In the history of the westward migration in the United States, part of the story has been largely passed over. From 1850 to 1930, tens of thousands of those who populated the west were orphans--children from eastern cities who were without parents because of disease or the death of the parents, abandonment because of poverty, or simply because of shame. The children were taken into children’s homes and later put on trains to take them out west where, it was hoped, someone would take them in. Many of the children who rode the orphan train thought something was wrong with them. There was a stigma associated with their being an orphan. One little girl, Alice Ayler, often looked at her veins, to see if she could see her “bad blood.”
When the orphan train arrived at a town in the west, people gathered on the platform to see the children. Some were only looking for unpaid laborers but most, it seems, were hoping for a son or daughter to be a cherished part of their family. The children would press their faces to the window of the train, watching the crowd, wondering if someone would choose them, and hoping they would be taken in by someone who would treat them with kindness. Sometimes when a child was chosen in a town, a brother or sister said goodbye and rode the train further west, never to be seen again.
Our hearts ache for the children. Every one of them needed loving, nurturing parents to calm their fears, dry their tears, share their joys, protect them from harm, and lead them in right ways. But the children had no legal claim to these things. Love and graciousness on the adopters’ part secured their placement, and indeed, many were taken into homes where they were loved and well cared for by adoring parents.
Aren’t those who are without God, having been alienated by sin, as pitiable as the westbound orphans, and as much in need of a Father and a home? And haven’t all of us been in those circumstances? John tells us that Jesus gives those who believe in his name the right to become children of God. The right is not conferred to comply with a legal requirement, but is a gift bestowed on those who believe. Though he does not owe us a place in his family, he desires it for us.
As Jesus prepared the disciples for his departure from earthly life, he told them, “I will not leave you as orphans.” And Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will.” He doesn’t mean that some of us and not others were singled out beforehand for the opportunity to be adopted as sons, for opportunity is universal; but rather that those who come to him in faith receive the blessings of God’s children, to which the faithful are predestined.
The means by which believers are adopted into God’s family accomplishes such an absolute change in the believers’ condition it is described as rebirth. Being born again, we abandon the past direction of our lives, and in fact put it to death and bury it in baptism, to become alive--or resurrected--to a new life as a child of God, enjoying all the privileges and delights of being sons and daughters in his family.
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