Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Week for Toddlers: What Do We Tell Our Children About the Cross and Empty Tomb?

I remember the moment like it was yesterday, even though it was almost ten years ago. I was sitting on the right side of the sanctuary, about six pews back, amidst a mass of children numbering about 250. We were nearing the end of VBS when the program coordinator went off script and "discerned" God was leading him to present the Gospel to preschoolers through third graders.

My palms got sweaty. The frog jumped into my throat. I rested my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. I was not the least bit comfortable with what was about to take place and there was not much I could do.

You know how the story goes.

The man with the mic began to tell the kids about heaven and hell, how we all deserved to be punished by God forever for being sinners. We broke God's rules and God could not have people like that in heaven. We all deserved to be punished. We all deserved hell.

The tension grew. Our self-proclaimed preacher continued and shared how we all should have been the ones nailed to the cross, which was akin to a modern-day electric chair. The gospel, according to VBS guy, was that just when we had been strapped in and they were (still not sure who "they" were) about to pull the voltage lever, God sent Jesus into the chair for us. Jesus became the punishment for us, he said. And just when you thought the cross/electric chair had killed Jesus, God raised him from the dead.

"Children, if you believe in Jesus you are saved from hell and get to go to heaven," he said with boldness and confidence.

I am not making this up, the dude even asked how many kids wanted to go to hell?

I think the only one was a teenage volunteer who raised his hand in jest.

Then when our brave storyteller asked how many wanted to go to heaven, not a tiny hand remained clasped. They shot up faster than the speed of light. Our evangelist went on to pray with these kids who were about "receive Jesus in their hearts" and be assured they could "go to heaven when they died."

The next morning our children's ministry coordinator walked into staff meeting, with tear-filled eyes, and shared about how many kids had accepted Jesus the day before.

I suggested more went home that night and wet the bed. I think I may have, too.

This is penal subsitution atonement theory (PSA) at it's finest, actually, at it's worst.

This brand of the gospel is reduced to a simple formula of retribution intended to lure us to faith and obedience.

It's what I used to believe was the most biblical, traditional, and effective way to share the good news with people.

But my post is not about critiquing PSA. This post is a collection of honest questions:

What should we tell our kids happened to Jesus on Good Friday?

What should we tell the youngest members of the Body of Christ really led to Jesus' death and made a resurrection necessary in the first place.

I have spent the better portion of two decades wrestling with the Bible, faith, theology, philosophy, and practical ministry. I was a young kid when I first started exploring the depths of Christianity and launching Bible studies with my peers.

Sharing my faith was easy then, even in the midst of uncertainty and intense questioning. When I became a father of two children, telling the story of Jesus suddenly became very difficult.

What do we say to them? What stories do we share and how do we share them?

My wife and I have taught our twins to be kind, because that's what we do and what Jesus taught was the best way to live.

We have shared about love, forgiveness, and even confession. For instance, when you pull your sister's hair or steal your brother's blankey and hall booty in the opposite direction, we say we are sorry. We also extend grace.

We pray before meals, at bed time, and even when people we love are not doing well.

We have written renditions of hymns as prayers with a Trinitarian flavor. Our kids already can recite these with ease.

Jesus Loves Me is also a fan favorite before being tucked in for the night.

Yet this year, when I started to talk to our young theologians masked as toddlers about why this weekend was so important to us, I balked.

I am continually perplexed still.

How do we talk to our chidren about death and dying when they are still so young. Would doing so even make sense or ultimately be what the Spirit would want us to teach such vulenarable and innocent reflections of the imago Dei?

At what point does the crucifixion become a part of a family's verbage and theological reflections with young ones?

How do we share about the horror of the cross and our call to carry our own with those who still cry when soap gets in their eyes?

I am all for Easter. My kids have even practiced declaring, "Jesus Is Risen!"

While I believe the church must preach the cross, at this point, the good news of new life is all I am comfortable sharing with those under the age of 10.

I don't want my kids wetting the bed because of Jesus. One of two, who will remain nameless, already has a hard enough time waking up dry.

So, viral congregation of the interweb, what do we tell our children about Holy Week?


*Image above from: