Heaven on Earth

My son asks if god is real. We are brushing our teeth. I tell him some people think so and others don’t.

“But is he?”

I tell him to spit. Then I tell him he’ll have to decide for himself.

He spits. “I believe in god because if you don’t, god will get mad and hurt you.”

Where does he get this stuff? I thought his world was ruled by Minecraft and basketball. Now it’s divine retribution?

“I didn’t know god was that cruel. He hurts people just for not doing what he wants?”

“Yeah. You get in trouble if you don’t believe in him.” Bug takes a big gulp of water then looks up at me watching him in the mirror. His face is grave. “If you don’t believe in god, you should start.”

I rinse the brush and point to the towel. It would be so easy to press the point. I want to ask him if belief is enough. Do we have to let this god know? Should we write him a letter? Put out cookies and milk? Maybe he’s more interested in public displays of devotion and wants to see us serve, profess, prove our zeal. Do we cut open our wrists and make an offering? Give up Pokemon and pizza? I wonder how Bug would take the suggestion that we should shovel out or neighbors’ cars or paint adorations on the roof and the door. Or even go to church.

I’m itching to ask my boy more. Is any action a proxy for belief? If god will hurt us for not having faith, how does he know? It’s possible he has a device he can plunge into our hearts to gauge some absolute quantity that resides there. My concern is that a vindictive deity endowed with omniscience might spend his days peering into the part of us that calculates risks and rewards. It’s highly unlikely that my process of choosing fealty for the simple payoff of his favor would meet his standard of belief.

I keep my mouth shut, though. I don’t want my son thinking too hard about any of this just yet, at least not at my instigation. I try to wrap it up. I tell him we can each believe what we want and there is room in the world for all kinds of stories.

Of course, Bug sees a wrapped package and his first instinct is to tear in.

“Is heaven real?”

I try the same line. Lots of people, lots of ideas. He’s not having it.

“But what do you think?”

And here, I stumble. Sure, harps and angels are ludicrous, but my convictions are comprised of more than the rejection of a single mythology. I must think something of the concept of heaven. It’s hard to grasp. When was the last time I had to shape these ideas into words (or rather, speak my way into the shape of an idea)?

How do I know what I really think unless I can explain it with a degree of coherence to a seven-year-old?

I nudge him towards the bedroom and start teasing a brush through his long snarl of hair. Bug fiddles with the legos on his desk while I unravel the knots.

With no idea what I’m about to say, I open my voice and let something make its way up and out.

You know how when plants and animals die, they decay? Like when we see an old tree that’s fallen down, how it sort of breaks down? Other things grow from it or make a home in it. Its nutrients are food for grass or chipmunks or birds.

When plants and animals die, some of the water that was in them soaks into the ground or evaporates into the sky. It falls again as rain or fills up rivers. Then other plants grow from it and other animals drink it.

The thing that happens to a tree when it falls down is what eventually happens to us. After we grow through our long, whole life, we die. Then we go back into the soil and the water. Other things like dragonflies and apples and lily pads grow from us.

Life just goes on and on.

To me, heaven is this cycle of all things growing from each other. Death makes life. After we are gone, you and I will be alive inside the rain. Inside a cornfield. Inside all the people that come after us.

This is how we live forever.

Bug has been quiet during this. He’s laid the first few ties of his lego railroad track. I move the brush around to the side of his head and try to smooth the hair over his ear. “So, yes, I believe heaven is real. We have a place we live after we die. I also believe we’re already in heaven right now.”

Bug endures one more tug before pushing the hairbrush away and hopping up onto his bed. He gives me a withering glance. “God is going to be so mad at you.”

“Yes,” I shrug. “That is a metaphysical certainty.” I pick up Marley and Me and shove my boy over with my hip. “Maybe you can put in a good word for me.”

“No way,” Bug says. “You’re on your own.”
 

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16 thoughts on “Heaven on Earth”

    1. Thank you! I’m not sure how my boy takes all this or among what other mysterious ideas he shelves it, but it does at least feel honest. I would love to hear how you approached it.

      1. I believe that education trumps indoctrination at that age so I went with the natural order of things, with mixed success.

      2. Seven is a tricky age. The kiddo displays resistance and absorption in equal measure. Education sometimes turns into unwitting indoctrination. Other times, it is a direct route to willful opposition.

  1. Having no children, I have never been drawn into a conversation such as this. But I do recognize wonderfully responsible parenting. My grandmother constantly threatened me with eternal damnation if I did not ‘believe’ and ‘Go to Church” Baptist Church. Being stubborn and ‘independent’, I did neither and still don’t, but so many children are not that fortunate.

    As you pointed out so eloquently, children must be allowed to discover on their own if they are going to have faith or not. And not be terrorized ‘for the good of their souls.’

    Marvelous post. Thank you.

    1. I am so happy to know you found your way to yourself. That is the most important job each of us has in this life. It’s hard enough to figure out how to move through without well-meaning adults filling us with terror.

    1. I’m delighted you see something familiar in it. It felt pretty sloppy trying to form the thoughts with my kiddo on the fly like that. I guess sometimes jumping in blind gets you closer to the truth.

  2. You made me laugh twice. After such an eloquent description of heaven all you got was, “God is going to be so mad at you.” Then as though that was not enough you find you’re on your own. Loved this!

  3. wow! you’re such a great mom. bug is a lucky boy to have a mother patient enough to actually answer his metaphysical inquiry so honestly and seriously. in fact, that may be the best description of heaven i’ve ever heard. and i was a goddamned religion major, for christ’s sake! and i’m married to a woman who claims jesus speaks to her–for real! i imagine your son will eventually outgrow these beliefs he has. (not that everyone does, of course.)

    1. It must be weirdly comforting to have a voice telling you what to believe and how to behave. Looking past terror and intolerance and brutal myopia, religion can come in handy. The rest of us are just airborne. No net, no GPS.

  4. a binary answer of yes or no may hamper further reflection on issues. I enjoy that you refused to give in to your kid’s need for an easy way out of his “dictatorial” positions that always start at an early age. Any reinforcement of fixed stands and troubles will loom large at the next stage of growth.
    Where kids get these ideas of an irascible and unforgiving God?

    1. This is a good way to look at it. I know the ambiguity of this (and all complex ideas) drives him nuts, but it seems wiser to help him frame the questions than to hand him a wrapped up box of answers. Discomfort is a necessary part of effective reflection. As for the punishing god? In this case, it may well just be his hunger for a force bigger than mommy.

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