Recently, my daughter launched herself away from us. For the first time in her short life, she falteringly tottered on her own two legs across the sitting room floor.
Ndempa was walking! It was a proud moment for us, and we beamed with delight. My wife and I are amazed that the time she has been with us have gone by so quickly. We thank God for Ndempa, and the ways in which our lives have been enriched and blessed by her presence. It seems to me that this single moment of bi-pedal independence captures the meaning of what it means to be family. First, we encouraged Ndempa to crawl. It is an important development stage and, according to psychologists, vital to developing depth – spatial perception, mathematical nerve impulses and a host of other necessary cognitive instruments.
The hardest part was resisting all the unwelcome advice about getting her onto solid food as quickly as possible. We did not push her to develop faster but allowed her to enjoy being at whatever stage she was. This is what family is meant to be – an accepting environment in which we can be and become. Second, we have both nurtured and supported our daughter: during her months of gestation, in birth, and taking her first steps. It is not only infants but all of life – young and old – that requires nurturing and the support of empowering structures.
Thirdly, we helped Ndempa to walk. First, in a walking ring, which gave her relative freedom of movement and confidence; then in allowing her to walk the length of the couch while we held her hand, and then walking between two chairs. Now, she looks so proud walking upright. This is what family is means to be – an organism that builds self-confidence and self-esteem.
Lastly, we have tried to respond to her as much as possible, creating a safe environment for her, where she can learn to interact with people, make eye contact, experience speaking, touching, listening, fun and discipline. All these things will teach her to be a caring, empathetic ‘real’ human being. When Ndempa was four years old, she went on her first Sunday school outing. She sat in church with other people, get passed to the left and to the right – and she is all the time learning social skills.
The family is the basis of human society; what Karl Rahner calls “The church in miniature” (Inquiries p. 292). The implication is that society is an extension of the family. We should be cautious with this analogy, though, because society has the biggest influence on the family, rather the other way round. Poverty, exposure to violence, alcoholism, the abuse and exploitation of women and children, our complicated global political and economic systems, and the values communicated by the media all have a great negative, stressful impact on society and families. Families are intended by God to be accepting communities, empowering structures, organisms that build self-confidence and human symbioses. They are the environment in which we learn social skills and should be micro-entities of faith (Child Crisis, Arizona, 5 July 2017)
These ideals correspond with our new designation as the body of Christ, the family of God. The church is called to be a differentiated community, a blessing to the world. But too often, the church has failed to live up to its calling to be a new humanity. In the church, we have often exchanged acceptance for condemnation, self-confidence for guilt, self-esteem for self-abasement, symbiosis for displays of power and domination, social openness for particularism, and identification as a community of a book, rather than of faith.
Finally, when I watch Ndempa playing, I sometimes feel anger for the world we have created – a world that abandons, abuses and sometimes aborts its children (Confidente, 20 August 2020). Sometimes, I feel despondent that the church, like ancient Israel, has turn away from God’s values and intention for us. But every time I look at Ndempa, I simply cannot help but give thanks to God for the blessings of family.