One of the interesting phenomena of parish ministry is that parents ask me questions about rearing children. I generally preface my response with, “Well…in all my children rearing experience…” The dramatic pause at the end lets the inferences sink in: I have no experience rearing children. At best I have experience being a child. But then again, I have lots of experience listening to stories about children growing up in all kinds of family settings, at different ages, facing different problems and dynamics, and facing all manner of theories about raising kids.
As you might expect, many of the parental inquiries are about having the “God talk” with their kids. How do I respond to this parental inquiry? At first, I don’t really respond; I am more interested about discovering what kind of relationship the parent has with God. Sometimes my first question is some inquiry about the image of God held by the parent. Such a simple question can unpack a lot and reveal even more about one’s spiritual life. I should have cataloged all the answers and maybe I would have a top-5 or -10 answers.
Some folks describe God in a way that draws from the world of medieval and Renaissance art. God is the authority figure who sports a white beard, is seated upon a throne, more-than-often seems a little stern, and is just about to call you, including your middle name – that sure sign you are in trouble. At one level, the artist provided part of the image, and you provided the rest to compile your image of God. When people hold such an image, I will ask who they know that sports a beard and says “authority” to them. Not too many people have anyone in mind. It leads me to wonder about their experience of God.
Other people seem to describe God as part divine accountant and part Santa Clause. In either case, God is making a list and checking it twice. There are many other images; truth be told, most of them positive. But the description most often does not include a personal narrative, image, or encounter. But that is only in the response to my initial inquiry. When I continue to pull threads from their responses, a beautiful, intimate, loving picture of God emerges, devoid of the expected language of church and catechism, but replete with imagery of friendship, and a bond that goes back across the ages. One parent paused, reflected, and eventually remarked that God was like a best friend with whom you shared a best friendship. Life took you both in different directions, but years later you met, and it was just as natural as yesterday. There were no awkward moments, no pretense, or no posturing.
The God you can best “give” to your child is the one you already know. The one in the stories you can tell; “You know, this is where God has been in my life….” They will be stories of joy and sorrow, heartbreak and first kisses, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” and “When my parents found out..”, and “When it was all over, this is what I discovered…”
Sure, you will have to figure out when, where, and the appropriateness of sharing the story. But, where to begin? Recount the stories to yourself or your spouse, a friend, or even a priest. In the web and weave of the telling is the description of God in your life. God who knew you before you were born. God who you have come to know. This is the protagonist in “the God talk” you need to have with your children, your nieces and nephews, grandkids, and any child who asks. It is the God you know best.
So…what’s your story?