still, a photographer making a fool of herself to get the toddler to smile, a story of teenage angst behind the purple hair, and the fight mom and dad had over the clothes she laid out for him. I am not naive to the sacrifices parents make to slip those embossed cards in the mail in preaddressed envelopes, to drive away feeling one glimmer of satisfaction until they notice the cheerios stuck on the floor of their minivan and the check engine light on and squabbling siblings in the back seat. I see you, friend, I see you, and I’m proud of you, but also, you didn’t have to.

Last year I didn’t send out cards despite the fact that I found pretty mint green ones with rose gold foil on them for three dollars a box in a post Christmas sale at HomeGoods the year before. They are still stacked in a giant Rubbermaid tote labeled: Christmas. We didn’t take photos and print them out. I didn’t scramble. On Christmas day Nate and I took a walk down the road from where we were staying back home in New York and the snow was falling and Harper was running in circles and the geese were squawking and we turned the camera around and shot a photo of our faces smiling for one perfect moment. I was happy again. The snow used to make me sad the way 95 degree days in October make me sad now, but the snow makes me happy now. “Happy Christmas!” I wrote on Instagram with that happy photo. And it was enough.

I have been thinking about how for a family with babies, those photos are indispensable. They mark the passing of time, growth, maturity, braces, hair cuts, tears, itchy sweaters, and college dreams. They are like the pen marks on the pantry door in the home in which I grew up. Gouges for the passing of time. No one really looks at the adults in those photos, the children are the stars of the show. But when you have no children, the only faces to see are his and hers and time is not always friendly to us past a certain age.

A new wrinkle here, more tired eyes than last year this time, a light gone out, a beard trimmed, or not. These minute particulars are the proof of the story we’re living behind the image you see. It’s true for families with children too, but different for families without. Different even more for the unmarried or alone. It is easier to celebrate how big Timmy has gotten or how beautiful Tilly has become. It is much harder to celebrate the passing of age once the grays have sprouted and the age spots are harder to cover. When you can’t hide your more-lumpy-than-curvy body behind the armor of your baby or the body of your six year old. When you have nothing to do with your hands but cling to one another for dear life. It’s harder to hide when it is only you two. Or you one.

When I was small my mother didn’t send photos in our Christmas cards. She would stack blank cards up on the table for weeks on end, it was a production, and she took it seriously. She penned a letter in each one and signed it in her round and happy font-like handwriting. We had the task of putting them in envelopes and sealing them and licking the stamps (this was before those fancy sticker stamps they have now). Piles and piles of green and red envelopes spilling all over our table for weeks. Every day we would take the stack of five or ten or fifteen she’d finished that day down to the mailbox at the end of our snowy driveway and stuff them in there for the mailman to take. I don’t know why she did it this way and perhaps I’ll ask her. But I remember it more clearly and better than any pressed and pushed family photo we ever took, except our last whole family photo in December of 1999, before Andrew died and before the divorce and before we all scattered around the globe.

Every family has a story, the big ones and the little ones, every person does too. I think I sometimes judge those fancy one page photo cards with the graphics on them because I don’t have children and I wish I did, not the future ones but the passed ones, the ones we’ve lost. But those families have stories too, painful ones, some more painful than mine. And those faces are aging, even the babies and the toddlers, they’re just more beautiful as they do it now. And those mamas and papas face unspeakable suffering too, even if they don’t sign it beside their names, on these cards, these proofs of life.

I don’t know if we’ll send cards this year or a photo or a letter or anything. Perhaps another image on social media, short, sweet, forgettable. Perhaps not. I wonder if perhaps sending a card—giving—is more for the benefit of the sender than the receiver. If marking the passage of time matters more to the one who living that time most intimately than to the one who thumbtacks it to their mantle for a month and then empties it into the garbage on that Thirteenth Morn.

Our first together.

Our first together.

A Case for Marrying Later

I have read and heard and read some more of the case for marrying young, but the more I think about it, and the more I see faithful singles in their late twenties into their thirties and forties and beyond, the more I actually do believe with Paul that it is good to remain unmarried, if not forever, at least then longer. 

What I am not saying is prolonged, aimless, meandering singleness serves anyone (including, if God wills, your future marriage). What I am saying is the purposeful, intentional, poured out life of an unmarried person for the good of the church, the community, and the earth, is a very great gift and should not be squandered or squelched by the growing concerns of married people about late marriages. 

I think the reason many—in the church especially—are concerned about this trend of later marriages is because for so long the main medium and message has centered around the family instead of around faithfulness. Procreation of children, family morals, concerns about marriage issues—these have formed a boundary line of sorts around the sort of things Christians care about. This is why singles have felt alienated, marginalized, and overlooked within the church for so long: unless they both want marriage and are actively involved in the getting of it, there isn't a box for them. Which is unfortunate. No, it's something more than unfortunate. 

I know I don't know much about marriage yet, but I do know a thing or two about being single far longer than I originally hoped. What I found in the prolonging of my singleness was not less fruitfulness, but more as time went on. I found a curious and surprising freedom of flexibility. I found I was able to love the Lord and others with fewer distractions. I found I was able to give of my finances quickly without question. I could travel easily, serve easily, and spend long periods of time in thinking, processing, and praying. What I am not saying is the often quoted line that "singles have more time and finances than married people." What I am saying is I had the same 24 hours in my day then as I do now and the same tight budget then as I do now, but I was able to spend those hours undistracted by the things marriage has called me to now. 

Some of the most faithful Christians I know today are unmarried. They are using their gifts to show a different side of what faithfulness might look like when one doesn't have children, a spouse, a mortgage, or some other constraints. They are making a case for late marriages not simply because of the kind of marriage they might have by delaying it (hopefully more mature, grounded, wise, and sanctified than if they'd come into marriage at 20 or 22), but by being extraordinarily faithful in their singleness.

To all my readers who are unmarried, thank you for being faithful and I pray you grow only more so. The Church needs to see your example of faithfulness. The Church needs to learn marriage isn't the most sanctifying agent, but age, maturity, and submission to God are, and no one is exempt from those three things. The Church needs your hands, your minds, your insights, your passion, your longing, your gifts, not because we are needy and greedy, but because for too long we have not valued what you bring to the Christian life. 

You stand in the company of Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Amy Carmichael, Joni Eareckson Tada, Mother Theresa, William Wilberforce, Florence Young, Gladys Aylward, Lottie Moon, Corrie Ten Boom, my sweet friend Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus—men and women who married late or never married at all, and of whom the world is not worthy in many ways. Faithful men and women who gave their most fruitful years not to bearing children or pleasing wives, but to the bettering of the Church and world. These are giants in my mind and they make the case for marrying late all on their own.

Marriage is a gift and it is not wrong or sinful to long for it—it is a gift I wouldn't trade today for anything, but those years of singleness were a gift too, not just to me, but to others I hope. If you have not married young, there will be sacrifices and it is good and right to mourn over those unmet desires, but then, friends, stand up in the company of those men and women above. Your undistracted, unhindered, anxiety-free faithfulness can be a gift without compare. You have not been wasted and God has not wasted you.

Marry late or not at all—God will not waste you. 

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