Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
James 1:27 is a verse of scripture that I have spent hours contemplating. It seems like such a straightforward verse. Take care of the orphans and widows. It is an exhortation that we, as Christians, should take seriously at face value. That being true, we often fail to give this exhortation weight. For many of us, either because of proximity or life stage, we may not naturally interact with people that fall within our understanding of these two categories. I mean, unless you make an intentional effort to go on a mission trip, or pursue becoming a foster or adoptive parent, many of us will find engaging with “orphans” a rare occurrence. Widows are a different story, however in our culture we mostly expect them to be cared for by immediate family. Also, we don't have a lot of patience or grace for the grieving. We expect grief to resolve within weeks, and often move on with our schedules and lives long before the shock wears off for those who have lost a spouse. All this to say, even at face value, we are not great at heeding this command. What is more convicting, and what has captivated me in this verse, is the richer meaning and deeper implications that come forward when this verse is read in the Message paraphrase:
26-27 Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. James 1:26-27 (MSG)
In this paraphrase, Eugene Peterson exchanges “orphan and widow” with two words that force us to look beyond the stereotypes. The “homeless and loveless” are not people in some third world country, they very well may be in the seat next to us at church. This I relate to personally.
There was a long season in my life when, although I wasn’t an “actual” orphan, I certainly felt homeless and loveless. My parents divorced when I was around 9 years old, and the consequences of that fracture still pop up from time to time three decades later. I don’t share this to in any way criticize my parents. I have great relationships with both of them and my step parents, however it is still true to say that there was a season in my life when the fallout from the brokenness in my family certainly left me feeling “homeless and loveless”.
For a number of years, this was a feeling that existed over me like a heavy coat. There was hardly a day that went by when the ache of loneliness, or the feeling of worthlessness didn’t color my relationships, decisions, or outlook. The one place that this feeling was somewhat alleviated was my church. I felt more at home there than I did anywhere else. This wasn’t to say that I felt “secure” there, just that it was the place where I felt the least alone and worthless. For all intents and purposes, it was my “safest” place. Maybe that is what set me up for the most painful feeling of homeless and loveless I would ever experience, because my guard was down and I just didn’t see it coming.
I was maybe a Junior or Senior in High School, and I had gone to the Christmas eve service at my Church. At the time I was living with my Grandma and Grandpa. Although my twin brother and I both attended the same church, I am not sure where he was on this evening. We were not sitting together. None of the rest of my family attended church. Not since my parents divorce, so I was family-less at this particular service. Which for me was fine, because I was sitting with friends from the youth group. The music was stirring and heartfelt, the sanctuary was lit by candlelight, it truly was a beautiful service. I felt glad to be there celebrating the birth of Jesus with my church family. Everything was wonderful, safe, and joyous. And then, all of the sudden, it wasn’t.
Nobody did anything wrong. Nobody was hateful or cruel. All that happened was that near the end of the service, the pastor simply instructed us to move across the sanctuary and gather with our families for a time of family devotion and prayer. The youth group often sat together in a particular section, and it was time for them to join their parents. When he instructed us to do this, all my friends disappeared and I suddenly felt exposed tangibly for what I felt I truly was, homeless and loveless. Nobody meant for me to feel rejected or exposed, but as I watched people join their families I physically felt the sting.
For a moment I thought if I didn’t move, maybe nobody would notice or see how unloved and worthless I was. That thought quickly passed as I realized hot tears were streaming down my face. I needed to get out of there before I started wailing… which I knew was coming. I could feel the audible groan trying to fight its way out of my chest. If I was going to maintain any dignity at all, I was going to have to get out of there before I lost control. I got up and did my best not to sprint to the sanctuary door. I knew that when I got out of that door, it was another 20 or so yards across the foyer to the door to the parking lot. I knew that no one would be in the foyer, so I could run once I got there and I would not draw attention, that way when I got outside, I could scream, vomit, cry, wail, everything that I felt was going to come out of me without the shame of people seeing me, and knowing how worthless I was. Once I made it to the foyer, I began to lose control. I broke into a full sprint as heaving sobs began spilling from the depths of my soul. I know this may sound overly dramatic, but truly, every bit of pain that I had been denying, or holding at bay, began rushing out of me in the most embarrassing, visceral, and uncontrollable way. My one clear thought was “Just get to the parking lot...you can fall apart in your car.”
