To Be Known and Loved: Why Family Matters
It was late winter in Amsterdam. I was about 20 years old, standing with my mission companion on a train platform as the darkness settled all around us. We were wearing skirts and nametags and carried only the word of God in our backpacks. We had been told many times by others in our congregation never to go to that side of town, especially at nighttime. Was it our fault that it was only 5:00 pm and already dark? Crazy Northern Hemisphere!
“That part of town” was called The Bijlmer (pronounced Bile-mer), where an otherworldly geography of high rise social housing was located. We didn’t know the history of it—only that we taught a lot of refugee families there. That night, alarm signals went off in my head when my companion and I were approached slowly and deliberately by two men. We were the only ones on the platform, and it was a full five minutes before the train was due to arrive. I searched my brain and my heart for what to do—it was up to me to protect my companion and myself, should something come of this encounter.
Immediately, a song popped into my mind. It was a lullaby that we had recently learned, a song that many Ghanian mothers sing to their children. I started singing:
Da N’Ase (Thanks)
Da N’Ase (Thanks)
Da Onyame ase (Thanks be to God)
E fi’ se O yie (Because He is good)
Na n’adoye dooso o o (And His goodnesses are many)
The two men stopped in their tracks, turned to look at the spot where the sun had just set on the horizon, and listened. When our voices went silent, they both turned without saying a word, and walked off the platform before the train ever came.
I share this story because I believe God gave me, in that moment, the quickest way to the hearts of those two men, so far from their home. It wasn’t through sharing a scripture or acting brash or any number of alternatives that came to mind. It was by echoing, however imperfectly, the voices of the women who raised them. We are better, each of us, when we remember those who know us and love us best.
Learning to See Light
The family is essential to God’s plan for His children. Families can anchor us in the world, providing an identity, a shelter, an enduring sense of being known and loved. Because of my upbringing, I have a rather expansive view of family. My parents were divorced by the time I was six years old. Both my parents have remarried, giving me step-parents and a wonderful mix of whole, half and step brothers and sisters. Though it has definitely come with some heartache, I gratefully embrace the “grafting” process that has composed my family. I can see the Lord doing similar things with our larger family worldwide.
Now that I am a mom, however, I find myself instinctively striving to imitate the image of the “perfect” family—a cross between old-timey Norman Rockwell and new-timey Instagram/Pinterest. But an image is all that it is. As with many things in this fallen, mortal life, there is a gap between what we expect and how we experience things. Even at their very best, parents fall short. Children disappoint. Siblings compete. And spouses struggle through rough patches. But that's as it should be. Perfection is not for this life. If I'm honest with myself, I would much rather give my children a home where they can be less than perfect, and still loved.
I remember being a grumpy sixteen-year-old and thinking I was so much better than one of my teachers at church. I saw through every one of his flimsy attempts at object lessons. Every time he asked me a question, I responded with sarcasm. Clearly, I knew the gospel better than he did. He was just wasting our time.
Then his wife invited our family over for dinner. When he walked through the door, every single person in his family ran to him. They wrapped themselves around his legs and his waist. His wife came in for a loving kiss. Now that I have a more mature view of that moment, I know many of the emotions that went into those hugs and kisses (including the wife’s relief that she finally had backup!). But at the time, I was astonished. I honestly thought they would be at the very least bored with him. But they knew him, certainly better than I did, and clearly they loved him.
This moment is burned into the teenage part of my brain. It was a true paradigm shift for me. The scripture I had been reading that morning came to my mind:
The light of the body is the eye; if, therefore, thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If, therefore, the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness. — 3 Nephi 13:22-23
I was quiet at dinner as I pondered on this. Seeing this man (for whom I held ignorant, immature disdain) through the eyes of his family, my whole image of him changed from darkness to light. It was a little like seeing Him through the eyes of God. Hopefully, in God’s grace, this is what family can be: a safe place to be imperfect, but loved anyway. Hopefully it is also a place where we evolve in the way we see each other—knowing each other's weaknesses, but also seeing the potential, the effort, and the good desires in each other's hearts. Said one mother when her family was at a crossroads: “[L]ife happens, and I realized that there is no perfect . . . family. The only thing we can really be perfect at is loving each other.”
There are no perfect families because there are no perfect family members. But there can be love—and with our Savior, there can be an abundance of love. He is the one who knows us and loves us best. I find something about that reality so delicious—to be known for who I really am (laundry piles, zits, insecurities and failings, all). And to be truly, honestly, eyes-open loved. Christ’s voice is like a familiar song, reminding me of who I am. His eye, when He sees me, seems always to be full of light, seeing the best in me. I believe His love is a kind of generosity. He doesn’t condemn me, but helps me to be better.
It is because of Christ that I feel a measure of peace when I think of all those who are hurt by their families. I believe we have an inkling of what our heavenly family was like before we fell, divided, to earth. Perhaps that’s why it hurts so bad when things aren’t as they should be. That's why family members can wound each other the deepest of all. Indeed, family can sometimes seem less like a refuge and more like the “hole of the pit” from which we must be digged. Even the households of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob experienced deficits which played out over generations.
But I believe that these deficits can be instructive, as we turn the heartaches of what should have been over to the Lord. I have learned from experience that Jesus’ redeeming power extends not only to individuals, but also to families. There are second chances for families. There are new beginnings. There are things that seem lost or too late or forgotten, which circle around in seasons of bounty, often least expected. Let us not lose faith in God’s mindfulness of and purpose for families. All families are part of His plan, even when they are untraditional, broken, unrealized, or estranged.
As unreliable an institution as the mortal family can be, it is here that we experience a microcosm of opportunity that we cannot personally confront on a global scale. Namely, it is in the family that we can learn the unmatched value of love, seeking its redemptive power as we look to our families both backwards and forwards in time. Even when things are less than they should be, sometimes staggeringly so, we encounter opportunities for forgiveness, repentance, and growth. In the family, the gospel leaves its realms of theories and postulates and becomes something we must live in context.
I cannot talk about the family in singularly glowing terms because I recognize that there is much darkness, and that many of the troubles in today's world are family troubles magnified. But I believe it is better to have an eye single to the light of Christ, for "His goodnesses are many." To me this means that I need to be oriented to His love, like a weak-stemmed flower nevertheless directs its growth to the sun. As I do this in even my most mundane daily activities, I find that I am filled with His light, with hope, with abundant love. I can be generous in my opinion of others. I attempt patience, good humor, repentance and faith in my parenting . . . and those same things in my marriage. I try to initiate kindness, to be a bridge, and to fill in the missing pieces, knowing that none of us are whole. I try to open my heart to another person’s story, rather than to indulge in petty judgments. I feel a general desire to embrace and bless my brothers and sisters worldwide. I abhor the division we experience through prejudice, exclusivity, and moral superiority. I look towards the day that we will gather in from our faceless high-rises around the world to sit down together, as one household, grafted into one family, and finally know each other—and love each other—as we are known. And loved.
Becca is the Features Editor at The Small Seed. She can be found any night of the year satiating her love of buttered popcorn. According to knowing sources at the grocery store, she “has her hands full, bless her heart.” She finds meaning in the little things and attempts to do all things with faith and devotion to her Savior Jesus Christ, so it can be said of her, “she hath done what she could."