The Christian life is rooted in a desire to imitate Christ and a faith that doing so will allow us to grow ever closer to living the mission for which God has given us life in the first place.
For those of us whom the Lord has called to parenthood, he has offered a life-giving approach to time, even when life is hard. For family life is by definition a life in communion; it is a life that can heal the pains of loneliness and orient our desires toward those we love.
The Basic Principle: Love
There is, we suggest, a fundamental ethic of family life—namely, to grow in love for one another. “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). These words that Jesus spoke to his disciples toward the end of his public ministry apply to us as well. Reclaiming family time is fundamentally about observing this commandment. And like all of the commandments, this one is about coming to realize our freedom.
If the Lord commands us to love one another, does that mean that we must always spend our time with family? The short answer: of course not. We need time for ourselves, to nourish and love our lives so that we might love others.
Recall that at various points during his public ministry, Jesus took time away by himself in prayer (Matthew 14:13; Luke 5:16; 22:41; John 6:15) and even expressed exasperation and anger at the people around him (Mark 9:19; John 2:14-16). If Jesus found the need to take time away from people who could sometimes drive him crazy, so can we. The commandment to love is not a call to an unrealistic messiah complex—even for Jesus—but rather a call to live within the reality of the persons that the Lord has created us to be.
There is an ancient idea that is about taking time to nourish the soul. All people need forms of leisure, however basic. At the various stages of a family’s life cycle, different forms of leisure emerge. Perhaps it’s a cup of coffee during the baby’s naps or a quick run to the gym before anyone woke up that can provide a needed opportunity to recharge our batteries. As kids got older, perhaps it is a night out with friends or a day retreat. Experiences like these are reminders of how fluid time can be. An hour with a friend may leave a more lasting impression than eight hours of work.
There is a legal rule that applies in a different way to family ways: nemo dat quod non habet (no one gives what he does not have). You can’t teach your children how to take care of themselves if you do not model the same for yourself. Reclaiming family time is not about making sure that your children are entertained every second of the day, nor is it about insisting that all activities be done as a family. It is about something more fundamental, something rooted in a vision of the eternal.
If the Lord commands us to love one another, does that mean that we must always spend our time with family?
There is a paradox in family life: it is an all-encompassing, total commitment of life, and yet it changes and eventually slips away. The harried mother of babies and the sleep-deprived father of toddlers become the busy, strategizing parents of school-age children. Over time, they have older children, teens, young adults, sons- or daughters-in-law, grandchildren. Each stage of the family life cycle is different, and each year brings new challenges. Family patterns change, new challenges arise, and children develop personalities with attendant likes and dislikes. Our challenge is to develop practices of prayer and self-awareness through these changes, mindful that over time, children will become adults with their own lives and relationships.
Family time does not end; in some ways it becomes more precious because it becomes more rare. We were mindful of that truth recently when both of us had such rare experiences to be with all of our siblings and parents. Our families of origin are now spread across the United States, and so reunions are very special occasions. They are fruits of the investments in family time that we ourselves experienced as young people and represent for us hopes for our children as they get older.
Time Out for Ourselves
Family adds richness to life, but the flow of life is such that we cannot live exclusively as though our children or spouses are the only worthy recipients of our time and attention. Taking time for ourselves is part of making a priority of family life. It is part of the commandment to love one another, because it is rooted in the faith that love is ultimately a gift of God that we must carefully cultivate in ourselves and in our relationships.
Over time, the practice of living contemplatively allows us to discern the beauty in ordinary life and to enjoy the gifts that our family members bring—even if they are sometimes frustrating! If contemplation is a “long loving look at the real,” then contemplation of our family life is a long loving look at each other and ourselves. You can’t teach your children how to take care of themselves if you do not model the same for yourself.
We live richly in the memories of past experiences, the appreciation of present experiences, and the hope of future experiences. That is really the essence of reclaiming family time. It is not only about carving time out of the calendar or careful planning of time away. It is rather about bringing a discerning attitude to daily life. “This is the day the Lord has made; / let us rejoice in it and be glad” (Psalm 118:24). Our family prayer, then, is this. What is yours?
This is an excerpt from the Muldoon’s book, Reclaiming Family Time: A Guide to Slowing Down and Savoring the Gift of One Another. (The Word Among Us Press, 2017). Available at www.wau.org/books