Loved like children

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Martin L. Smith

The staid Washington dress code hardly encourages men to display ‘wearable art’ but I do have a silver bracelet I wear occasionally. It would be worn by an elder of the Nisga’a people of Northern British Columbia, an elder of the eagle tribe, and is incised with representations of the raven, eagle and clamshell, all vibrant symbols in the mythology of this marvelous people who have lived in the Nass Valley for 10 millennia.

It came into my hands as a memento from one of the most fascinating of my spiritual expeditions around the churches of North America. I was asked to take part in the annual synod of the Anglican Diocese of Caledonia, opening with a day of spiritual retreat. We gathered in a senior citizens center in a logging town in the heartland of this vast diocese. Delegates came from numerous indigenous peoples, Haida, Tsimsian, Gitsxan, Nisga’a, and there were white ranchers from the high plateaus in the west.

Frank speeches testified to the struggles they had been through to accept each other as equals, and to help those of European ancestry surrender their privileges. But the longer I spent with these impressive Anglicans, the more I was struck by a tradition I hadn’t come across before—the honored practice of adopting adults into family and tribe. I soon realized that the bishop, who was entirely European in ancestry, had decades before as a parish priest been adopted into a Nisga’a family. Now he was, by seniority, a revered tribal elder, woven into a huge extended family of cousins, nephews, brothers and sisters. There was no hint that this adopted kinship was make-believe.

A woman from another First Nation spoke of her grief years before at losing her son in a motorbike accident. She had other sons, but there was an unbearable gap in her heart, and so she had asked her parish priest whether she could adopt him as her son, to be in that place. And so it came about. And there they stood together, mother and son, different races, different cultures, different heritages. But they had become mother and son, out of choice and longing. It touched something very deep within me.

I thought of her as I polished my bracelet the other day. I had presided earlier at one of our wonderful Eucharists for pre-schoolers and their parents at St Columba’s, and a parishioner had brought the young toddler she had recently adopted from a Russian orphanage. Here he was, taking part in the first worship service of his life, gazing around with fascination, clapping his hands during the songs, sitting on the rug for story-time with the swarm of his newfound church brothers and sisters. I was full of emotion. What an adventure adoption is, with awesome rewards and such risks and vulnerability!

I feel that our Christian speech about being sons and daughters of God often sounds glib. We would do well to take deeper soundings in its meaning. In his outdoor sermon in Athens, Paul quoted with approval a line from a pagan poet, “We too are his offspring” (Acts 17:28): simply as creatures all human beings are begotten and birthed by God.

Jesus taught that we are called to prove that we are children of God by acting as God acts—with compassion toward the undeserving. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:38) But in the New Testament imagery of divine parenthood, the imagery of adoption has a special place. In Christ, God reaches out to choose, adopt and, yes, rescue us. Each of us is the wanted child God has yearned for. As adopting parents so often experience themselves, God had to go to the utmost lengths to find us and bring us home to his heart.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption.” (Gal. 4:5) In the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the “spirit of adoption.” Being an adopted child of God is no mere idea. It is something we feel to the core, it stirs our deepest need to know in our gut that we are a wanted child. God has won us and claimed us as children the hard way, as the cross shows. So “when we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if in fact we suffer with him so that we might also be glorified with him.” (vs.15-17)

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

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