No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus, they bring judgment on themselves because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So, I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.
If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need. (New International Version)
The subject of widows is throughout all of Holy Scripture. Since well over half of all women in the ancient world above age 60 were widows, there were continual and ongoing needs to be addressed.
Women were mostly dependent upon men in the biblical world. So, whenever a husband died, this put the widow immediately at risk. The children and other extended family needed to step up and care for her. And, if this didn’t happen for whatever reasons, then the church would fill the void of caring for them.
Because of their vulnerable situation, God especially cares about widows. This is made evident by the many instructions and exhortations of the Lord to Israel:
The Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, CEB)
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families. (Psalm 68:5-6b, NIV)
Jesus maintained the stance of care and concern for widows in the Gospels:
Soon afterward, Jesus went to a city called Nain. His disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he came near the entrance to the city, he met a funeral procession. The dead man was a widow’s only child. A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her, he felt sorry for her. He said to her, “Don’t cry.”
He went up to the open coffin, took hold of it, and the men who were carrying it stopped. He said, “Young man, I’m telling you to come back to life!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. (Luke 7:11-15, GW)
So, it is no wonder that the Apostle Paul gave his young protégé Timothy some detailed instructions on how to handle ministry to widows in his church at Ephesus. The gist of that instruction is to encourage younger widows to remarry so that they would be properly cared for and enrolling older widows on a church list for support.
These widows within the church were expected to have a ministry of prayer and good works. This is truly wise counsel from Paul. Good relations and lifestyles require a healthy rhythm of giving and receiving. Widows are honored by having their needs met, as well as providing opportunities for them to give in ways they are able.
Whenever widows are only on the receiving end, they tend to become busybodies and gossips. And whenever they only give, then widows can be overlooked, and their daily needs neglected. All this is to say that there really needs to be thoughtful and intentional ministry to the widows among us.
Although in today’s modern society the status and station of many widows is different from the ancient world, there are still widows who need a life-giving ministry of both giving and receiving.
For this important dynamic to be successful, it’s necessary that adult children care for their elderly parents. I can testify firsthand as a hospital chaplain that there are many sons and daughters who fall woefully short of providing basic help to their aging mothers through a failure of consistent relational interactions, following through on needed paperwork, and answering calls in a timely manner.
Also, far too many aging widows are lonely with little to no resources and support in the form of both relationships and basic necessities. A truly Christian community is aware of the widows in their parish and seeks to honor them through establishing a ministry of giving and receiving.
Families and churches have a responsibility to the elderly in giving sufficient financial help, practical assistance with driving to appointments, and consistent companionship. They also have a responsibility to arrange opportunities for widows to give their time in prayer and helping out others through good works and good wisdom.
If we ourselves who are not widows have healthy rhythms of giving and receiving in our own lives, then we are in a position to help the elderly establish healthy rhythms, as well. Perhaps it is telling that any lack of attention to widows reflects our own personal neglect of spiritual and emotional health.
May God be in my head and in my understanding. May God be in my eyes and in my looking. May God be in my mouth and in my speaking. May God be in my heart and in my thinking. May God be at my end and at my departing. May God be with us, in all things and in every way. Amen.
I am an aging white male Protestant minister. From the inception of colonial America through the first one-hundred years of the United States, my kind ruled the roost.[i] We established schools and universities, advised governors and presidents, and held the reins of power. We were at the vanguard of the nation’s spiritual and moral development.[ii] Even after much of American society became increasingly secularized and more pluralistic, we white men of the cloth wielded a great deal of influence. We still hold respect (albeit less respected than earlier times in American history) and are typically given the benefit of the doubt in most situations.
For all the good we have done throughout American history, we also turned a blind eye to the slave trade and even championed slavery as a good for black Africans throughout most of the United States. Even in the North, where abolitionists could be found, far too many of us preached against slavery not for the inherent evil it is but because of fear that blacks might integrate with the more enlightened white society. Using their influence, ministers got behind efforts to send blacks back to Africa. Hence, the modern-day country of Liberia.[iii] Although today’s white male ministers are more diverse than ever in their theology and practice, there yet remains for us all a collective wound, a putrid abscess of a racialized society.
