Theology for the Very Young

“Mom, what’s a haunted house?”

With Halloween approaching and ghosts popping up everywhere, I was actually prepared for this question, asked — as usual — in the car, en route to preschool. Niko, nearly five now, is a thinker, a ponderer, and a worrier, and these quiet twenty-minute excursions are fertile ground for some deep questioning sessions.

We watched Inside Out last summer, and the concepts in the story have been really useful as we dissect and examine all those complex and intertwined emotions that some kids Niko’s age experience. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a wonderful movie about emotions. I mean, literally starring the emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. I highly recommend it, though Niko’s age — 4 years old when we watched it — is borderline for being ready to handle the range of feelings and experiences the story covers.) But also in the story was Riley’s observation that her new home, empty and lonely, looked like a haunted house. Niko had mentioned this once not long ago, and I’d deflected the question in a truly skilled manner, but I knew I’d have to face a barrage of questions sooner or later. In preparation for the coming onslaught of inquiry, I did some thinking, pondering, and, yes, worrying of my own.

Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.
Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.

So when the inevitable question arrived, I had a triage of answers ready, and I began with the simplest. “A haunted house isn’t real, but in stories, it’s a house where ghosts live.” There. Simple.

“Why did Riley think her house looked haunted?”

“People sometimes think that ghosts like to live in houses where people don’t live. Riley’s new house was empty when they got there, so she thought it looked like a place a ghost might like to live. But really there weren’t any ghosts there, because ghosts aren’t real.”

“What’s a ghost?” Of course. He was going for the long route. I could tell this was not going to be a short conversation. He’s known about ghosts for awhile, naturally, but it’s recently occurred to him there must be more to them than a silly white sheet with a cheerful grin; otherwise why would people be afraid of them?

Still, even though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t satisfy him, I went for the next answer on my list. “You know what a ghost is! You’ve seen lots of pictures. They’re little white floaty guys.”

“But what’s a ghost really?” 

I moved to the next response on my mental list, finally shifting into Real Answers mode. “Ghosts aren’t real,” I said (why change a formula that works so well?), “but in stories, they are spirits of people who have died but who haven’t gone to be with God yet.”

“What’s a spirit?”

“A spirit is a special part of a person that God has made that lives forever and can always be with God. That’s the part of us that talks to God. Our bodies don’t last forever, but our spirits do.”

“Why do our spirits last forever?”

“Because that’s the way God made us.”

“But what if a bad guy comes and takes our spirit?”

“A bad guy can’t take our spirit. It’s not something you can see or hold in your hand. Nobody can take it from you. It’s just for you and God.”

By this time (oh thank you God) we were pulling into the parking lot and entering our flurry of unbuckling, collecting lunch box for snack, collecting little sister, putting that special toy back into the car, looking both directions to cross the parking lot… and the questions were cut short.

Really, I thought, I’d acquitted myself quite well. My answers were clear, concise, and to the point, each giving the information requested and no more, never overwhelming with too much. That was one paranormal/metaphysical/ theological discussion of which I could be proud. Right? Right?

Fast-forward to this morning. Aaron was working on the chicken coop; I was puttering in the garden shed, tidying away dried lavender and sweeping shelves and floors and organizing tools and doing all those odds and ends one needs to do if one wishes to actually use one’s gardening shed for gardening. Niko was running the length of the yard, now visiting Dad, now Mom, in his peregrinations.

As I organized, I caught sight of a collection of pinwheels we’d used to deter birds from eating our berry harvest, and realized I was missing one of the sturdy metal ones. I sent Niko running for it.

He returned in a few moments, his face sad and anxious, holding out the pinwheel in two pieces. Its head, made of brightly-colored flower-like spinning blades, had detached from the sturdy stake. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, “I could only bring you its spirit.”

I’m telling you, teaching theology to a preschooler is hard. 

A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?
A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?


Photo copyright Pixar Animation Studios, found by me via a blog post called “Mental Wellness in Movies: Inside Out,” from  Projected Realities.


Lying to My Son

Before I had children, and even when the older of our two was a baby, I swore I’d never lie to my children. Never. How could I betray their trust, set them up for disillusionment? I would be honest, I promised. At all times. In all situations. Never, I insisted, could there possibly be an excuse for lying to a child.

My husband Aaron agreed, and with the birth of our son, we set out on our adventure of perfect openness and truth telling. We took a policy of plain, simple truth telling, no embroidering or glossing over, and certainly no outright fabrication.

We were honest about the despised food items in his plate –“Yes, those are potatoes. Take one bite,” we’d say. No pretending they were magical unicorn eggs that would turn him into a superhero; they were potatoes, no more, no less.

We were straightforward about the existence of Santa. As our two-year-old son approached his first memorable Christmas, he was fascinated with Santa-themed decorations. We told him that Santa was a nickname for a kind man named Nicholas who had lived long ago, and we remembered him at Christmas time. He was a story, we explained: department store, mall, or bell-ringing Santas were regular people wearing costumes. He appeared to accept this, if grudgingly, and we congratulated ourselves on our honesty.

Our self-congratulation continued as we explained the precise facts about the Easter Bunny: he was a kind person in a costume, we told our three-year-old the next year, leaving candy for children to celebrate spring. How nice! Unfortunately, Niko’s patience with our honesty regarding the world had been wearing thin; he had been indignant that we continued to insist in Santa’s historical accuracy, but at our declaration that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, he was crushed. “But I want the Easter Bunny! I want him to be real!” he wailed.  But it was too late; we couldn’t backtrack. No, our son would know that Santa Claus is a cultural memory of a historical figure, the Easter Bunny is the funny leftover traditional costumed character of an ancient custom, and his potatoes are just potatoes. We remain relentlessly honest, although, I suspect, we may be able to reach some sort of quiet compromise where we don’t insist quite so firmly in these beloved characters’ nonexistence.

But then, one day, there was a hard question. The kind of question for which honesty just can’t do the job.

We were in the car, where so many of these questions come flying at me. Niko, now four, was asking about love. “Will you always love me, Mom?” he asked. This has been a common theme for him, a source of mild anxiety at times, and once — when he discovered there had been a time I hadn’t been his mom and thus hadn’t known him, therefore hadn’t loved him — well, that had been an interesting conversation.

“I will always love you, for ever and ever,” I declared.

“Will you love me if I die?”

“I will love you if you die. People don’t stop loving  their family who die. They miss them, but they don’t stop loving them.”

“What if you die? Will you still love me if you die?”

And there it was. The question. The one I can’t really answer. The one theologians, church fathers, religionists of all sorts, of all creeds and doctrines, can’t really answer. We just don’t know, do we? Many of us believe our consciousness continues after death. We go on — to heaven, to nirvana, to reincarnation, to a place of waiting, to the clouds.  But do we maintain a connection to those we leave behind, or do we continue without looking back? Do we keep on loving, or do we forget? For every dramatic return-from-beyond-the-veil account that suggests one answer, another contradicts; for each passage from a holy book that points in one direction, another passage points another way.

I was raised on the Bible like most kids are raised on peanut butter and jelly, on meat and potatoes. In the communes in which I was raised, we read the Bible at mealtimes, at church three times a week, at school daily, in private devotions. In school, we were expected to use it as reference to support viewpoints in essays on any subject, from history to science to opinions on skirt length. So it’s with a bit of authority that I say: the Bible has not a whole lot to say on this exact subject, that of love after death. The one thing that echoes uncomfortably in my mind on the subject is a song that ought to be reassuring, a song whose melody was written by my mother’s dear friend — someone I consider a second mother — and whose words come from Revelation 21:4-5:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, from their eyes/ There shall be no more sorrow/ No more pain/ No more death. For the former things are passed away, are passed away/ Are passed away/ And behold, He has made all things new.

In my mind, I hear her clear voice singing the simple and beautiful melody, her fingers caressing the strings of the guitar in a way that’s as familiar to me as her smile, her eyes calm with the strength and peace that you only see in someone who’s been through more than their fair share of sorrow and tears and has carried a spark of joy throughout. She’s a woman of unshakeable faith, and that’s why I absolutely believe the words of this song. And that’s why I can’t answer my son’s question honestly.

You see, I believe a portion of love is pain and sorrow. A parent can’t see a son’s bewilderment at a friend’s rejection and not share his sorrow. You can’t hold your daughter’s fevered body and not sense her pain. When a loved one suffers, you suffer too. When you’re separated from those you love, that hurts as well. Even in hypothetical perfect, ideal relationships, even if we don’t actively cause pain to those that are closest to us through betrayal or misunderstanding, loving another person involves pain. And so, if God is erasing pain and sorrow from us as we pass through death, the only way that’s possible is if we stop loving those we’ve left behind.

Now, there are still plenty of possibilities. Perhaps we don’t go all the way on at first — other verses in the Bible make reference to clouds of witness watching those still in the daily struggle on Earth, for example. Perhaps this particular description in Revelation is only to the end of times. Perhaps some are even allowed to stay with those they love for a time. That’s what I’d like to believe, even though I don’t actually think it’s true.

When I was fourteen, my protective, almost-seventeen-year-old brother Charles died in a boating accident with a group of other young people and chaperones from our close-knit community. I felt his loss badly, of course, right from the beginning, but it wasn’t till I got older that I began to realize how much we both were missing. He never got to meet my husband, something I regret — they would have appreciated each other, I think. I missed him at my wedding, and he didn’t see me get married. I missed him desperately when my son was born. And I wanted so, so badly to believe what I knew couldn’t be true, that somehow he was still watching over and loving me. That’s why, when Niko protested the Easter Bunny’s status as a pretend creature, I sympathized. And that’s why, when he asked if I’d still love him if I died, I couldn’t tell him what I thought was an honest answer. I couldn’t tell him no. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe.

When Niko was born, I had a terribly hard time transitioning him from bassinet to crib, clutching him and sobbing the first time I tried to lay him down in the crib that seemed long miles from the bed. When I finally managed it, the first time I made the trip at night from our room to the nursery to feed him, there was a not-really-there shadow leaning over his crib. As I said, it wasn’t really there. Not visible, not really. But the invisible shadow had (to me) a clear attitude of protective love. After that, for several weeks, each time I staggered sleepily to the nursery for a night feeding, the not-really-there shadow was faithfully stooped over his crib. Not once did I have any sense of anxiety, fear, or spookiness. It wasn’t till the third or fourth time that it occurred to my sleep-hazed mind to think Wait…what? before I dismissed it, deciding I just didn’t need to know. Eventually, it wasn’t there any more, but for the weeks that it leaned over my son’s crib at night, I felt a sense of peace, of watchful protection.

I know that my friends run the gamut of faith. As they’re reading this, some are thinking, How amazing. God is so good! He sent your brother to care for your son! And others are thinking,  Honey, get some rest and tell your doctor you need better pills, because something is not right with your brain. I’m sure my scientist best friend, who currently bends his remarkable brain to the study of regenerative biology, is shaking his head as he reads this and is exercising all his considerable powers of kindness to not tell me I’m cuckoo. And maybe a few in the middle are just thinking that a sleep-deprived mom in a shadowy room shouldn’t be surprised if she imagines a few strange things.

All I know is, when my son asked me if I would love him after I died, I had a split second to balance those two thoughts: my own irrational desire for reassurance of my brother’s love after he died (and the fresh memory of my son’s sorrow at the nonexistence of the Easter Bunny and panic at his realization that I once hadn’t loved him because I hadn’t been his mommy), and the Biblical assurance that we would experience no more sorrow after death. I could have launched into a philosophical discussion about the uncertainty of the afterlife, about the adventure that follows stepping through the mysterious dark door of death. I could have told him that love is full of sorrow and pain, and we’re assured a life without those in the times to come. I could have been honest, I could have told him: I don’t know.  But he’s four. And I chose love.

