Being an Uncle to Church Children
“It’s so good to know somebody else who is happy not to be married and have children”, says my 86-year old spinster friend once again. And, once again, I disavow her of this erroneous assumption, though with her advanced dementia, I know I shall hear it again… and again.
I would have absolutely loved children and, as I am of a certain age, I now realise that I would have absolutely loved grandchildren. A wife may also have been nice.
It is interesting to reflect back on what expectations or hopes one may have had at certain times in our life. I clearly remember, at age 18, assuming that a decade later I would be married with a couple of children. I suppose that seemed like ‘what one did’, and yet I had not then even had a girlfriend. In hindsight, I know I felt no physical attraction to girls. I did subsequently dally (briefly) with a few girls, expecting something might develop, but I never seemed to have any joined-up thinking between that and my total lack of physical interest. Finally, sometime in my late twenties, during a wedding service, I realised that this was unlikely to happen for me.
I had always loved children, and started as a Sunday school teacher at age 16 (continuing almost without a break for the next 40 years), meanwhile adding in various clubs, children’s crusades etc.
The 20s and 30s are difficult ages for those of us in this situation, as we see our friends getting married and having families. I also found that, as I had grown up with these people and was still quite young, I immediately became a courtesy uncle to their kids. During that time, I was invited to plenty of family activities and even on a few holidays. I became the eternal ‘Uncle Paul’, and furthermore looked for any opportunity to ‘borrow’ one or two kids to take them out, or to give me an excuse for example to see a kids’ film!
A much more difficult situation ensued when I changed church in my late 50s. I found it much harder to make new friends at that age, and also to meet their kids, especially as the mums and dads were so much younger than I was. I eventually made some progress and became a much older ‘Uncle Paul’, but this was not without having to work hard at it, and meeting some disappointments. Singles can always play the victim at church and complain that they are left out and never get invited to be with families. But this is probably not intentional as their primary focus will be on their busy work and family life. I learned to get on and invite myself to their homes (even if the invite was unlikely to be reciprocated) – “just a cup of tea... any time that suits you…”. I always found that this was well-received, as families appreciate the effort and they are much less transportable than a single adult. As single people (particularly men!) we may not warm to the idea of producing a full dinner for a family, but a cuppa and biscuit will suffice – the opening up of our homes and our lives is a powerful thing.
I really like little kids, but have also found it a delight when those I have known for a long time have kept in touch through adolescence, and into adulthood, especially if they have gone on with God and now really are ‘friends’.
I had the privilege of working in China for much of my 50s. When one young man came to faith, he became my closest friend, although I am twice his age! On holiday in Thailand, his lovely little son (age 3) woke up each morning in his parents’ bed and his first question was, “Where is Grandpa Paul?”. The quality of our ‘friendship’ owes a lot to the closeness between his Dad and me.
How church should be
In a well-functioning church married people should have a stake in the lives of singles and singles in the lives of the married. No two parents can be all things to their children – and there can be great benefit from a trusted other who is external and objective. Our close connection with a family may also serve to show us that family life is not always like the perfect TV advert, which helps ease that sense of missing out!
Jesus counts each of us to be of equal value, whether or not we have a spouse and children. Jesus himself made the great sacrifice of being childless. But he also calls us to produce spiritual children in this life (Mark 10:29).
We single people need to make it a major priority to use our freedom to seek out opportunities to input the lives of others. While none of this takes away the challenges of singleness and childlessness, I see my state as one of great honour. The Apostle Paul says that marriage and singleness are both gifts, but remember that Paul always uses the idea of a gift as something to help build up the church, and not just for my own personal benefit (e.g. 1 Cor 14:12).
I still feel my lack of family acutely, but I have lived nearly 70 years of a rich and fulfilled life. Beyond everything, I have known the unfailing care of Jesus and the privilege of sharing in His sufferings, just as He said we must.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend, under the title "The Eternal Uncle". Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Winter 2020 edition of Ascend