When her thin, little voice asked with complete sincerity, “And then did God kill all the bad guys that killed Jesus?” I knew I had told that story all wrong.
I had never really given much thought to how I would talk to my children about the story of Jesus. I know many parents put a lot of thought into it ahead of time, and today, as I stumbled through the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, I wish I had been one of those parents.
In retrospect, there are many amazing stories about Jesus I could have told that have nothing to do with him being killed or coming back to life, but in the moment when my 4 year old daughter looked to me with her wide, blue eyes and asked me what did Jesus do, I totally had to wing it.
The conversation started out well enough. She climbed onto my lap and asked to see the necklace I was wearing that has a tiny picture of Mother Mary engraved onto it.
“That’s Mary,” I said matter-of-factly, but she looked at me quizzically, her eyes telling me she required more explanation. “Jesus’s Mom,” I added, and when that still didn’t quite satisfy her, I reminded her of the Christmas story she had just been exposed to a month before. She nodded, remembering the story of Jesus’s birth, but then asked, “But, what did Jesus do?”
I immediately took this to mean that she wanted to know why he is important, and here I could have picked any one of a dozen stories from the Bible where Jesus performed a miracle and it would have been a nice story.
But instead, I decided to tell her, basically, about how Jesus was a political activist. “Well,” I started off. “There were some mean people that only wanted to allow rich people in the churches…” At this point, my mind sort of drifted, thinking, should I explain that they were actually temples, or synagogues, and that Jesus was a Jew? No, No, keep it simple, I reminded myself. “And Jesus, I continued, thought that ALL people should be allowed to go to Church, whether they were rich or poor or healthy or sick.” She listened so intently.
“And what did they do to Jesus?” she asked.
“Well,” and it came out before I even thought it all the way through. “They killed him.” I still cringe at myself for saying that because it opened up a whole new can of proverbial worms. “They KILLED him?” she asked in disbelief. “Killed him DEAD?”
“Well…uh…um…yes. Jesus believed that everyone should be able to go to Church but the mean people didn’t, so they…um…killed him.”
That’s when she basically asked me if God smited the “mean people” for killing Jesus.
“No, no. Jesus taught us that we don’t hurt other people, even if they hurt us. If someone hits you, are you supposed to hit them back?”
“No,” she answered.
“That’s what Jesus taught us,” I said, feeling like I’d recovered. “You don’t hurt other people.” I was very pleased with myself, but my recovery was short lived. “And then Jesus came back to life,” I said, and she jumped up with a start, like I’d just told her the sky would be purple tomorrow.
“He came back to life?” she asked, awe lacing that little voice.
“Yes. After Jesus died, he came back to life and reminded us all not to hurt each other, so the mean people weren’t mean anymore. “ It wasn’t very eloquent, but I was feeling I had weathered yet another hard question until I said, “And then he went to heaven.” I knew this was in error as soon as she said, “Heaven? Where is heaven?”
“Um, well, uh….”
“Is heaven in the sky?” she asked.
“I don’t really know,” I told her honestly. “But it seems like a good place for heaven. Some people believe that’s where heaven is.”
“I believe heaven is in the sky above the clouds,” she announced.
I smiled. “Well, that’s good,” I said. And then I made one more horrible blunder because at some point during the next few moments where I fielded a few more questions about Jesus and heaven, I said flatly, “Heaven is where you go when you die.”
“Are you going to die?” she asked and clutched me in a fierce hug.
I held her as tight as I could, and told her the truth.
“Yes,” I said.
But I added, “But not until I’m a hundred years old, so you don’t have to worry about that for a very long time.” Here I deviated from the truth because I have no intent on living until I’m a hundred.
And then after that tight embrace, she released me and began to tell me about flying to heaven and magic and some sort of fantastical tale that I did not really get the gist of, but I was grateful the conversation was over.
All and all, I’d say I learned a valuable lesson in that maybe it isn’t always necessary to tell all the harsh stories first, particularly to wide-eyed, imaginative 4-year olds. Maybe we don’t always have to start out killing Jesus.