Take Your Family to the House of Mourning: Children’s Books that Move Us

My son was hiding under the art easel so I couldn’t see him.

“Simon, come here. What are you doing?”

He shook his head, fighting back tears.

“Simon, please come here.”

He slowly crawled out of his hiding spot and walked over to me.

I brought him in close and said, “If you feel like crying, you should cry. What you’re doing is good, Simon. It’s good to be sad about death. Death is wrong.”

“It is?” he asked.

I said yes, we cried a little bit and held each other, then kept reading.

No one in our family has died recently, I’ve just been reading out loud to my six year old son from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It’s been a mixture of tears and laughter and some healthy discussions about hard topics. I’ve found the element of story to be a great way to talk about hard things with my son. Great children’s literature is wrought with deep universal topics and questions that have been shared throughout history.

Even from a young age, we can ask our children good questions to build healthy discussions about hard topics. When I’ve not avoided difficult topics, like death, loss, and racism, my son and I have bonded more. It’s crucial to listen to Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:2:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

It’s good to be reminded of our own mortality, because it humbles us to our rightful place as feeble humans, teaches us wisdom in order to number our days rightly, and helps us learn empathy for our fellow image bearers.

We don’t have to always scout out non-fiction by solely Christian authors in order to teach our children. We must not underestimate our children’s capability to absorb a story rich in ideas. Even if they don’t understand all of the concepts in the story on the first read aloud, it will become a treasure buried in their hearts and minds that can be re-discovered in various ways and connections later on. The point is to continually expose our children to these types of inspirational stories over the years of their childhood and even teenage years.

Here are a few literary stories that enable discussions over death, loss, and racism. And don’t forget that even if the discussions don’t “take off” in the ways we imagined, the main point is the exposure to the ideas in the text.

Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie

On our walk to church one morning my sons were observing and delighting in all the freshly blossomed flowers. Then we stumbled upon a dead bird. Right in the middle of new spring life was a dark death. We must all be confronted with death at some point in our lives. My sons can’t even escape this reality on an innocent walk to church.

In Peter Pan,  J.M. Barrie helps children confront death and loss through a magical and imaginative place called Neverland. A place where children never grow up and are always on an adventure. Though I’ve had to talk to my oldest son about the inappropriate names and portrayal of Native Americans in the book, we’ve laughed and cried together too.

We marveled at Peter’s Christ like sacrifice when he let Wendy have the balloon to escape from drowning. Then we cried when the rising waters of mermaid lagoon threatened to take Peter’s life, and after a bout of fear his courage returned as he cried, “To die would be an awfully great adventure!” The ticking clock of the crocodile, in constant pursuit of Captain Hook, clues us into the sure fate of us all. As J.M. Barrie says, “Time is chasing after all of us.” Hook only has so much allotted time until he is swallowed up in death. So, how should we spend the time we are given?

My son and I were able to talk about orphans when we realized Peter Pan and the lost boys had no parents and desperately desired a mother. We felt empathy for Peter as he gazed through the barred windows at the joyful family reunion of the Darling family. Especially, when we remembered his own personal loss: coming back to his nursery window from Neverland to find it closed, as he peered inside to see his parents with a new baby boy. My son and I shed our own tears at this loss of family. We felt for Peter. Entering into another’s loss, learning about time and death, and courage and sacrifice are life lessons we want to share with our children. Peter Pan can help us do this.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Wilbur the pig comes into this world with a natural human desire: he doesn’t want to die. He’s saved from eight year old Fern who wants to keep him as her pet, until he grows too big and is sold to another farm. He finds himself on death row again, but this time he’s saved from a spider named Charlotte who can weave words into her web. Her plan to rescue Wilbur works and even makes him famous in the process. Charlotte and Wilbur show us that death is a part of living, and that death teaches us how to live. As Charlotte tells Wilbur:

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Charlotte sacrificed her short life for Wilbur so he himself could live. A spider can show us, and our children, that life is short and we must spend it for others. And as we deal with the loss of a loved one, Wilbur teaches us that they can never be forgotten or replaced:

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry Box Brown by Sally Walker

This title is different from the first two books. It’s not an old book, like the other two, and might not neatly fit into the idea of a true “literary” read, but it still helps convey the idea of slavery to young children. It’s a picture book and tells a true story from the perspective of a slave. I’ve explained slavery to my oldest son before, but reading this book helped him see it as something more concrete and human. He felt the injustice.

Music also plays an important part in this story as Henry longs for freedom and creates his own songs in the midst of hope and despair. He is separated from his family when he is sold to another master.  But we find happiness with him as he marries and starts his own family, only to feel his loss as his family is ripped away from him and sold. He hatches a plan to hide away in a box to the north, and the desire for him to be free is born in us. There is another similar picture book about Henry Box Brown by Ellen Levine called, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad.

The right story can be a powerful tool to display truth and beauty to our children. Along the way, story teaches us to feel and to know. To know about slavery and to feel the pain of bondage and separation. To know about death and feel that we must learn to live our lives rightly. To know about loss and feel the right way to respond. In our day and time it’s more important than ever to raise up children who feel moved on another’s behalf and who desire to tabernacle among the suffering.


