Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God and Father is this: to visit . . . widows in their distress (Jas 1.27).
It happens every time. Dad asks me to eat breakfast with some widowers from his church and I hem haw around. I eventually and reluctantly agree and belly up to a Buttermilk Five. And every time I leave wondering why I would ever waffle on one of God’s richest gifts of grace. Wretched man that I am.
My dad is in his twentieth year of widowhood and recently started a breakfast club for other widowers. Some buried their wives decades ago, some weeks ago. But they’ve all suffered the same sting (1 Cor 15.56) and live to tell about it. I hope I’m listening well.
In today’s world of the “power pastor” we easily overlook what James considered essential religion: care for widow(er)s in their distress. Who has time for such mundane ministry when programs need administrating, numbers need reporting, buildings need repairing, neighbors need evangelizing, twentysomethings need discipling and services need choreographing? My own hesitations toward a simple breakfast with some widowers proves my point, at least for me.
I’ve been a terrible pastor to widow(er)s and it’s high time I repent from clear rebellion against God’s commands. This morning’s breakfast along with seeing two women widowed in the last two weeks compel me to write. For what little they’re worth, I offer these “lessons” in no particular order to strengthen atrophied pastoral muscles.
1. Widowhood is one of, if not the, most painful experiences of life in a fallen world. Men who suffered the Great Depression, confronted Nazi Germany, lived in Vietnam jungles, killed national enemies, endured cancer and buried their children don’t cry like they cry when thinking about their wife. These are hard men who readily confess nothing is harder than losing his wife.
Lesson: Learn to be a better husband from men who aren’t anymore. There is great benefit from the flood of new marriage books on the market. Slick covers depicting Tintselesque couples helping suburban families navigate the American dream. Read them, learn from them, practice them. But then go sit down with a Christian man who served his wife faithfully for decades but now sleeps alone. Watch him cry. Listen to him laugh. See his pictures. Enjoy his stories (again!). Imitate his faith. Make sure the thought of your wife makes you cry now so that you can cry without regret later.
2. Effective pastoral care begins after the funeral. Arranging funerals is an extremely busy time. People are constantly around. There is little time for contemplation and mourning beyond the trite platitudes we might expect. But that time will come. His clothes might still be in the closet. Her favorite coffee cup might still be in the dishwasher. He always took care of the car and it’s time for an oil change. She always took care of the laundry and a shirt needs a new button. He always drove and the doctor’s appointment is tomorrow. She always wrote the checks and the utility bill is due. It’s those simple times when the reality of loneliness sets in.
Lesson: Make sure we regularly visit widow(er)s. They don’t need a sermon every time. They need light bulbs changed and furniture moved and yards mowed and rides to doctors. It’s just that simple. They don’t need someone profound, just around. You don’t always have to have something to say. Besides, you’ll find they have far more to teach you than you them.
3. In our suffering-averse culture, we do anything to escape pain. Rather than retreat to the gospel we retreat to anything else. Our impulse is to help everyone we can out of their distress. Yet, James commands us to visit widows in their distress.
Lesson: Widow(er)s have lost someone, not something. Helping them is not as easy as encouraging a new hobby, replacing their time or keeping them busy. They cannot substitue for what they’ve lost. They have a new normal now and things will never be the way they used to be. We shouldn’t encourage a hermitic lifestyle, but we must be sensitivite and patient. So play checkers with them, but get them talking about their wife during the game.
Lesson: Death is hard and is not supposed to be easy. Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb knowing he was about to raise him from the dead (Jn 11.35). The gravity and extent of the Fall is a painful reality and only the sovereign grace of God can make it easier. A dear friend who recently buried her son confessed in a hug, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” That’s right, it is. And it must be so that we will grope for grace. It must be hard so that our God can be big. We must hate the grave so that we can love the resurrection. God must leave us speechless so we might finally hear him.
Lesson: Widow(er)s are not afraid to talk about their deceased spouses. In fact, they love to! They fear not talking about them. They fear folks forgetting them. They fear folks acting like nothing has happened. It’s not taboo to bring up memories or ask about pictures. It’s actually helpful.
4. We’re obsessed with answers and demand explanations. We want a black-and-white world where everything is either right or wrong. We often fail to realize God’s mysterious providence. The gospel demands we trust a Sovereign Savior who doesn’t owe us explanations. The cross is a sufficient witness that whatever he does he does in infinite love and for our eternal benefit. He may hide his specific reasons, but he has put the cross on glorious display to alleviate all doubt that he is good.
Lesson: Be careful of ascribing right/wrong distinctions to a widow(er)’s decisions. I don’t mean decisions involving sinful or dangerous behavior, but decisions involving mourning and comfort. In 1990, my dad buried Mom in her hometown of Itta Bena, MS. Fifteen years later he hated not being able to visit her grave as often as he wanted. So he had her casket moved to where they spent their whole married life together. He asked me if that was right or wrong. It’s neither, Dad. He doesn’t deny the doctrine of the resurrection. He doesn’t doubt Jesus will raise her from the dead, whether her body be in the Delta or down the street. He doesn’t think there is a ghostly power associated with her body. He’s just a widower who wants to visit his wife’s grave and remember their 38 years together.
Widow(er)s make many decisions along these lines. Maybe he keeps her clothes in the closet for a year. Maybe she goes back to work soon. Maybe he doesn’t go back at all. Maybe she still wears her wedding band. Maybe he keeps her car in the garage. Maybe he keeps her perfume on the kitchen sink. Maybe she keeps his work shoes outside the back door. It doesn’t matter what you would do in their situation. They don’t need to explain why because it’s often the cry of their heart rather than the reasoning of their mind. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of comfort and consolation. Simply be there and listen and help.
Now, when is that next breakfast?