It’s the Family Month of May and we are reminded, once again, how the Bible prescribes to us a family life of mutual love and respect. Children are called to obey and honor parents even into their old age, while parents are not to frustrate or provoke children to anger. One thing that I’m thankful to my parents is that they respected my personhood. If anything felt unfair, I just had to ask and my parents would explain in an understandable way. I was the eldest of three boys and during cold winter months, mother always sent me to go and fetch kerosene heater fuel. So one day I protested, why only me? My brother was old enough to go too. Mom replied, “You are the older brother,” and that was an answer enough. I was, after all, an older brother. During my final year in middle school, father came home to Korea from the states and I suspect my teacher told him how I was doing at school. Father said, “By reaching greater heights we see far beyond,” and added, “Your friends and all the clever girls that you so admire will be going to high school in Seoul…you won’t be able to join them unless you study. Will you be okay to be left behind here in this country side?” My father’s words worked like a charm. From that day on, I studied so hard that I managed to rank third in the class and moved on to a high school in Seoul. It was big progress for a boy who used to rank sixty-seven, and I’m grateful that my father resorted to neither spanking nor yelling to get his point across.
My maternal grandfather was an outsider in the family, as far as I remember. While my grandmother was homebound due to leg pain, he seemed to have a new girlfriend every season. My aunt, the primary breadwinner who was both a school teacher and a pharmacist, resented him for that and he knew. But for me as a kid, grandfather was grandfather like any other. He worked as a realtor and gave me pocket money whenever he made some cash. On days after a good rainfall, he would make me a straw basket to catch rice fish in a creek. And I remember, I was the only family at his bedside as he passed away. I was in middle school and it just happened that none of the adults were home that day. I ran to church in hopes to find somebody and the sexton was the only one there. He came with me to my grandfather’s deathbed, sang hymns in a loud voice, said a prayer, and then began insisting to my old man: “You must believe in Jesus before you die. You must not end up in hell. Believe in Jesus, and we will meet again in heaven.” Meanwhile I was getting anxious that grandpa might die before accepting Jesus, so I joined our sexton and almost demanded, “Grandpa, please say you believe in Jesus. Come on, please say it.” And like a miracle, grandfather who had been completely motionless, nodded as a sign of yes. Sexton didn’t lose a moment’s chance and said a salvation prayer for him. Shortly afterward grandfather passed away, and his acceptance of Jesus Christ was like the gift of a lifetime. I may have been young, but I felt the peace with which he breathed his last having accepted Jesus Christ. It was a mysterious experience, especially since I knew how my grandfather lived without peace within his own family.
The other family for me was my home church, Joong-Ang Methodist Church of Uijeongbu. In our church backyard lived a white furry animal – either a sheep or a goat – and pastor Kang Shinjae used to milk it for his health. As a little boy I knew when pastor Kang would be drinking his milk, and I would hang around the parsonage hoping to get a sip. Then my friend Seokdae would come out and deliver the happy message, “Dad says you should come inside,” and I would shamelessly go in and drink the milk that pastor Kang left for me. Looking back, it is wondrous that none of pastor Kang’s three children complained about me taking the milk. Their eldest Seokju became a pastor, Seokdae worked as a physician until his 60thbirthday and is currently a missionary in the Philippines, and I hear Seonmi is also doing very well. I went back to visit my home church in the early 80s – a decade or so after first immigrating to the U.S. – and it was touching how the church members still carried a treasure chest with my childhood stories that I or my immediate family didn’t know.
Isn’t that what family all about? You eat together, discover life together, at times getting tangled up, while at others you just tango on, weaving stories together. We are far from perfect, but could that be why God put us together – so that we could take care, protect, and give each other a pull when needed. That’s how we come to learn what love is about, and through love, we learn what life is about. And in the end, that’s what church family is about.