Finding Family in the Trinity
Contextualizing Scripture for the Chinese American Immigrant Experience
I recently preached my first sermon as a guest speaker at a small chinese-american church in Virginia. I’m sharing an edited, written version of it here
Today I want to discuss what Scripture says about family, specifically the role of parents and children. I think we all recognize the formative role family plays in our lives: family is our first community, the first place we call home. All of us are part of a family and perhaps some of you who are younger want to start a family one day. Therefore, we should seek to understand what Scripture says about family and its role in our lives. But despite the importance of family, I have found it is somewhat of a neglected topic in the church. We talk about marriage, but that is not the same thing as the family. Growing up, the most I heard on this topic was “children obey your parents”.
In particular, not only do I think we need to reflect more deeply about God’s vision for the family, we also need to recognize the unique contexts different families live in. For me and for most of us here, we embody the unique circumstances that face second-generation chinese-american immigrant families. While God’s Word is inerrant and unchanging, how it applies to each of us varies with the situation and the times. So there is a gap here, both broadly in understanding and thinking about what Scripture says about the role of the family and how to apply it to the unique circumstances of the second-generation chinese-american immigrant experience. And that’s what I want to discuss today.
Before we jump in, I want to first share some reflections on what are some of the defining characteristics that separates our immigrant experience from the norm in america. There are 3 primary ones that I don’t mean to say are normative or universal, but simply general trends that I think many of us here can relate to, either personally or indirectly through others in this community.
The first is that the immigrant family is strongly nuclear and uniquely isolated. Oftentimes, second generation kids grow up with little conception of an extended family. I know for me, when I visited China growing up, it was surreal to meet someone I had never met before and be told they were my aunt or uncle, or my cousin. And so the immigrant family in america is isolated, without a social safety net, and second gen kids grow up without seeing other close family members or adult role models.
The second unique factor is that there tends to be a large disconnect between the experiences of the parent and those of the child. While this is true in any family, it is more so true because the parents often grew up in a different country, with a different culture, speaking a different language, than their children. And this can lead to parents having difficulty connecting with their kids and kids not feeling understood by their parents.
The last attribute I want to highlight for chinese american second generation families is one that perhaps has received the most attention, which is, for lack of better phrasing, a culture of performance and a focus on excellence in academics. This can also often manifest itself in a culture of comparing kids to one another.
With this background, lets turn to see what Scripture has to say to us about family.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Parents, bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. That is all this passage has to say about parents, it’s very simple. There are of course many discussions we could have about what that looks like, but I am very unqualified to give advice on parenting. What I think is clear from Scripture, is that while it does not tell us the means, it is clear on the ends and purpose of the role of parents in the church: to teach and model for their children who God is.
This is a simple but important point that I think needs to be made more often in the chinese american christian community. We need to be explicitly clear that the family and the role of parents is not to produce academic superstars nor is it to guarantee future earnings for their children. Obviously it is not bad to encourage your children to do well in school, but the overarching primary goal should first be to raise your children in the Lord.
And I think one point of confusion or mixed signaling that often happens is that parents will bring the kids to church, and the kids see their parent at church and hear all these things about grace and love and Jesus, but then when they're at home, all they experience is punishing expectations of success. No wonder then that so many children who grow up in the church stop going when they grow up and leave their parents: the faith that they have seen embodied in their family is one of confusion and mixed messages.
Another common thing I hear from parents in the church is that they struggle to connect with their kids. And as someone who serves in youth group and is relatively young, parents often come and ask me to talk to their kids about something because they feel that they are unable to.
But while I am happy to serve and minister to the youth and understand the challenges parents face in relating to their kids, it is sometimes a little offputting because parents often seem to come to me with the expectation or impression that I have a unique relationship with their child, perhaps on account of my age or having english as a first language, that they cannot possibly have. But from my perspective, I see their child twice a week for a couple hours in a group, while the parent has a unique connection with their child, in that they see them everyday and inhabit a special place of authority and respect, even if it is not visible.
So I think this passage implicitly affirms what I think we all recognize as true: that parents are important and formative in how a child is raised. Even in spite of the cultural and sometimes linguistic differences between a parent and a child, parents are still impactful, even if they don’t feel like they are, which is why Scripture has pointed to parents as the ones who are responsible for raising their children in the Lord. Not pastors or the church, though they play an important role, but Scripture points to parents.
One way I’ve seen the impact parents have is in our young adult small group, where we have a space for each person share their life story, a 30 minute to 1 hr long telling of their journey. Having listened to over a dozen young adults and college students share their story, I can tell you that everyone spent a significant amount of time talking about the effect their parents had on them, be it positive or negative, intentional or accidental, and how they are still dealing with it today. So to parents, I hope this is both an encouragement and a challenge: while it may feel like your child does not listen or care about what you say or do, your actions really do leave a lasting impression.
But I want to share one final story, one testimony and example of how I recently saw this passage lived out positively.
At my church, we have our annual round of deacon nominations and as part of this process, the deacon nominee goes to both the english and chinese service to share their testimony. One of the deacon nominees, a chinese parent, came to the english service to share his testimony. First, he introduced himself, his family, and his history at the church. And he recognized that as someone who was on the chinese side, not many of us knew him well (indeed, I didn’t know him well either). And he acknowledged that his sharing time was short and in any case, his english was not good. So he pointed us to his two sons, who are both high schoolers and are part of the english congregation, and he said “they are my testimony to you, they are my letter of recommendation to you”.
