Some of us had a loving and happy childhood, some of us did not. Some of us had great memories, some of us are still trying to work through our pains and sufferings, resentments and hurts, and baggage of our past. Even those who had a great childhood could remember times when they were hurt; and, those who had a hard past could remember the moments of blessing. Without a doubt, our pasts are complicated and they make us who we are today. To deny or run away from our past is the denial of ourselves and who we are deep from within, and that tends to bring more problems for us in the long run. Nonetheless, the hardest part is to reconcile, embrace, accept, and learn from what made us who we are today so we can let go and learn from our past.
For the longest time ever, I tried to not remember the not-so-beautiful parts of my past. I tried to forget the times filled with many struggles and hardships. Yet, one of the priests that I respected and trusted once told me something that I still remember today: “Who you are today is the result of the grace of God at work when you had little.” That simple statement was eye-opening for me! Who we are today, with all its blessings and struggles, is the result of how God‘s grace brought us over the hurts, trials, hardships, and sufferings of the past. Even though we are not perfect, we are real, living testaments of His loving grace at work.
When I was young, after the time when my paternal grandparents left Viet Nam, I was living with my parents again. In order to find a way to make a living in a limited and closed society, they ventured into entrepreneurship. It was a hard time since you did not have much opportunities unless you belong to the Communist Party or know someone who could “pave the way” with bribery or other illicit means. Since my father and our paternal family were blacklisted by the communist government, we were looked at and treated with many suspicions. It was a hard time for my parents, but they tried their best to make it through in many different ways. One time, they used their savings and borrowed money from family members to open a pho shop (Vietnamese noodles). However, having your own business took a lot of time, so I had to learn how to care for my younger brother while they attend the shop.
As a child of around 7 years old, I was scared at times, but I had to learn to push through my feelings to take care of the house while my parents were gone. I walked my younger brother to and from school, prepared dinner that my mother cooked, and made sure he went to sleep. Before I went to sleep, I would have to make sure that I tied a rope around one of my feet. That rope would then be tied around the old metal front door that pulled shut. Since it was an old door, we only had the option to either lock from the inside or from the outside with its one key. Therefore, before I went to sleep, I would lock up and wait for my parents’ signal (by pulling my foot using the string) to open the door for them when they get home early in the morning. We were living in a poor, small, closed-together neighborhood so you cannot be loud because you would wake everyone up. Unfortunately, a few times, the rope fell apart because I was sleepy or did not tie it well enough… so my parents ended up sleeping outside. That part of life was hard.
Another part of life around that time was my first cognition of being poor! I remembered having a nice neighbor who went to the same elementary school as I did. However, since his family was connected to the Communist Party, their residence was much nicer than ours. They literally were just a wall away from us, but his house was much nicer — two (later, three) stories tall. He invited me to play chess with him many times, but I was never invited to go inside. We sat near the main entrance door to play chess; and while I was gracious for his generosity, I felt inferior and sad.
So many reasons made me push away my priestly vocation when we came to America! If you have followed or heard some of my past stories, you would know why I tried so hard to integrate and be a part of our American society like everyone else. When I arrived in America, I wanted to make sure I work hard on my English, hoping to get a better education so my family and I would never have to endure poverty again, especially to repay my parents for their sacrifices in giving us new freedom and opportunities that they never had.
Yet, God never gave up on me… He never let go of His calling! I could not explain why the vocation to the priesthood was always lingering in my mind. I finally gave God a “chance,” telling Him that I would give it six months, “If it meant to be, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll return home and do like what other Asians would do: be a doctor, engineer, or something in the I.T. field.” For some reason, I stayed through all the ups and downs, and after eleven years of formation, I was ordained a priest in 2013.
I had reservations about answering the call because I graduated high school in 2002. Many could still remember many tragic events that happened around that time! First, of course, was the tragedy of 9/11/2001 that shook our nation. Furthermore, around 2001, too, was the outburst of many sex abuse scandals. I remembered some of my school friends and teachers questioned my choice of a “career” when I was thinking about the priesthood. Some of them even said, “You’re sure you want to be with those child rapists or pedophiles? You’re sure that you’re not one of them?” Hence, I quickly learned to simply say, “I’m still thinking about what’s next (after high school).” It was hard to make a commitment at that time with so many things going on, but God never stop pursuing me.
Throughout my priestly formation, I learned much to let go, to accept, and to learn from my own past. I had to learn to let go of the things that hurt me and the things that I tried so hard to become someone I thought I needed to be in order to be accepted by others. I had to learn to accept who I am as a child of God in all of my blessings and brokenness. Furthermore, I learned to appreciate and embrace all that had happened because they made me who I am today. Even though life was hard at times, all of the trials, ups and downs, lessons and blessings made me who I am as a person. They taught me perseverance and endurance, especially to learn how to adapt and not give up too easily. Furthermore, they reminded me that the loving grace of God brought me to where I am today because He lifted me up at times when I wanted to give up or thought I could not make it anymore. Who you and I are today are the results of His loving grace that never gave up and never stop pursuing us!
Our God is the wonderful God of the journey. He was, is, and will always be in all of our ups and downs — every part of our lives. We are forgiven because He had mercy on us when we were lost, rebelled, or acted against Him. We are here because He led us back to where we need to be. We are loved even though we were scarred by many things that destroyed our souls in the past. We are free because He lifted us up from the mundane shallowness and liberated us from the bondage of sins, manipulations, and lies of this world. If we recognize the extraordinary grace at work in our lives, we would recognize that we would not be here today, love ourselves as we are, able to continue to struggle and have the strength to move forward if it is not for His grace.
All that we have today, all of our hurts and failures, sufferings and blessings, hardships and victories, trials, battles, and scars have made us stronger and more resilient. Our past might hurt us at times, but if we take the time to sift through the negatives, we can see many hidden lessons behind them. All of these valuable lessons were taught and given at times when we did not expect, thought we could handle them, or were about to give up! Therefore, we should be mindful of how we are called to lift one another up in prayers as well. Perhaps we might not notice, but the times we were saved, spared, or rescued from our own miseries or perditions were the results of someone’s heartfelt prayers. At times when we thought we could not make it, someone offered his or her sufferings, trials, pains, or hardships as prayers for those who are in need and struggling, and those efficacious sacrifices were accepted by God and put into use to answer our prayers. This is what we call the communion of saints, for we are not in this alone. Through our prayers and struggles, we have the personal and genuine power to pray and offer what we have for one another.
Therefore, I ask you to not give up just yet. Invite God to be in your journey! It is life-giving if we can take some time to pray and lift one another up, offer what we are going through in a simple and heartfelt way, so He can listen and lovingly use our humble petitions to lift up those who are in need. We can choose to remain in our own doom-and-gloom mindset and self-inflicted pities, or we can allow our very own lives to become invaluable lessons and reminders of His loving grace! May we learn and be able to see the efficacious result of grace at work so we can in turn pray for others who are struggling, too.
Not everything has to be perfect in order for life to be meaningful, beautiful, and life-giving! There are so many lessons that can be learned and grace received from them because they have made us who we are today. Grace is at work when we allow ourselves to become learners and students of the school of life, especially in the light of His love. God is with us, and that makes our journey providential, meaningful, and worthwhile in its totality! Our loving Lord wills our good, now and for eternity; therefore, let us not lose sight in the short moments and set our eyes on the grand scope of things. Let us recognize His blessings and become blessings for one another.