Something else to know about me: I have two academic degrees in history and did my graduate thesis on slaveholder religion in the antebellum South. I continue to keep abreast of historical research pertaining to my own expertise.[iv] I am both a church pastor and a hospital chaplain. Spiritual and pastoral care of parishioners, patients, and their families are the stuff of my workaday world. I exist in the lived world of people’s struggles, joys, hopes, and desires – bearing witness to all their myriad experiences of heartbreak, miracle, and everything in between.[v]
As both an historian and ordained minister, I agree with religion and social history professor, D.G. Hart, when he said, “There is a long history going all the way back to slavery, of white Americans not trusting black perspectives as truthful.”[vi] Indeed, this has been my own experience in discussing racism. I have come to expect that if I am in a room full of white male ministers, the subject of racism will not be broached – unless I bring it up. I am usually met with defensiveness and an insistence about not being racist; and, a rebuke of bringing up politics in the august clerical group. The assumptions in the room are that we, ministers, are color-blind (“I don’t see a person’s color when I preach.”); and, that racism means a specific political agenda (“All lives matter, not only black ones….”).[vii]
It would be untenable and unethical if I entered a patient room as a chaplain and spent my time providing for the nurse’s emotional and spiritual well-being. Yes, she has needs, too, and a good chunk of my job involves care of staff. Yet, in this scenario, it is the sick person we are both attending to. It will not do for me to argue, “I don’t see a person’s health when I look at them – I am health-blind.” And it would be ludicrous for me to insist that “all lives matter, not just sick ones,” and nonsense to say, “healthy lives matter.”
Yet, this is happening every day. It is as if a person is struck by a car and lies bleeding in the street while the ambulance and first responders rush to the driver who hit the person saying, “Are you okay? That must have been traumatic running over a person!” Yes, the driver is in shock and will likely need therapy to deal with what happened. However, this is not the primary need and focus of the moment.
Black men die in our streets and we focus on the unruly aspects of demonstrations and riots. Black women disproportionately lose their lives in maternity wards, along with an infant mortality rate more than twice that of whites.[viii] Black families on average have ten times less the annual income than white families, with little to no inherited property or wealth (due in large degree to widespread twentieth century zoning laws which excluded blacks from certain geographic areas and neighborhoods).[ix]
We need not look to other nations of the world for human rights violations. “Physician, heal thyself,” comes from the Gospel of Luke. Immediately after Jesus proclaimed that the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed matter, he received pushback from the establishment to maintain the status quo. The good news of freedom and recovery is still subversive and scandalous today as it was all those centuries ago. The gospel still elicits anger from the privileged when resources are focused toward the underprivileged.[x]
I once had a fellow old white Protestant minister throw up his hands in exasperation after speaking with him about race saying, “Well, what do you want me to do about it!?” Indeed, what shall you do? How then shall we live?
The short answer: care. The following are a potpourri of practices I have personally engaged over the past few decades. Perhaps and hopefully you will find some ways to put a voice and some hands and feet to the caring:
Seek first to understand rather than be understood. Be informed. Read. Listen to another, without mentally arming yourself with a response. If you cannot state to a person you disagree with their position in a way they would say, “Yep, that’s it, that’s my position,” then you have not done your due diligence in listening well. The bibliography below are just a few books I have found helpful for me as a white person seeking to understand.
Engage in self-awareness. Explore what implicit bias and microaggressions are and take a fierce moral inventory of your own life regarding them.
Find out what the needs are in your local community. Projecting what you think the needs are of a place or a people is not the same as discovering what the needs really are. Many of my fellow whites cannot see past the demonstrations of black folk on the streets to the needs behind those demonstrations. People demonstrate because they have legitimate needs which are not being fulfilled and they possess little power to change the system which keeps those needs unfulfilled.
