We lost a chicken about a month ago.
She made it through the long, cold winter, but emerged looking weak and sickly. She stopped eating, and one morning Steve found her still body curled in the corner of the coop, dead. She was getting on in years, as chickens go, so it was sad but not unexpected.
The kids didn't know, and we quietly buried her in the woods. I resolved to tell them later that afternoon, but I never felt like telling them, loathe to face the tears that I knew would come. We have five other chickens, and so the kids didn't notice that one went missing. Days turned into weeks, and Steve and I forgot about telling them.
Yesterday afternoon Greta and Finn came up to me with concern in their eyes.
"We counted the chickens, Momma, and there are only five. We think Bubbles is missing! We counted twice, and checked inside the coop. She's GONE!"
My heart skipped a beat - what to say, what to say. I was sorely tempted to play it through - What? She's missing!?!? - but in the end I didn't have the heart for it, so I opted with an edited version of the truth instead.
"Oh," I stammered. "I noticed she was missing recently, but I was hoping she'd come back," I said, my gut churning with guilt. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you guys; I guess I was hoping it would all turn out okay. But if she's still missing, I'm afraid she's gone."
Their faces crumpled, and the tears flowed freely. Finn, in particular, was devastated. "Why did she have to die?" he wailed. "It's so unfair!"
I rocked him in my lap for a few minutes, brushing his tears away. "I know it's hard, honey," I whispered. "I'm sorry."
"Where is she now?" he asked through hitching sobs. "Is she is heaven with God? And Curly, PeePee, Yellowy, Taily-Tail, Rhino, Goldie the Fish and Coalie?" Man, we've lost a lost of pets in his short life.
"Yes," I said. "They are all together in heaven now."
Eventually he calmed down, but the questions kept coming. What started as a circle of life conversation quickly turned choppy; his questions grew more complicated, more detailed. He's been asking a lot of questions about God lately, and they always make me a little itchy. Just like with Santa Claus questions, the more specific they get, the more uncomfortable I become. I want him to believe, but it's never that simple, is it?
"Why does God make people and chickens die?"
"Was God the first person in heaven?"
"When was God born? Did God have to die to get to heaven?"
"Is there a Mrs. God?"
"If God can do anything, why doesn't he let chickens live forevah?"
"Can God hear me now? Does he know I'm sad?"
His questions make me squirm. I try to give vague answers, saying to most of them that I don't know, that nobody knows the answers to his questions for certain. He is less than satisfied with this response.
"If you don't know, if nobody really knows, then how do you know God is real?"
That's the million dollar question, kid.
How to explain faith to an inquisitive five year old? His questions are good; I don't want him to feel dismissed, or think that his questions are dumb. I'm fearful of my answers, though, because it feels like there is a lot at stake. I want our children to be raised with faith, with a sense that there is something out there that is bigger than they are; an all encompassing energy, love and compassion that is at the root of all things. But I lose street cred if I can't give him some answers, so I stumble my way through.
I answer a lot of questions with a question: "What do you think? Do you think there is a Mrs. God?"
"I'm asking YOU," he replies. "Don't you KNOW?"
Can't we just talk about the circle of life and be done with it?
I try to think like a five year old, because there isn't as much at stake as my adult brain fears. Right? So I encourage him as much as I can - you ask really good questions, honey, lots of people wonder about these things - and try to leave him with a sense of curiosity and wonder about it all.
But he wouldn't let that last question go: "if you don't know, if nobody really knows, then how do you know God is real?"
Eventually I stopped trying to change the subject, sat down with him and faced this one head on.
"Do you know that love is real?" I asked.
He thought for a moment. "I guess so," he replied. "I love you and Dadda and Sissy."
"Do you know what love looks like?"
He smiled at this one. "I've never seen it before, so how would I know what it looks like?"
"Do you know where love is?"
"Yes!" he said immediately. "Love is in my heart!"
"Well, God is in your heart, too, because God is love."
He stared thoughtfully at the floor, rubbing his chest with his hand. "So, God is in my heart, and he is why I love people?"
"Yes," I said, with as much authority as I could muster.
"Okay," he replied. "What's for dinner?"