Gathering Together as a Family

I saw this picture from a missionary priest’s FaceBook post who candidly captured the memory when visiting a local family. There is something special about it! Perhaps I personally found a connection to it from my time growing up in Viet Nam, but for one unspoken reason or another, it touched my heart in an indescribable way. I think this is when the phrase, “A picture speaks a thousand words” really comes into application. Even though the setting is of a poor family, its richness and depth speak a lot and remind us of what is truly important as a family in this 21st-century world.

I will admit to you that I cried when I prayed with this picture. I just do not know why! Tears just rolled down cheeks abundantly and so naturally. Perhaps I saw my past through it…maybe I saw what my soul is yearning out for…or because it pervades a pure sense of love and belonging. There were a lot of unexplainable emotions, but at the end of my prayer time, I did feel a sense of joy that spoke to my heart deeply — a sense of peace and belonging that comes from God — that this became a grace-filled and teaching moment for my own faith journey. I will try to explain to you what I see from it, but I know that I will not be able to do justice to it and that God can use it to speak to you in different ways, so I hope that my feeble sharing will ignite and invite you to spend some time to reflect on its richness as well.

First, let us talk about family. I know many us have a family, grown up in one, or have come to know a little bit about family life. However, I do think that, especially as post-modern Americans, we often failed to make our family truly a family. With the busy schedules and demands of the present age, many families admitted that they are constantly busy, running, catching up, and divided among the many activities. Even though all things can be good and beneficial if they are rightly balanced, focused, and understood, if we are ever busy, will we be able to have time to spend time well with one another? If we are so worried about catching up and doing things, will we be able to have the energy to process, think, reflect, or appreciate things as they are? Many times, our modern families retreat to their houses like a hotel or resting place since most of the hours are spent elsewhere.

Many studies have identified our children as being overwhelmed by social, academic, sports, or extracurricular expectations when they enter middle and high school ages. These activities were originally meant to integrate children and help them grow in a holistic, mentally-stable, and physically-healthy way of life. Nevertheless, many are so overburdened by them because they are now too worried about belonging to different groups and activities that these things are no longer something enjoyable but simply another item on the checklist of things to do. Many parents want to be supportive, hence splitting their times beyond work duties to make things work for their children. These things do take a toll on one’s mental and physical balance. For better or worse, we have taught our children that they are judged by their worthiness and level of productivity. We have become a busybody society that we have robbed parents of their duties as educators and formators who are called to educate and rear their children in a personal and intimate way. Parents have often been reduced to the roles of supporters or providers, hence they lack the personal opportunities to form their children’s moral and human characters. Since success, productivity, and belonging seem to the be end goals of our post-modern world, many have made it a personal commitment to achieve and be successful at all costs. This is why morality becomes relative and virtues have been silenced since they have been replaced by a warped understanding of Darwinian utilitarianism where one thinks that he or she is only good if he or she can be used or beneficial, and that is why one should do all that is possible to survive and rise above the labeled mediocre crowds.

It is so easy for our society to pull us into the rat race and its own game of manipulation because we are so worried about standing out, getting recognized, or to feel belonged. As everything becomes relative, there is no longer a real need to worry about what is right or wrong since we are told that our intention is always right and that we should do all that we can not to get hurt or isolated. This is where the slippery slope comes in because we are all prone to selfish and egocentric desires that could lead to the manipulation and objectification of people in order to maximize our benefits. When we begin to treat others based on what they can do to us or to use them as chess pieces for our greater good, we end up with a society that lacks what truly makes us social and human beings.

How we are to treat others and should be treated come from the essential and foundational education and formation within the family. Society fails when the individual family fails because each one is the nucleus organization of the greater whole. What is learned (and not learned) from the family affects social values, outlooks, foundations, and understanding of human beings. If we rob parents from the opportunities to rear and form their children, we diminished their important vocational duties and responsibilities and objectively made them into simple service providers and cheerleaders. Without a doubt, this will make our society suffers because the essential moral and human formation is missing and lacking. When the character is not formed and virtues are not instilled and encouraged in one’s life, human relationships will suffer because everyone remains scared, reserved, unfulfilled, and to themselves. They are too worried about being used or hurt because they themselves do not know who they are nor understand their self-worth. There will also be a lack of self-sacrificial love in society because it was lacking at home. Parents make a lot of sacrifices for the goods of their children (and some kids can somewhat see that), but since many of them have gotten most of everything they wanted, they lack the needs to make sacrificial choices that are often hard and unappealing at first. Many young people have been nurtured, protected, or well-taken care of so long that they are shielded from many injustices and natural messiness of life since their parents tried hard to provide for their needs. That is why many of them faced depression, psychological breakdowns, and unhealthy lifestyle choices when they are from home, away from their protected environment.