As I reached the door to the parking lot, thinking I was almost free, I felt something completely unexpected. It was not a spiritual epiphany. It was not the overwhelming experience of God the Father. Although the scriptures say that He is the Father to the fatherless, and that He will never leave us or forsake us, in that moment, His presence was not what I felt. Although, as Christians, we often sing well meaning worship songs that communicate that Jesus is all we need, it isn’t true. God himself knew that we as humans would need each other. We need family and community. We need people with skin. We need flesh and blood. So, when I was almost out the door of that foyer, the strange feeling that I had was the petite hand of a woman named Kathy Stevenson grabbing my collar and stopping me dead in my tracks.
Gene and Kathy Stevenson.
As I sit here, thinking about this couple and the many ways they tangibly loved so very many in our church, my heart feels as though it is going to burst and my eyes are filled with tears. I think if I were to recount all the ways that they demonstrated love, hospitality, compassion, inclusion, or simply by being who they were demonstrated the character of God, I could fill a book on my experiences alone. If I were to contact others from just the short years of my own youth group experience, I am sure we could collectively fill volumes. They had two kids of their own, Shawn and Julie. Both who are equally amazing people. But Gene and Kathy seemed to have a never ending internal resource of kind care. Their modest home in Cowiche, WA was the center of so many youth group hang outs. It was remarkable how many teenagers and young adults could fit into their tiny kitchen, consuming endless amounts of “dip”, or the late nights that dozens were crammed into their home, noisily playing games or watching movies into the wee hours of the morning. Somewhere in the middle of these evenings Gene would dismiss himself to go into “the horizontal resting position”. There was never a complaint of the noise, or mess, or chaos of all those kids. “Welcome” would be the word that I would use to describe not just their home, but their hearts and the general disposition of their souls.
With all that said, it shouldn’t have been surprising to me that the hand that stopped me just short of despair and the frigid winter night, was Kathy’s. As I turned to face her, first I was shocked that she caught me. She must have been running pretty fast to catch me. I didn’t have time to process that though, because when I looked at her, I was shocked to see the tears in her eyes.
“Where are you going?!” she asked as tears streaked her cheeks. “I don’t have a family.” I managed to squeak out still trying to hold myself together. She looked directly into my eyes with such pain, understanding, compassion, and love. She simply replied, “Yes, you do.” She took me by the hand and led me back into the sanctuary, where Gene was with at least 10 other “kids” that were not their natural born kids, but whom Ma and Pa Stevenson had welcomed in. “Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight.” The Stevenson’s were not the only family to love me well through seasons of loneliness, but they certainly were some of the first to teach me what hospitality truly was, and how to make room in our family for those whom God might want to love through us. Anyone who has ever felt loved and invited in by Suz and I should ask the Lord to bless Gene and Kathy. They set a good example for me.
If there is one thing I would like for us as believers to consider this season, it is this; How can I tangibly love and invite in the loveless and the homeless? We are surrounded by people who may not be “actual” orphans… but they certainly feel like they are. On my journey of surrendering my life, including my broken sexuality, one of the greatest challenges was the fear of feeling, or being, alone. When you stop to think about how much people leaving homosexuality stand to lose in order to follow Jesus, it is quite profound. They may lose their spouse, their identity, their community, everything they have built their lives around. It would be fair to say that they may feel homeless and loveless. It is a heavy weight to bear, and I would say that we can’t, and are not called to bear it alone. The Lord has asked His people to be a people that see the orphan (homeless) and the widow (loveless) and to care well for them.
That Christmas Eve service could have ended as one of the most painful nights of my life. Instead, it ended with a powerful act of love that changed my life and influenced the way I and my wife live, love, and minister. I am so glad that Kathy was sensitive, saw my pain and loneliness, and that she chased me down. May I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes this season to those around you who may need you to chase them down as well.