It's easy to be dismissive of children's capacity for spiritual understanding. I've written recently about my trouble explaining Easter to our kids and about our messy prayer times as a family. There's a part of me that wants to give up on theology with our children until they are old enough to talk about it on my terms.
And yet I'm also aware of Jesus' constant admonitions that we pay attention to what children are like when it comes to God. Take Matthew 18:3 as an example: "And Jesus said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Really, I need more of my children's faith (and perhaps less of my own theology?). So as I thought about how to convey spiritual truth to our children, I was intrigued by a recent article in The Telegraph in which a little girl wrote a letter to God asking, "To God, How did you get invented?" Her father, who is not a Christian, sent the letter to a variety of church leaders. For the most part, Lulu got no response. But Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, replied:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It's a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn't expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I'm really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!'
And then he'd send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn't usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
I take Archbishop Williams' response as a model. I want to learn how to take my children's questions about God seriously and yet also reply with answers that make sense to them. I have plenty of opportunities to practice. A few days back, William said, "Mom, I will get weak and I will die."
"Oh William," I said, and I took him into my lap. "I don't want you to get weak and die for a long long long long long long long time."
"Why?" he said, turning around to look at me with his plaintive brown eyes.
"Because I would miss you so much and I wouldn't get to see you."
"Oh." He looked very sad. "But I want to be with Jesus."
I could have gone on about how Jesus conquered death, but what would that mean to a two-year old? I could have told him that Jesus is alive, but we've tried that before and it only prompts the question, "Why don't I see him?" Finally I realized that William's simple questions reflect an experience of something true: God is here with us now and yet we long for God's presence. I didn't have the words for it to make sense to him, so all I did was hug him tight.