This originally appeared at Morning by Morning >>

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Every Good Mom Dies

I’m expecting child number three soon. It feels like starting from the beginning. After two boys, we’ll be having a girl. It’s fun to put together a brand new wardrobe and nursery decorations. We enjoy hearing my sons talk about their coming baby sister. It’s exciting for me to wonder what it will be like to have a daughter.

But there is one big difference from expecting my first to expecting my third. I’ve already died. Though motherhood involves many daily deaths, having my firstborn was the decisive blow.

Read the rest at Desiring God >>

If You Want to Live Truly, Learn to Die Daily

All year round the thorn of the gorse bush has been hardening and sharpening. Even in spring, the thorn does not soften or fall off. But at last, about halfway up, two brown furry balls emerge. They are small at first, but then they fully break out of last year’s thorn to flower into a ray of sunshine. The hardness gives way to a delicate beauty. The death of the thorn splits open to produce a blossoming resurrection of life. Death and resurrection.

We find the same pattern in our own lives.

I noticed this death-and-resurrection pattern when I became a mother. I had a traumatic birth experience, my full-term baby had to be admitted to the NICU, and he wouldn’t nurse. I battled through the difficult nursing experience I had with him for two weeks, was just about to give up, and then it worked out. When we got home from the hospital he would cry all night, and not go back to sleep, even when he was just fed. I would usually cry with him.

When evening time would come, feelings of dread would make my stomach sick because I knew what night would bring. On top of this, my body was trying to adjust to this new transition. My hormones launched me into depression. I would cry a lot for no reason, and I felt a constant loneliness and then guilt on top of it all for feeling like this when I had a new baby.

This was supposed to be a joyful time. But I felt like I was dying.

Read the rest at Desiring God >>

How our Suffering Makes Way for New Life

Before getting married, I was afraid of adversity, afraid of getting hurt, and I sought to protect my heart from both of these things. But God exposed me to adversity and deep hurt five years into my marriage. I found out things about my husband I didn’t know, numerous struggles came to the forefront at this time, and we were going through counseling.

In response to all this, darkness invaded my heart and my mind. Sleep evaded me at night, I had bouts of depression, and thick anxiety clouded my thoughts. I quickly went from being “not much of a worrier” in general to extreme anxiety that felt completely out of my control. If anyone ever told me to “take my thoughts captive” it felt futile. How can someone take their thoughts captive when they can’t even discern one of them? They came at me like a myriad of daggers at once. At the same time I was in deep mourning for my marriage and the husband I thought I’d married. I suffered a grievous loss. It was like mourning a death.

Read the rest at ERLC >>

Theories of Life, Death, and Afterlife in The Discovery

Where do we go when we die?” has been a question haunting humanity since our earliest days. This unknown was explored in ancient myths, folklore, and drawings on walls. Life and death was even dictated by specific beliefs about the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians, for example, preserved their bodies and organs when they died. They buried themselves with material objects, pets, and loved ones, in faith it would all come along with them when they passed through death. Some religions believe in reincarnation: after death, people are reborn into another state (human or not), and the quality of their previous life determines the quality of their next one.

What most religions have in common is the belief that this life determines the next; the afterlife is the result of choices made in this life. But not so in the Netflix original film The Discovery. The idea of afterlife presented here is a second chance at this life. It’s a way to fix your deepest regrets and undo all the wrong and the tragedy you’ve endured. The Discovery begins with Thomas, a leading scientist who has proven the existence of an afterlife. He can’t say what it is exactly, but the proof gives a bent sort of hope to the world. It is fodder enough for millions of suicides by those who are looking for a way of escape from this life. No longer is death viewed as meaningless—now it’s life that has some explaining to do. Why bother to face the problems of this world when there is another one? As one videoman says to Thomas before he shoots himself in the head, “Thank you, Doctor, for my fresh start.”

Read the rest at Christ and Pop Culture >>

The Language of Absurdism in the Abortion Industry

In Greek mythology there was a King named Sisyphus who – as a form of punishment- was condemned to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it come back down. It was a lather, rinse, repeat type situation for him. The philosopher, Albert Camus, employs this mythological character in his book, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this work Camus explores the concept of absurdity as the simultaneous contradiction of the human quest for value, purpose, and meaning amid the human inability to find any. Philosopher Daniel Dennett describes this philosophy well:

Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.

We can see this philosophy take root in literature. In fact, the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett — one of the founders of the Theater of the Absurd —published his own absurdist work, Waiting for Godot, in 1952. The play is centered around two male characters who banter in nonsensical ways. There is no connection between their words and actions, they name objects however they feel — like calling a hand a foot and a foot a hand. One character is constantly taking his boots on and off throughout the play. Like Sisyphus, these men are condemned by their habitual actions.

