I mentioned in an earlier post that while I am trusting the Spirit to guide me as I travel, there are a few people and places I plan to visit on this Emmaus Road Trip because I already know reflect Christ and their stories deserve to be told. My biggest fear in these cases is that I won’t be able to find appropriate words to make that reflection clear to my readers. Last week I visited with a family that exemplifies living faith and I am anxious to tell at least a little bit of their story. However, if you will indulge me, I feel the need to set the stage with a brief Bible study. Tomorrow I will post the narrative of Genevieve and her family.
As I have hinted at and sometimes declared outright, there are times when I take issue with today’s church. Simply put, I don’t think the church is a very good reflection of the person and nature of Christ as he is revealed in the Bible. It’s funny the different responses I get to that statement. Un-churched people usually nod their heads enthusiastically in agreement, whereas regular church attenders often become defensive and tell me how good their church is or how their pastor is such a great preacher. The fact is, I consider myself a decent preacher and have been told as much many times, yet, I don’t feel that I have been very effective in leading any church I have pastored to reflect the nature of Christ to the world at large.
As one called and anointed to “preach the word” I have often been frustrated that people with whom I share the good news of God’s love and His desire to enrich their lives, will often take a little bit of it but then just kind of stagnate. In 30 plus years of ministry I can think of too few lives that I would say have been “radically transformed” by God. The problem isn’t God’s lack of power, but our (I definitely include myself in this) failure to understand the depth and breadth of the power that is available to us who believe.
As I have wrestled with this and studied the Scriptures I am convinced that the lack of understanding stems from our uneven reading and understanding of the Bible itself. At some point during my wrestling, I came across a verse that just smacked me up side of the head. I have memorized it, quoted it often, studied it, restudied, meditated on it and even now after many years I am still gaining understanding, with a recognition that I still don’t grasp it entirely. But here it is, in James’ letter to the church God inspired him to write these words: “Religion that God our Father considers pure and faultless is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27 NIV)
Now I know better than to hang everything on a single verse, yet in that one verse I found what I am convinced diagnoses the problem (at least in part) and offers the solution (also in part) to the diminished power of today’s church. Again, I recognize that all things must be kept in context, and in the limited space below I have attempted to offer evidence to show that I am being faithful to the whole of scripture with this thought.
When I came into the church in my late teens the clear emphasis was on the latter part of that verse – “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” By and large, the primary message of the evangelical church was; how to live a holy life in a fallen and sinful world. Today, it is much the same, though perhaps a little softer and focused a bit more on how to have a happy life, with the underlying current being that you need to live a clean life in order to have a happy life. By the time I came to understand this message I was already pretty polluted though I didn’t even know it. In my mind I was a nice guy. As I got more and more involved in the church, I found that some of the things I thought were no big deal, were frowned upon by the clean folk in my new circle and gradually I was lead to clean up my act. When I was called to preach, I began to preach to others the need to clean up their acts as well. Everywhere I looked within the church that was the basic message. A good Christian doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t dance, (might lead to carnal desires) doesn’t smoke, doesn’t cuss, doesn’t go to the movies, (where sin and depravity are glorified), and the list of things a good Christian doesn’t or shouldn’t do goes on.
The thing is, I don’t recall hearing much, if anything, about the first part of that verse; “to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” If anything, it was implied that such social work was the domain of the liberal mainline churches that had already “watered down” the Gospel. However, a further study of church history shows that compassionate outreach to the poorest of the poor is an essential cornerstone of the evangelical church of the late 19th and early 20th century. In fact, virtually every social action addressing the needs of the downtrodden originated in God’s church.
As I mediated and studied that verse I learned this. The English word “and” doesn’t appear in the original language in which the Bible was written. But because there seem to be two distinct statements made, the word “and” was inserted to make the verse flow better. Yet, here is a literal translation of the text: religion pure and undefiled with the God and Father is this, to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation — unspotted to keep himself from the world. (YLT) So what if there is really only a single statement here? What if we read the verse like this? “Religion that God our father consider pure and faultless is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress (in order) to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
What if the real key to personal purity is found not in a list of do’s don’ts but in following God’s command and example of caring for those who are most needy? In the Old Testament we read this description of God: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” (Psalm 68:5 NIV) In Isaiah when we read of God chastising his people we find this: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10:1-2 NIV) These are just two of the dozens of verses that speak of God’s concern for the fatherless, widows and aliens living among His chosen people.
Furthermore, consider Jesus response when questioned about the greatest commandment. He said we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves and even went so far as to say: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:40 NIV) Or how about these words from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches that had fallen into legalism: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14 NIV) [In case you think Paul was contradicting Jesus, understand that since he was writing to Christians, the loving God part was presumed]
The longer I live and the more I study and pray, the more I see this as critical to our understanding of God’s will for his church. So it was with James 1:27 in mind, and at least the germ of this understanding that back in 1997 my wife and I decided to become foster parents, opening our home to a fatherless child. Enter Genevieve, whose story I promise to tell in my next post.