There’s nothing that anchors a sermon in the memory like a powerful visual. The most memorable messages I’ve ever come up with have had some kind of visible example. It’s not the object itself that matters so much. It simply ties the significance of the message to a familiar item.
It’s not a new idea. You may have heard it said that people might recall what they hear but will remember what they see. Our kids hear our words… but they believe what they see us do.
This is exactly why Paul gave Timothy such solid advice when he urged him not to allow people to disregard him because of his youth:
“…but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”1 Timothy 4.12
The wise mentor reminded him that people will watch his life. He must set a good example.
This is what I have always felt was my first responsibility as a pastor—to live a good example. I always wanted to be the kind of husband and father that set a good example. I wanted to be an example in how I cared for people and was present and compassionate and kind in my interactions. I wanted to be an example of a prayer-rich life and a spirit-led servant.
But… despite my desire to be a godly example, it doesn’t always go the way I intend it.
Yet there are some passages that you can’t read past without doing something with them… something that mess with your comfort zone.
Our brother James—himself a revered pastor—gave a simple description of spiritual genuineness that is unmistakable.
“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
I know that the whole “unstained from the world” seems a pretty tall order and, at least in a sense, hard to pin down with much precision. But when he said to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” there’s not a lot of room for interpretive creativity.
My wife and I did a stint as foster parents almost 25 years ago. It was hard. But we were too young and ignorant to know how unprepared and unskilled we were. We expected the little boy that we kept to fit into our family instead of bending to provide what he really needed. But our hearts were there and we loved him (and the various others that came along for short visits) as best we knew how.
When we finally reached that milestone of the “empty nest,” it was hard to argue with my wife’s assertion that we had much more love, parenting skill, and space to share with some kids that had lived with a profound shortage of all of them. But it took me almost a year to let go of the long-anticipated freedom and submit to the paperwork and preparation of foster care.
And then they showed up with their bright smiles and enormous teardrops and more snot than you would imagine those little craniums could possibly contain. They had needs we were not prepared to meet, but we did the work that was needed for their success. They cried a lot. We cried a lot.
The truth is… we didn’t have to do this.
But someone had to do this.
And then again… maybe we did have to do this. They needed us. They needed me.
But I think I needed them too.
I needed to sit and weep with a child so full of anger and fear and heartache that he was fighting the very love he desperately needed. I needed to learn how their experiences affected their brains so that I could endure the effects while we tried to rewire those precious brains through genuine connection. I needed to be a better man. I needed to live the message I so eagerly proclaim. I needed to be an example of the message I proclaim.
I spent 26 months loving, growing, learning with my precious little boys. I did what James instructed by visiting these particular orphans in their affliction.
It’s not just that we should visit them. It’s that we should enter into their heartache. We should step into their grief. We must lay down beside them in the muck and mire of their messy, broken lives.
That’s what foster care really is. It is the most gospel thing I have ever done. I stepped into the heartbreak of their story so that they might have a life worth living just like Jesus did for me… and for you.
It was the costliest work, the hardest work, the messiest, most painful work…
It was a living, breathing, gospel message.
And I’m pretty sure it was the best sermon I ever preached.
I can preach time and time again that we must step into the affliction of orphans and widows, but people always remember the message they see more than the one they hear.