By Nathan Breland
It is said that God works in mysterious ways, and while I don’t want to discredit that perspective at all, I would also like to posit another seemingly contrary idea, that God works in very obvious and blatant ways as well. This concept does not quite appease the desire for awe-inspiring and miraculous experiences we sometimes seek from God, and yet I somehow sense that the in-your-face and perhaps mundane experiences we have with God might be the most important, especially as these are the experiences that are most relevant and meaningful in our daily lives.
In my own experience growing up, I can share that relating with God may not have been an intentional thought in my mind. Yet, in hindsight, I realize that God was certainly there and investing in me via the most personal and real way possible: through my familial relationships, especially through my relationship with my parents.
It’s not that my parents were the perfect embodiment of God’s love and goodness in every moment. Rather, it was through my efforts to properly relate with my parents in all of life’s difficult and complex reality that I eventually learned what it means to properly relate with God amidst a world of confusion.
As a typical millennial boy becoming a teenager in the early 2000’s, I had immersed myself in the world of video games and had little interest in the world of reality. The hours would fly by as I pursued victory in the go-to game of that time: Starcraft. Yet, one day, while I was in the midst of a major battle in cyberspace, my Mom came to me in tears in the midst of a mini-breakdown.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she wept.
I was struck as if by a bolt of lightning with a feeling of remorse like I’d never felt before. My mother had been slaving away at doing the dishes, caring for us four children and trying to make ends meet, and yet I was so consumed in intergalactic warfare that I hadn’t noticed any of her distress. In an unprecedented move, I walked away from the computer in the midst of a battle to the dismay of my online allies, and I helped my mom finish the household chores. To be honest, I even surprised myself. At a stage in life where honoring the sacred trust of friends even in a meaningless online video game was high on my priorities, I was still able to recognize that my responsibility to help my parents should take precedence.
A short while later I had a frank discussion with one of those friends whom I would frequently game with and together we made a pact to quit video games altogether for a year, both of us recognizing what a drain on valuable time they were. In that newly freed time and mental space, my consciousness of living for the sake of my family grew tremendously and I basically never went back into the gaming world.
I started to reflect on all the blessings our family had received when looking at the situation of the neighborhood around us. In the ghetto South End of Bridgeport, our family was comparatively much more well off than many others. This was true not only economically but also simply in the fact that we had a committed and virtuous 2-parent family. I began to practice more and more not only serving and appreciating my parents and family, but also finding ways to serve my community through simple actions like picking up trash on the street or helping out less fortunate families living nearby. My mother had helped me open my eyes to not only the situation of others, but also my enormous potential to serve and make an impact.
My father was not the type to dictate his children’s lives or make great demands on our behavior. Yet, in his own way, he would still challenge us to live up to our full potential. Through his own example of serving our family and the larger community, he would inspire us in all that we could do and with an occasional push, he would direct us towards what we should do.
Around the same time as my mother broke my ties with video games, my father also challenged me to get out of my comfort zone. He signed me up for a trip to Central America for three weeks, traveling to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras engaging in service projects in poor communities with an inter-religious volunteer team. It was an incredible experience where I could not only recognize more deeply my unique privilege on an international scale, but also make incredible breakthroughs in my own character and capacity to love others.
I am innately more reserved and quieter than most, and my parents would always prod me to make effort to talk more frequently and with more confidence. During this service trip, I exerted myself to find more ways to invest in others on my team and during the service activities by getting outside my shell. Yet what I experienced was honestly great disappointment and sadness as especially the members of the volunteer team I invested in revealed to me their own reality where they had little interest or sincerity in the goals of the project, basically taking the whole experience to be a vacation. Rather than becoming upset and lashing out at them or just ignoring the situation and minding my own business, I instead took time to pray to understand what was going on from God’s perspective. It was the first time I felt God’s painful heart so deeply as I was able to see my peers from a parental perspective and recognize not only the sad situation that they were in being unable to recognize where true meaning in life comes from, but also God’s desperate desire to awaken their inner potential.
It is often said that each person’s relationship with God is personal and unique, which I believe to be true, yet at the same time there is also an aspect to this unique and personal relationship that is unchanging and universally applicable, which is based on the principle that God is the Creator and we are the created, God is the cause and we are the result. In that sense, one could say that the relationship we have with God is a vertical relationship such as that between a parent and child as compared to a horizontal relationship such as between friends. What better place to learn about our proper relationship with God than in our own families where God has given us the most intimate relationships to engage in.
In my own experience and in my formative years, the efforts I made in my relationship with my parents is certainly what taught me the most in how to eventually relate with God. Parents provide the greater perspective and stability that allows children to overcome the strong force of peer pressure and their own insecurities. It is only a first step towards becoming the divine sons and daughters of God that we aspire for, but it is an important and necessary step.