I am not saying that we are messed up and other countries are good. However, since many of our brothers and sisters in other countries have seen first hand and understood that life is not fair, they have — more or less — grown up with the hard reality and its creative tensions. Many have taken to heart that not everyone gets everything they wanted or can have what they desired. Due to those uncontrollable outcomes and social tensions, they tend to put more trust and efforts with the familial structure instead of utilitarian-based social aspirations. Perhaps when one has little, one knows and appreciates what is important! I cried when I can see the hidden social injustices within the picture. However, the family has its focus on Christ as parents and children turn to the One who hears them and comforts them in their hard struggles. For me, that picture captures the never-failing, ever-abiding sense of real hope in the midst of life’s hardships.

Hence, this leads me to the second point of the foundational human and essential moral formations that come from a set family structure, which is the important handing on and sharing of the gift of faith. You can see the focal point for this poor family is their faith. In a very paradoxical way, even they might have little, they have everything that they need! They have each other and they have Christ as the center of their household. All of them are gathered together to pray as they fix their eyes on Christ. Wow! The simple reality is so beautiful and sacred because they have taught us to appreciate and offer the qualitative gifts that they have — as they are — instead of what is based on utilitarian quantity. I honestly wonder how many of our young people and families in the United States who are going about their ways are able to really embrace and be content with what this family has in their little to nothing. I wonder why even though we have more opportunities and blessings here in America, yet many still feel that they do not have enough because they do not have what they want. I wonder if many people can understand the powerful message pervades in this picture or will they smite or ignore its powerful teaching message and reality.

For me, I can relate to this image a lot because the scene is very similar to how I grew up. However, since our family understood the injustices that lie within the communistic socialist system, we came to term that we probably would not be able to get ahead unless we reject our faith or do things that were wrong and against our conscience. In the midst of poverty, injustice, and many wrongs, we only had our faith to rely on. Contrary to my upbringings, here in America, we were told that we can achieve our goals and do anything if we set our minds on them. This understanding and ideology give many people hope, but at the same time, they also turn people into people who are success-oriented, workaholics, and overachievers as they worry about what they can achieve. Aspirations are important and good but we have to be careful not to be objectively defined by shallow utilitarianism and its productivity principles. We are good and are loved, not with what we can do or by what we have achieved, but because we are created by God and His infinite, life-giving love. We are who we are because of our God-given identity as His sons and daughters instead by how much we can do or how many checklist items and success stories we can add to our personal to-do or bucket list.

This then leads us toward the real questions of what makes a family, family. Here are some questions to think about:

  • Are we able to spend the time to grow, understand, enjoy, embrace, and love one another or are we too busy playing catchup or checking things off our to-do or aspiration list?
  • Where do we spend most of our time as a family: on the sports fields, different activities, or around the dinner table?
  • What have been the topics of our conversations? Are we able to listen and speak from the heart or are we too occupied about what to do next or worried about what is practically missing in life?
  • What is the focal point of our family life? Productivity and success or eternal and everlasting values? Human aspirations and achievements or character formation with its abiding moral values and ingrained life of virtues? 
  • What are we handing on to our children? Are we helping them to know who they are in the eye of God through integral, holistic, and faith-centered formation? Are we teaching them to pray and live out their faith or just chasing after success?

Perhaps you will think that I know nothing about family life and do not know how hard it is to raise children these days. Yes, I will admit that I can only fathom how hard it is to be parents these days, especially if you take seriously the duties to rear and form your children in the life of virtues, morality, and faith. I will leave you with this simple thought: What we instill and form our children as a family will shape their life forever! If there is no formation of deeper and everlasting values, they will be lost with the everchanging trends of this world. If there is no sense of belonging at home, they will never understand and appreciate the value of being home and creating a home. If we do not help them understand their self-worth and dignity in God through faith-based formation and the prayer life, they will never know who they are, who to really listen to, and will ever spend their lives trying to listen to people who will seem to make them feel (temporarily) satisfied. If they do not know God, they will forever get stuck in the worldly rat race based on self-centered manipulations of others and from others.

What being formed and given at home will forever change our young people. Even if they are lost for a moment, if we instill the truth, till the soil, and plant proper seeds, those things will grow and guide them back home. I have seen too many people who are lost because they do not have a home to return to. They never know what it means to belong at home and be loved! I have seen too many people grew up by themselves with incomplete, destructive, codependent, or meaningless relationships because they never found what it means to love at home. Too many are lost because they never felt at home or loved within their family. Many people are scared of commitment and do not know how to truly love because they never found it at home, for they were too busy with everything else in life that they treat their house as a place to come back at the end of the day. Therefore, let us do a better job to nurture, enrich, form, and deepen our home formation and appreciation instead of only treating it as a place to return to and rest. From breaking bread around the dinner table to praying around the heart, from listening to what one another has to say to speaking to each other from the heart, let us begin to love and make our home a place where our God-given dignity and love are treasured, formed, and appreciated. We truly do not have to do much in order to be at home, yet it is the most amazing, heartfelt, and priceless reality once we understand and cherish it. Let us find ourselves appreciating and enjoying our time together as a family, united and loved by God through the gifts of one another.

God bless.