We all read The Velveteen Rabbit in school, and if you’re like me, the morals you took away were that Velveteen is in fact not cheese and that toys talk to each other at night. After reading it, I would headlock my Carebear face-out while I slept, in case he wanted to chat with the proletariat toys who slept in my closet.
I hadn’t read this story in years and heard it on tape the other day, as I was driving around some of my friend’s kids. I was taken aback by a strange weepiness and slouched like a hoodrat, hoping their booster seats weren’t so high that they’d see me crying. Because, as my tears slid down the grimy steering wheel of the minivan, I realized that the story of the Velveteen Rabbit is one of the only concrete ways I know to explain to myself this life of chasing God.
It’s about being loved so much that you become less artificial, less synthetic and more real.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
I remember learning in college about the Jewish concept of teshuvah, or ‘return’ – while I am not a Hebrew scholar, I understand that this concept is at the root of the High Holidays and involves a complex collection of repentance rituals. The idea is that when we sin, we lean a little further from our Creator and must consciously “turn” to seek forgiveness and closeness with Him again. Every person who walks with God takes part in teshuvah daily, weekly, monthly – nudging our hearts back toward Realness, away from the lies we believe, away from Fear or anxiety or busyness.
Lately, since my birthday and all of the ‘returning’ I’ve done in my own development, I’ve been wondering if our teshuvah as Christians is two-fold. If we return in the sense of spiritual location, a migration back to God after countless wanderings, but also a return in the very transformative sense. The very stuff we are made of.
I imagine it like that redemptive scene from Fern Gully (oh yea), after pollution destroys the rainforest and one tiny seed is planted in the devastation. It sprouts and the life and growth spread slowly, then faster and faster, vines and leaves reaching out, racing along the bare soil, spilling across the land. The green bleeds across the barren ground, like water soaking into a napkin. I imagine that, as I seek and turn and surrender, the Realness of God in me is – in the same way- growing to overtake. The Godward life is one of teshuvah – a slow but steady return to the way we were meant to be. The very material of our souls, growing back to Realness, dry ground bleeding into green.
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I’ve been learning this year that my Realest self sits within His image. When I turn to Real, I return to Real. The closer I nudge to Him, strangely, the more like my true self I become. In a beautiful exchange, He forgives and He gives.
…to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
And the best part is this: