When I was in my teens, I’d commonly be out with a whole crew of my younger siblings, baby in arm and toddler by the hand, picking up kids from Sunday school or guiding the whole tribe through Costco while giving Mom enough room to actually shop. I’m the oldest of 12 kids, so it wasn’t unusual for me to have eight or more siblings in tow.
More times than one would think possible, somebody would stop me and ask, “Are they all yours?” Apparently people can’t do math, or they’re really, really bad at guesstimating age. I’ve never particularly looked older than I am; and at 16, I definitely couldn’t have had eight children.
But it was funny, so I laughed it off.
Last year, I was working my book table at a local fair when another vendor saw me packing up and said, “Going home to your kids?” Around the same time, somebody else asked me what my husband did for a living. I still laugh, but it’s not as funny anymore, because I’m no longer 16 with a host of siblings behind me — I’m 29, and I’m single.
Which is what I explain when someone asks one of those awkward questions. I am not unhappy as a single; in fact, I believe this is where God wants me right now, and I’m incredibly content. But somehow it always feels like confessing to a defect.
Mother’s Day is ripe for such awkward moments. Especially at church, where the lady at the door always hands me a rose or when all the women are supposed to stand up to be applauded. And around me, as I stand there in applause that isn’t for me, are my friends snuggling their little ones or holding the hands of their still-new spouses. No, singleness isn’t a defect. But it creates an undeniable hollow at times.
Something to Fix?
There are deep-seated, creation-caused reasons for that hollow. We women were originally designed to come alongside men, to bear children, to participate in families. But often, I find the hollow has less to do with the needs I’m feeling inside me and more to do with trying to explain myself to the expectations of family and friends, church, and society, who want me to fill a role I’m not filling.
It doesn’t help that church — well-meaning though it is and important as it is to talk about these things — places so much emphasis on family roles and relationships. I can easily find sermons, articles, books, conferences and support groups to help me worship God as a wife and mother or to suggest ways to navigate relationships until reaching the end goal of a godly marriage. It is not as easy to find resources or community that will help me define myself as a single woman disciple, one who is whole now, useful now, fruitful now and called now. It seems that most of Protestant Christianity agrees that my singleness is a problem, one which needs to be fixed.
But I am not sure Jesus agrees.
Martha and her sister, Mary, were single women when Jesus met them, living with their brother, Lazarus, in a town outside Jerusalem. According to tradition, they remained single for the rest of their lives. Persecution forced them to flee Judea, but the three carried the Gospel to far-flung places together and eventually settled in Cyprus.
Most of us are familiar with the story of their first encounter with Christ, as told in Luke 10:38–42. After Martha invited Jesus into her home, she went to work exercising the womanly art of hospitality while Mary sat at Jesus’s feet to listen to Him teach — taking the posture of a disciple listening to her rabbi, something women were not exactly supposed to do.
Martha was understandably unhappy about being left to carry the workload alone, so she tried to enlist Jesus’s help — probably expecting that He would take a normal societal view and be glad to get Mary out of His hair anyway.
But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:40–42).
What strikes me when I read this story is not so much that Martha was busy, but that, like women today (and probably like many men as well), Martha was defining herself by the roles she was supposed to fill in society. Women did not sit at the rabbi’s feet. Women served meals and practiced hospitality. It was what made them good women, notable women, women who were doing the right thing. Jesus’s reply was not just an injunction to sit down and relax, but an invitation to redefine herself. Only one thing was necessary. One thing.
And that one thing was not living up to the expectations of society or church, but sitting at the feet of Jesus and becoming a disciple.
Opportunity to Love
Later, Jesus was teaching publicly when,
A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (Luke 11:27–28).
In Matthew, He said the most startling thing of all:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 24:46–50).
As human beings living in a world of relationships, discipleship will mean many things for us. It will mean being godly mothers, godly wives, godly sisters and daughters. For many of us it will mean keeping a home and keeping it well; helping a husband; raising children. For others it may mean a different life entirely — something more like the life Martha and Mary eventually lived, traveling the civilized world to spread the good news of the One who once dined in their home.
But only one relationship will be necessary. Only one.
Ultimately, it is relationship with Jesus Christ that counts. My dear single sisters in Jesus, if you do the will of the Father, you are the sister and mother of Jesus Christ. Every opportunity to love another person, in whatever capacity you are able to do right now, is an opportunity to love Jesus. Every opportunity to wash the feet of God’s people, every opportunity to meet their needs, is an opportunity to take care of Jesus.
And every opportunity to sit at His feet and hear Him, to be His disciple, is not to be missed. This relationship is primary. It is the relationship, ultimately, that defines us — as Christians, as women, as disciples. We are not barren, or forgotten, or unfeminine, or unfulfilled. We are sisters and mothers of God.
This Mother’s Day, I honor with all my heart my own mother and the many like her who have served their husbands and children, formed the bedrock of society, and taught so many of us how to love. And I’m committed anew to living out my own calling for today, remembering that we are not ultimately defined by our roles but by one miraculous relationship.
As women, we were indeed created to be “helpmeets” and to be mothers. But before that, we were created for God. In eternity, marriage and family will be swallowed up in the greater reality of marriage to the Lamb and participation in His family, His body. That is a reality that has already begun. It’s one you and I find ourselves in now — whether we’re married, single or somewhere in between.
And when people refer offhandedly to my kids or the husband they’re sure I must have somewhere, I’ll probably still find it awkward sometimes. But I hope, in those moments, that I can live my life so plugged in to the truth that I remember who I am: a disciple at the feet of Jesus, the only one I eternally need.
Copyright 2012 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.