Our family is generally fond of nicknames and other playful titles around the house. Emily has been called everything from a simple “Emmy” to “Pumpkinhead” to “our little princess.” She accepts these nicknames for what they are: expressions of love and affection.
Owen, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to get it. If we try to refer to him as “the engineer” (when he’s playing with his trains), a “little prince” (to go along with Emily’s royal name, of course), or even “our little O-boe,” he tends to get terribly offended: “No I’m not. I’m Owen!” At least at this age, he’s not into metaphorical language. Literal meanings are the only kinds he accepts.
If this only affected our use of nicknames it would be no big deal. But it’s more of a problem than that, and any of you who have or have had children in your homes will know what I mean. Children think concretely. Abstract concepts are hard, if not impossible, for them to grasp.
As a Christian parent trying to tell the biblical stories of God and Jesus, there’s a huge problem. The incarnation (God becoming human in the life of Jesus) and the Trinity (God’s eternal existence in three Persons) absolutely resist concrete language.
So do statements like this one: “Jesus is always with us.” As Emily once replied while lying in bed and saying she was scared, “If Jesus would tuck me in, I wouldn’t be scared.”
What we get from Owen lately is this: “Why is there no real God in Fredericton?” What he means is: “How come Jesus isn’t walking around in a body here in town?” Our language of Jesus and God, confusing at it is for adults, is infinitely more difficult for a three year old.
So what is the answer? In what simple way can we explain these central Christian concepts to our children?
As soon as we come up with a “clear” way to explain our claims about God – whether it’s by comparing the Trinity to my being a father, a husband, and a son, or by saying that the resurrection of Jesus is like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon, or saying “God and Jesus are the same thing” – we have done a disservice to our children.
God is not easy to grasp. He never will be. Not now when they are children, not when they are grown up. But that’s okay, because we are not meant to grasp God, but to be grasped by him.
C.S. Lewis, in his book Till We Have Faces, makes this point: “Nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about (him). Holy places are dark places. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
Intense, yes. But true. I’m learning each day, through my son the literalist, to be okay with the mystery of God, and to know that Owen and Emily–not to mention me and Dee, our church, and a vast creation beyond our little circle–are cared for and embraced by One who isn’t easily explained. But I don’t need to “easily explain” Him. What I need is to know that I can trust Him.