“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27, King James Version).
I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon on this verse. It doesn’t get read at weddings, funerals, ordinations, or baptisms. It probably isn’t on anyone’s top-10 list of best-loved Scripture passages; yet this little verse once turned my life upside down and has affected me ever since.
Isn’t it strange how a verse that has always been there, quietly unobtrusive in its place, suddenly explodes into significance? We can read a chapter or book or verse for years, seeing the letters, noting the words, even accepting the meaning, and yet the words behave themselves and stay comfortably under control on the page.
Then one day the words stand up and shout: “Listen to me! Do you call yourself a Christian? Do you want to practice what you preach? Then what are you doing about widows and orphans?”
My husband and I both were in graduate school, loving Nashville, surrounded by great friends, and enjoying our work at a local church when we were accosted by this verse. As it reverberated through our lives, we became convinced we needed to act on it by going to teach at Mountain Mission School, a children’s home and school in Grundy, Virginia. In a matter of weeks we were in Grundy for interviews, and the next fall we were no longer grad students, but teachers of teenagers, offering classes in Bible and English in a very challenging setting.
Some of the children we taught were literal orphans, but most of them had been “orphaned” by poverty or alcoholism, and all the considerable love in our hearts seemed to do very little to fill the great, yawning abyss of love-hunger in theirs. For three years we taught and prayed and played and worked and laughed and cried with these children.
We made dear friends with fellow staff members, forged together forever in our common task and our common commitment to Christ. We prayed for wisdom, energy, insight, and help. Our creativity was ignited: we invented games, wrote songs, created and performed Bible musicals, and dreamed of ways to create new experiences and greater expectations for the children we taught.
Twenty-four hours a day was never enough, and our own strength was never enough. In those years we experienced a deep and painful knowledge of our own weaknesses. We were reminded on a daily basis that we definitely were sinners, “wretches” saved by “amazing grace.”
At the same time, and also on a daily basis, we were reminded of our total dependence on God, not only for spiritual sustenance but also for every material need. We could see that our housing, clothes, and every bite of food came quite literally as gifts from the people of God who cared about needy children.
Eventually we realized it was time to return to graduate school, and from there we moved into what has become our life work of college teaching. But we were different people, tried in the fire of real human need. We live each day knowing the depth of our own weaknesses and the overwhelming abundance of God’s love and care. And we know in our own bones the power of Scripture to “pierce joint and marrow.”
We know that God’s Word isn’t safe. I open the Bible with care because I know it can explode in my hands. Scripture can be comforting, but its very power guarantees that it is also dangerous, as powerful as “a two-edged sword.” It is so powerful that a few words about widows and orphans can redirect and ultimately transform a life.
Patricia Magness is professor of humanities at Milligan College in Tennessee and serves on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.