On the children’s hall, we’re in our Eastertide stories now, the stories of what happened after the resurrection- the surprise appearances of a Jesus who would not leave his people, not until they were ready. I love the word Eastertide. It sounds like Easter break at the beach, when you’re still full of jelly beans and Peeps, still reveling in the mystery and beauty and triumph of Easter, still humming “Lift High the Cross” and “Up from the Grave He Arose” and the stories just keep washing over you as you walk barefoot in the sun. The stories swirl around your feet as the sand pulls away, crashing at your knees sometimes – and when you’re not paying attention they come rushing right up to your waist, splashing into your ears, soaking right through the skin and into your heart as well, matching their beat to yours: Love won, love won, love won.
This past Sunday, while I was walking the streets of New York with Traveling Baby Jesus, our teachers shared the story of the women finding the empty tomb. Lucky for me, several of them wrote down the children’s responses to the wondering questions. They even asked the question most likely to be left out, which is strangely one of my favorites, “Are there any parts of this story that we could leave out of the story and still have all the story we need?” I love this question because it makes the children measure out each ingredient of the story, hold it in their hands and weigh it, examine it and search it for value. One child said, “Did we really need the boulder since it was rolled away anyway?” to which another child said, “Yes we do because people would think Jesus’s body could have been taken and it was all a trick.” But one second grader said something I can’t get out of my mind. She pulled an Easter question out of her pocket that was still nagging at her. “Did they really have to use nails on the cross? Couldn’t we leave them out? Couldn’t they put him on it another way?”
Oh child, I hear you.
When I was sixteen, our youth group held a backyard Bible club at a campground as part of a summer mission trip. One of the young men in our team decided that if we really wanted to bring kids to Christ, we needed to get right to the point of things and focus on the crucifixion. Some adult approved of it, I guess, so the industrious teenage evangelist brought with him a box of nails to hand out to all the children as a gruesome party favor/visual aid. “Put the nail on your palm,” he told the happy campers. “Feel the point, push it in a little. Now imagine someone using a hammer to drive it through your hand. Imagine the steel tearing through your flesh. Imagine the blood and the broken bones and the pain. Jesus did that for you to save you from your sins. Making him your savior is the least you can do.”
Yippee, that was fun! Now let’s play duck duck goose!
I’d never want to soft pedal the story of the crucifixion, of the agony and torture Jesus faced. I tell the story to elementary aged children and I don’t leave anything of it out. But I also know the danger of using guilt and emotional manipulation with children, to drive them to Jesus because they owe him their souls. Faith based on guilt and fear will not stand. It is not healthy. It is abusive. Of course we owe God everything, as every good thing comes from God. But I want children to fall in love with Jesus the Christ because of who he was and is, not because they feel beholden. What kind of love would that be?
The world did it’s very worst to Jesus. And God retorted by giving us God’s best, a risen savior who reaches out to everyone still, even those who worked to destroy him. That’s the kind of Christ and the kind of God I want children to know.
So what do we tell the child who wishes there hadn’t been nails? Who wishes that he could have been killed in a kinder gentler way? I’d say that I wish it hadn’t happened at all, but because it did, God turned it into a most precious gift. No matter what horrors people face on earth- and goodness knows that our world is full of horrors- we know that our God has borne it. God knows how it feels, how nauseating it is, how soul and body crushing, how exhausting and breath stealing and awful. And God weeps with us in it, or maybe in place of us, when we’ve become hardened and can’t feel it anymore.
The stories wash over us. Yes there were nails in the story, on the cross, in his body. But God doesn’t want us to roll around in the agony, celebrating the pain. God wants us to celebrate the empty tomb, the risen Jesus. The hands that reach out to welcome us to Love. The hands that take those nails and build things with it. Maybe even bridges.