“Discussing Death with a Three Year Old and becoming formed by the Story of God”
This past week as I drove my daughter to dance class, we came upon the scene of an accident just moments after it happened: A collision between a large pickup and a deer. Its legs mangled, the enormous five-point buck was heaving itself up the side of the hill,
To see a created beautiful life struggling for existence brought tears to my eyes and I told my little ones to close their eyes as we drove by.
I do not want them to know that sadness, that fear, that suffering. Though it was too late, it's so much easier to say, "Close your eyes, little ones, look away...Yes, pray for the deer, sweet ones, that is good."
But while we want to protect them from tragedy, even the knowledge of it, we know we cannot. They find baby birds in the yard; they know of the death of a friend's newborn; and they hear Scripture--the murder of a brother, the desolation of the world save a remnant on a boat, the death of our Lord.
M, age 3, has been trying to come to terms with this in the last few weeks. It is startling to hear the words put so starkly,
"Mommy, Jesus died?"
He waits only for a quick reassurance and runs off. Then the next day, thinking he caught the mistake, "Wait, Mommy, do you mean Jesus Christ died?" Then the third day, "Mommy, God is always watching me, right?" And then the painful fourth day whispered in my ear, "Mommy, wasn't God the Father watching Jesus?"
Death is all around us; we know it is the fact of our lives, but it is also our human condition to avoid it as much as possible...pain, suffering, death.
Unless, of course, you believe the Christian story, the story of Jesus. With this story, death is the focus, because it is the death of One that brings life and victory for the world. And the power of death is no more. John Donne comes to mind:
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me....
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Yes, death is a tragedy, the result of sin, something to be mourned and avoided but, as Christians, we know that is not the complete story.
A story in which we ourselves are characters.
“When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.”—Eugene Peterson, quoted in Living the Liturgical Year (Gross p. 13).
Nothing has made this more apparent for me than living out the ancient Christian practice of the Church Calendar (sometimes called the Christian Calendar, Liturgical Calendar or Year), days centered around the life of Christ. Following this practice we no longer use birthdays, holidays, sports schedules, or our routines to count our time, instead all of these ordinary and special moments become part of God’s Story. In following the Church Calendar, we become a story-formed people, formed by His Victory over death.
The Church Calendar begins each year at Advent (the Four Sundays before Christmas) waiting and preparing our hearts for the Light of the World come as newborn babe, sweet and pure but meant to die, and from there the Church Year builds and builds to its climax at Holy Week. The Gospel story of life, death and resurrection, becomes the orientation for our daily lives.
Time becomes Sacred. The Sacred, holy and mystical, always invite us to ponder the deep, even death, and even when you are three.
Yes, questions of the death of a deer, the Atonement and God’s Sovereignty are difficult to explain to a three year old boy. But they are good questions and have good answers. Answers which can perhaps best be explained to him by orienting his life around them so the answers are his story too.
*Gross, Bobby. Living the Church Year. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009.