Thursday, September 06, 2007

a child’s place in the kingdom

I tend to think there is a bit of sense in the statement, your theology isn’t worth anything if it can’t be understood by a child.

A few weeks ago, a 5 year old was put under my care. I was in charge of putting her to bed and all that good stuff. Like any child, there’s the bedtime story begging. She had a book of her own which involved a story of some questionable ethics and wanted it read again. I hesitated when I suddenly realized what a golden opportunity I had. Instead, I suggested something new and pulled out a Bible story book of my own childhood. She was enthused. It had tons of pictures in it. And we paged through, trying to pick what story to read based on the pictures. She spotted a picture that enthralled her of white robed people, lined up on a golden stair, with palms in their hands and smiling faces. She asked me what it was a picture of. I paused a bit too long as I thought about how people lined up on a golden stair really wasn’t heaven to me. I responded by saying, “Well, someone was imagining what heaven looks like when they drew this picture. See, there is Jesus and everybody wants to be with him.”
“I don’t want to go to heaven,” she said.
“Why don’t you want to go to heaven?”
“I’m afraid my mommy will die.”
How can anyone describe heaven as a desirable place to a child who is afraid of death because it means separation from her mom?
“Well, we are all going to die some day, even me, even you. But heaven is like a big party. And little by little people go to the big party. And people keep talking about the party. And more and more people you know start going there, until almost everyone you know is at the party. Then you think to yourself, I want to go there too, because everyone I know is there. That’s what heaven is like and that’s how we all come to want to be there.”

I showed her the picture of my beautiful sister. I told her we used to sleep together in this very bed, as I tucked her in. I told her that my sister had died and because she loved Jesus she had gone to be with him. I told her how I too wanted to be with Jesus more than ever now because she was with him. But in my heart I understood, humanly speaking, how Jesus must seem kinda greedy.

I don’t know how well I did in my little theological discussion about heaven and death, with a 5 year old but it dawned on me then. Children are some of the best theological critics a person could ask for. Is it any wonder that Luther was a renown theologian? He taught his students at the breakfast table along with his children. Certainly, there was room for dialog and there were children there to crosscheck the theology. It may be one point in the direction of success. But I do think it a significant one. I vowed never to refuse a child a story because it was equally as formative, personally.

How would you describe heaven to a 5 year old?
What would you draw if you drew heaven for a 5 year old?


Daniel Kent said...

I think I did my best theology before the age of 10.

Definitely the best theologians are those who can communicate it at the most simple level.

Anonymous said...

My three year old is not yet able to conceptualize death, let alone heaven, but I am sure that the day is near when he will ask just the question you discussed.

I think that I would respond by describing it much as you did, perhaps using the imagery of a picnic rather than a party. A place where we not only see people we know and love but people (and animals) who are too dangerous for us to embrace in life.

Lions will lay down with lambs, both literally and allegorically (I would like to wait until he is older than five to tell him about people who act like lions or jackals but perhaps just before the first grade is the right time). It is a picnic where no one is a stranger, everyone is family.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was thinking later--heaven is like a wedding or maybe a petting zoo to incorporate the animals.


Anonymous said...

Well I'd personally have theological reservations about calling it heaven (instead of, e.g., the Kingdom fully manifested)--but maybe that's just a boring grown-up distinction.
In any case, I envision it as all that is good and beautiful maximized to the fullest, without a hint or trace of those things which make things bad. So the description would vary from child to child (depending on what they really liked about the world).
I imagine lots of trees, beautiful animals, a huge banquet table with lots of good food and drink, a great big bookcase, with all of the most interesting books, hammocks everywhere to relax in the cool breeze, and all your best friends to share life with...
The point of course isn't the specifics... the point is that we get to be held in God's hands. And this is the very same Creator God who has created all that is good.

Something to look forward to, no doubt. :-)