Lila sometimes asks hard questions.
She is a child who thinks a lot, puzzles things out, works hard to figure out the relationship between things and herself. She pipes up after long silences with things like, “What if I had one thousand hands?” or “What if my bed was made out of marshmallows?” or “What if you and Daddy were still married?” You never know what you might get.
Today, we are driving down the road after running errands and talking mostly about macaroni and cheese and she suddenly says, “When am I going to go to heaven?”
“Well,” I am taken aback and a bit unprepared. I want to answer really well. I want to get this right and help form her faith in this moment, not make her fearful. And five kids in, I still just don’t always know the right answers to these hard questions. I flip through the catalog of responses I’ve built in nineteen years of mothering…nothing seems to fit. Because you see, the usual standard answer of ‘when you’re really, really old’ won’t cut it with Lila. Because she already knows that sometimes people die even when they aren’t very old. She knows that sometimes young people die and sometimes little kids die and go to heaven and that sometimes other little kids get very sick and life just isn’t the same. She has not been shielded from death and sickness because death and sickness would not be hidden.
“Usually,” I try to start again. “People die when they are very, very, very old.”
“Hmm.” a pause, then, “Like Polly or Paw?” Two great grandmothers who are very much beloved, but indeed very, very old.
“My dad is only forty.” She says. “And you’re forty five.”
“You’re right, Daddy is only forty. But actually, I’m thirty nine and Stepdaddy is forty one.” She always gets this mixed up and makes me older than everyone else.
“You’re not old yet,” she assures me.
“Thank you for that.”
“In heaven, can I watch tv even if I’m grounded?”
“You don’t get grounded in heaven.”
“Wow. And Stepdaddy said I could play with real elephants in heaven.” I’d love to know the full context of that conversation.
“That sounds wonderful.” I say. “Heaven is where we will go to live with God and all of our loved ones one day. It’s beautiful and peaceful and perfect.”
“Are you sure I get to go there?” she asks and my heart stops.
“Do you believe in Jesus?” I ask and she says yes. “Do you know why he died on the cross?”
“Yes, for all of our sins.”
“Do you think you have done sinful things?”
“Yes.” And I think she really does get it, though her sins are so small. She’s just a little girl. Temper tantrums, stickers on walls, little lies to get out of trouble…these sins are the sins Jesus took on for her, just like all of our big sins.
“Do you think Jesus died on the cross for you? Just for you?” Breath held as she says, “Yes.”
“Well, then you’ll go to heaven one day.”
“Good. I want to see what God looks like.” Suddenly she stops and prays, “God, please let me have lots of dogs in heaven.” And then the conversation goes back to macaroni and cheese.
Fast forward half an hour and for whatever reason, the macaroni isn’t right and she is upset with me. Arms crossed and brow furrowed, she says, “I don’t want to live with you…I just want to go to heaven with God and all of my dogs!”