How many orphans are in your church?
Orphanos, the Greek word for orphans, appears only twice in the New Testament, once each in the books of James and John.
Pure religion is defined in James 1:27 as visiting orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
The only other time orphan language appears in the New Testament is in John 14:18, coming from the lips of Jesus Himself. He addressed his adult disciples who feared being orphaned and reassured them that He would not leave them as orphans. He would come to them through the Holy Spirit to abide with and help them.
In simple terms we tend to think of orphans as young children and widows as older women. By traditional stereotypes most of us would be able to identify few, if any, orphans in our own church.
Because of adoption and our foster care system, we rarely give American children an orphan label or care for them in orphanages. We recognize, though, that the population of orphaned children here in the United States has not gone away.
Millions of American children have been physically and emotionally orphaned by family dysfunction, addiction, crime, mental illness, abandonment, and the premature death of parents.
Close to Home
This subject hits home because my father was orphaned as a child. His parents separated before his first birthday as his mother returned with him from America to her Norwegian homeland. Eight years later, his mother decided that she no longer wanted to bear the load of single parenting. My dad cried bitterly as his mother left him with his toothless aunt in the tundra of Northern Norway, deep within the Arctic Circle. (The beautiful Land of the Midnight Sun has dark, harsh and frigid winters as well.)
Because I am the seventh of eight children, my dad was well into his forties when I was born, far removed from the days of his orphaned childhood. His life was a testimony to God’s redeeming power, transforming this young Norwegian orphan into a faithful husband, father and servant leader in his church here in America.
Along with his Norwegian accent, my dad had a strong blend of both humility and confidence. He was known as a successful building contractor and generous giver. He gave sacrificially of his time and resources, and his greatest joy came from blessing others.
Orphaned in Life's Second Half
Let’s look at orphans in a broader context, particularly in the realm of older adulthood.
In an ongoing survey of older adults conducted by CHAMPS, the Center for Healthy Aging, Ministries, Programs and Services, respondents list being alone and running out of money as their most common fears related to getting older.
Both orphans and widows deal with similar fears of separation, isolation, loneliness, and personal inadequacy.
Jesus promised that He would never leave or forsake us. Widows face the trauma of being left without a spouse. Orphans often contend with a dual sense of being both left and forsaken.
Adults in later years experience being orphaned in a variety of ways. Many transitional events in life, particularly loss or pending loss, have the potential to trigger orphan fear. Here are some of them:
- The empty nest
- Marital separation or divorce
- Loss of employment
- Pastor/church transitions
- Death of parents
- Loss of driving privileges
- Physical disability
- Major illness
- Moving to a care facility
- Death of siblings & friends
- Child(ren) moving far away
- Economic loss
- Inability to travel
- Death of a spouse
- Death of adult children
- Decade milestone birthdays
- Diminishing sense of usefulness
Like most Americans in his generation, my dad officially retired in his sixties.
Within church life as well, my dad passed the baton to the next generations. Although he liked control, he didn’t appear to have an overly tight, possessive grip on the baton. As he experienced these significant life transitions, though, it was soon apparent that he was beginning to feel like an orphan again. He and many of his peers were experiencing orphan fear within the church.
If his work in business and the church were both finished, what would he now do with the measure of strength, wisdom, skill and experience he still had to offer? He wasn’t at the state of dependency where he needed to be visited in his distress. At his core he needed to be needed.
As with most persons blessed with a “driver” personality type, retirement for my dad did not come naturally. He always wanted at least one problem-solving project and one future trip in the hopper.
It’s easy to point to my dad’s lack of hobbies as a predictable recipe for restlessness. But where in the Bible does it teach us that hobbies are the answer to filling life with purpose and meaning?
He enjoyed his relationship with his growing extended family and his peers. But there was something missing in his experience within the church.
He wasn’t driven out by loud music. He wasn’t a victim of blatant disrespect. His prior contributions in the church did not go unnoticed.
But, unlike his family context, the church no longer seemed to seek his advice, encourage intergenerational relationship or value his continuing contributions apart from financial support.
For my dad his resurfacing orphan fear had more to do with a diminishing sense of usefulness. He didn't have the fear of becoming financially destitute. He and many of his peers were getting cues that their time was pretty much over, and the next generations were now doing their own thing. But he was still alive, relatively healthy, and still had so much to offer.
At this stage of life, he wasn’t going to force his way into helpful relationships. He wanted to be invited. In fact, he loved being asked for his guidance and counsel.
What many churches offer at this point in life is quarantined fellowship with peers. Fun, food, and fellowship are partial antidotes for orphan fear, building a framework for supportive friendships. But this ministry approach can also become an isolated, inwardly focused support group for aging orphans, short-circuiting life-breathing connections with younger generations.
Perhaps my dad expected too much from the church and too little from the Spirit, but either way, the promise of Jesus seemed out of synch with his fourth quarter experience in the church. In reality, he wanted the church to expect more of him. He wasn’t done.
My dad remained a member of his church to the end. He never became a widower, and thankfully caring pastors and lay leaders did visit him faithfully in his later years of more obvious distress, dependency, and dementia. But by that time a couple decades of opportunity had passed, and those early retirement years of quiet distress went largely untapped within the church.
Promise of Jesus
Orphan fear will surface in the strongest of Christians and in the strongest of churches. Jesus didn’t promise that our families, friends, or even His Church would never leave us. He promised that He would never leave us or forsake us and that the Holy Spirit would come to both comfort and equip us. And the equipping power of the Spirit does not expire at retirement. He continues to give comfort and equips us for new opportunities.
Like Jesus let’s respond directly to the orphan fears of adults around us! And may we rely on the Spirit’s presence to address our own fears as we grow older. He will never leave us as orphans!
Let’s revitalize ministry through as well as to the aging adults among us. Giving older adults the opportunity to enrich the lives of others may be the best gift we can give them. They want to be valued, useful, and connected to the full body of Christ. As Christ followers, they need to be engaged in making disciples.
God wants to fill these later years with significance, and He’s asking you to partner with Him. Please do your part in helping aging adults overcome their fears.
Orphan fear does not have to translate to orphan identity. Just look at the disciples. With the abiding presence of the Spirit, they moved beyond the fear and transformed the world.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.