Exercise humility and repentance. Have a teachable spirit. Be willing to say when you are wrong without beating up yourself. True repentance is not shame – it is changing course when you see your previous path was down a damaging road. More than once I have stuck my foot in my mouth and said something racist that, at the time, I did not realize.
Embrace your power, position, or privilege. Use what you have for the benefit of those without. And, more difficult to do for most of my white brothers and sisters, share your power. If a round table discussion of all nice old white male Protestant ministers talk about what to do about race, we will only get a nice old white male Protestant minister answer about how to deal with it. Furthermore, token procedures and policies, as well as token representation will do diddly squat.
Keep the main thing the main thing. There are many things which require our (white) attention, including talking to our kids about race, common decency, etc. Yet, when black lynching continues in more modern and sophisticated forms, this requires our immediate attention. The white lady in the car is not bleeding in the street, so keep focused on the main thing.
Dedicate effort and resources to dismantling systemic and structural racism. We white folk built it. We can destroy it. The only assumptions we ought to be making is that racism exists everywhere and in every institution in some way, shape, or form. I define racism as vastly more than overt individual discriminatory words or actions – racism primarily exists as covert inequities which maintain white control of institutional power and decision-making, thus, making it more difficult for people of color to have access and opportunity to quality education, jobs, housing, healthcare, and equal treatment in the criminal justice system.
When one of us is wounded, we are all wounded. It is unacceptable we would ever refuse to weep with our brothers and sisters of color who weep. Until we, whites, can individually and collectively find it within ourselves to grieve and lament the loss of human life beside people of color, then we shall continue to be damaged together as one people. Pastors and faith leaders can play a special role in healing our wounds if we find within ourselves a commitment to such a worthy task.
Bibliography of Selected Works
Brown, Austin Channing I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Colorado Springs, CO: Convergent Books, 2018.
Carter, J. Kameron Race: A Theological Account, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Coates, Ta-Nehesi Between the World and Me, New York: One World Press, 2015.
Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, New York: Orbis Press, 2013.
DiAngelo, Robin White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
Douglass, Frederick The Complete Works of Frederick Douglass, Madison & Adams Press, 2018.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Glaude, Eddie S. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, New York: Broadway Books, 2017.
Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist, New York: One World Books, 2019.
Rah, Soong-Chan Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010.
Swanson, David W. Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020.
Tisby, Jemar The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2019.
[i] E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003): 1-4.
[ii] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972): xiii-xvi.
[iii] Edwin S. Gaustad, ed. A Documentary History of Religion in America to the Civil War (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982): 485-490.
[iv] I have a B.A. in history from the University of Northern Iowa and an M.A. in 19th Century American Religious History from Western Michigan University – as well as an M.Div. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. For a survey of recent historical research approaches, see Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Trends (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015).
[v] I am the Staff Chaplain at Aurora St. Luke’s South Shore Medical Center and the Pastor of the New Life Community Church, both in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
[vi] D.G. Hart, The Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016): 46.
[vii] These statements have been said to me by several white ministers in the past ten years from various denominations, theological traditions, and geographical locales – enough for me to form anecdotal evidence regarding common presuppositions of race.
[viii] Cigna Health and Life Insurance Co., Report on African American Health Disparities, 2016.
[ix] Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh, Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap (The Brookings Institute, 2020).
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Soren Kierkegaard
Motivation matters. What gets us up in the morning tells a lot about why we choose to do what we do with our day. The spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life. It’s grounded in the goodness of God and God’s good creation.
As a Christian, I believe that all spiritual care begins with the God of creation and ends with the God of hope. The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The apex of his creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth. Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting him in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27). Therefore:
All human beings on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency.
People also carry within them a nature, due to the fall of humanity, of brokenness, fear, shame, regret, and pride. Thus, people are complicated creatures with the capacity for both great good and benevolent altruism, as well as great evil committed through heinous acts, and everything in-between in their culture-making and their civilization (Genesis 3-4).