For the average play-watching audience accustomed to a traditional story arc, it appears as if nothing is happening: no real plot, action, character development, climax, and resolution. The two men in Beckett’s play are unable to move or think — they aren’t even sure what day it is. All these two men do is wait. Who or what are they waiting for? They are waiting for Godot, believed by many literary scholars to represent God. Their waiting is marked by uncertainty. Will Godot come? Has he come and they’ve missed him? What should happen in the meantime? What’s the point of all the waiting? The curtain closes and Godot never comes; at least they think he never came. Of this they cannot even be sure.

Waiting for Godot is driven by a lack of truth — hence all the uncertainty. It is a play which denounces meaning and purpose in life, but the play itself cannot escape meaning and purpose. For the play’s very purpose is to show there is no meaning and purpose in the play, as well as in life. In Beckett’s created world there is no certain truth, so the next logical step leads to meaninglessness. And much like Beckett’s characters who contemplate suicide, meaninglessness leads to death.

Absurdity in Culture

The absurdist ideas presented in Waiting for Godot have continued to flourish in today’s culture. In a society where anything goes, where do we end up? Where do these ideas take us? If we accept this philosophy we have most likely rejected an eternal and objective standard of right and wrong —  we have no center, no reference point outside of ourselves. Thinking this way means there is no longer any objective truth that can be found or discerned in this world, instead we devise our own standards in accordance with our subjective desires. “To each his own,” “Live and let live,” are the mantras of our time.

With so many different ideas of right and wrong around us that appear contradictory at times, meaninglessness makes complete sense. Life is messy and doesn’t make sense; it can feel like punishment. Are we doomed to be Sisyphus all our lives? Will we ever stop waiting for Godot to come? Will he come? Has he come? Why bother with any quest for truth and meaning when personal responsibility feels hopeless?  Yet, this is exactly how our culture thinks and lives. Today we see Beckett’s characters playing out all around us; acting out their own absurdity devoid of truth and meaning. In a culture of absurdity death sprouts in many forms.

Cultural death can be found in one of the abortion industries strongest leaders: Planned Parenthood. Applying absurdism to abortion makes abortion seem right. In Beckett’s world where daily actions have no meaning, why not take away a life? (Our own or another.) Or even more mercifully, why not spare a life from the absurdity of a Sisyphus destiny?

Language Breakdown

In Waiting for Godot there is a breakdown of language due to a loss of meaning. This is why there is no true logical discussion in Beckett’s play. Once life is stripped of value and meaning it makes sense words would no longer have intrinsic value – words become arbitrary and subjective – and language becomes absurd.  We can even see this philosophy applied to the language utilized by Planned Parenthood. One way Planned Parenthood (perhaps unknowingly) attempts to extract meaning away from loaded abortion terms is through euphemisms. They have traded the word “death” for “termination”, “baby” for “fetus” or “embryo”, all the while leaving out the key word “human” in front of these terms.

In the recent undercover filming of Planed Parenthood executives, we can see glimpses of Beckett’s characters engaging in absurdity through language. Planned Parenthood executives refer to baby body parts as “fetal tissue”. “Products” are the names given to the tiny human body parts up for bid on a sale ledger. Dr. Nucatola – the first exposed PP executive from the undercover videos – describes the crushing of a baby in an abortion procedure in an effort to retrieve intact body parts:

So then you’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact. And with the calvarium, in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex, because when it’s vertex presentation, you never have enough dilation at the beginning of the case, unless you have real, huge amount of dilation to deliver an intact calvarium. So if you do it starting from the breech presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end.” 

Dr. Nucatola calls a baby’s head a “calvarium”. She is using the same nonsensical jargon Beckett’s characters use, by naming things as she sees fit. Part of the reason pro-choice and pro-life advocates have a hard time engaging with one another is because – like Beckett’s characters – we can’t even agree on terms. Language is a barrier in this battle for the unborn.

The Objective Truth of the Resurrection

As Christians fighting for the unborn we must call the bluff and reveal the true playwright behind every action, word, and story: the God of truth. God has chosen to reveal himself to us primarily through the medium of language in his Word, so if the meaning of language is altered in anyway our perception of God radically changes. This is why objective truth is so important and such a counter-cultural idea today. Because the absurd language in Waiting for Godot is a threat to the foundation of our faith, which is based on the objective reality of God. He is the reference point for all of life, and he infuses purpose and meaning in the world through his main character, Jesus Christ.

Unlike Waiting for Godot, which doesn’t have a discernible climax, the climax in God’s play was when Jesus came to Earth as a man, lived a perfect life for us, died on a cross, and rose from the dead. Christ’s resurrection proved objective truth exists. Just like what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Our faith is futile without the proven objective truth of Christ’s resurrection. If none of this is true, then like Paul says, we are of all people most to be pitied. Yet, unlike absurdist philosophy, Paul says in Christ we have hope beyond this life. We are not stuck in the futility of Beckett’s main characters or the punishment of Sisyphus. Eternity comes calling down upon all of our actions here on earth, including the killing of the unborn. Jesus came to abolish the meaninglessness of death and do away with the Becketts of our culture. Our Godot has already come, and of this we can be certain.