Rising Above the Low Water Mark of 2013 (Ephesians 1:3-14)

O gracious God, we thank you for getting us through 2013 and we pray that you will help us to look back on it as the low water mark from which American society emerged more civil and united.
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When we asked people about their wishes for 2014, many put a more tolerant society at the top of the list.

O gracious God, we thank you for getting us through 2013 -- cantankerous, contentious bickering mess that it was on many public and political fronts -- and we pray that you will help us to look back on it as the low water mark from which American society emerged more civil and united.

For us to see an answer to that prayer, we must resolve to begin 2014 by climbing into stronger, healthier relationships with other people -- not waiting stubbornly for them to come around to our way of thinking but deliberately moving to a position from which we love them more, understand them better, and honor our God in a new way.

Move far enough in this way, and we will turn our fractious society upside down.

Turning the passage upside-down

A good starting point in 2014 might be to turn upside down our interpretation of Ephesians 1, which has baffled generations of believers with its declaration that God "chose us in Christbefore the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined (or prestined in the NIV translation) us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will" (NRSV).

To be "chosen" and "predestined" by God is a wonderful thing, and certainly Christians can be proud to be "marked with a seal" as the chapter tells us. However, reading these words with pride can leave the impression that we believers were somehow handpicked by God as the best, leaving all others in the position of being losers -- second-class creations of a Creator who loves us above all others and for obvious reasons. When we interpret (with pride) that this sorting took place even "before the creation of the world," it's a short step to a belief that God made his picks based on his infallible reckoning of our innate spiritual superiority, just an impartial umpire calling them like he saw them.

I'm not God, but my experience in "predestining someone for adoption to become a child of God" offers a different explanation of how it went down.

Jumping into adoption

With three little boys born by blood, my wife and I decided to adopt. We chuckled at being required to enroll in parenting classes and have our home inspected, but we did it. We jumped through the hoops and placed our names on the list as potential parents with a private, Christian-based agency. Then we waited. We did not try to help God along by identifying the kid we wanted. The only stipulation we made -- that although we are white we would prefer a biracial child -- was because we knew that nonwhite babies were tougher to place in our state of Alabama.

Other than that, all we knew was that somewhere out there in Selma or Tuscaloosa or Punkin Center, a child would be born eventually and become part of our family. Sight unseen we began to love our fourth child, months or maybe years before his or her birth.

When a 2-day-old boy was placed in our arms, he was already our full-fledged, beloved son. We had chosen him because we knew that he needed to be chosen, needed to be loved. We knew nothing about him. We knew nothing about who he would become.

That was 16 years ago. That baby is now an artist, a dancer, a topnotch gymnast. I can draw only stick figures. I am too embarrassed to even try dancing. I somersault only if I trip over one of my left feet. We love him more than ever, but it has little to do with him fitting our mold better than any other child could have. We love him because we chose him; we chose him because we love him. There is neither chicken nor egg to it.

We hope that our son understands the special qualities of our relationship, but we also hope that as he continues to grow he feels an affinity with those who were not chosen, those rejected by society, those in need of love and understanding. We hope he sees that unconditional love is meant to be passed on wherever it is needed, not only to where it is deserved.

Love all as your brothers and sisters

Hold that story in your mind as you read Ephesians 1, and a different light shines through the chapter. You can't read about being chosen and predestined and simply lift your chin in the air like the proud-praying Pharisee of Jesus' story: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people" (Luke 18:11, NIV).

Instead, you read it and realize that God loves you because he chose to love you, and he chose you because he loves you. Lift your eyes from that passage, look around humbled by the epiphany of it, and you will see all around you people just like you, loved by the Creator because he loves them for exactly the same reasons he loves you. They are your brothers and sisters by adoption, different though you may be.

Perhaps it would be wise, after the acrimony of 2013, to spend this new year more explicitly honoring God's decision to love wherever love is needed, not merely where you see it as deserved. Ephesian 1 proclaims, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places."

In 2014, honor God's adoptive love by recognizing your siblings:

· "That's my sister, who really has a different way of looking at politics -- but we're trying to understand each other. We owe it to our Father."

· "That's my brother, whose sexual identity is attracting a lot of hatred these days. I keep reminding him he's not alone -- Dad and I love him."

· "On the way to church last night I passed one of my brothers sitting on a street corner. It was cold, and I knew better than to walk in the church door without checking on him first. Our Father raised us that way."

Start climbing

It's a simple plan for climbing above the low water mark of 2013. Read Ephesians 1 with fresh eyes, and let the spirit of the passage lead you to see all those you encounter as brothers and sisters, whether they look like you, act like you, think like you or not. What difference will this make? What will be the fulfillment of these small outreaches of acceptance, tolerance and unconditional love?

Who can say what difference a year will make, but we know from Ephesians 1:10 what the cumulative fulfillment will be: "To bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ" (NIV).

And that's why you've been loved.

Study questions

1. During the past year, you've probably seen an example of a dividing line being drawn between two segments of society. What have you seen as the practical results of that line -- was it the best possible course of action?

2. Do you see people of faith as leaders in cooperating with God's purpose as expressed in Ephesians 1:9, "to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth"?

3. Getting personal, where do you plan to focus your efforts this year as you work toward seeing all men and women as your adoptive brothers and sisters?

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