If you want to see the model family, look no further than Facebook. It’s wonderful to chronicle family histories, vacations, and happy moments. Just as no one makes an old-fashioned scrapbook with photos of dirty laundry, however, our modern equivalent doesn’t either.
What if your family isn’t perfect? What is there is no dad on site, or a young adult is making dangerous choices, or a report card is causing concern? What if there isn't enough of you to go around, and a cloud of stress surrounds you? If your family isn't perfect, then you aren't alone. Scripture sets a standard that we all want to follow, but people and families are sometimes wounded or broken, despite our best efforts.
If your family isn't perfect, then you aren't alone.
Things happen that are out of our control. According to recent studies, less than half of America’s kids live in “traditional” two parent families (pewresearch.) Even when two parents are involved in children’s lives, discord or life's stresses may make matters difficult. Parents can be weary and overextended.
Christians fare no better than the general public in these statistics. Still, the needs of the members of single parent homes can be largely ignored in the average church congregation. Sermons on ideal parenting can actually be irrelevant to entire portions of the congregation on any given Sunday. They may even be hurtful, as parents know their struggles but can do nothing to change matters.
How should we respond when we have just listened to a sermon on the importance of a father, when many sons and daughters sit by the side of their mother, their father long gone? What of that child who left church that day, his longings confirmed, but magnified by the apparently perfect families around him? We are called to notice.
It is interesting that given the opportunity to define “true religion,” Jesus focused on two populations and two standards of behavior. James 1:27 says,
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
We are called to notice.
As Christ’s church, we want to be practicing a religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless. Many churches have funds that help single parents pay for groceries and utilities. Praise God! May they multiply! Did James mean that the church is doing what satisfies God when we give widows a gift card for groceries every month? Partly. But he meant a lot more. We are specifically told to be concerned about them in their distress. Their distress should be our concern.
If your family doesn’t fit the ideal family picture, it can be difficult and awkward to be part of Christian fellowship and activities in some churches. We ought to be looking out for the members of struggling families. One way to do this is to draw all families into our fellowships like members of our own families. Encouragement should be intentional. Instead of primarily looking out for our own biological families, we should have eagle eyes to find the people sitting on the outskirts, the people who are distressed by their circumstances. This seems like something that we should obviously do, but we often don’t.
It can be argued that true orphans have no parents (rather than one), and the church has traditionally come to the rescue of many orphans by institutions and adoptions throughout history. This is true, but James is addressing our attitudes, not just our official actions. To look after means, in the Greek, to visit, to look out for. James is urging us to be concerned for orphans and widows, to have their backs. When women are raising children on their own, their state of the same as that of a widow. These are the people we should be looking out for. This is what makes our religion authentic.
There is a new orphan, however, and it’s important that the church change with the times and adjust to the needs of its people. Today’s orphans may be the children whose one parent works and leaves them wanting for security and attention in his or her unavoidable and regular temporary absence. Or the two parent family where the one parent is sometimes around, but doesn’t provide a roll model and/or care that is acceptable. This is where the church can step in. Opportunities abound.
James is urging us to be concerned for orphans and widows, to have their backs.
Scripture teaches that Timothy had a mother and grandmother who taught him the ways go Christ. It is interesting how Paul stepped into his life and discipled him. I Timothy 1:2 is written “To Timothy my (Paul’s) true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Today, there are many young men like Timothy who will be great men of God, if they have men who step up and mentor them, like Paul did Timothy. That person may be you.
It is the second part of James’ definition that makes the church safe for all families: “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The world is a tough place. When we, as Christians, remain unpolluted by the world, we are a safe place. God calls this practice true religion because there are no strings attached. Love, compassion and acceptance are an extension of who Christ is. Corruption adds to problems. The fruit of the Spirit heal.
Today, there are many young men like Timothy who will be great men of God, if they have men who step up and mentor them, like Paul did Timothy. That person may be you.
If your family isn’t perfect, God isn’t expecting it to be. He understand the unique challenges that single or otherwise-challenged parents face. He knows the longing of a child for more time from his or her over-extended parent. He knows that perfect families don’t exist, even if a lot of effort goes into convincing others that they do. He applauds our efforts to raise our children in His ways, and honors us for doing so. All families have challenges, and mutual encouragement should come from brothers and sisters in the Lord. That's how God wants it to be.
In Matthew 5:14, Jesus tells us that “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” May His church adopt the pure and faultless religion that welcomes all of His children into His family. May we be that town on a hill where people can be accepted and loved. May He guide us into all truth (see John 16:13) as we seek His wisdom to practice a religion that is pure and faultless that pleases Him.