Can we define life as simply a series of good choices? Does life boil down to taking personal responsibility for our lives? Frequently these well intentioned, but often hurtful phrases and half-truths become excuses. They enable us to “write off” people we feel have not lived up to their potential. We find ourselves using judgmental thinking to “otherize,” categorize and label people. Doing so allows us to dismiss them as undesirable.
Many people also consider their faith something they have chosen. But John 15:16 reminds us, “You did not choose me, but I chose you!” Faith rests on the choices of God, rather than our own efforts. We love because God first loved us.
We are not self-made. We are indebted to others for most everything important to us. Our lives, looks and values are shaped by those who came before us, as well as those who influence our daily lives. We are children of faith. Someone lived the faith before us, be they parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or grandparents with a hundred greats.
Many stories in the Bible about our ancestors of the faith can be embarrassing. People like Sampson, David or Sarah had problems that were honestly recorded in the Bible. In fact they did not always make good choices or take personal responsibility for their lives.
The Bible speaks openly about the problems our grandparents in faith experienced. Our families today are no different. We often speak of family, parents and children sentimentally and unrealistically, but we are not one big happy family. Families face unforeseen realities that test and change relationships. Such realities include: stages in life, employment, life experiences, societal influences, addictions, brain disorders and serious illnesses; all of which can change who we are in a relationship.
We don’t choose our relatives. They are a given. Even as parents we never quite get the children we thought we adopted or gave birth to. We can plan all we want, but who plans or chooses a child with a disability, a rebellious child, a child who has a rock band in the garage or a child who falls into substance abuse. They can be annoying or disappointing or even end up looking or acting just like us! Family relationships are a journey we can’t control or fully understand. We move forward into the future because of our commitment, not knowing what we are getting into. We don’t choose a child, we receive a child. The Bible says a child is a gift.
Faith provides us with a way to live together in relationships. We didn’t choose Sampson or Sarah to be our grandparents in the faith, nor did we choose the people we call family. Family relations can resemble society and become a conglomeration of friendly strangers.
Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you so that you might bear fruit.” Life is not simply about our choices and our decisions. The Bible says that God saves us, not by our own effort, but by God’s grace and love. Even when family disappoints and fails us, we have a God who is determined to love us as we are. Thus we are freed to love one another even when good choices are not made and people fail to take personal responsibility.
Because God has chosen us, we can risk being faithful even to those whom we didn’t choose. Today we celebrate God choosing us!
• Pastor Larry Rorem is a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor living in Juneau.