I have personally found the resolution to these realities of the presence of both good and evil, are resolved in the person and work of Jesus. In Christ, I was made aware of my own guilt due to things I have done, and things I have left undone; given grace through his redemptive events; and, thus, extend gratitude to God through living into his original design of creature care (this is the structure of the 16th century Reformed Confession, TheHeidelberg Catechism). Therefore:
My identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace.
I freely give grace to congregants, patients, and others because Jesus Christ freely gave to me. My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care.
Furthermore, as a Christian, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus. As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him. For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver. He entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and, the power of touch. Christ was able: to listen to others because he first listened to the Father; to be present with others because he was present with the Father; and, to give love to others with the love he enjoyed within the Trinitarian Godhead (John 14).
This does not mean that I act as God acts; it means I love as Christ first loved me. I am human, a creature. God is divine, the Creator. I do not have the role of God. Rather, I emulate the caring practice of Jesus in his earthly ministry. I embrace my human role to listen, establish empathic connection, and offer a supportive spiritual presence.
It is God who is active in giving the grace of healing and mending broken bodies, damaged souls, and fractured lives in his own good time and benevolence.
In short, I embrace the process of care, and God brings about the outcome of transformation (1 John 4:7-21). I am neither, therefore, responsible to change a person’s feelings nor involved to fix their broken body and/or spirit. I am there to wed competency with compassion, detachment with support, and discretion with comfort.
Listening to, acknowledging, honoring, and inviting the communication of feelings is what I did, for example, with a healthcare patient named Esther (not her real name). Esther was being surly and mean to staff and threw her food in defiance. When I entered Esther’s room she yelled and complained of not being cared for. I came and knelt beside her bedside, took her hand, and simply said, “Tell me what’s going on.” A cascade of emotions came pouring out of Esther. No one had the time (nor, perhaps, the desire) to listen to her. Esther shared her frustration of chronic illness, a deep and hurtful wondering of where God is, and a profound pessimism that anything would ever change for her.
The only other words I offered Esther was: “I hurt with you.” I was present, I listened, and I sought to live into what the Apostle John said: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action” (1 John 3:18). When I left Esther’s room, after I had stayed with her until she was calm, another dear woman was waiting for me, sitting in her wheelchair, outside of Esther’s room. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with heartfelt declaration, “You are my Pastor! A few weeks ago, when I was sitting alone after an event, you came and asked me if you could wheel me back to my room. That’s not your job, and I know you are a busy man. You didn’t have to do that, and I am so thankful you are here and giving kindness to an old woman like me.” And she began to break down and cry.
In these visits, I believe I am emulating the compassionate presence of Jesus because:
People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith.
Patients in need, residents in care facilities, those with disabilities of body and/or soul, and all who are the other side of the spiritual tracks may not be able to fully give themselves to their own motivations; yet, they are still full-time human beings who need the emotional connections which a caring and supportive person can provide.
Christ’s very pastoral response to nearly everyone he encountered was not to explain evil and trauma, but to confound and confront it with love.
Jesus did not walk around performing unsolicited healings, but dignified people with asking them what they wanted, and if they desired to be made whole. “Do you want to be made well?” discerns that others need to explain their situations and their stories and does not assume that someone wants a change in identity (John 5:1-9).
The craft of caring for others is not only objective clinical-like work directed toward another person; it is also profoundly, personally, and subjectively transforming for the caregiver. Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God. The personal journey and discovery of God-likeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking. Perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from: mutual seeing and being seen; reciprocal speaking and listening; granting one another mutual assistance; and, doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness. Barth used the German term Mitmenschlichkeit (co-humanity) to communicate that we are not human without the other. In other words, human flourishing requires mutual giving and receiving.
Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people.
Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey. Thus, any kind of care-giving, for me, is a symbiotic relationship between the care-seeker and the caregiver, within the foundation of Trinitarian love, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift. This is the reason why I do and feel what I do and feel, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ.