Willow woke me up in the middle of the night. She was crying uncontrollably and unable to talk. Through some simple questions and the nodding of her head, I quickly ruled out that she wasn’t hurt physically, but that was to be the end of communication until she was properly comforted. I dimmed the room’s light and laid down in bed with her, took her in my arms and held her, waiting. The sobs finally began to ebb, and I asked her why she was so sad.
“I don’t want God to die,” she said.
Of course, these unexpected words came through much heaving, so I wasn’t sure I heard right.
I responded with, “ I’m sorry I don’t understand.”
Through more heaving and random burst of tears came a very audible “I don’t want God to die.”
Having had little sleep all year, (new baby) I was a bit off my game. It was a work night or rather morning, and I must admit to a bit of dozing during the earlier moments of comforting. I was ready to deal with the odd house noises, monsters in the closet or nasty dragons under her bed. However, I was not ready nor awake enough to comprehended the magnitude of my 4-year-old daughter’s profound sorrow.
In a sleep deprived stupor, I responded with the only obvious retort, “God can’t die. He’s God.”
“Yes he can!” She said with sniffle laden conviction.
I gently squeezed her hand and looked her in the eyes and explained that God is too big, too strong and too powerful to be killed.
Still tear-faced she glared at me. Exasperated, she sighed, “Daddy I’ll show you.”
She jumped out of bed and began going through a short stack of books on the floor. She looked up at me again. I sat on the bed dumfounded. “What!” I said.
“Can you turn the light on?” She asked with slight contempt for my lack of predicting her need for illumination. I quickly upped the wall dimmer.
“Here it is.” She said.
She came over and climbed back up into the bed. She backed into my left arm and leaned against my chest and began flipping through her toddler bible. This isn’t even a children’s bible; this one is for very little kids. I believe she got it for her 1st Christmas.
Deliberately she flipped the pages. This went on for a while. Finally, I reach forward and ask if I can help.
“No thank you daddy,” was her reply. “I can find it.”
Four minutes ticked by when the night’s silence was broke with her second, “Here it is.”
Now I am thinking, is this Jonah or Daniel, maybe Sampson, or just some guy with a white beard she thinks is God, and they have an illustration of him in some peril. She turns this little pictorial bible to me and there hanging on the cross is Jesus.
The corners of my eyes filled with tears, and a tear escaped my eye and seeing it, she began to cry.
“I don’t like that God has to die.”
You must understand this was not some movie clip from “The Passion of the Christ” a Renaissance painting or even a good comic book illustration. The book was a preschool paint by number watercolor. There was no representation of the torture, pain, nails, and blood. Just a simple coloring book illustration of Jesus on the cross, looking rather sleepy.
“Sweetheart,” I said. “Willow, I am sorry. You are right God did die.”
“I don’t like that.”
The heaves were returning, for both of us.
“I don’t either, but it was very important that he did, but he only had to do it once a very long time ago.”
She looks at me with unbelieving eyes. “Daddy is Jesus still got nails in his hands?”
I squeezed her. I loved her so much at that moment. “No baby he doesn’t. That picture represents one day in Jesus’ life. Even though, he died it wasn’t his last day.” I flipped to the next page, and there was a picture of the tome with stone rolled away.
She leaned in, smiling a bit. “That is where He moved the stone so he could come back to life.”
Then she flipped to the page where Jesus was going back to Heaven and told what that was as well.
I asked her why she was so sad if she new Jesus was OK. She said that he’s just so nice it is very sad he died, and I love him and don’t want him to get nails in his hands. Tears welled in both our eyes again, and I held her in my arms until she was a sleep.
The next day or rather later that day I came home from work and took Willow on a walk. Hand in hand we headed for the Walgreens at the end of our street.
“Daddy why did God die?”
I’m thinking; Mark just spoke on Atonement this should be easy. Then words like grace, salvation, sin and of course atonement come to the front of my thoughts. I look down at this beautiful blue eyed four-year-old and realized I had no idea how to explain this to her. I prayed.
“ Willow, do you ever do bad things?”
Four-year-old honesty is refreshing. She replied, “Sure! Sometimes I disobey and don’t pick up my toys and don’t draw on paper and have a bad attitude…”
I interrupted, “OK, what happens when you disobey?”
“I get a time-out or a spank.”
“After that, what happens.”
“I tell mommy I am sorry then I forgive her.”
“You mean mommy forgives you.”
Willow giggled, “Silly me.”
“Well everyone does naughty things and before we can go to God, we have to ask him to forgive us just like you do with mommy. The difference is the spanks and time-outs we deserve for being naughty were taken by Jesus. That is why he died on the cross.” I could tell she wasn’t quite following. So I asked her, “Imaging you were naughty to mommy today and when I came home from work mom told me about it and said you needed a spank.”
“I don’t like spanks.”
“Me neither. However let’s say I told mommy that I would get the spank, so you don’t have to”
“It is called grace. That is when you are bad and deserve punishment, but someone takes the punishment in your place.”
“Let’s say you were playing at Kelly’s house, and you broke her daddy’s big TV. Could you pay for a new one?”
“No. I don’t have any money.”
“Right, so you owe Kelly’s daddy a new TV but you have no way of paying for it. Daddy might sell his motorcycle to buy a new TV for Brendan, so you don’t have to.”
“You would be sad daddy.”
“I would too, just like God was sad to give up his son, but I would be happy to see you are free from what you owe. That is what Jesus did for us. He took all our spanks and time-outs for us so we can be free of what we owe. That is why we can go live with God in Heaven someday.”
“Everyone will go to Heaven?”
“No, sadly some will refuse his help and will find out too late that they owe a debt they can’t pay. They will have to live away from God forever.”
“Will you and mommy live with me and Jesus forever?”
“Yes we will.”
“Will Ed and Johanna?”
“Papa and Sparky?”
She went through a long list of friends and relatives. Fortunately, we are surrounded by Christians, so I was able to respond happily about the grand get-together she seemed to be planning. However, when she mentioned my wife’s parents and my mother’s parents my heart sank. What had felt like preparation for a party turned funeral somber. I had spared her much of the brutal details of the crucifixion, and I have never expressed any biblical descriptions of Hell nor the eternal debt a non-believer will pay. I had only referred to it as ‘separation’ from Jesus. That seemed awful enough for her. However, I did choose to be honest concerning those in my family that I don’t know to be Christians.
“Will Nana and Papa?” She asked.
I looked into the beautiful blue eyes of my little girl once more and conveyed one of the worst truths known to me. “I don’t think so sweetheart,” that was all I could get myself to say. I waited for tears or more questions, but we just walked for a while.
She broke the silence with a clap of her hands, and a huge smile claimed her face. “Could we invite them to come with us?”0