Here is a father who understood his responsibility, understood that his children were a reflection of his character. He did not have a prestigious job or title, he was not a comfortable english speaker, but he knew that those things fade in comparison to the gift and responsibility he carries as a father. And both of his sons, who are in high school, are part of the high school small group I help lead. And I can say that they are indeed, a strong letter of recommendation for this father, who though I do not know him personally, I know the measure of him through his children.
In the broader context of Ephesians 5-6, Paul is outlining multiple types of relationships: husband and wife, parent and child. In every relationship, there is always a reciprocal obligation. It is never one-sided, an important caveat that we often lose sight of. So this is not saying for children to do whatever their parents tell them to, just as Ephesians 5 is not saying that wives should do whatever their husbands tell them and this passage shouldn’t be used to bludgeon children into obedience.
Specifically, the passage says to “Obey your parents in the Lord” - we are always called first to obey the Lord. Just as when Jesus says “whatever you ask in my name, that will I do” doesn’t mean God will grant us anything we ask, so too “obey your parents in the Lord” does not mean to do whatever your parents tell you to do.
But today, I want to actually focus on the old testament promise that Paul references here: “honor your father and mother that it may go well with you”, this is the first commandment with a promise. And the question I want to ask today is: why is this commandment in the Bible? It’s up there with “you shall have no other God” and “do not murder”. Why is this command, this piece of wisdom, so strongly emphasized in Scripture?
And I would encourage all of you to ask that kind of question for everything you read in Scripture so as to better understand the heart of God. Why has God structured the world in such a way that this is divine wisdom? Asking this question for pieces of Scripture relevant to modern-day topics e.g. drinking, going to church, sex, is something I spent a lot of time doing in college and I would especially encourage those of you in college right now to ask those questions, because seeking the answers to these questions will grow your faith and your ability to perceive the world as God perceives it and desire for God’s kingdom and order, not just as someone who follows the rules.
And this piece of Scripture is really the origin story for this entire sermon. The inspiration for this sermon started with me reflecting on this question “why does Scripture tell us to honor our father and mother” for the past couple years.
And in particular for me, I was thinking about this question when I returned back home from college and lived with my parents. And during this time, there were many parents in the church who would come up to me and praise me for how good my chinese was or how I had gone to a good college etc. And I was uncomfortable from this for many reasons, not only because I dislike being portrayed as out of the ordinary, but also because it felt wrong that such praise should be lavished on me, because I did not feel like these things were worthy of praise, and certainly not praise for me.
The reality is, my chinese was proficient only because my parents forced me to go to chinese school growing up, even when I didn’t want to. I was only able to go to the college I went to because my dad worked two jobs for most of my life and was willing to give up all the money he worked so hard for, to send me to the college I wanted to go to, without any objection. Even me coming back home from college, that too is in part because I had a home to come back to, and a father and mother who I was willing and desired to return to and who were willing to accept me back home.
Now that I’m a little older and able to reflect on what I’ve done in my life and how I’ve gotten to where I am now, I’m able to realize that the praise and honor I have received for whatever I have done that is commendable, really belongs my parents, who raised me and made me who I am today. That is very simply, to me, what it means to honor your parents: it is to recognize their place and role in shaping who you become and what you accomplish. And ultimately, the praise goes to God, because like grace, our parents are something that we did nothing to merit or earn.
Now some of you might be thinking, “well that’s easy for you to say Charles, you have good parents”. And perhaps in doing so, we would be imitating the very thing asian parents are often criticized for, namely comparing their children to one another. So too it is easy to compare parents to one another. My parents and I do not have a perfect relationship, but part of honoring them is that I don’t air out our dirty laundry.
But I do recognize that family is often a source of strain, conflict, and even trauma. For those of you who are Christian, I want to emphasize this: your family is a vital and important area of ministry. I know for myself in college, we often talked about reaching out and ministering to our friends or to other students; in other words, people just like us. But how much more so should we reach out to our family! I know that it’s often hard to see oneself as reaching out to your parents or siblings, but they are part of the universal Christian calling. How can we go to the ends of the earth if we cannot even speak to and love those closest to us?
I want to share one story that demonstrates and challenges me on what real ministry to one’s family looks like, from a recent retreat that I attended. The English adult speaker was a pastor from Georgia and over the course of the retreat, he shared with us parts of his life story and testimony. He was also a second-generation kid, whose parents owned a chinese restaurant growing up. And he talked about the difficulty he had with his parents as a child, the conflicts and the temper his parents had. What was most striking to me is how after graduating from seminary, he ended up not being a pastor, like many of his peers did, but spent the better part of his 30’s taking care of his parents, who were suffering from illness and mental disease. He spent over 5 years being a full-time caretaker for his parents, while raising kids and while his wife supported the family financially. And during this time, his parents slowly forgot who he was and who they were, until they eventually passed away. He spent what should have been the start of his pastoral ministry and the latter part of his youth, taking care of his parents. What does it look like to honor your father and mother? What does it look like to love and minister to those around you?
For those of you who have struggled with your parents or perhaps are still dealing with different kinds of trauma from your family growing up, I want to say this: because of the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, we are also adopted into a new family and a new community, which is His church.
Though we live in a broken world, there is a family that we can all look to, to model and emulate. God, who is a perfectly loving father and His son, Jesus, who perfectly obeys and honors God the Father. And this Father-Son relationship of perfectly reciprocated love and obedience exists not just for its own sake, but now because of their love and relationship, we all are adopted into this family, into communion with God. And we know the loving heart and kindness of God the Father, because we see His Son, who perfectly obeyed and honored Him, and who now leads us into a relationship with God. For all of us, the Holy Trinity offers a model for the relationships in our lives and that includes in the family.