From the backseat, my five-year-old asked, slowly, “Mommy, is ‘T’ the first number for God?”
It took me a minute, but I figured out he was trying to spell.
“No, baby,” I told him, “the letters for God are g-o-d.”
He was fidgeting with his hands, I could tell, but I was driving and didn’t turn around.
“Is ‘T’ for Jesus?” He sounded perplexed; he was still looking down at his hands, in his lap.
“No, it’s not…” I spelled Jesus for him.
Finally he held up his hands, so I could see them in the rearview mirror. He’d crossed his fingers, made a ‘T’ out of them. “Then why,” he asked me, “does this mean God?”
I panicked. I started to stutter.
I felt a wild mash of insecurity and regret and hope run through my body. This was my chance to tell my kid about the cross. There’s so much I want him to know… and so much I don’t. I wasn’t sure where to start. I hesitated calling the shape he was making with his fingers “the symbol of our faith” because – though it is – it isn’t the only one, and it can be, I think, a really difficult one for a five-year-old to grasp. I remembered Rita Nakashima Brock’s and Rebecca Parker’s pointing out in Saving Paradise that the cross doesn’t even really appear as a symbol for Christianity until around 900 A.D., and then it emerges as religious war propaganda. Until then, images of Jesus depict him in a garden or a river, or tending sheep, or breaking bread. I wished those images had remained as central as they once were. And I mourned the loss of them… Why wasn’t my son making a dove with his fingers? Why wasn’t he balling up his fist like a loaf of bread?
I also wished I were better equipped to have this conversation with my curious kid. That children’s ministry maxim was ringing loudly in my head: try not to teach children anything about God they’ll have to unlearn later. I know my kids will learn that Jesus was killed. That’s part of the story, an essential part. But I was finding it hard to tell that story in a nuanced and careful way while I was also trying to keep my eyes on the road and find a banana in my bag for the little brother.
And I wanted to be able to tell the story carefully because I want to equip my children, to the extent that I can, with a life-giving theology. I want them to hear less about Judas’ betrayal, less about Jesus’ blood, more about the new, justice-oriented here-and-now life Jesus spent his time teaching about, more about the compassionate community he spent his life creating. I want them to know that the cross is not only the story of sin and death. It also tells of new life, new hope, love that conquers even death itself. All of that is bound up in that simple shape, in those crossed fingers.
But, above all that, I don’t want the cross to be the center. Impractical though it may be, I want to shield my children from the violent realities that give shape to our common life and faith. I want them to grow up able to articulate a theology that protests the symbols of death that are all around us, one that offers a voice counter to the dominant narrative of an angry God whose wrath could only be appeased by the shedding of innocent blood. That’s the story I had to unlearn.
Right now, my kids know a Jesus who loves them and all the little children of the world, a God who’s got the whole world – mamas and papas, sisters and brothers, even the fishies of the sea – in God’s hands. How can I tell the story of the cross in a way that doesn’t undo all they know already about creation being God’s delight, and their being created in God’s image and good?
I didn’t know. I wasn’t ready for that conversation.
Then I had a stroke of genius.
“Oh, you know what?” I told him, “’T’ is the last letter of ‘Spirit.’ S-p-i-r-i-t.”
I didn’t say it thinking that the Trinity would be any easier for a five-year-old to understand than the crucifixion. Or that this time in the car would be better spent as a spelling lesson than an introduction to atonement theology. I said it because I honestly didn’t know how to tell my son that the symbol he thought was a harmless letter of the alphabet was actually a symbol of state-sponsored execution, and, also, somehow, of sacrificial love.
How can I tell the story of the cross so that it will move my children, one day, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, to resist violence in all its forms, even to love – friends and enemies alike – with the fullness of their beings?
The conversation made me realize, again, what a reckless and wild thing it is we do as parents, bringing our children to church, where they might encounter symbols that need unpacking, or language they don’t quite understand, or rituals that invite them to experience some kind of holy mystery. This unsettled me, probably because it made me realize how much I still need to unpack, how much I don’t quite understand, how much is, and maybe always will be, mystery.
Sure, there are prescribed ways to talk about the cross. Tracts and formulas and bumper stickers. But I am convinced that part of our call as parents is to be more thoughtful with the stories we tell our children. And maybe another part is to realize when even story can’t make sense of it all, and just to live in the mystery with them.