“I will always love you, sweetie,” I promised him. “Always. No matter what. If I die, or if you die, I will always love you.” I lied. I lied to my son. And I have not a single regret.

In an unusual turn of events, three photographs I chose for this post aren’t my own. The black-and-white photo of my brother twirling in a striped shirt was taken my my Aunt Martha, probably in 1985; the color photos of my son in a plaid shirt and brown vest were taken by Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography.

Goldfish Carnage

Late yesterday afternoon, after naps and just before dark, I decided it was high time I cleaned out the little pond behind our house. During our first big storm, it had filled with fallen leaves — at first they’d been piled up on top, but then they slowly sank until they filled the whole thing. For about a week and a half I couldn’t do anything about it because the leaves were all frozen in place, but now that everything had thawed, I had no excuses. I thought it was a job Niko could easily help me with. We would build good work habits, I thought. It would be stress-free because he really couldn’t mess it up, and if he wandered off briefly to play it wouldn’t be a big deal. And he would have so much fun. Water, fall leaves, a rake just his size — what could be more fun?

Fun, right?

I didn’t count on having to incorporate a conversation on death, decomposition, and the inability of dead goldfish to lie on their bellies.

I don’t know what exactly caused the fish to die. They were probably pretty badly traumatized by being among the last to be rescued from the muck when we cleaned out our big pond, which turned out to contain a HUGE school of goldfish, mostly in shades of black and brown. I’m sure having their entire pool filled with dead leaves didn’t help. Nor did the frozen surface do anything to relieve their difficulties. Combine those problems with the fact that this pond isn’t filtered or oxygenated with a little waterfall or fountain (because the sweet little waterfall the previous owners constructed is so leaky that the pool loses half its water within an  hour), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Who knows at what point these poor creatures breathed their last?

I started scooping the leaves into the wheelbarrow with a large plastic rake while Niko fished for leaves with his. I thought the rake would be a better tool than the big net because it wouldn’t capture the fish. I needn’t have worried. I was about three scoops in when I noticed the Smell. Yes, it was bad enough to warrant the capital letter.

I checked the bottoms of my magenta mud boots: no dog poop. I eyed Niko suspiciously, but I knew it wasn’t him. He hasn’t had a poop accident in forever — even when we were potty training it was rare. On my back, Sofia bounced and babbled happily. Couldn’t be her: she does not appreciate a messy diaper.

Two more scoops, and the first fish bobbed to the surface, blanched and stiff, eyes bulging. I quickly fished it out with the rake, but I wasn’t fast enough. “Is that fish DEAD?” exclaimed my son. I confirmed that yes, it was dead, as I carried it to an out-of-the-way spot between a large tree and the fence. As we discussed NEVER touching dead things, the next one popped up. This one was deposited with the first.

After I’d carried two more on their long-handled bier to the tree, I gave up. As seven more fish rose to the surface, their rest disturbed by my scoops, I set them aside on a flat rock. They lay there, stiff, on their sides, a grotesque tableau of the Feeding of the Multitudes with just a few little fish (no loaves here).

Niko eyed them. “Are they dead too?” Yes. “Are they making that yucky smell?” Yes. “Can you make them go back on their tummies? I don’t like them like that. ” No, sorry. “Can I catch one with my rake too?” NonononoNO, absolutely NOT. No touching dead things! Even with a rake! “But you are, Mommy.”

All told, I scooped eleven dead fish out of there. I’m now terrified to clean out the smaller pond next to the garage, now. Three of those fish are nearly as large as my hand and beautifully golden-orange, plus numerous black-and-orange and plain black or brown ones. That pond was similarly filled with leaves and frozen, but it has the advantage of having a filter and a koi-shaped fountain for oxygenation. And the refugees from the big pond who ended up here were earlier rescues. They may have survived. But I’m not very hopeful.

On the bright side, the onions? scallions? that I harvested last week and then forgot to lay out to dry did not rot, and I chopped up two for our chicken and dumplings that I made to cheer me up after having to dispose of eleven smelly fish. So…that’s nice, right?

Delicious oniony things.
Delicious oniony things.